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Divided, demoralized Palestinian movement hopes to hit 'restart'

MCT

RAMALLAH, West Bank — For half a century, the fortunes of the Palestinian people have been inextricably linked to the fate of Fatah, the once-dominant political movement founded by Yasser Arafat. Five years after Arafat's death, the movement is divided, and hopes of establishing even a weak Palestinian state alongside Israel appear as elusive as ever.

Next week, for the first time in two decades, Fatah leaders from around the world will meet in Bethlehem at a conference they hope will be a new start. The run-up to the conference doesn't give demoralized Palestinians much reason for hope, however.

Fatah leaders have been feuding over allegations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan conspired with Israel to kill Arafat — charges the two deny as scurrilous.

Hamas, Fatah's hard-line Islamic rival, which wrested electoral control of the Palestinian Authority in 2006 and then routed Abbas' forces from Gaza in 2007, hasn't allowed anyone living in the isolated Mediterranean strip to attend the conference.

Many Palestinians have lost faith in a political party they consider corrupt, inept and ineffective.

"The Palestinian national movement is in crisis," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. State Department negotiator who's a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "The problems that confront the Palestinians today go far beyond Fatah."

While the conference will focus on internal political issues, such as electing new leaders and debating the movement's goals, President Barack Obama's drive for Middle East peace needs the Fatah movement to regain its viability and prestige.

The U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up Abbas and is training a Palestinian security force that U.S. officials hope will be a cornerstone of stability in the West Bank.

Abbas' credibility is in question, however. He oversees a weak, pro-Western caretaker government in the West Bank and should be holding new presidential and parliamentary elections in January.

Ideally, the U.S. and even Israel would like to see the moderate Palestinian president lead Fatah to political victory over Hamas. However, new elections can't be held as long as Hamas controls Gaza and the rival movements are unable to reconcile.

Fatah's political comeback is tied to what happens at the upcoming conference.

"We have to go back to our roots and ask who we are," said Abdullah Abdullah, a Palestinian Authority lawmaker who'll take part in the Bethlehem conference that begins Tuesday.

"We have to regain confidence in ourselves," said Abdullah, who may run for the 21-member Fatah Central Committee that oversees the movement's policies. "If we are strong, we will regain the confidence of the public, and if the confidence is regained, we will become stronger."

Many are skeptical of Fatah's ability to adapt, however.

When Hamas stunned the world by winning electoral control of the Palestinian Authority parliament in 2006, defeated Fatah leaders vowed to regain the trust of voters.

Fatah did little, however, to address the widespread perception that its leaders were corrupt or to give younger political leaders a greater voice.

Perhaps no Fatah figure has become as emblematic of the failures of Fatah as Dahlan, the polarizing politician who's been alternately embraced and shunned by America.

Dahlan is viewed with skepticism by some American security leaders and reviled by Hamas for his heavy-handed crackdown on the Islamic group as the former head of security in Gaza.

Dahlan has kept a low profile since his Gaza City home was looted and burned during the 2007 Hamas takeover.

Now he's preparing to run for the Fatah Central Committee.

"If Dahlan wins, then Fatah will have lost," said Mohanned Abdel Hamid, a political analayst and occasional columnist for al Ayyam newspaper. "He is dangerous and self-serving."

On a recent afternoon at the Elite coffee shop in Ramallah, a small group of middle-aged Fatah members who hope to take part in the convention criticized Dahlan and the old Fatah leaders.

"He is the main reason for the dispersed state of Fatah and he has not been held accountable for his actions," said Allam Hattab, a Fatah member from Tulkarem who accused Dahlan of trying to buy votes. "I'm telling you, there will be a split after the conference."

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