Fatah leaders and outside observers believe that holding the movement’s sixth General Congress could breathe new life into the party by electing new, young leaders and adopting a political platform better suited to the current Palestinian situation. This in turn would strengthen its stance in confronting Hamas, which has dealt two painful blows to Fatah: winning legislative elections (74 seats versus Fatah’s 45) in 2006 and taking control of Gaza after fierce fighting in 2007. Target dates for the Congress have been announced several times—President Mahmoud Abbas once said it would be held before the end of 2008, and recent reports suggested it might be as soon as mid-May—but so far, consensus remains elusive.

The General Congress, Fatah’s mechanism for changing leadership, has not been held for 20 years. It last convened in Tunisia in 1989, with some 1,200 members from the Palestinian diaspora taking part, along with a small number of West Bank and Gaza members who had been expelled by Israel in the preceding years. The Congress elected a 21-member Central Committee and a 100-member Revolutionary Council, and also acceded to demands by West Bank and Gaza members to add another 32 Revolutionary Council seats to represent them. When the Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994, diaspora Fatah leaders who moved to the Palestinian Territories gained administrative and organizational powers exceeding those of local members, creating additional tensions within Fatah.

A number of younger members, including West Bank Fatah head Marwan Barghouti (currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison), have led campaigns to renew Fatah’s leadership through democratic elections from the local level up to the movement’s presidency. The old guard in Fatah opposes these initiatives, as it also opposes younger leaders’ efforts to hold the Congress in the Palestinian Territories, on the grounds that they are still under Israeli occupation. Senior Fatah members have suggested recently that the Congress might be held in Egypt, but Egyptian officials have expressed a preference that it take place in Palestine.

Disputes within Fatah have not been limited to the date and venue of the Congress, but also over who will participate and the political platform to be adopted. While some leaders insist on the platform still being based on armed struggle as a means to liberate Palestine, others argue that the movement’s platform needs to evolve, especially as Fatah has become the backbone of the Palestinian Authority. But the fact that the peace negotiations have not brought about an independent Palestinian state means that basic issues—for example, recognition of Israel, to which the Palestinian Liberation Organization agreed at the time of the Madrid Conference in 1993—are up for grabs within Fatah.

Choosing delegates to the Congress has emerged as a major sticking point. Contending leaders are eager to pack the gathering with their supporters. Some argue for adopting the results of the regional Fatah elections held in the past two years, while also putting a clear mechanism in place to add well-educated representatives. (The Fatah Charter grants its Central Committee the ability to handpick highly qualified representatives and give them membership to the Congress, with voting rights.) The fact that Fatah has a large number of members with postgraduate degrees intensifies the competition.

Members of the military are another controversial category. Fatah banned them from taking part in the regional elections because there is already a quota for their representation in the Congress. But the quota’s size is disputed, with the military demanding an increase; so far the ratio of military versus political participants has not been resolved.

Leadership itself is the most critical issue. As yet the preparatory committee for the Congress is mum on the names of the candidates to be put forward for the Fatah Central Committee and Revolutionary Council. Marwan Barghouthi may be the only leader secure of a seat in the next Central Committee due to his widespread popularity among the Fatah rank-and-file and the pivotal role he played in the second Palestinian intifada.

Fatah’s response to disputes between the older and younger generations is pointing to expansion. While the last Congress had 1,200 members, the next Congress is expected to have some 2,400, the overwhelming majority being members operating within the Palestinian Territories. And now there are reports that the preparatory committee might retain all veteran members of the Central Committee—even those who have died—and simply add more, expanding the body from 21 to 30 members in order to alleviate tensions between the old and new generations.

Hossam Ezzedine is a Palestinian journalist for al-Ayyam newspaper and a scholar specializing in political and parliamentary affairs. He lives in Ramallah. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.