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One of the two parties that dominates Palestinian politics has recently elected a new set of younger leaders. Fatah officials hope the new leadership will help win back disillusioned Palestinian voters.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fatah 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. Then in 2007, it suffered a stinging military defeat by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
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. This conference, the first Fatah conference to be held on Palestinian soil, was an attempt to change its fortunes.
(Soundbite of meeting hall)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Outside the conference meeting hall in Bethlehem, Fatah delegate and candidate Ziad Abu Ain told NPR that the internal vote had the desired result.
Mr. ZIAD ABU AIN (Fatah Delegate and Candidate): Right now we have a strong leadership. I can say to all the world that the change is coming, telling our people that Fatah movement become stronger than ever right now by this unity, by its democracy. Fatah right now, the strongest party in Palestinian society.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All told, initial results show that 14 of the Fatah governing body's 18 elected seats went to new members with only the remaining four going to incumbents from the so-called old guard.
Among the new leadership, 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.
Mr. NABIL SHAATH (Former Palestinian Foreign Minister): Added vitality, no doubt. You know, 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, highly experienced people. Most of them are in their 50s. These are not babes in arms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: New Palestinian elections are slated for next year. Shaath says this meeting was a key step in wooing Palestinians.
Mr. SHAATH: I mean, 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, and we need to regain our public.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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 in the face of 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. Still, Fatah's new charter also says Palestinians have the legitimate right of resistance in all of its forms. Shaath says bringing those two seemingly contrary ideas together was a delicate but necessary balancing act.
Mr. SHAATH: And I think 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the streets of Bethlehem, Yousef Dahamsa says that Palestinians want peace, but they are disillusioned.
Mr. YOUSEF DAHAMSA: (Through Translator) There have been years of negotiations, and they've gone nowhere. This peace process is a failure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fatah's challenge is convincing Palestinians like him that it can deliver the cherished Palestinian dream of an independent state.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Bethlehem.
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