After 20 years without internal elections, the Palestinian Fatah movement on Tuesday elected a group of younger leaders to its top council, including one serving time in an Israeli prison.
Initial results show that 14 of the Fatah governing body's 18 elected seats went to new members, with the remaining seats filled by four incumbents from the so-called old guard.
Fatah, the once-dominant force in Palestinian politics, has had a tough few years. Its co-founder Yasser Arafat died in 2004. Two years later, Fatah was trounced in Palestinian general elections by rival Hamas. In 2007, Fatah suffered a stinging military defeat by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Many Palestinians saw Fatah's leadership as corrupt, its rank and file riven with divisions, and its platform of engaging in peace talks with Israel as leading nowhere.
Fatah convened a conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in an attempt to change its fortunes. It is the first Fatah conference to be held on Palestinian soil. The last such meeting took place in Tunisia in 1989, when Fatah operated in exile before peace accords in the 1990s gave limited autonomy to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Outside the conference meeting hall in Bethlehem, Fatah delegate and candidate Ziad Abu Ain told NPR that the internal vote for Fatah's central committee had the desired result.
"Right now we have a strong leadership. I can say to all the world the change is coming," he says. "We tell our people Fatah movement became stronger than ever by this unity, by its democracy. Fatah right now [is] the strongest party in Palestinian society."
The newly elected leaders include Marwan Barghouti, a militant leader who is serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison; and Mohammed Dahlan, the controversial former head of the security forces in the Gaza Strip.
Nabil Shaath, one of the few former central committee members to keep his job, says that the influx of new members will be a boon to Fatah.
"There will be added vitality, no doubt. People who have been in a position for such a long [time], some of them tend to get old, get sick, get tired, get frustrated. The new people are not really new, they are second-tier leaders. They are highly experienced people. Most of them are in their 50s. These are not babes in arms," Shaath says.
Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections are slated for next year. Shaath says this meeting was a key step in wooing Palestinians.
"What we really suffered from in the last two or three years is this loss of rapport between us and our public. Our public somehow deserted us and went to support Hamas. We need to regain our public," Shaath said.
Disagreements over how to do that made the conference a fractious one. Arguments and the refusal of Hamas to allow delegates from Gaza to travel to the West Bank extended what was supposed to be a three-day event to eight days.
The main sources of contention were the issues of what constitutes legitimate resistance to the Israeli occupation and how to proceed with the peace process after years of no progress.
Shaath says the new political platform Fatah has adopted endorses peace talks, but with strict limits. Before meetings can take place, for example, Israel must stop all settlement activity — something so far the current Israeli government has refused to do.
Fatah's new charter also says Palestinians have the legitimate right of resistance in all its forms.
Shaath says bringing those two seemingly contrary ideas together was a delicate but necessary balancing act.
"That's the marriage that these people are going to have to show in order to regain the respect and the trust of their people," he says.
On the streets of Bethlehem, Yousef Dahamsa says that the Palestinians want peace, but are disillusioned.
"There have been years of negotiations and they have gone nowhere. This peace process is a failure," he says.
Fatah's challenge is convincing Palestinians like Dahamsa that it can deliver the cherished Palestinian dream of an independent state.