A Short History of Fatah and Hamas
So many friends have been asking me about what’s happening in Gaza, and who the actors are, that I thought I’d shed some light on one side of this complex conflict. This is a short history of Fatah, the group … Read More
So many friends have been asking me about what’s happening in Gaza, and who the actors are, that I thought I’d shed some light on one side of this complex conflict. This is a short history of Fatah, the group opposed to Hamas in what is essentially a Palestinian civil war currently interrupted by the Israel-Gaza war.
Fatah is the main political wing within the PLO, which Yasir Arafat founded in 1964 as a group that relied on terror tactics to advance its goals of creating a Palestinian entity in what had been the British Mandate, and thereby destroying the Jewish state. Fatah is an Arabic word which recalls the first burst of Islamic expansion in the 8th century CE, which is when Islam effectively took over what we now consider the Middle East, including north Africa, Spain and the Balkans. Since it’s founding the PLO attacked Israeli civilians, non-Israeli Jews, and tried to take over neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon so they could launch a war against Israel and become a regional power. It considers itself a leftist liberation group which, in this part of the world, means that while being Muslim, it is not religious in nature, or motivated by the jihadi worldview of Hamas, Iran, Al Qaeda, though it has often played to Islamic themes, particularly to drum up domestic support.
By the late 1960s the PLO grew in stature and tried to take over Jordan in a slow-moving guerrilla war. The Jordanian government violently responded and in September, 1970 it killed tens of thousands of Palestinians in what became known as Black September. The PLO was expelled to Lebanon, during which Syria killed thousands of Palestinians as the various actors in the area — Christians, secularists, Sunnis and Shias — jockeyed for power. The PLO arrival in Lebanon and attacks on other Lebanese factions helped destabilize the country and plunge it into the civil war that would last until the mid-1990′s. In 1978, the PLO committed one of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history, known today as the Coastal Road Massacre, prompting an Israeli military incursion into southern Lebanon to push the PLO off the Israeli border. In the years that followed, taking advantage of the disorder of the Lebanese civil war, the PLO continued its attacks, prompting Israel in 1982 to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon to permanently remove the PLO. The 1982 war resulted in a Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon with no settlements until 1985, when the IDF withdrew to a smaller "security zone" along its border with Lebanon, which was eventually abandoned by Prime Minister Ehud Barack in 2000. Which is when Hizbullah — a radical Shia group created and funded by Iran — took control. It now uses the area as a base of operations against Israel, Christians, Druze, and Sunni Arabs on behalf of the Iranian government.
The Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982 was successful in meeting its goal — it forced the PLO into exile in Tunis, far from the action. Soon after, the first intifadah started, encouraged by a motley crew of local PLO militants, various other actors and a new, deeply religious group, Hamas, in a bid to "shake off" Israeli control of territories it had captured from Egypt and Jordan in 1967. Hamas was a new group formed in 1987 that sees itself as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — a theocratic radical Sunni group started in Egypt. Some articles claim that Israel played a role in Hamas’ creation as a wedge against Fatah, but it seems unlikely considering that Hamas has an even bleaker view of Jewish sovereignty than Fatah, and for Israel’s reliance on a secular Egypt as its southern neighbor. If there was any collaboration between Israel and Hamas, it must have been tactical and short-lived.
The intifadah was rag tag and chaotic for both the Israelis seeking military control of the territories, and the Palestinian fighters seeking to dislodge it and take over Israel. During this intifadah most of world opinion in the Western countries and movements began to shift away from Israel, perhaps due to the Hizbollah terror attacks on US Marines in Lebanon in 1983 which horrified Americans and caused us to withdraw our troops until the Gulf War, perhaps out of sympathy for a struggle that looked familiar to race-guilty Americans, who came to associate Palestinians with blacks and Jews with whites in the civil rights movement. And perhaps when Europeans began to see themselves as less guilty for the Holocaust since the Jewish State was using military force to suppress a nearby population. The thinking goes that by castigating Israel for supposed war crimes, Europeans exonerated their sins.
Ironically, it was Israel — now faring more and more poorly in world opinion due to the long intifadah — who invited the Fatah leadership back to the West Bank in what became the Oslo negotiations in 1994, to both end the intifadah and to come to some kind of bi- or multilateral peace settlement that was hoped to transform an entire region marked by ecnomic stagnation, ignorance and a rising ideological fanatacism. At least, this is what the world leaders and commentators and the Left were purporting. This restored Arafat’s Fatah movement to the West Bank after many decades of exile.
During the mid-to-late 1990s Fatah/PLO cemented its leadership in the West Bank (which represents roughly 50% of the British Mandate if you exclude the mostly uninhabitable Negev desert) and Hamas made huge in-roads to the much more religiously minded Gazan clans. Israel debated interally whether or not it wanted to go through with the accords and a year after an orthodox extremist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu rose to power, but over a divided country.
