updated 8/9/2009 4:14:51 PM ET 2009-08-09T20:14:51

The mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement on Sunday endorsed the creation of a state alongside Israel, underlining its ideological conflict with the Islamic Hamas and drawing political battle lines for their next election showdown.

The movement adopted the program at its convention — Fatah's first in 20 years — that also tried to finesse the key principle of violent resistance against Israel, calling it a right but preferring measures like civil disobedience.

The decisions were similar to the groundbreaking moves of the last convention in 1989, but the gathering in Bethlehem, which was supposed to end last Thursday after three days, has been held up time and again by old splits over the key issues.

Lurking in the background was the challenge facing Fatah from the rival militant Hamas group, the issue of the elections tentatively set for January, and the internal Fatah splits between young and old, moderates and militants.

Corruption, nepotism and inefficiency
Hamas swept the 2006 parliamentary election, capitalizing on widespread disenchantment with Fatah because of its reputation for corruption, nepotism and inefficiency. In 2007, Hamas forces swept Fatah loyalists from power in a violent five-day offensive in Gaza. That left Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, in control of only the West Bank.

Fatah, the main element of the PLO, is the movement of old-time revolutionaries like the late Yasser Arafat, whose death in 2004 marked the beginning of significant erosion in support for the movement. His successor, Abbas, does not have Arafat's charisma and mythical standing among his people. The movement has also suffered from efforts by old-timers to keep younger elements out of the leadership.

The splits in Fatah, reflected in open debates and back-room haggling, pitted old-time revolutionaries who still reject peace with Israel against younger activists brought up in the West Bank and Gaza who back Abbas' more moderate approach.

On Sunday, the convention voted to endorse a platform that calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while reserving the movement's right to take up arms against Israeli occupation.

At the same time, it encouraged Palestinians to use more peaceful means to pressure Israel, like demonstrations and supporting a boycott of Israel abroad.

"At this stage, we are focusing on popular struggle, but the armed struggle is a right reserved to us in international law," said senior Fatah member Nabil Shaath.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the adopted Fatah platform as "not very promising."

"But there is no other way for the Middle East but to sit down and strike a deal and agree on a peace for the region and arrangement between us and the Palestinians," Barak said, calling on Abbas to enter negotiations.

With the platform in place, the delegates turned to electing members of two bodies that run the movement day to day.

700 candidates for 80 seats
Hundreds gathered outside a hall in the Bethlehem convention center were handed empty voting sheets, and a list of some 700 candidates for 80 available seats on the revolutionary council and another 100 for the 18-member central committee.

It took Abbas almost 20 minutes to fill out the lengthy ballot when he voted Sunday afternoon.

"This will end the fights over the legitimacy of Fatah's leaders," said Abdullah Faranji, a senior Fatah member, as he lined up to vote.

The strongest competition is taking place between Fatah's old guard — many in their 80s — and a generation of younger Palestinians who have emerged from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

One of the strongest contenders are the charismatic Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, 50, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in attacks that killed Israeli citizens.

Also in the running is Mohammed Dahlan, 48, a Fatah strongman from Gaza blamed by many for the Hamas takeover there.

Opposing them are Fatah founders like Salim Zanoun, 87, who lives in Jordan.

Abbas was hoping for members who will support his program, based on negotiating a peace treaty with Israel. He has dismantled Fatah's militant wing and condemned violence against Israel.

Voting results were expected on Monday.

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