Deadly Infighting Clouds Upcoming Palestinian Gathering

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP (AP) -

Hatem Abu Riziq used to prowl the narrow alleyways of the largest Palestinian refugee camp attacking the Israeli army. But these days he is turning his gun’s barrel toward the Palestinian leadership.

With the long-ruling Palestinian Fatah faction torn by rivalries, fierce shootouts between Palestinian security forces and Fatah-aligned gunmen have erupted in recent months, plunging the Balata camp into unrest and lawlessness.

The violence, much of it directed at a Fatah leadership seen as corrupt and out of touch, comes as the movement prepares to hold an overdue leadership conference at the end of the month and reflects a combustible power struggle between the faction’s aging leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and exiled rival Mohammed Dahlan, a former top aide who has the backing of some gunmen and disaffected Fatah activists.

“I no longer want to fight Israel. I’m not willing to die for these officials who are only taking care of their families and letting us suffer,” said Abu Riziq, 30, who spent nearly seven years in an Israeli prison for assisting in a suicide bombing.

The violence has left about a dozen people dead this year. Observers warn it could spiral out of control the longer Fatah remains divided.

Abbas, 82, is pushing for leadership elections in his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella movement dominated by Fatah, before the end of the year, as part of what officials say is largely an elaborate attempt to cement his power and block Dahlan’s return.

Abbas has no plans to step down or designate a successor, despite a recent health scare in which doctors ordered an unscheduled heart exam prompted by complaints of fatigue. Those elected to top Fatah and PLO posts could form a pool of potential successors, though none would likely challenge Abbas as long as he is in office.

The last Fatah convention was held in 2009, and one should have taken place in 2014. Abbas repeatedly delayed it, both because Dahlan still enjoyed strong support and because the Palestinian leader had no great interest in making changes. Since then, many Dahlan followers have been purged from Fatah.

Fatah leadership elections are tentatively set for Nov. 29, to be followed a month later by a vote for the PLO’s main decision-making body, the Executive Committee.

“The fighting in the streets is a sign of the fighting within the movement, and it’s a small scenario of what will happen if the succession battle takes place,” said Jihad Harb, a Palestinian analyst.