The biggest outcome of the Oslo negotiations was the transformation of the Fatah-led PLO — hated by Israel, Shia Arabs, the Jordanians and Syrians — into the much more benign sounding "Palestinian Authority" as a symbolic first step towards Palestinian statehood. Jordan also signed a public peace treaty with Israel, but the two countries had been at peace in private for decades because the Jordanian government needs a strong Israel to keep it from being taken over by Islamic radicals or political terrorists, like the PLO attacks way back in the late ’60s. It’s an ironic reversal from Jordan’s anti-Jewish belligerence since 1948, but that’s par for the course in the shifting alliances of a post-colonial Middle East.
Despite internal arguments in Israel, most seemed to believe that a peace deal was within grasp between the State of Israel and Fatah/PLO/PA. I was there in August 2000 and can attest to the sentiment by various religious, liberal secular and many, many center-right Israelis. It seemed to be a fait accompli, but, in the fall of 2000, Arafat voided the final rounds of Oslo-inspired negotiations with Bill Clinton and then PM Ehud Barack by launching a new intifadah. Arafat called it the Al Aqsa Intifadah, pegged to the news story of famed general and politician Ariel Sharon visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but more directly related to the collapsed peace talks which Clinton publicly blamed on Arafat, who had become a close political partner and most frequent foreign guest of the White House.
There is still no bi-lateral settlement with Fatah, but in-coming President Barack Obama will undoubtedly push for Israel to sign a peace treaty. With who is anyone’s guess. The current Fatah leadership lacks Arafat’s leadership qualities.
Fatah, the majority faction within the Palestinian Authority, orchestrated the second intifadah in 2000 in part to push the Israelis towards greater territorial concessions, in part to restore its credibility in an increasingly religious Islamic world that decried its partnership with America and Israel.
After suffering through three years of constant suicide attacks, Israel eventually fought back in a massive military operation in 2003. This destroyed Fatah/PLO/PA governing infrastructure, reversed much of the Oslo negotiated military withdrawals from huge sectors of the territory, and began the creation of a huge security fence to thwart suicide attackers from the massive boundary between Israel proper and the West Bank. (The New York Times and other media associations call this the "pre-1967 border" but what they mean to say is the "1949 armistice" line between Israel and Jordan.) By then any goodwill the PA had had in America was now spent, especially when intelligence revealed that Fatah had stolen most of their international aid money, rigged elections to stay in power, and supported suicide attacks against Israeli (and invariably American) civilians in gruesome competition with their Hamas rivals. Clinton, was out, Bush was in, and no one in American mainstream politics trusted Fatah. After 9/11, plans for peace grew even dimmer. And then Arafat died, leaving Fatah without its charismatic founder.
Israel decided that if it couldn’t have a bi-lateral negotiation with a now compromised Fatah that had spent its last political credit with the second intifadah , then it would unilaterally withdraw from the territories and wipe its hands clean. World opinion favored this move as a postive gesture to a mostly leaderless Palestinian society.
The first step would be to leave Gaza because it’s further from Israeli population centers, had fewer settlers, and less Jewish and Christian religious associations, than say, Jericho or Hebron do in the West Bank. The step after would be to leave most of the West Bank except for settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem. To accomplish this Ariel Sharon founded a new political party, won elections and in 2005 he left Gaza. The Israeli perspective was to wait and see what would happen there. If Gazans were peaceful, then the West Bank would be next. Hamas won them, and for the first time ever Fatah was in a new, untenable position — it may lose power over the Palestinian movement it had created and controlled for over fifty years. And it would lose it to Hamas, in elections brokered by the Americans. The difficult of the situation, never mind the irony, created a civil war for the first time within the Palestinian movement, and in the end, Hamas seized control of Gaza and Fatah was left with the West Bank. Hamas rocket fire into Israel began in 2005, before Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, but after the group’s complete takeover of the security apparatus in Gaza, the rocket fire intensified until the six-month, Egypt-brokered ceasefire of 2007. (For information on what transpired during that ceasefire, see here.)
At this time of writing, during the Israel-Gaza war of 2009, Israel wants to cripple Hamas and to install Fatah, Israel’s former foe, to rule Gaza in yet another strange reversal in Middle Eastern history. This, then, would be the second time Israel will have sponsored Fatah’s revival and control over a rudderless population. Critics of Palestinian sovereignty point out that to become a state one needs contiguous land, visionary leaders and internal cohesion among the populace. Currently the Palestinians have none of the above.
It’s hard to imagine how an incoming Democratic administration will change any of these facts since Hamas is a theocractic nightmare which counts Iran as its friend, Fatah is a diminished kleptocracy and the Israeli population will pull to the Right in the next round of parlimentary elections after feeling that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was a mistake.