How young Palestinians lost faith in the old men of Fatah

"They are irrelevant," says Shadi Abdul Samad, 22. "They don't care about us and the people in the camp don't care about them."

Palestinian Legislative Council Jehad Tomaley in the Al Amari refugee camp near Ramallah on August 20,2017. He was dismissed by Abbas from Fatah last year for calling a meeting of supporters of Dahlan, says the exclusion of the latter and his backers from Fatah is harming the movement. "There's a big negative impact," says Tomaleh, 52, who joined Fatah when he was fifteen and two years later began an eight year prison sentence for "resisting the occupation".Of the younger generation, Tomaleh says "the youth are not in the leading institutions of Fatah. They don't get their role and their rights. They also don't have a presence in the Palestinian Authority. They can't express their opinions. There is a state of frustration and hardship among the youth."(Photo by Heidi Levine for The National).
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The monument to martyrs in the main square of Jelazoun Refugee Camp is impressive in size and scope. It pays tribute to camp residents from Fatah who died fighting the Israeli occupation as well as the movement's top leaders, including co-founders Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated by Israel in 1988, and Yasser Arafat, who Palestinians widely believe was poisoned to death by Israel in 2004.

But the yellow Fatah flags decorating the monument do not flutter proudly in the wind; rather they lie wilted or caught up in electricity wires.

The neglected state of the flags hints at the widespread disillusionment in this camp north of Ramallah - and beyond it in the wider West Bank - with the ruling movement established by Arafat, Al Wazir and associates in 1959. Headed since 2005 by Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah traditionally spearheaded the Palestinian struggle but is now stagnating, its top leadership increasingly despised by a younger generation who fought Israel as part of the movement during the second intifada uprising (2000-2005) and afterwards.

"They are irrelevant," says Shadi Abdul Samad, 22, who runs a café in the camp, of  Fatah's leaders. "They don't care about us and the people in the camp don't care about them."

This sense of alienation from the Fatah leadership is palpable in interviews with residents throughout the camp, as well as with political activists in nearby Ramallah who find themselves excluded from positions of power in favour of generally older Abbas loyalists. It points to weakness and decay in the movement, raising questions about its future just as the Abbas era may be approaching its end.

epa04893380 (FILE) A file picture dated 31 July 2015 of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas giving a statement to the press at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah. According to reports, Abbas on 22 August 2015 resigned from his post as leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) following a meeting with the PLO executive committee in Ramallah. *** Local Caption *** 52092346  EPA/STRINGER *** Local Caption *** 52092346 04893380.jpg
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. EPA

Questions about the health of Mr Abbas, 82, intensified after he was admitted to hospital in  Ramallah for checks last month. Although he was released the same day and a doctor at the hospital spoke of  "reassuring" esults , Mr Abbas, who is overweight and a chronic smoker, has a history of health problems Last October, he undewent emergency cardiac catheterizationr after suffering chest pain and exhaustion.

Jelazoun resident Abdul-Samad  joined Fatah's Shabiba youth movement at age 13 and served a total of two-and-a-half years while still a teenager in an Israeli prison for alleged stone-throwing. But he has little to show for this loyalty to Fatah.

"I can't get married because I don't have a shekel to my name," he said.

He feels the 19-member Fatah central committee headed by Mr Abbas - the movement's highest decision-making body - is indifferent to and uninterested in the grave economic problems facing Palestinian youth today.

"We are dying from poverty and the (high) prices. They (the leadership) care about their projects, their cars, their interests. They don't feel our pain," he said. "The central committee doesn't represent us. They're doing nothing good for us. They are not helping us, not providing any service. We don't see them. If someone is killed by the Israelis two of them might show up and make speeches for propaganda, that's it."

Musa Masarwa, a 27-year-old barber who was recently released from prison after serving two years for what he vaguely termed "security things against Israel", agreed with many of  Mr Abdul-Samad's criticisms. He joined Fatah as a 12-year-old but has no respect for its current leaders.

"Those who made Fatah meaningless are the ones who lead it. They made people hate it," he said.

Analysts say a major reason or Mr Abbas and the central committee losing so much support from youth is the absence of independent young voices and differing views. They also contend that this is because the election  of the committee during the Seventh Fatah Congress in Ramallah in November was orchestrated and controlled by Abbas people. Delegates were chosen fo their loyalty to Mr Abbas rather than by popular vote at regional level.

Mr Abbas may have gained a central committee that suits him but the result for the movement is is "stagnation",  says Ghassan Khatib, a former minister and currently vice president of Bir Zeit University. "The youth are less and less loyal to Fatah and Fatah is less and less powerful among youth because of its leadership's ages, policy and the lack of democracy and proper representation."

Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who supports Mr Abbas and was a delegate at the Fatah congress, termed the elections there "democratic, open  and transparent" adding that the voting was by secret ballot and the counting done in front of television cameras. He conceded, however, that not all of the delegates were elected in the districts, saying "some were appointed according to their positions."

In Jelazoun, Masarwa took issue with Mr  Abbas's unflinching support  - at least until recently - for the security coordination between Palestinian Authority forces and the Israeli army that has thwarted attacks on Israeli targets and led to arrests of Palestinians. "This hurts us and is against our interests," he said, adding that those arrested "are defending their homeland and people."

Musa Masarwa, 27, a barber in the Jelazoun Refugee Camp who was recently released from two years in prison for what he vaguely termed "security things against Israel". (Photo by Heidi Levine for The National).
Musa Masarwa, 27, a barber in the Jelazoun Refugee Camp who was recently released from two years in prison for what he vaguely termed as 'security things against Israel'. Heidi Levine for The National

Across the street, in another barber shop, was Tahrir Zayd, who had been released a day earlier from a two year Israeli prison sentence that he said was for incitement.

