No. 582 March-April 2011
- The ongoing internal rift within Fatah is one of the reasons for the failure to renew talks with Israel. The movement has a history of internal dissension and divisions, with parties accusing one another of corruption, collaboration with Israel and the U.S., and betrayal of Palestinian interests.
- One of the basic features of Fatah in recent years has been the tension between the “old guard,” the movement’s founding generation which entered the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo Accords were signed, and the “young guard,” the generation that arose under Israeli rule and led the popular struggle against Israel in the First and Second Intifadas.
- This can be seen in relations between the group at the head of Fatah and the PA under Abbas, and Tanzim leaders headed by a group identified with Marwan Barghouti. Abbas represents the traditional leadership and was with Arafat in the Tunis era, while Barghouti was a founder of Shabiba – the Fatah youth movement in the West Bank – and head of the Bir Zeit Students’ Union.
- The structural changes currently underway in Fatah are evidence of efforts by prominent members to play a larger role in strategic decisions, rather than leaving them only to Abbas. The success of this group could bring about major changes in Fatah policy, especially regarding the movement’s attitude to Hamas and relations with Israel.
- The Palestinian people and the Fatah membership recognize Abbas’ importance and international standing, thanks to which he enjoys support and accessibility, without which their situation would be infinitely more difficult. Yet many people in the movement and in Palestinian society do not identify with him as a leader and hence do not support his leadership.
The failure to renew direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has sent the ping-pong ball of old, familiar accusations between Israelis and Palestinians back to the media arena. At the basis of this game is Israel’s claim that the Palestinians are acting in bad faith and attempting to avoid direct negotiations, despite a number of decisions by the Israeli government including:
- A nine-month freeze and a willingness to renew this for a limited period;
- Recognition of the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state;
- An expression of the Israeli government’s willingness to compromise in order to end the dispute.
For their part, the Palestinians claim that:
- Israel does not appear to be serious and continues to determine the agenda, contrary to Netanyahu’s declarations;
- The Israeli right wing and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition partners constitute the “true face” of the government and preclude any genuine negotiations.
The Internal Palestinian Context
But such disputes highlight the political subjects floating on the surface and overlook the complex internal Palestinian context, which does not center solely on how PA President Mahmoud Abbas operates.
This analysis aims to examine the ongoing internal rift within Fatah, which reflects one of the main crises in the internal Palestinian political arena and is one of the reasons for the failure to renew talks with Israel. However, it might also significantly impact the nature of Palestinian attempts to win international recognition for a unilateral declaration of the establishment of a Palestinian state and the operation of PA institutions.
Fatah is the most important secular movement in Palestinian society and, in effect, almost the sole representative of the Palestinian national-secular sector and “peace camp.” Yet the movement’s size and diverse character has resulted in its having no unique, strong characteristic that unifies its members; in fact, it consists of a wide-ranging collection of people from different areas and different socio-economic backgrounds, appearing to have nothing to unite them under any one leader or ideal. As a result, the movement has a history of internal dissension and divisions, with parties accusing one another of corruption, collaboration with Israel and the U.S., and betrayal of Palestinian interests.
Two Fatah crises, some of whose ramifications recently received media coverage, concern the relationship between Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan and the dispute between the “old guard” and the “young guard” (especially the Tanzim militia identified with Marwan Barghouti). A close look at that relationship illustrates some of the major implications of the crises in question for the functioning and governability of the PA, including: the resignation of the Palestinian government headed by Salam Fayyad; the activities of the security service; Hamas-Fatah relations; and the outcome of the Sixth General Congress of the Fatah movement held in 2009 in Bethlehem.
The Rise and Fall of Mohammed Dahlan
Mohammed Dahlan has been at the center of an expanding internal Fatah investigation – suspected of trying to organize an armed militia with personal loyalty to him and not as an instrument of the PA – a move perceived as directed primarily against Abbas’ leadership. The investigation adds to the increasing erosion of Dahlan’s status. He has effectively been “exiled” from his Gaza power base ever since the Hamas takeover there in 2007.
To grasp the implications of his decline, it is necessary to understand Dahlan’s status and role in Fatah and the PA. He is a member of the Fatah Central Committee (the organization’s highest decision-making body) and until recently was thought to enjoy Abbas’ support. In the 1990s Dahlan was head of the Preventive Security Service (PSS) in Gaza under Yasser Arafat’s leadership. In that position he worked closely with senior Israeli security officers and U.S. government representatives. His troops received advanced training from American General Keith Dayton and were considered to be a strong and influential force. The Preventive Security Service’s modus operandi elicited widespread opposition and criticism from both Hamas and the general public. At the same time, they were the subject of praise by Israel and the United States alike. Yet during the Second Intifada which began in 2000, many PSS members were involved in terror activities against Israel.
