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The Lost Palestinians


Barring an unforeseen development, Palestinians will vote in their second post-Arafat national elections this summer. Unlike the presidential balloting, in which the election of Abu Mazen was entirely predictable, the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are clouded in uncertainty. Fatah, the secular, nationalist organization which has thoroughly dominated Palestinian politics for decades, enjoys the advantages of incumbency, the support of state-like institutions, and the unconcealed backing of all major international actors. Hamas, the radical Islamist organization, has never before participated in national elections, lacks governmental experience, and is branded a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union. Yet it is Fatah that is worried and Hamas that is gaining ground.

The uncertainty has generated odd reactions. With the implicit encouragement of some Israelis and Westerners who usually advocate Palestinian democracy, Fatah is seriously toying with the idea of postponing the ballot to forestall a poor showing. If elections are held several months after their scheduled date in July, it is believed, Fatah will be able to take credit for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, for the Palestinian Authority’s economic recovery, and for its restoration of law and order. Meanwhile Hamas, traditionally skeptical of Western-style politics and hostile to foreign intervention, has been calling for international observers to monitor the vote.

The elections will reflect popular judgment on the current situation. As of now, opinions are mixed. There is greater calm and normalcy in the lives of Palestinians and, for an exhausted people, that is no small achievement. But improvements have been made at a painfully slow pace. Israel has maintained its military presence in most of the West Bank, roadblocks have yet to be lifted, settlement construction continues apace, and, of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, only a few hundred have been released from Israeli jails. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still intends to withdraw from Gaza, but the future remains vague. There has been some change in the US position but the Bush administration is still tepid about becoming seriously involved in peace efforts. All in all this hardly is enough for the new Palestinian leadership to claim a clear success.

Should this murky situation remain essentially unchanged by July, the elections are likely to be as much a referendum on the shape of internal Palestinian politics as a referendum on the state of Israeli–Palestinian affairs. That should be of concern to Fatah. Arafat’s death, the collapse of the Oslo Accords, endemic internal divisions, and a reputation for corruption have badly weakened the Fatah movement. Hamas, viewed as uncorrupt, efficient, and equipped with a more focused set of political goals, stands ready to pick up the spoils. Can Fatah survive these elections unified and intact? Will Hamas change Palestinian politics and be changed by them? And how much should the rest of the world care?


Understanding what Fatah has become requires recalling what it once was. Yasser Arafat and his colleagues founded it in 1959 in the hope of revitalizing the Palestinian national movement, then headed by an uninspiring leadership, and reasserting its independence, then at the mercy of ambitious Arab states. They succeeded on both counts. Fatah transformed the Palestinian political scene, uniquely represented national aspirations, and maintained its regional autonomy.

If Arafat was the great unifier, Fatah was the big tent he used to accommodate different sensitivities and outlooks. Fatah was an extension of him, not merely because he emerged as its dominant figure, but because—in its inclusiveness, flexibility, and adaptability to changing domestic and regional conditions—it mimicked him. Fatah was secular and nationalist, but like Arafat it aspired to embody all Palestinians regardless of their political and religious beliefs. Its strength was less a function of what it possessed than of what it lacked: it had neither a clear-cut ideology nor a detailed political program nor even a partisan outlook. Its platform amounted to little more than a call for liberation. Within its ranks, Marxists coexisted with Islamists, modernists with traditionalists, liberals with militarists, progressives with old families, students with tribal chiefs, and young with old. As the late Said Hammami, a Fatah operative and PLO representative to the United Kingdom, used to say: “Fatah is the Palestinian people.”

In another sense, too, Fatah was an expression of Arafat. Created by Palestinians in the diaspora, it mostly functioned and operated outside the territories, deriving its legitimacy in part from the relative ease with which its leaders could circulate among dispersed Palestinians and claim their allegiance. By the late Sixties, it sought to build strong ties to Palestinians living under occupation as well. Much of its energy and later success came from the link it established between its supporters inside and outside.

To call Fatah a party is to miss its all-encompassing nature. To label it a coalition or front is to mistake its organizational characteristics. Within the Palestinian political world, there exist versions of both: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for example, was a near party, with a left-wing, quasi-Marxist program all its own; the Palestine Liberation Organization was more akin to a front, an umbrella encompassing numerous autonomous and often rival groupings. More flexible than a party yet more disciplined than a front, Fatah came close to being a broad church, opening its arms to parishioners of various kinds, yet forbidding them to set up distinct, internal factions. The movement had a military wing, intelligence agencies, and a large support network. Throughout the years, much of the world kept its eyes fixed on the PLO. To those who knew, the real force was and remained Fatah.

