Fatah, in its own divided words

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) commissioned an online study of Palestinian political attitudes, and found that internal fragmentation runs deep.

Abbas 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In the spring of 2010, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) commissioned a nine-week online study of Palestinian political sentiments, using technology usually employed on behalf of US Central Command. ConStrat culled information from search engines, social media sites, YouTube, Twitter, social networks, wikis and RSS feeds.
While it is unclear how accurate social media are as a bellwether of political sentiment, FDD believes the derived trends can contribute to a better understanding of actual Palestinian attitudes toward peace.
The results have been published in a study titled “Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media,” (see www.defenddemocracy.
org/images/Palestinian–Pulse.pdf). The following excerpts highlight the study’s findings on the Fatah faction.
FATAH SUPPORTERS typically gravitate to two forums: Voice of Palestine (www.palvoice.com) and Fatah Forum (www.fatehforums.com). These two sites are very popular, boasting a combined membership of more than 80,000.
The hundreds of posts associated with Fatah reveal a faction in disarray. This should come as no surprise. Indeed, Fatah has undergone something of an identity crisis since the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000 and 2001.
Whereas Fatah had positioned itself (particularly vis-à-vis Hamas) as an advocate for continued peace talks through the PA, it ultimately embraced the armed al-Aksa intifada in 2000.
In the years that followed, the Israeli military steadily eroded Fatah’s infrastructure, to the point that the faction has come to be seen as only one among several.
The group has also suffered from a leadership vacuum since the death of its founder, Yasser Arafat, in 2004. The subsequent rise of Mahmoud Abbas has done little to stabilize Fatah. Over the past decade, the faction has earned a reputation on the Palestinian street as being corrupt and ossified. This was a contributing factor in Fatah’s 2006 electoral defeat.
In 2007, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah still clings to power in the West Bank, but only with assistance from the US and Israel. This has done little to bolster its standing.
Neither the US nor Israel is well-liked in Palestinian society. According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, only 15% of Palestinians had a favorable opinion of the US in 2009, albeit up from 0% in 2003. Moreover, according to a July 12 poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 53% of Palestinians don’t trust Israel.
Fatah continues to struggle. From a political perspective, it lacks leadership.
From an ideological perspective, it lacks direction. For example, the announcement that Mahmoud Abbas would visit the US in early June and meet with AIPAC prompted anti-Fatah users to post scathing criticisms.
Fatah supporters largely ignored the visit until reports surfaced of Abbas’s statement that he “does not deny the Jews’ right to the land of Israel” (translated by major Arab news outlets as “right to land in Palestine”).
The reports prompted discomfiture.
Fatah users posted divisive comments on palvoice.com, lamenting Fatah’s renunciation of armed “resistance,” and even admitting that the movement is “in decline.”
USERS ON Fatah-aligned forums such as palvoice.com also posted content reflecting the internal fragmentation and incoherent policies that have beset the movement over the past decade. Debates highlighted sharp divides between Fatah supporters on elections, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and armed ‘resistance.’ On the topic of resistance, Fatah supporters can be described as those who support nonviolent protest and those who yearn for a return to battle. The voices backing these two approaches appear to be of roughly equal strength.
Broadly speaking, most Fatah members embrace the notion that Israel is an enemy. Indeed, one particularly popular post during FDD’s study was a report alleging that Israel seeks to “separate Gaza from the West Bank” and thereby “liquidate the Palestinian national project.”
At the same time, however, Fatah’s online supporters voiced loyalty to the group’s leadership. This is somewhat ironic, given that these leaders continue to negotiate with Israel.
The Obama administration must address this challenge before making additional commitments to the Palestinians.

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer is vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark Dubowitz is the foundation’s executive director. Copyright 2010, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.