Fatah at the Helm of the Palestinian Authority
By June 1990, the intifada had begun to lose momentum and talks between the United States and the PLO had come to a halt. Soon thereafter, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on 12 August 1990 proposed a political “initiative” based on linking all the conflicts in the Middle East, i.e. linking in effect the occupation of Kuwait with that of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Fatah leadership put its hope in such a link. However, the Gulf War ended in the defeat of the Iraqi army, and put an end to the call for conditioning the withdrawal from Kuwait with the withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Because Fatah and the PLO leadership had not condemned the Iraqi invasion, they were the targets of a severe financial and political embargo. On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the PLO was forced to accept the United States’s conditions for Palestinian participation in the Madrid peace conference on 20 October 1991: representatives from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank within a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation; no representatives from the PLO, the Palestinian diaspora, or Jerusalem. This new shift in Fatah policy was confronted with fierce opposition from a number of PLO factions as well as from the Islamist groups.
After Yasir Arafat became convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were being conducted in Washington, DC, were not going to have an outcome, he backed the opening of secret talks in Oslo with Israel’s new Labor Party government led by Yitzhak Rabin. These secret talks were conducted under the supervision of Fatah’s central committee member Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and led by another central committee member, Ahmad Qureiʿ (Abu Alaa). They culminated in the signing of an agreement in Washington on 13 September 1993 called the Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP), which later came to be known as the Oslo Agreement. According to this agreement, a large number of Fatah’s fighters and rank-and-file members were permitted to enter Gaza and Jericho. (Some of the Fatah leadership, led by Farouq al-Qaddumi (Abu al-Lutf), opposed the Oslo Agreement and refused to enter the occupied territories.) Then, on 1 July 1994, Arafat himself entered Gaza City, along with a number of senior Fatah leaders.
The Fatah leadership was under the illusion that the Declaration of Principles would establish for the Palestinian people a presence as a nation-state on Palestinian soil for the first time in history. They believed that the components of Palestinian sovereignty could be accumulated bit by bit and that self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could, after the end of the transitional phase, develop into an independent Palestinian state that, with political and financial support from the international community, would build its state institutions. True, as noted by Mahmoud Abbas, the agreement’s architect, they were aware of the difficulty of negotiations that whould follow and revolve around final settlement issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders and water. Yet, they reckoned that Israel’s acceptance to include these issues on the negotiations agenda, after it had insisted that each side table the issues it deemed relevant without the other side being under any obligation to discuss them, would necessarily compel the Israelis to discuss these issues, on the one hand, and could shape the contours of the final settlement phase on the other.
After his arrival in Gaza, Arafat began to build the military and civilian institutions of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), relying primarily on the Fatah cadres, both those returning and those already in the occupied territories. This transformed Fatah into something akin to a “ruling party” or the “party in power” that would control the administration, security services, and specialized government bodies such as the TV and broadcasting corporation, and would dominate Palestinian decision-making in the face of the other Palestinian forces competing with it. All this required a concerted effort to mobilize and expand the movement’s mass base in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to ensure the unity of its leadership and to work harder to preserve its influence in the Palestinian diaspora, especially since the DOP obliged the movement’s leadership to restrict grassroots militancy, prevent its cadres from resorting to acts of violence, and pursue the path of negotiations and diplomacy to reach the desired final settlement to the conflict.
Mahmoud Abbas Assumes Leadership of the Movement
On 20 January 1996, presidential elections were held for the PA in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip. Arafat won with 87.1 percent of the vote, defeating his opponent, Samiha Khalil, who ran as an independent candidate. On the same day, general elections were held for the Legislative Council (PLC), in which Fatah’s candidates won overwhelmingly—no real surprise, since the Popular Front, Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, other groups within the PLO, and the Islamists boycotted the elections. Fatah thus controled the executive and legislative branches of the PA.
Israel continued to create “facts on the ground” through ongoing settlement construction and Judaization; that, together with the failure of the Camp David negotiations that had commenced on 11 July 2000 between Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, led to the outbreak of a new intifada on 28 September 2000. Out of this second intifada, a new generation of Fatah activists emerged that had come of age in the 1980s through the movement’s youth organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and had been imprisoned in Israeli occupation jails. The main icon of this generation was Marwan Barghouti, arrested by the Israelis and tried as the mastermind of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Fatah militant group. He was given more than five life sentences in June 2004. Other emerging figures included Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril al-Rajoub, head of the PA Preventative Security force in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively.
On 11 November 2004, Yasir Arafat died in suspicious circumstances. The compound in which he resided in Ramallah had been blockaded for more than two years by the Israeli army, ever since it invaded the cities of the West Bank on 27 March 2002. Mahmoud Abbas was elected as president of the Palestinian Authority on 9 January 2005, winning about 63 percent of the vote, with Mustafa Barghouti running as his opponent.
