After lives spent in exile fighting Israel, it’s a bittersweet homecoming to the West Bank for hundreds of veterans in the Fatah movement of the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
The Fatah old-timers from Syria, Lebanon and other Arab countries stepped on Palestinian soil for the first time this weekend, converging on the West Bank town of Bethlehem for their party’s first convention in a generation.
But they didn’t come to the “Palestine” of their dreams — an independent state.
Israel still occupies the West Bank in very visible ways. En route from an Israeli-controlled border crossing to their convention center in Bethlehem, the Fatah delegates passed Jewish settlements, military checkpoints and a towering concrete wall that makes up segments of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.
“It was hard for me to go through a crossing controlled by the Israelis, simply because they are enemies who occupy our land,” 63-year-old Laila Zughroub said. “What made it worse for me was when I saw the settlements and the wall.”
The hundreds of exiles, including 97 from Lebanon and 30 from Syria — both countries technically still at war with Israel — are among some 2,200 Fatah delegates. The three-day convention, which starts today, is supposed to choose new leaders and adopt a revised political program that would guide the Palestinians if peace talks with Israel resume.
On Sunday, dozens of delegates from Lebanon, most over retirement age, mingled in the smoke-filled lobby of a Bethlehem hotel. Some called relatives in the West Bank to arrange reunions or booked outings, while others chatted with local party leaders, seeking support in their bid for Fatah leadership positions.
The fault lines between the “outsiders” and “insiders” quickly became apparent, on hot button issues like the role of “armed struggle” against Israel, a mainstay of the program adopted at the last convention in 1989.
Fatah activists in the West Bank tend to be more pragmatic than their exiled counterparts, tempered by the failure of two uprisings against Israel over 20 years, the last involving shootings and bombings.
While the proposed program would acknowledge the right to armed struggle in theory, it would state that Fatah is committed to reaching a peace deal with Israel.
Khaled Abu Usba, 49, who was born in Kuwait and now lives in Jordan, bristled at the idea of softening the wording.
As a teenager, in 1978, he was among 11 Fatah gunmen who landed on an Israeli beach in rubber boats and killed 36 Israelis in a bus hijacking. After seven years in an Israeli prison, he was released in a prisoner swap, then moved around the Arab world.
“As long as our land is occupied, and as long as the negotiations brought you nothing, there is no alternative to military struggle,” said Abu Usba, one of the delegates in the hotel lobby. “Look what we got from the negotiations. We got the wall, and more and more settlements.”
He said he would like to go back to the site of the Tel Aviv attack to pay respects to the Fatah fighters killed in the shootout.
However, like the other exiles, he received an Israeli permit only for the West Bank, not Israel.
Still, the fact that Abu Usba was allowed to enter the West Bank at all, despite his violent past, reflects Israel’s decision not to get in the way of the convention, which aims to boost Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his pragmatic policies.
Fatah’s military leader in Lebanon, Munir Maqdah, said in a statement that he plans to run for a spot in the party’s decision-making body but that he wouldn’t come to the West Bank.
Maqdah, who Fatah activists say has had links to Iran since the 1990s, cited unspecified security reasons, and Israel’s Haaretz daily reported yesterday that he was refused entry by Israel.
A statement from the office of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he told his Cabinet on Sunday: “This is a very correct and important decision” to allow the delegates to enter.
He said that Israel would judge the conference based on its results.
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