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Fatah's old guard ousted by election of intifada chief

The once-dominant Fatah movement took a first step towards reversing its decline among Palestinians yesterday by electing new leaders – including a firebrand jailed for life by Israel.

Marwan Barghouthi, the leader of the second intifada uprising who is serving five life sentences for attacks on Israeli targets, was one of a raft of new faces on Fatah's central committee. He is seen as a potential successor to Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, if he is freed by Israel in a future deal.

"This is a great result, a great mix," said Ziyad Abu Ayn, a close associate of Mr Barghouthi.

Initial results suggest that only four of the old guard, associated with corruption and failure to achieve peace with Israel, had regained their seats at the Fatah congress in Bethlehem – the movement's first large-scale leadership gathering in two decades.

The biggest surprise was the defeat of Ahmed Qurei, the foremost symbol – besides Mr Abbas himself – of the old guard that came from Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in Tunisia after the launch of self-rule in 1994, and which had mostly kept the younger leaders raised in the West Bank and Gaza at bay.

The overhaul of the central committee could help Fatah recover from setbacks that have weakened it since the death of its former leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, including its loss to Hamas in 2006 legislative elections. "The [committee] election results are a type of coup, a white coup without which Fatah would have been finished," said Hani Masri, the head of the Alternatives think-tank in Ramallah.

Mr Abbas, re-elected as Fatah leader over the weekend, is seen as the main winner of the congress since he has earned further legitimacy to lead in his own right rather than being merely the successor of Mr Arafat.

Yesterday, Nachman Shai, an MP for Israel's main opposition party, Kadima, said that the results were positive for all parties. "Changing the guards is a good sign," he said. "The coming-in of a group of relatively new leaders shows Fatah is adapting to new times."