More than 2,000 delegates from all over the world are attending the first convention of Fatah in 20 years and the first ever on Palestinian land. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank, hopes that the meeting will address internal divisions in Fatah, adopting a new political program and electing new leadership.
How successful it is will determine how effective Fatah can be in dealing with Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, and in peace negotiations with Israel, which Abbas has promised to pursue. "Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law," he said in his opening speech, straddling most sides of a sensitive issue for delegates -- the place and character of "resistance" in dealings with Israel.
The party's old guard, associates of Yasser Arafat, founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and whose image dominates the conference chamber, are under fire from younger leaders for being corrupt and out of touch with the Palestinian grassroots.
The new generation, men in their 40s and 50s, want greater influence on Fatah's direction through the new elections to the central committee and revolutionary council. Many of them took part in the first intifada, launched in 1989, and, unlike the old guard, have lived most of their lives in Gaza or the West Bank.
They see Hamas' success -- in 2006 Hamas defeated Fatah in legislative elections and in June 2007 drove Fatah out of Gaza in a violent coup -- stemming from a group of young leaders in touch with the concerns of ordinary Palestinians. Fatah, they argue, needs new blood to succeed, particularly since youth make up 60 percent of Palestinian society.
Probably the most popular and respected figure for this group is Marwan Barghouti, currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for the murder of five people, including four Israelis. Given his popularity, it is not clear whether the new generation is ready to renounce violence and commit to the pursuit of a negotiated peace.
Where they stand on this will be a key outcome of the convention, shaping the future direction of Fatah and the prospects of peace negotiations.
Before dealing with Israel, however, Fatah has to deal with Hamas. Hamas banned 400 Fatah representatives in Gaza from attending the meeting. Some 100 found their way to Bethlehem anyhow. Meanwhile, Israel allowed Fatah representatives, even from Syria, to travel to the meeting, seeing Fatah as their best hope for peaceful coexistence.
Hamas action was intended to secure the release of Hamas detainees in the West Bank, but Abbas and the Palestinian Authority refused to let them go. Hamas had earlier threatened to boycott the reconciliation talks with Fatah taking place under Egypt's auspices if the detainees were not released.
Abbas addressed conflicting realities when he said, "We have to find ways of having a relationship with Hamas" but then called Hamas "princes of darkness who divide the homeland" over the blocking of the delegates from Gaza.
Hamas' action precipitated further division at the conference. Former Fatah security chief in Gaza Mohammed Dahlan and a group of Gaza delegates demanded that one-third of the seats up for election should be reserved exclusively for Gaza.
Faced with this and other contentious issues, Abbas suggested that the meeting could be extended for two days, until Saturday.