Fatah and the Hamas Challenge
In his electoral platform, Mahmoud Abbas stressed the need to reform the political system on the basis of strengthening the role of institutions and kickstarting the democratic process. He called for a halt to the militarization of the intifada and for the revival of negotiations as the only way to arrive at a political solution that would guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people, to contribute to transforming their image in the eyes of the international community, and to ensure material support for their cause. Just a few weeks after he won the election, he succeeded in reaching an understanding with the leadership of the Hamas movement along with other factions after a series of meetings held in Cairo. The agreement stipulated the following: that those Palestinian groups with armed units refrain from carrying out any military operations until the end of 2005; that local and legislative elections would be held; and that talks would be launched to have Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement join the PLO. Despite the internal opposition he encountered within Fatah, which was beset by internal disputes and felt weakened after the loss of its historical leader who had spearheaded the Palestinian national struggle for several decades, Abbas insisted on holding the legislative elections and on amending the electoral law. Meanwhile, Hamas, which had been classified by the United States as a terrorist organization since the 9/11/2001 attacks and whose leadership had been systematically targeted by the Israelis, sensed that its opportunity lay in fortifying its position through electoral legitimacy, particularly in the light of its rise in popularity concurrent with declining performance of the incumbent Fatah. And so, it decided to enter the political process through the gateway of the PLC. Legislative elections were in fact conducted on 25 January 2006. The Change and Reform list represented the Hamas movement, and it won 57.6 percent of seats in the PLC, while Fatah won 32.6 percent.
However, instead of providing a solution to the crisis faced by the PA, those legislative elections resulted in deepening the polarization between the Fatah and Hamas camps and to a large extent expunged the leftist groups, which were unable to form a “third pole” as a major force in Palestinian politics. Although President Abbas gave senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh the task of forming the new government in accordance with the Basic Law, the government he formed refused to recognize the “Declaration of Independence” ratified by the PNC in Algiers in 1988, as well as all the agreements and initiatives that the PLO leadership had committed itself to, including the “peace initiative” endorsed by the Arab Summit held in Beirut in 2002. At the same time, Fatah’s senior leaders declined to participate in talks to form the government or to agree on a joint ministerial program and the allocation of cabinet portfolios, for both internal reasons, or out of external (Israeli or international) considerations. This created a dual authority within the PA and led to a conflict between the two movements that escalated to bouts of armed skirmishes, ending in Hamas taking control over the Gaza Strip on 15 June 2007.
Fatah’s Sixth and Seventh General Conferences
In August 2009, Fatah’s sixth general conference was held in Bethlehem, the first to be held inside Palestine, with 2,352 delegates from eighty countries, some of whom had obtained special permits from the Israelis to enter the Occupied Territories. The conference elected a new Central Committee composed of eighteen members that included only two of its old guard alongside chairman Mahmoud Abbas: Salim al-Za’noun and Mohammed Ghoneim. The rest were largely from the “new guard” and included Marwan Barghouti, Jibril al-Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, and Mahmoud al-Aloul. The initial version of the political program announced on 7 August reflected the prevailing mood among the majority of delegates: it linked the Palestinian “peace option” to the right of Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation “by all legitimate means, including the right to engage in armed struggle as guaranteed by international law.” However, this version was retracted the following day, most likely due to external pressures. The conference issued a five-point clarification that lacked any reference to armed struggle, sufficing to assert the right of peoples under occupation to resistance “in all forms.”
In late November 2016, the movement’s seventh conference was held in Ramallah. In its first session, it unanimously elected Mahmoud Abbas as commander-in-chief of Fatah. It also elected an eighty-member Revolutionary Council and a new eighteen-member Central Committee that did not include a single one of the original leadership. Finally, it elected Mahmoud al-Aloul as deputy to Abbas. Fatah convened the conference at that particular time in part because it wished to assert the legitimacy of its leadership with Abbas at the helm and to respond to pressure from certain Arab countries that wanted to rehabilitate Dahlan within the movement leadership as a possible successor for Abbas. After Hamas took control of Gaza, a dispute had started to surface between Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, who was indirectly accused by a commission of inquiry of being responsible for Fatah’s defeat in Gaza. This dispute then escalated after charge sheets were filed against Dahlan for corruption. On 13 June 2011, he was expelled from Fatah; in 2012, another order was issued to lift his parliamentary immunity as a member of the PLC. In response, he created a new “reformist” bloc, also labeled Fatah, thus causing the most serious split known by the movement since 1983.
More than six decades after it was founded, and having spearheaded the Palestinian struggle for national liberation in our time, Fatah now stands at a crossroads. The gamble it took on the Self-Governing Authority transforming into a fully independent state has melted into thin air. The PA survives in isolated cantons in the occupied West Bank governed by the will of the Israeli occupation, while the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues. Still, its popular base inside the occupied Palestinian territories remains the largest of all groups, as shown by opinion polls and student council elections, just as its influence among Palestinians in the diaspora remains the strongest.
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Dot-Pouillard, Nicolas. La Mosaïque éclatée: Une histoire du mouvement national palestinien (1993–2016). Beirut: Institut des études palestiniennes, 2016.
Jamal, Amal. The Palestinian National Movement: Politics of Contention, 1967–2005. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
Løvlie, Frode. “Questioning the Secular-Religious Cleavage in Palestinian Politics: Comparing Fatah and Hamas.” Politics and Religion 7 (2014): 100–21.