A rift has grown so deep inside the Fatah party in Palestine that over the past few months it has even spilled over into gunfights in the street.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was comfortably re-elected as Fatah leader last week.
Delegates at the opening of Fatah’s conference last Tuesday voted unanimously to re-elect Abbas by cheering for him.
But the display of unity thinly masked a profound crisis inside the party. At the heart of it is the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which governs the West Bank and which Fatah leads—is increasingly unpopular.
Years of Fatah’s cooperation with the Israeli occupation—policing the resistance while pursuing futile negotiations with the Israeli state—have failed.
The PA is no nearer to ending the occupation in favour of its inadequate two-state solution than it was 20 years ago.
Now the PA faces growing discontent. A recent poll showed 47 percent of Palestinians see the PA as a burden.
And polls have consistently shown over 60 percent want Abbas to resign.
At the same time 48 percent want a return to armed intifada, or uprising. And at least 241 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis during sustained unrest that began in October last year.
But instead of organising the resistance, the PA has responded with a security crackdown targeting protests and refugee camps.
Raids on the camps by PA forces have ended in clashes with some of Fatah’s own armed militias.
Discontent with Abbas in Palestinian society has been reflected inside Fatah itself.
Meanwhile, Abbas has used the security crackdown as a way of getting rid of some of his leading critics.
One Fatah militia leader, Ahmad Izzat Halawa, was even arrested and beaten to death by PA forces—prompting street protests and resignations by senior Fatah members.
The Israeli state fears losing control when Abbas steps down
Opposition to Abbas inside Fatah has centred on multimillionaire Mohammed Dahlan, who has been living in exile since 2011.
Dahlan has picked up some support by throwing money at projects and charities in refugee camps outside of the West Bank. He has also called for the PA to end security coordination with Israel.
But in wider Palestinian society he is even more unpopular than Abbas. Only five percent of Palestinians would back him in a presidential election against Abbas—and 59 percent oppose his return to Fatah.
Dahlan’s real strength is that he is supported by the powerful governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—all US allies. For them, Dahlan’s ruthless reputation make him an ideal candidate to lead Fatah.
As the PA security chief in Gaza, Dahlan—backed by the US and Israel—set up paramilitary gangs to fight the elected Hamas government.
Prior to Dahlan’s failed coup against Hamas in 2007 thousands of Hamas members said they were tortured by his forces. Dahlan also threatened violence against Fatah supporters sympathetic to Hamas.
The Israeli state is worried that Abbas can no longer hold things together. Leaked comments from a closed Tel Aviv security forum show it fears losing control when Abbas eventually steps down.
Some at the forum worried that fighting would allow Hamas to take over in the West Bank. Others raised the prospect of Israel “reoccupying” the West Bank to take full control themselves.
But Abbas has managed to cling on to power for now. He used last week’s conference to reassert his authority, having managed to block his opponents from attending.
Yet the growing pressures on him mean he will eventually have to go. When he does it could pave the way for more repression.
But it could also open up space for renewed resistance from below.