At the time of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, members of Dahlan’s force were a prime target for persecution, arrest, injury, and elimination. Hamas security service members went around with a list of PSS names, marking alongside each name the “penalty” to be meted out (whether the target would be incarcerated, shot in the knees, or eliminated). Many Fatah leaders and activists were permitted to remain in Gaza unharmed. However, Dahlan’s well-trained force crumbled without any real fight and Dahlan exiled himself from Gaza.
In addition to the humiliation sustained by Fatah, Dahlan was the target of harsh criticism within the organization for his handling of the crisis and his inability and that of his trained soldiers to hold on to Gaza. After the collapse of the PSS and the transfer of security control to Hamas, order returned to Gaza, most of the armed militias were stripped of their weapons, and their members were not allowed to roam the streets of Gaza City armed. The West was astounded at the bitter failure of the Preventive Security Service, especially since Dahlan’s force was as highly trained as the “Dayton force” operating under Abbas today in the West Bank.
Dahlan’s status was further eroded by Israel’s Gaza Operation (Operation Cast Lead), as he was ultimately accused by Hamas and Fatah elements of supporting Israel during the operation and of passing intelligence to the IDF. In July 2010, Fatah founding member Farouk Kaddoumi also attacked Dahlan and Abbas directly and publicly for assisting Israel in the killing of Yasser Arafat. WikiLeaks reports in recent months renewed the accusation that Dahlan supported Israel during the Gaza Operation.
Publicity about the ongoing Fatah investigation of Dahlan constitutes another nail in the political coffin of a man who was once the strongest Fatah figure in Gaza. While Dahlan succeeded in the Fatah elections at the Congress in Bethlehem and entered the Central Committee, this episode could be serious enough to threaten his political future. Furthermore, senior figures within Fatah also point the finger at Dahlan for the infiltration of many Hamas activists into his ranks with the intention of passing information about Fatah and Israel to Hamas.
Old Guard, Young Guard
One of the basic features of Fatah in recent years has been the tension between the “old guard,” the movement’s founding generation which entered the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo Accords were signed, and the “young guard,” the generation that arose under Israeli rule and led the popular struggle against Israel in the First and Second Intifadas. Over the years the composition of the two groups has changed and figures have switched from one “camp” to another, yet the tension between the generation that came from Tunis and local personalities remains.
Relations between the group at the head of Fatah and the PA under Abbas, and Tanzim leaders headed by a group identified with Marwan Barghouti, warrant special examination. This comes mainly against the background of political rivalry between Abbas, who represents the traditional leadership and was with Arafat in the Tunis era, and Barghouti, founder of Shabiba – the Fatah youth movement in the West Bank – and head of the Bir Zeit Students’ Union, who, although deported in 1987 by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, returned following the Oslo Accords and went on to lead the internal activists.
In recent years Abbas reinforced his status as head of Fatah and the PA, despite mild efforts at resistance by Marwan Barghouti prior to the presidential and parliamentary elections. But Abbas’ strong position as president does not make him unassailable as head of the PA and leader of the Palestinian people. He does not have the broad support or admiration of Fatah and the Palestinian street. He is occasionally the subject of harsh personal attacks and, together with his entourage, is sometimes accused of corruption. Furthermore, as an elderly leader, he is not considered to have a political future. Such tenuous standing makes it difficult for him to make important decisions both in negotiations with Israel and in dealings with Hamas.
The complaints against Abbas were reaffirmed last year with widespread criticism for his willingness to withdraw Palestinian claims against Israel in the UN following the Goldstone Report on the Gaza Operation. Abbas succumbed to American pressure and the response from the home front was not long in coming. He has since shown little political flexibility in relations with Israel, and has needed the approval and support of Arab states and the West for almost every move he makes in the political arena.
At the same time, recent years have also seen a significant weakening among the young guard, known for its criticism of the conduct and leadership of the Fatah “old guard.” Qadura Fares, Tanzim’s most promising candidate since Marwan Barghouti’s arrest, did not succeed in gaining standing as a national leader. However, he remains a serious internal opposition factor in Fatah, aspiring to a “thorough housecleaning” and fighting public corruption. Yet the present Fatah leadership group is unable to maintain its status as in Barghouti’s heyday (and even for some time afterward).
The young guard also opposes Fatah policy vis-à-vis Hamas and seeks to mend the rifts and reunite the PA with the Gaza government. But at this stage its leaders are unable to influence Fatah policy. However, there have been calls on the Internet for demonstrations, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt, to unite the Palestinian Authority government with Hamas in Gaza. Such a change may be seen as compatible with the demands of those identified with Marwan Barghouti and reinforce their status.
Some members of Fatah and the Palestinian media have referred to Abbas’ appointment of several prominent leaders from among Fares’ supporters as overseas ambassadors, in order to undermine his political base.
