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Will fatah “ as much as Isarael “ be the target of the next intifada?

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by Ben White

(source: The Conflicts Forum)

For the best part of half a century, Fatah dominated Palestinian politics. Israeli attempts to extinguish the movement failed; rivals were co-opted or sidelined. But gradually, as the Oslo years gave way to the Second Intifada, the peace process went up in smoke and Hamas emerged as a genuine contender for Palestinian political loyalties, serious and critical divisions within the movement have come to the surface. This piece examines the current crisis facing the Fatah movement, and possibilities for the future: critical issues facing the movement — internal divisions, differences over strategy often sharply focused on the question of resistance and/or negotiations, the relationship with Hamas, as well as some of the different options facing Fatah in terms of a way out of the crisis, and approaches being suggested as solutions to the crisis.

From its beginnings as a guerrilla group in the 1960s, Fatah moved to the forefront of the Palestinian national movement, dominating the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and seeing off challenges to its leadership in the 1970s and 1980s. With the First Intifada raging in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in the late 1980s, some within Fatah began initially secretive talks with the Israelis, ultimately culminating in the Oslo Accords.

But the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the framework of the official ‘peace process’ put Fatah on the path to its current crisis, as the movement became crippled by the tensions between resistance to intensified Israeli colonisation and the PA’s responsibilities to the international community’s peace process, as well endemic corruption in the ruling class.Fourteen months after Yasser Arafat’s death in November 2004, Fatah was punished in an election which saw Hamas win a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a verdict delivered by the Palestinian people on years of corruption and fruitless negotiations. In June 2007, months of tension, plotting, and sporadic violence led to a full-on confrontation between Fatah and Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip, with the latter taking control of the territory.Since then, the embittered split in the Palestinian polity has remained. Fatah’s leaders have struggled to remain relevant as Salam Fayyad found Western favour as Prime Minister, while it was principally Hamas who faced down the Israeli military in the unparalleled attack on the Gaza Strip December 2008-January 2009.These different factors brought to the forefront an issue that had been plaguing Fatah for some time; the need to hold its Sixth General Conference. The Conference had previously been held in 1989, even though it is the primary way in which Fatah members can elect the leaders who will sit on its two main decision-making bodies, – the Revolutionary Council (RC) and the Central Committee (CC). The RC has 120 members, elected at the General Conference. The RC’s tasks include monitoring the different offices, and ensuring the implementation of political decisions. The CC is the highest decision-making body within Fatah, made up of 18 members voted for in a secret ballot at the Conference, Fatah’s leader, plus four more appointees (23 in total).The General Conference itself is meant to convene every five years, with participants drawn from Fatah’s regional sections, the military wings, and RC members. Finally held in August, planning for the Conference had been marred by delays and accusations of anti-democratic behaviour long before over 2,000 delegates gathered in Bethlehem.From deciding how many members would attend (about three quarters of delegates were picked by Mahmoud Abbas and a committee), to the Conference’s location itself, there were controversies at every turn. With the Gaza members prevented from attending by Hamas, some 700 names were added during the conference by the Fatah establishment. Expressions of dissent were not well received, and there were reports of bodyguards roughing up delegates. Abbas was elected uncontested as Fatah’s leader by a show of hands. In the end, 96 candidates stood for the CC and 617 ran for the 80 places available on the RC. When the results came out, onto the CC came the jailed Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, and Muhammad Dahlan, among others. Out went Ahmed Qureia, who was later one of a number of people to allege vote-rigging.1Divisions and the Oslo cultureA critical problem for Fatah is the extent to which the movement is divided into different groupings. When this issue is covered at all by the Western media, the split within Fatah is often presented as simply ‘young versus old’. The BBC, for example, in the run up to the PLC elections in January 2006, reported on “tension” within Fatah between “a younger generation of activists who had come to prominence during the first Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s and the ‘old guard’ who had spent those years exiled with Mr Arafat in Tunis”.2While there is some truth in this, it is a simplification. Ali Jarbawi, appointed Minister of Planning in Fayyad’s May 2009 cabinet, points out that there are a multitude of differences: “geographic – West Bank, Gaza, north, south, outside inside – then there’s young, old, the left and right within Fatah, those with Oslo and those against…” The indigenous/exiles dichotomy does not reflect the complexity: “Where do you put, for example, Saeb Erekat – he didn’t come from Tunis”. 