The Region: The fall of Fatah

Hamas is exacerbating the failures it inherited from Arafat.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Almost exactly 40 years ago, the nationalist group Fatah took over the Palestinian movement. That long reign ended last week when Fatah accepted a junior partnership to Hamas in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The rise and fall of Fatah is one of the greatest political failures in history, though mixed with certain elements of success. Certainly, Fatah made the Palestinian issue a global one, accumulating international support, or at least sympathy. Yet the disastrous leadership of Yasser Arafat also led the group down the path of terrorism, extremism and intransigence. Almost a half-century since its founding, it has achieved no state and brought no material benefit to the people it purported to represent. While Fatah's decline was already visible, the clear turning point was its defeat by Hamas in the January 2005 election. Neither the establishment of its own regime, the PA, which ruled over almost all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or billions of dollars in international aid (dissipated in corruption and incompetence); the patronage of the US, or even Israel's complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the turning over to it of the Gaza-Egypt border was enough for Fatah to save itself. WHY DID this happen? That is a very long and complex story. But four factors stand out, most of which still prevail in the movement as a whole. First, there has been the extremism of its goal of seeking the defeat and destruction of Israel rather than ending the conflict with the achievement of a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state. Even though there are Fatah members today who prefer a compromise solution, they are in a minority and do not battle for the real acceptance of their views in that group. Fatah has never articulated among its own people - and does not articulate today - an alternative vision of peaceful coexistence and the return of Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state. Second has been the extremism of its methods, the deliberate use of terrorism to mobilize Palestinians emotionally and frighten Israel into surrender. Terrorism has always been a central strategy for the organization, and it has had a corrupting role in both moral and political terms. Third was the leadership of Arafat, a man of the utmost capabilities and limitations. Arafat deliberately avoided institutionalization, courted anarchy and promoted corruption. After his death, as a consequence, neither Fatah nor the PLO or PA, all of which he ruled, had an organized hierarchy or an effective decision-making apparatus. Arafat's replacement, if one can call him that, is Mahmoud Abbas, a man who has some moderate sentiments but is weak, ineffective, and an advocate of most of Fatah's traditional program. The actual head of Fatah is Farouk Kaddoumi, a man who rejected even the peace process of the 1990s. His popularity reflects the basic politics of Fatah. FINALLY, there is the sheer hubris of Fatah, a group which provided little in the way of benefits or services to its own people, yet assumed it would always enjoy their support. At a conference shortly before the January 2006 elections, after I gave a devastating list of reasons as to why Hamas would win, Fatah's campaign manager, one of the most moderate people in the group, stated, "The people will vote for [Fatah] and everything will be all right." The election defeat was made far worse by the rampant factionalism in Fatah, so that multiple candidates ran against each other, splitting the vote and increasing Hamas's margin of victory. In the 15 months since then Fatah has not made a single real reform or any effort to combat its rampant corruption, or brought younger dissidents into the leadership. Nor has it articulated an alternative to the Hamas position, but simply tried to compete with it in proving how militant and willing to use violence Fatah can be. This is a losing strategy. Last week, the agreement between Fatah and Hamas, brokered by the Saudis, was implemented. Fatah has accepted a junior partnership with its Islamist rival on terms which reflect much of Fatah's world view but are very different from the moderate image the group wants to build in the West. THE NEW coalition does not accept all the agreements made in the past peace processes, including those that provide the basis for the PA's own existence and the international aid it receives. The new government rejects Israel's existence or a compromise solution and, on a daily basis, continues to embrace terrorism. Here are three quick examples:
  • Last June, Hamas forces openly participated in, and its leadership endorsed, a cross-border raid in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one was kidnapped and is still being held. The PA did not condemn the attack, punish the perpetrators or free the soldier.
  • Every day, rockets are fired at Israeli civilian targets by forces allied to Hamas who are not condemned, stopped or punished by the PA. On March 19, a Hamas sniper in the Gaza Strip shot and wounded an Israeli electric company worker inside Israel. These are all acts of war or terrorism condoned or even carried out by the PA's ruling party.
  • Nor has even the Hamas-Fatah coalition stopped the anarchy and bloodshed by both sides within Gaza. On March 21, for example, Hamas gunmen surrounded the home of a Fatah militia leader and fired anti-tank missiles into the house. Still another wave of mutual kidnappings followed. So far, five people have been killed, including a two-year-old boy. The mistakes made under the decades-long leadership of Fatah are continuing, and even intensifying, in the new Hamas era. The result is that any possibility of peace is being pushed decades further away. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya. His latest book, The Truth About Syria, is being published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May.