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Senior official admits Fatah hasn't accomplished much toward peace with Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The city of Ramallah, which is visible outside the windows here today - white stone and concrete buildings on the hillsides. It's in the West Bank, a territory that Palestinians nominally run, although Israel has occupied it for more than 50 years. Israelis built settlements here and built their own highways to the settlements, as our team saw while driving here.

There's a guard tower...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, the security.

INSKEEP: ...Overlooking that highway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's police. Yes.

INSKEEP: Oh. There's a road in between these walls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: We were not on that walled highway, instead crossing beneath it on an underpass in a kind of parallel universe. We came here in part to gain insight on the war in that other Palestinian enclave, Gaza. When we had dinner in a restaurant last night, the TVs showed the Al Jazeera channel with nonstop video of bomb damage. For Sabri Saidam, that damage is personal.

SABRI SAIDAM: I have family in Gaza. Forty-four of them were killed.

INSKEEP: Forty-four?

SAIDAM: So far, yes.

INSKEEP: These are cousins, aunts?

SAIDAM: Cousins and, you know, distant relatives and close relatives.

INSKEEP: Sabri Saidam is a senior official in the Fatah party, which holds office in the West Bank. It's led by President Mahmoud Abbas. Unlike Hamas, which rules Gaza, the Fatah party favors a peace process with Israel but is widely seen as weak. Saidam admits they haven't been able to accomplish much.

SAIDAM: But to tell you the truth, we have been caught in a cycle of internal Israeli elections. Five rounds of elections. Not in a single one of them - we're talking about recent years?

INSKEEP: Yes.

SAIDAM: Not in a single one of them did electioneering ever use the term peace. So this term has been missed out of Israeli vocabulary for quite a while.

INSKEEP: There's been less and less support for peace settlements.

SAIDAM: Only because Israeli politicians did not feel that this is a priority. But now, you know, with people coming more - say, you know, this conflict has to end. We have to do something about it.

INSKEEP: Do you believe, as many people do, that Israel strengthened Hamas, preferred to deal with Hamas as opposed to Fatah?

SAIDAM: I would say that Israel was comfortable with seeing the Palestinians divided as a way for divide-and-rule policy, but that always created this vacuum that needed to be filled. Now the international community is coming back to us and saying, you know, what will you do post-Hamas? What is going to happen to Gaza? What we want to see is a new arrangement that is global that the world recognize of a change of dynamics that lead to the resolution of the conflict.

INSKEEP: After Hamas attacked on October 7, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas. In theory, this would clear out Fatah's rival for power. Yet Sabri Saidam had a word of caution. He doesn't think Israel can destroy Hamas.

SAIDAM: America said it wanted to destroy other factions in other countries, only to see some of them come back and rule the country.

INSKEEP: The Taliban.

SAIDAM: Yeah. I mean, you know, mistakes are made so one learns from them. Mistakes are not made for you to go and repeat them.

INSKEEP: If Palestinians were able to hold elections today, who do you think would win?

SAIDAM: That's a tough question. You're talking to a member of the Central Committee of Fatah. I would like to see my party win, but I would say there's a lot of sympathy now for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Palestinians. We have switched to peace since 1988. But people are saying to us, OK, you have taken us on a ride of peace - or for peace - over decades. You have produced no results, so why not resort to armed confrontation?

INSKEEP: Sabri Saidam of the Fatah party says this even though his party remains committed to a peaceful two-state solution.

SAIDAM: I wish I had received you at times when we were discussing achievements, but sadly, we have nothing to offer so far but conflict and sadness in this part of the world.

INSKEEP: That remark captured some of the mood here in Ramallah, where many streets are quiet and many shops are closed. And activists called for a general strike today. Our colleague Daniel Estrin has covered this region for years and was listening in with us to the Fatah official. And, Daniel, what stood out to you?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, I think it's really clear from his words the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership has lost all legitimacy among average Palestinians. He says so. The sympathy is with Hamas. Average Palestinians despise the Fatah party's Palestinian Authority. First of all, they have no role in this war right now. They're not part of any aid convoys to Gaza. They're not a part of any negotiations. And really, this has just laid bare that their whole platform of cooperating with the U.S. and Israel, a peaceful compromise to this conflict, Palestinians see that strategy has failed, and they see Hamas basically already winning.

INSKEEP: Well, is it possible for Fatah to take over in Gaza if Israel were to succeed in driving Hamas out?

ESTRIN: I think the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority would be incapable, and they refuse to take over Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks. Palestinians would not accept that. And, you know, it just really raises serious questions. If they don't have the legitimacy within their own area in the West Bank, or even to take over Gaza, what is the future of the moderate Palestinian leadership?

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. And I'm in Ramallah. Daniel, thanks.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.