3Neither age nor geography is actually sufficient explanation for the different groupings within Fatah: some are simply power centres focused around a particular individual and his support base. This means that bitter divisions have emerged between individuals not over ideology but out of personal rivalry and a desire to protect privileges.Not all of Fatah’s divisions though come purely from power struggles by unscrupulous career politicians. Other splits are shaped more by deeply-held convictions about the best way forward in terms of strategy and the peace process, and how to conduct relations with Israel, the international community, and Hamas respectively. A seriously aggravating factor in Fatah’s internal crisis has been the failure of the official peace process since the Oslo Accords to deliver even minimum Palestinian rights, resulting in deep uncertainty about the next best step in terms of strategy. Even putting aside for now the possible responses to this state of affairs, it is important to note that it is not simply the perceived failure of the peace process with Israel that has caused Fatah so many problems, but also the structure of the process itself, and in particular, the creation of the PA. Fatah’s dominance of the PA has tied their fates together, the two becoming practically synonymous. The PA itself created a class of Palestinians whose business interests trumped national or political goals, and thus there was a shift within the senior Fatah leadership from national liberation movement to ‘national authority’. Hussam Khader is a senior Fatah leader in Nablus, and was in an Israeli prison from March 2003 to August 2008. Ever since the 1990s, Khader has been a vocal critic of the corruption within the PA, and the extent to which the Fatah leadership was abandoning its historic programme in favour of ‘autonomy’ and cooperation with Israel. Khader feels that the “Oslo culture destroyed our future”, and he typically reserves special scorn for those he feels belong to what he calls the “economic party” within Fatah.4 As Fatah gathered in Bethlehem for the General Conference in August 2009, editor-in chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi Abdel-Bari Atwan described the Fatah of “Mr. Abbas and the group surrounding him” as the “Fatah of salaries and loads of bread”.5It is not necessary to be so blunt in order to highlight the problems that have arisen for Fatah as a result of their dominance of the PA. Ayman Abu Aita, a long-standing Fatah activist from Beit Sahour, stressed the importance of the international community’s demands on the PA, and the way this influences what can be said by Palestinian leaders: “The question is, when someone makes a statement, is it as ‘Fatah’ or ‘the PA’? The things said by people in their position in the PA are different from what the same people say in Fatah meetings”.6This pressure on the PA by outside powers (like Israel, the US, or the Quartet) to conform to particular standards expected by the official peace process becomes even more politically problematic for Fatah as the years go by not just without resolution, but in fact, with the increasingly entrenched Israeli occupation. Moreover, by throwing its lot in with the ‘peace process’, Fatah was also agreeing to work with the Israeli authorities, whether as part of PA-Israel ‘security’ cooperation or in negotiations. So:while this collaboration [with Israel] puts Fatah in an advantageous position vis-à-vis other Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas, it also serves to diminish support for Fatah in the long run, especially when a just and dignified peace settlement with Israel remains so unforeseeable.7The group within Fatah’s leadership, who pursued negotiations, compromise, and the Oslo process, have been left exposed by the failure of these tactics – an admission even of this approach’s advocates – thus opening up a space for different voices about the best way forward for both the movement, and the Palestinian national project.Ali Sartawi served as Justice Minister in the short-lived unity government March-June 2007. Sartawi believes that the common problem facing all of the various groupings within Fatah is that “their vision is not clear”. “Before”, says Sartawi, “Fatah had a good vision, but they have lost it. The image of Fatah for the Palestinian people is now corruption; the struggle is for personal interests”.8The question of resistancePerhaps the touchstone issue when it comes to the debate within Fatah about strategy is the role of armed resistance in achieving Palestinian national goals. This was a headline topic at the General Conference in August, but it only served to highlight the unresolved dilemma facing Fatah’s leadership: reject resistance in line with the international community’s agenda (and continue the basic assumptions and