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Fatah convention draws Palestinian exiles

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 Yasser Arafat.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 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," said Laila Zughroub, 63. "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 Tuesday, 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 counterparts from abroad, tempered by the failure of two uprisings against Israel over 20 years, the last involving shootings and bombings. The proposed new program would acknowledge the right to armed struggle in theory, while stating 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 won'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 Monday that he was refused entry by Israel.

According to a statement from his office, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his Cabinet on Sunday, "This is a very correct and important decision" to allow the delegates to enter. He said Israel would judge the conference based on its results.

Another sensitive issue for the exiles is the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. The vast majority of Israelis oppose a return to Israel of Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war and their millions of descendants, an influx that would threaten the Jewish nature of the state.

Most believe that in any peace deal, refugees would likely be resettled in a Palestinian state.

For Samir Abu Afesh, 59, a Fatah functionary in Beirut, that's unacceptable. His family fled Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, in the 1948 war over Israel's creation. He said he can't be asked to give up hope of an eventual return.

Like many Palestinians in Lebanon, he complained of shabby treatment by his host country. The Lebanese government bars refugees from dozens of professions and denies them citizenship and the right to own property outside their refugee camps.

Abu Afesh said he and the others in the Lebanese delegation will demand clear words on the refugee issue, and not accept a vague reference to a just solution of the refugee problem.

Yet at the convention, the exiles will be a minority, with most of the delegates coming from the West Bank.

And despite their tough positions, the returnees couldn't hide their excitement over being in "Palestine."

Over the weekend, they had dinner with Abbas and paid their respects at the grave of Arafat, a mausoleum in Abbas' government compound in the city of Ramallah. Arafat, who founded Fatah in 1965, was their contemporary, and many followed his odyssey at least part of the way, from Jordan in the 1960s to Lebanon in the 1970s and Tunisia in the 1980s.

At the last Fatah convention, in 1989, the Palestinian diaspora still set the tone.

However, the emphasis has since shifted to the Palestinian territories, with Arafat's return from exile and the establishment of a Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank and Gaza in 1994. Arafat died in 2004.

The visiting Fatah delegates have permits for a month, but some said they'd like to stay.

Zughroub said she prefers living in the West Bank, even under Israeli occupation, to being a foreigner in Lebanon.

"Here, no matter how you live, you still live in your land," she said.