An additional failure attributed to the group is the effort on the part of a number of prominent members, led by Marwan Barghouti from jail and Hatem Abed El-Kader, a Fatah leader in Jerusalem, to renew the popular struggle against Israel. It appears that Abbas’ determined opposition to such moves helped thwart efforts by activists to renew popular resistance.
The Abbas Government’s Legacy
Despite the young guard’s weakened status and lack of influence on policy under Abbas’ leadership, the question remains of the Abbas government’s legacy, particularly in light of his repeated threats to resign. Regardless of Barghouti’s support of Abbas and Fatah in the last election (obtained at the last minute and after grueling negotiation), there is serious doubt about Barghouti’s intention to support him in the next election too. Sources close to Barghouti insist that such a chance is slim indeed. Barghouti seems to see himself as the natural candidate and both he and many Fatah leaders are unwilling to support any leader without a general election, as happened with Abbas after Yasser Arafat’s death.
Public opinion polls conducted by Khalil Shikaki attribute wide support to Barghouti. Accordingly, the PA government may undergo a significant shake-up in the coming years in the event that the issue is decided by democratic means.
Initial evidence of the issue surfaced at the Fatah Congress in Bethlehem in 2009. The very fact that the congress took place was perceived as a success for the young guard and an expression of hope for the first hint of structural changes within the movement. It ended with a resounding failure for many current leaders (such as Qadura Fares), but also for some old guard leaders (such as Abu Alaa), who were not re-elected to the Central Committee. The failure of prominent leaders of the movement, whose common denominator is their opposition to Abbas, resulted in accusations from some senior members of rigged results.
Elections to the second most important body in the Fatah movement, the Revolutionary Council, ended in greater success for the young guard, with most Council members being replaced and many elected from within the young guard. As a result of attempts by those members to increase their influence on the movement’s decisions, the Council decided to establish a new body, which will be elected by the Revolutionary Council and will be responsible for contact between the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee. This body – an advisory council with 51 members – met for the first time, in Abbas’ presence, in January 2011 and represents another attempt to change Fatah’s modus operandi and boost the influence of the movement’s membership on the leadership.
The structural changes currently underway in Fatah are a sign of the internal crisis within the movement and further evidence of efforts by prominent members to play a larger role in strategic decisions, rather than leaving them only to Abbas. The success of endeavors by this group could bring about major changes in Fatah policy, especially regarding the movement’s attitude to the crisis with Hamas and relations with Israel.
Another very important consequence of Abbas’ compromised status in the movement was the resignation of Fayyad’s government on February 14, 2011, and the promise to appoint key Fatah activists as ministers in the new government. The prime minister himself, Salam Fayyad, is not a member of Fatah (a further sign of Abbas’ inherent weakness).
As a consequence of these struggles, the crisis that has undermined Abbas’ standing in the movement is one of the main reasons for the toughening of Palestinian positions vis-à-vis Israel and increased demands for a total freeze on settlements as a precondition to renewing negotiations with Israel. Abbas’ insistence on support from Arab states arises from his lack of support at home.
Abbas’ threats to resign as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, which could result in the dismantling of the PA, arises inter alia from this crisis, since it could allow him to continue heading Fatah and the PLO without having to run for an election that he may not win.
Saeb Erekat’s resignation and the disbanding of the Palestinian negotiation team with Israel following the leak of the “Palestine documents” on Al Jazeera, occurred partially as a result of Abbas’ weakened status and his lack of support from Fatah members.
The chain of crises and the internal dissension in Fatah continues to hamper the movement’s functioning and damage its image. Abbas’ success in promoting his policy both with regard to Israel and on internal issues (such as relations with Hamas) is indisputable, but does not guarantee the stability of his rule and the unity of Fatah in the future, especially in light of his promise to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian people and the Fatah membership recognize Abbas’ importance and international standing, thanks to which he enjoys support and accessibility, without which their situation would be infinitely more difficult. Yet many people in the movement and in Palestinian society do not identify with him as a leader and hence do not support his leadership.
In the coming months, if an independent state is declared, Abbas will have to deal with complex internal Palestinian issues. If such a program is not realized, he will face an even harder task making sure that he retains control in the face of both internal and external challenges.
Internal instability within the PA may manifest itself after a declaration of a Palestinian state, or an internal or external crisis through a whole range of developments including a major struggle for succession, disorder leading to renewed violence, or a tempering of Fatah attitudes towards Hamas and its inclusion in a national emergency unity government.
Calls for strikes and demonstrations in support of such unification, as published on the Internet, offer the first indication of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the unification of the PA and Hamas rule in Gaza under an emergency government. This endeavor has the backing of the Palestinian media and the Tanzim leadership, and may reinforce their influence.
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Dror Bar-Yosef is field researcher on Palestinian issues and a former field coordinator for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former program coordinator at the Adelson Institute.