formula of the peace process with Israel), or explicitly adopt a strategy of resistance should negotiations fail (with the implicit assumption that this is already – or shortly will be – the case).Mahmoud Abbas has bet his political career on the former option, but aware of the deep-seated opposition from Fatah members to ditching the resistance option, during and after the Conference, he was forced to play rhetorical games designed to keep Fatah, Israel, and the international community happy. Central Comittee member Marwan Barghouti, however, adopts a balancing act with a tougher emphasis:So long as an Israeli soldier or settler remains on the Palestinian land that was occupied in 1967, the Fatah Movement will not give up the resistance option … We in the Fatah Movement believe that political action and negotiations are complementary and reap the fruits of the resistance. This is why we have always called for abiding by the resistance option, the negotiations and the political action at the same time.9Ex-PLC member and Fatah leader Qadura Fares, speaking to me in the aftermath of the elections at the General Conference, pointed out that in a way, for now the decision has been made: “Within the congress, all of them speak about [military] resistance – but the congress elected people who never participated. If we really want to have resistance, we don’t elect [Saeb] Erekat. We say something, and elect other people”.10Fares affirmed the belief of “the Palestinian people in general” that “like any people in the world we should resist to achieve our goals, and the occupation will never be ready to negotiate with you if you don’t resist”. The current Fatah leadership, however, he does not believe “will lead this resistance”. He then added, commenting on the results of the Central Committee elections, that “when we have former security leaders who arrested Palestinians because they resisted, I don’t think they’ll be resisting occupation.”A good illustration of the ambivalence towards resistance found among different levels of Fatah leaders is the recent history of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades (AMB). Despite being at the forefront of Palestinian militancy for key periods of the Second Intifada, the AMB is now dormant, if not in a terminal coma. Many of its leaders were killed, or imprisoned, by the Israelis, while the rest have publicly quit – some as part of an ‘amnesty’ agreement with Israel and the PA.When there has been dissatisfaction expressed by former AMB fighters about the amnesty deal, it has been a sense of frustration at the slow pace of their return to full civilian life. Hussam Khader, who is from Balata camp where AMB resistance was fierce for many years, confirms that nowadays “there is no resistance on the ground” from AMB.11 But, he says, since “there will be the desire to resist from the Palestinian people”, “new tools and methods” will be created, and “maybe Fatah will reform AMB, or it will form under a new title”. The way that Fatah answers the question about resistance could change the very nature of the Oslo status quo. Mustafa Barghouti, prominent independent politician, put it to me very simply: “The question Fatah has to deal with is whether they still consider themselves part of, or mainly, a national liberation movement – or, as part of the [Palestinian] Authority”. It is a “serious issue”, since it “relates to how they analyse the whole Palestinian situation”.12Ali Jarbawi also sees it as a clear choice to be made: “You see you cannot have an Authority and an intifada. You can’t have [military] resistance to the occupation while you have an official Palestinian address on the ground. It’s either resistance without Authority or Authority without military resistance”.13 There is a good deal of agreement by analysts and Fatah activists on the ground about this assessment, though for some, this leads to a particular conclusion. Mohammad Sharaka, law lecturer at an-Najah University and long-standing Fatah member, expressed his support for a return to resistance, if one year of negotiations with Israel fails to lead to genuine Palestinian statehood in the 1967 borders. But, he acknowledged, “resistance with the PA is impossible, because the PA entered the peace process – so yes, the new [Fatah] leadership should finish with the PA”.This, however, is not a likely prospect, at least in the short-term. Khalid Amayreh, a West Bank journalist does not think “that Fatah is willing to foresee a situation whereby the PA is sacrificed for the sake of armed struggle”.14 As Hussam Khader put it, “if they go back to the struggle, their benefits will be destroyed”.15 Although this kind of debate is not new, the acutely sensitive nature of the resistance issue for Fatah has been intensified by the emergence and political strength of Hamas.Relations with HamasThe debate within Fatah about how to approach relations with Hamas is as important as the question of resistance and negotiations strategy, for the future of the movement but also for the Palestinian political leadership as a whole. Repeated and failed attempts at ‘national reconciliation’ talks have come and gone, while on the ground in the PA/Fatah-dominated West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, both