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Fatah to hold congress despite Hamas ban

By Mohammed Assadi
/ Source: Reuters

By Mohammed Assadi

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction said on Saturday it would hold a long-awaited congress despite the absence of delegates from the Gaza Strip, who have been confined to the territory by Hamas.

The three-day parley set to begin on August 4 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem is seen as a chance for secular Fatah, which long dominated Palestinian politics but lost a 2006 ballot to Islamist Hamas, to pursue reform.

Re-energising the movement is key to Abbas's credibility as he tries to revive peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian president controls a truncated mandate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as Hamas seized Gaza in a 2007 civil war.

Hamas has conditioned the departure of some 400 Fatah members from Gaza for the congress on Abbas's forces freeing hundreds of Hamas activists seized in West Bank round-ups.

Hamas also wants more passports, issued in the West Bank, for its Gazan officials and supporters.

Asked by Reuters if the dispute might hold up the congress, four years in the planning, Nabil Shaath of the Fatah Central Committee said: "The congress will be held anyway."

Intisar al-Wazir, another Central Committee member, said Abbas had told Hamas through Arab mediators that if it agreed to let the Gazan delegates out, he would free 400 Hamas detainees -- half before the congress, the rest during. More Hamas men would go be released from West Bank jails later, Wazir said.

But Hamas said the onus was on Fatah to act first.

HAMAS DEFIANT

"We want real and big (Hamas detainee) releases," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Gaza-based Hamas official. He said his group would consider Abbas's counter-offer "after seeing deeds, not words."

Abbas was also into touch with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which hosts exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, as well as with Turkey and Egypt, in a bid to pressure the Islamists to yield, Wazir said.

Fatah delegates from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have begun arriving in Bethlehem with the consent of Israel, which agreed to Gazan delegates traveling to the West Bank for the congress. Israel has otherwise kept Gaza under a strict blockade.

Wazir said the Central Committee decided to raise the number of congress participants from 1,550 to 2,256, to accommodate more marginal Fatah members. The faction's decision-making Revolutionary Council convenes on Sunday to discuss the measure.

Boosting the turnout could compensate for the absence of Gaza delegates, one Fatah official said.

There has been some criticism within Fatah of the plan to go ahead with the congress. The faction's leaders have said they would not bend to Hamas, which it said has been seizing the passports and identification documents of Fatah lawmakers and activists in Gaza to ensure they could not leave.

Fatah has threatened unspecified "harsh measures" against the Islamists should the dispute deepen. Both sides have been accusing each other of carrying out political arrests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their respective fiefdoms.

Fatah's last congress -- the fifth in the movement's 44-year history -- was held in 1989 in Tunisia.