By 1969, Fatah had taken control of the Palestine Liberation Organization and given it new blood. More than two decades later, following the Oslo Accords, its cadres went on to become the backbone of the Palestinian Authority established in the West Bank and Gaza. And yet, by the time Abu Mazen assumed the presidency, Fatah had lost both heart and spine, along with a clear sense of purpose.

The Oslo Accords introduced a contradiction at the core of the Palestinian movement, one that it has yet to resolve and from which it has yet to recover. Is it a liberation movement, whose leaders are militants, whose objective is independence, and whose main currency is resistance? Or is it a political party, whose leaders are statesmen, whose objective is institution-building, and whose main currency is negotiations? The persistent Israeli occupation tugged it in the former direction, the newly signed Oslo agreement pulled it in the latter. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority, a quasi state with incomplete powers exercised over a crazy quilt of land, strained the contradiction almost to the breaking point, implicitly redirecting Palestinian political energies from liberation struggle to statecraft and reassigning Palestinian military efforts from combating Israel to protecting the Jewish state’s security. All of which made some Palestinians argue that they lost the fight the day they gained a foothold.

Between 1993 and 2000, Arafat managed to some extent to straddle this uncomfortable divide between the ethos of a national liberation struggle and the tedium of day-to-day governance. He did so in typical manner, gun in one hand and olive branch in the other, insisting on wearing a military outfit amid the decorum of the Oval Office. Still, even he found it difficult to clearly define the role of the Palestinian movement in a way that made sense to itself or to others. Because it played a central part in both the armed struggle and the Palestinian Authority, Fatah experienced this inner conflict most acutely: Was it a party of revolution or a party of government?

Because of this unresolved contradiction, many Fatah members redefined their ambitions and recycled their identities. After decades of wandering in the wilderness, several of its leaders in exile returned to Palestine, muscling themselves into coveted positions with the Authority, eager to trade their jobs as political mili-tants for ministerial posts. With an emerging territorial entity and a budding economy, the prospect of lucrative new opportunities turned some activists into would-be entrepreneurs and middlemen.

Fatah cadres from inside who did not join the Authority were left feeling cheated and disillusioned; refugees in the diaspora were left feeling ignored. Fatah militants who continued to work within the movement itself tried to reshape its identity in an era when it no longer could easily mobilize people in the name of liberating Palestine. The Palestinian Authority was doing the governing; Hamas and other radical groups were doing the fighting; Fatah was left with only remnants of each. In too many cases, its leaders and cadres took jobs within the PA for which they were not qualified, sought gains to which they were not entitled, and ruled an organization whose agenda and purpose they no longer could explain.

With the breakdown of the Oslo process, the onset of the second intifada, Israeli military incursions, Arafat’s death, and the virtual collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah suffered a further loss of political compass. Some of its cadres and many of its militants joined in the fighting while, officially at least, its leadership in the Palestinian Authority clung to a diplomatic strategy. Fatah also suffered increased internal divisions which cannot be accounted for simply by the differences between generations. Leaders from one locality typically had little to do with those from another, and Fatah’s elite broke down into several overlapping and loose groups, each with a partial claim to at least some power or influence, but none with a clear sense of political purpose.

The historical leaders around Arafat, Abu Mazen and members of the Central Committee, although often bitterly divided, still enjoy legitimacy, continuity with the past, and connections with the diaspora. Fatah members who became Palestinian Authority security chiefs can count on the allegiance of armed followers, but their ambitions tend to offset one another. Political cadres from the West Bank and Gaza seek to mobilize the rank and file, but with few exceptions—Marwan Barghouti, who remains in prison, is arguably one of them—none possesses national stature and recognition. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, both former and current, share an important connection—a common experience, common language, common values, and common attitudes toward Israel—and represent a significant source of legitimacy and pressure. Some militants, typically affiliated with the al-Aqsa Brigades, continue to believe in armed struggle. Distant descendants of Fatah’s early fighters, they may imagine themselves as old-style revolutionaries. But they have become rebels without a clear cause, and revolutionaries without a revolution are often hard to distinguish from thugs.

At least two important groups have been left unrepresented. A large, disparate pool of disgruntled ordinary Fatah members—who once provided the movement with its backbone of support, especially during elections to various Palestinian unions and institutions—does not recognize itself in any of the above groupings. Palestinians in the diaspora, whose role was critical in the movement’s founding, still swear by and try to sustain the cause of the Fatah of old. They are now politically dormant but, living off memories of the earlier liberation movement, may yet awake.

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