Fatah's sixth congress, the first to be held in Palestine, was also the party's first conference for 20 years. But as the programme was extended from three days to four and then to seven, it often seemed that the congress itself would last 20 years. The reason for the endless extensions lay in Gaza, where the Hamas authorities denied Fatah delegates permission to travel to the West Bank, throwing party elections into disarray. Missing delegates phoned threatening to resign if their voices were not heard; but as Bethlehem's hotels and restaurants filled with smoke and raised voices, it became clear that Hamas's attempt to weaken Fatah was producing a more chaotic but also a more vital gathering.
Before the conference began, a struggle was expected, between Fatah's old guard and a younger generation raised in Palestine, for places on the executive central committee and the larger, governing board, the Revolutionary Council. In reality, the leadership was relaxed about losing a few old faces. "We need to bring in new blood," said Rafiq Husseini, the urbane chief of staff to President Mahmoud Abbas. "A lot of people think they are God's gift, so there will be many sore and surprised losers." But could the elections go ahead without the Gazan delegates? "It's not the first time delegates have been unable to attend," he said. "In previous conferences, there were none from the occupied territories. Today, there are 150 delegates in prison. We have to send out the message that we are not to be held to ransom."
The extra days of debate were welcome, but elements of the conference eventually began to grate, such as the decision to hold much of it in closed session. One delegate was so frustrated at the secrecy that he waited for a general session, held under TV cameras, before rising to lambast the outgoing executive for their failure to provide any account of their activities or finances over the previous two decades.
There were other grievances. Jamal Hweil - at 38, the youngest candidate - complained that officials were inventing hurdles. "The law says you can be president at 35, but to be a member of the central committee, you have to be a Fatah member for 20 years." The youngest delegate was Kifah Radaydeh, 26, from Jerusalem. What about youth committees, I asked: had they no younger delegates? She told me they were all men, ranging up to the age of 35.
These annoyances were offset by the heat of debate. Muhammad Dahlan, the controversial former security commander of Gaza, was twice forced to explain how Hamas had mounted a coup on his watch. He vigorously argued that any failures were the collective responsibility of the party. Although many delegates were unmoved, even they agreed that Dahlan had come prepared to face the charges head-on. It began to seem possible he could win a seat on the executive. His hardline stance especially appealed to delegates who believed Gaza could be "liberated" only by force.
Hweil, who had fought in the Battle of Jenin of 2002, spoke out against a military solution. He agreed that Hamas would resist talks as long as it had the backing of Syria and Iran, but warned the delegates: "We cannot fight Hamas and we have nothing to threaten them with. There is no alternative to negotiations."
There was solid backing for another set of negotiations - those proposed by the president to achieve a two-state solution. Everyone also agreed that there must be a timeframe. It was 16 years since Oslo, eight years since the Taba summit, and negotiations had only hardened the occupation rather than offered a route to statehood. But there was also consensus on the need for a "Plan B". What happens the day after negotiations with Israel fail? The answer to that remained stubbornly vague.
There were almost 100 candidates for the 18 central committee places, and 600-plus for the Revolutionary Council's 80. Although lists of preferred candidates were forbidden, slates were chalked up everywhere. Votes were traded, yet no one withdrew. Years of flattery, graft and poor communication had left small-town leaders with an inflated sense of their own importance. "God's gift", indeed.
The ballot papers were so long that the president took more than half an hour to complete his, and the results for the central committee were announced a week late. The newly elected members were all familiar faces: Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, Nabil Shaath, as well as Palestine's comeback kid, Muhammad Dahlan. The big surprise was that the former prime minister, Ahmad Qureia, had been nudged out by just two votes. Husseini's prediction of sore losers came true. Qureia announced that the electoral fraud in Iran was "smaller than we have seen in Palestine", declaring that successful candidates were in the pay of Israel. He wasn't alone.
All the Gaza delegates resigned after none was elected. Then the results of the Revolutionary Council election came in: 70 new faces, the majority aged below 40, including 11 women, four Christians and Uri Davis, universally described as a Jew (though he prefers the term Palestinian Hebrew). Still, the congress did not solve the problem of what happens if talks fail. Delegates produced elegant formulations to justify legal forms of armed resistance, such as: "If international law allows for such solutions, why should we deny them to the Palestinians?" But no one argued that military action could be a route to liberation: such justifications were merely offered to avoid disavowing Fatah's heritage of fedayeen and martyrs. Delegates spoke warmly of the joint Palestinian-Israeli protests at the villages of Bil'in and Ni'ilin, but all failed to notice that the Israeli demonstrators were anarchists who might take a bullet for a villager but would never accept the leadership of a conventional political party. Similarly, I heard talk of boycotts, but no details about who would partner Fatah abroad. Fatah remains convinced that it is the natural leader of the Palestinian movement, but few deny that the party lost this role in the international community long ago.
The conference in Bethlehem had the unmistakeable energy of a party in transition, committed to democracy and to formulating policy in the open. The party's only serious competitor, Hamas, selects its leaders in opaque backrooms and formulates policy in Syria. Grassroots politics in Palestine will lead to Fatah, if only because one in ten of the population is a paid-up member. But as conference delegates recognised, any post-negotiations strategy will need international friends. Until Fatah can find some, Plan B will remain as elusive as ever.
Nicholas Blincoe's latest novel is "Burning Paris" (Sceptre), set in Paris and Bethlehem