Hamas blocks Fatah delegates from summit

General Conference an opportunity for Fatah members to elect leaders to ruling body but Hamas bars movement to Bethlehem.

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GAZA CITY // Musa Abdel Nabi spends a lot of time these days playing chess. A former chief in the Palestinian Authority police force and a leading member of Fatah in the Gaza Strip, he has effectively lived the life of a retiree since Hamas ousted Fatah-affiliated PA forces in June 2007. He is also one of 450 Gaza-based Fatah members that Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, is preventing from leaving Gaza in order to attend Fatah's Sixth General Conference in Bethlehem that starts on Tuesday.

It is a counter-productive prohibition, argued Mr Abdel Nabi over a game of chess a few days ago in the courtyard of a school in Gaza City. "It's in Hamas' interest that we go [to Bethlehem]. It is in Hamas's interest that it negotiates [unity] with a faction in which there is no more confusion. That is what the conference is about, ending the confusion in Fatah." Mr Abdel Nabi's expectations for the long-delayed conference are high, as indeed are the hopes of many in Fatah. The general conference is the only opportunity for Fatah members to elect new leaders to the ruling body, the 21-member Central Committee. But the last such conference was in 1989 and the ageing leadership has long resisted pressure from younger leaders to convene a general conference in order to elect fresh blood to the leadership.

Indeed, many in Fatah blame their defeat to Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections as well as the situation that ultimately led to Fatah's ouster as an effective force in Gaza in June 2007 on the lack of opportunity for a younger leadership to emerge. And many in Fatah now see in the conference a chance to put the movement's house in order. "It will be a very important conference," said Mr Abdel Nabi. "I believe there will be significant changes to the Central Committee and I believe this will strengthen Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the president of the PA]. He needs new leaders to follow his vision, which is based on securing peace through negotiations."

It is an assessment that Karim Hamalawi, another Fatah leader in Gaza, agrees with. "Fatah, after the conference, will be a very different party." But doubts continue to dog the conference. Hamas has declared that it will not allow 450 Fatah delegates to leave Gaza to attend the conference as long as Hamas members remain detained in Palestinian jails in the West Bank. It is the last in a long line of tit-for-tat measures between Gaza and the West Bank that have only served to underline the severity of the division between Fatah and Hamas. And with Gaza delegates making up almost a third of the total attendance of the conference, the measure could undermine attempts at securing quorum.

Fatah says 57 members have so far managed to sneak out of the Gaza Strip in order to attend the conference in spite of the Hamas prohibition. The latest to do so was Ghalia Abu Sitteh, who on Friday disguised herself as a peasant and drove a donkey cart unchecked through the Hamas checkpoint that separates Gazans from the Erez Crossing with Israel. The Hamas checkpoint was erected to register those who move in and out of Gaza, but with no security co-ordination between Hamas and Israel, it is located some 1.5km away from the Erez Crossing at a safe distance. Israel, meanwhile, has reportedly assured Mr Abbas that it will facilitate the movement of Fatah members from Gaza to the West Bank and has granted travel permits to all Fatah delegates meant to be attending.

Should Hamas prevent the rest of Fatah's delegates from leaving Gaza, even if there is quorum, it could still have significant consequences at the conference. Yesterday, Samir Masherawi, a former security chief in Gaza who escaped to the West Bank during the Hamas-Fatah fighting in June 2007, released a statement saying he would refuse to attend in the absence of the Gaza delegates. "The ball is with the Palestinian leadership," Mr Masherawi said. "There are several avenues through which Hamas can be pressured to allow Fatah members to leave Gaza. We cannot link the conference with Hamas, but we must ensure the participation of Gaza."