sides carry out political arrests and are guilty of human rights abuses. Within both movements, there are those who are more conciliatory and those who are more hard-line. The recent Central Committee elections mean that there are now a number of leaders in the upper echelons of Fatah’s leadership structure – such as Mohammed Dahlan, Tawfik Tirawi, and Hussein al-Sheikh – who have a past and present record of being uncompromising, or even confrontational. Yet there are others, like Marwan Barghouti, and perhaps Jibril Rajoub (despite his past) who are relatively more open.Qadura Fares, who is close to Barghouti, stresses the need to “deal with Hamas as our partner, without this idea of isolating and ignoring them, of dismantling Hamas”. This kind of strategy, he says, “is not working” and instead, “we should have real dialogue with them”. However, Fares does not “believe that the new leadership will go in this direction”, and that the split will “continue for a little time”.What kind of future?One of the rivals to Abbas’ leadership of the movement is Marwan Barghouti, now elected onto the Central Committee. The imprisoned veteran West Bank leader is the most popular Palestinian leader in some polls, and for some, also stands the best chance of being able to help forge unity between Fatah and Hamas. A Barghouti-led movement could be an important step in revitalising the party, and re-establishing Fatah’s credentials in the eyes of the Palestinian people. Yet many of the bigger problems, particularly in terms of strategy and direction, would still need to be decided, and it is unclear whether certain groupings within Fatah would accommodate themselves gracefully to a change at the top. Perhaps a cause for optimism for Fatah’s future is the integrity and commitment of many of the local, regional leaders in the West Bank. It is not just a case of those who make headlines in their opposition to the Ramallah-government. Recently, over 80 Fatah activists published “a harshly worded leaflet against Abbas, accusing the Palestinian leader of ‘seriously undermining the movement’”.16 When the draft document for the General Conference was circulated with a platform including “limited resistance”, this was rejected by grassroots leaders who insist on both negotiations and resistance. Local leaders, and strident internal critics, like Khader, dismayed at the way in which Fatah’s leaders have “lead us from one bad catastrophe to another”, are still loyal to the movement: “I belong to Fatah, and my history, my life, my vision, belong to Fatah, but I don’t trust the traditional leaders, who disappointed us, and insisted on destroying our revolutionary beliefs”.17 There is also no doubt that Fatah has been attempting to implement some of the democratic and internal reforms required. At a local, grassroots level, there have been elections across the Occupied Territories, while there is also now for the first time, a database of all Fatah’s members. The nagging question remains, however: is this enough? Have the lessons from the result delivered by the Palestinian electorate in 2006 been learned? The signs are not good. Abdel Sattar Qassem is a political science professor at an-Najah University and prolific critic of Fatah and the PA. He has been targeted several times by PA security forces in an attempt to intimidate him into silence. I asked Qassem what he thought is the average Palestinian’s opinion on Fatah. Without the money from the international community, spent with the authorisation of the Israelis and Americans, Fatah wouldn’t be there. Without that money, Fatah would collapse: it is the money that’s keeping Fatah intact. And even with this situation, they are fragmented into different centres of power.18 Fatah, it seems, needs to at the very least redefine the nature of its relationship with the PA’s institutions and governing structure, due to the straitjacket this imposes on policies. For example, Fatah claims to represent all Palestinians including the refugees, rather than merely operating as a party within the OPT. Khalid Amayreh believes that “much of Fatah’s popularity still depends on the public impression that Fatah is the leader of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, and that Fatah has not coalesced itself into the PA”. This is very important because Fatah financially depends on the PA and this is often translated into a sort of subservience. To draw clear lines of distinction, Fatah must depend on its own financial resources, and thus the movement could be politically free and would be able to resist Israeli and US dictates vis-a-vis the peace process and the relationship with Hamas. Despite assurances to the contrary by senior party establishment figures, it seems increasingly, rather than less, likely that Fatah will either split, or, that there will be a haemorrhaging of members. Hussam Khader believes that “hundreds of young Fatah leaders and activists will leave, and maybe some of them will be independent, some will go to other parties”.19 There is even the risk that the next intifada will be as much directed against the PA-Fatah establishment as the Israeli occupation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be regarded as reflecting the views of Conflicts Forum.