"This is not a real leadership, " he said. "The only leaders I respect are Marwan Barghouthi and Mohammed Dahlan," - referring  first to a leader of the second intifada uprising, currently serving multiple life sentences in Israel after being convicted of  five murders, and secondly to Gaza's former security chief  who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 for criticisng Mr  Abbas. Mr Dahlan is now based in UAE. but lately has built up support in the Gaza Strip and in West Bank refugee camps. "They care about the people. The others I consider traitors," said Mr Zayd.

Abed Abu Sharifa, 27, who spent four years in jail for attempting to kidnap a soldier, also voiced backing for Mr Dahlan. He said things were better in Fatah under Arafat. "He was our compassionate father who helped people. The real wise leaders are either in prison, abroad or dead," he said.

Fifteen minutes drive away, in Amari refugee camp, close to downtown Ramallah, lives Jehad Tomaleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.  He was also dismissed from Fatah by Mr Abbas last year for calling a meeting of supporters of Mr Dahlan,  and says excluding the latter and his backers from Fatah is harming the movement.

"There's a big negative impact," Mr Tomaleh 52, who joined Fatah when he was 15 and two years later began an eight-year prison sentence for "resisting the occupation". In 2003 he was imprisoned for another 18 months for alleged links to Fatah's armed wing, the Al Aqsa brigade.

"If Fatah is hurt, the national project will be harmed. Fatah is the backbone of the PLO and any imperfection in Fatah reflects on the national project. Fatah today is not in the best situation. It is fragmented and divided and this effects its role and its future. The youth are not in the leading institutions of Fatah. They don't get their role and their rights. They also don't have a presence in the Palestinian Authority. They can't express their opinions. There is a state of frustration and hardship among the youth."

Abbas supporters blame the rift on Dahlan, whom Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina has accused of "conspiring" against the legitimate leadership of the movement.

Nearby in the Umm Sharayat neighbourhood of Ramallah, Qadura Fares, director of the Palestinian Prisoner Club, which helps ex-detainees, takes issue with the Fatah leadership for "lacking initiative" and failing to heal the division in Palestinian politics since Hamas seized control of Gaza ten years ago. Fatah's strategy for liberating territory from occupation and establishing a state is non-existent, Mr Fares said.

"The leadership has a strategy that  isn't a strategy at all: to wait until these things fall from the heavens or are brought about by international intervention."

A former minister and an associate of Barghouthi, Mr Fares, 55,  is an example of a critical and independent voice that cannot rise within Fatah under the current system. He stood for election to the central committee in Fatah's problematic elections,  but lost, despite having impeccable nationalist credentials. He joined Fatah at 17 and spent 1980 to 1994 in an Israeli prison for being part of  a cell that killed alleged collaborators with Israel and planted explosive devices.

"I believed the way to liberate Palestine was through armed struggle," he says. Now, however, he is something of a pioneering thinker in the Palestinian context.  He believes Fatah should adopt a strategy of non-violent resistance against the occupation. "Enough illusions, enough fooling ourselves and the nation. When you continue to speak of American or international intervention it doesn't lead anywhere, it is just being stuck in the mud." he says.

Mr Fares wants to see men, women, children, the old and the young turn out en masse and occupy the bypass roads Israelis use to access settlements. "No throwing of stones, no beating, no burning, no doing of anything except sitting on the bypass roads that are the lifelines of settlements. Non-violent struggle has tremendous power which on the basis of unity of the people will bring Israeli society to different conclusions.

"If we move in a new direction and return to having initiative and being dynamic, the new dynamic will also lead to a change in the leadership of the movement. The old generation will never say of its own accord, I'm vacating my place, please take over from us."

He concedes the current leadership has some legitimacy. "They didn't carry out a coup. If there is a feeling we are moving forward to independence that will give them legitimacy. But if they continue to be stuck in the mud it leads to a deterioration of legitimacy," he said.

Jamal Muhaisen, who was re-elected to the central committee at the congress and is responsible for recruitment and organization in Fatah, blames Israel rather than internal factors for the troubled state of the Palestinian cause.

Mr Muhaisen, 68, says "We're dealing with a government which denies agreements and insists on expanding settlements and denies our right to a state." He blames the US for being "completely biased in supporting Israel."

He recognises the hopelessness within Palestinian youth who see no end of the occupation.

"Yes, there is a state of frustration among the youth and all sectors of the Palestinian people everywhere. Seventy years have passed, still the refugees have not returned and 50 years have passed with the occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza Strip] still here without any hope of ending it. Add to this poverty, unemployment and that the windows of hope for the success of a peace have been blocked."

The Palestinian cause is also undermined by  doubts about the strength of the support from other Arab states, he added.  "The Arabs have their own shortcomings towards the Palestinian cause and in support for the Zionist scheme. Iraq has been destroyed, Syria ruined, also Libya. Egypt suffers from terrorism. The Arabs have left their enemy and destroyed their capabilities."

But he denies the younger generation are excluded from Fatah. "I don't think the youth has been marginalized. We have elections for the student councils, for the unions and the students elect their representatives. One fourth of the Palestine National Council are young men representing unions. We are under occupation. All should struggle for the end of occupation whether they occupy high or low posts. All generations should fight the occupation. Nobody can retire from fighting the occupation."

Mr Khatib, the former minister, however, highlights internal strife within Fatah. "I don't think Fatah is collapsing, I think it is decaying and this will take time. Now there are no other powerful groups who can compete and take advantage of its decline in popularity and no election that would expose this decline.

"The challenge that might expose its weakness and lead to, if not collapse, then serious difficulty, is the possible absence of the president, because parties so dependent on one person and so undemocratic will suffer when this individual leader is absent.  The departure of Abbas would be a challenge that would expose Fatah in a serious way."