On November 9, 2000, Hussein Abayat and Khalid Salahat, along with around 50 other Palestinians, were visiting one of the seven houses hit by Israeli tank shells the previous night in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour. They then climbed into their Mitsubishi pickup truck to drive back up the hill to the heart of the village. Thirty seconds later, the truck was a smoldering shell, hit by an anti-tank missile launched from an Israeli Apache helicopter. Abayat was killed instantaneously — as were two Palestinian women standing behind his van — and Salahat was severely wounded. The two men were the first victims of an Israeli policy of “initiated” assassinations aimed at taking out the “ground” leadership of the Palestinian intifada.
The Israelis — and, in this case, the Palestinians who supplied them with the necessary intelligence on Abayat — knew their ground well. Ex-prisoner Abayat had been a leader of Fatah — the dominant faction of the PLO headed by Yasser Arafat — in the 1987 intifada. Like hundreds of others, his activism lapsed during the disillusionment brought on by the Oslo peace process. Like hundreds of others, he had rejoined his movement in the heat of the present uprising, taking a leading role in armed attacks on army posts and Jewish settlements in and around Bethlehem. Salahat was a member of Fatah’s Shabiba youth movement and an officer in the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service. Taken together, the two embodied the tanzim, Fatah’s “organization” on the ground in the Occupied Territories, and the leading political and military force behind the al-Aqsa intifada.
The tanzim trace their origins to those Fatah cadre who — under the guidance of Fatah leader Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) — cut their teeth in the youth, social and armed organizations that operated in the Occupied Territories both before and during the first intifada, the so-called “inside” leadership. With the return of the “outside” PLO leadership to the Territories, courtesy of the Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), this cadre was either marginalized or coopted into the PA’s new ministries or one of its myriad police and intelligence forces. The two processes explain the wholly contradictory character of the movement as it has evolved over the seven-year Oslo period. For, on the one hand, the tanzim provides the military and political base of the PA’s rule. On the other, they are its loyal — and yet potentially most seditious — opposition.
In Oslo’s initial period Fatah’s task was relatively straightforward — to consolidate and ensure the PA’s survival. In Gaza, this took the form of quelling the challenge posed to the new regime by the political and military policy of Hamas, a confrontation that came to a head following the killing of 13 Palestinians by the PA police at Gaza’s Palestine mosque on November 18, 1994. Throughout the Occupied Territories, the crucial confrontation arrived in the spring of 1996 when Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a wave of suicide bombings in Israel in revenge for Israel’s assassination of the Hamas “engineer” Yahya Ayyash. In response, Fatah gave passive blessing — and active support as officers in the Palestinian intelligence forces — to the PA’s ruthless suppression of its Islamist opposition.
It was a Pyrrhic victory. Whatever the PA’s success in disabling the military arms of Hamas and Jihad, the suicide bombings were devastating enough to Israeli opinion to bring Binyamin Netanyahu to power and a virtual halt to the Oslo process, especially to Israel’s formal commitment to further military redeployments in the West Bank.
Fatah grassroots were thus faced with a dilemma. The Palestinian leadership was wedded to the security, political and economic structures of Oslo’s “interim” arrangements. The Israeli government was determined to turn those arrangements into a permanent reality in the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, with the vanquishing of the Islamists, the Palestinian political sphere was bereft of an opposition, since both the historical PLO opposition parties and civil society organizations had long since lost their constituencies in the Occupied Territories. Here was a vacuum waiting to be filled. What has since come to be known as the tanzim filled it.
Insiders and Outsiders
Opposition to the hard realities of Oslo was expressed at various levels, especially after 1996, as popular discontent with the Oslo process grew and support for Fatah as a movement independent of the PA declined. Within the PA’s new institutions — and especially the elected Palestinian Legislative Council — it tended to be Fatah tanzim deputies who led the crusade against the general corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness of the PA’s governance. On the street, Fatah activists took the lead in protests against Israel’s settlement policies and for the release of Palestinian political prisoners. On occasion, the tanzim sponsored protests against the PA, especially against those “outsider”-led security forces who showed a penchant for arresting, torturing and sometimes killing detained Fatah activists.
Above all, the opposition consisted of a process of democratic reform initiated by the Fatah Higher Council (FHC) and its young West Bank General Secretary Marwan Barghouti. Established in 1991, the FHC was essentially the old West Bank intifada leadership made up of local leaders and ex-prisoners drawn from the towns, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank. Steered by Barghouti, between 1994 and 1999 some 122 Fatah conferences were held in the West Bank, involving the participation of some 85,000 Fatah activists and resulting in the election of some 2,500 leaders. A similar process occurred in Gaza, but at a slower pace and with less participation. The aim of these regional conferences was clear: to convene the first meeting of the Fatah General Conference in 11 years to elect a new Fatah Central Council (FCC) and Revolutionary Council (FRC), the two highest decision-making bodies of the movement. Once (and if) that Conference convenes, the result is a foregone conclusion: a massive increase in the representation of the Occupied Territories’ leadership on the FCC and FRC at the expense of the pro-Oslo leadership formerly exiled in Tunisia.
To prevent this denouement, Yasser Arafat has repeatedly intervened to stall the democratization process, usually in the name of “national unity” but actually to protect those he appointed to the FCC in 1989, who have since become the inner core of the national leadership. These leaders — Ahmed Qurei (Abu ‘Ala’), Saeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath and Tayyib ‘Abd al-Rahim — are generally viewed as the most pro-American of the leadership. The tanzim badly wants their scalps in any post-Arafat succession struggle.
But what unites the tanzim politically? This is not such an easy question to answer, since Fatah’s politics are as inchoate as its organizational structure. But with the demise of the Oslo process — and the removal of the schisms it caused within Fatah — three themes appear to be common among its grassroots leaders. The first is a growing critique of the very terms of the Oslo process, where Palestinian national aspirations are suborned to a negotiating strategy based on US-led diplomacy and “security cooperation” with Israel’s military and intelligence forces. In its stead, Fatah puts forward “other options” aside from negotiations and the consolidation of the PA. Relations with the Israeli government and “peace camp” and diplomatic cooperation with the US and the European Union are acceptable, but not as substitutes for “other options.” In Barghouti’s words, “We can negotiate, but we must also have action on the ground.”
Fatah activists first unveiled that action in the “tunnel” confrontations of September 1996 and then again in the May 2000 demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, when gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers and settlements implanted deep in PA-controlled areas. Since the uprising, the action has evolved from random (and often useless) firing on Israeli soldiers and settlements from within Palestinian civilian areas to more guerrilla-like attacks on isolated military outposts near settlements and, above all, on roads in the West Bank and Gaza maintained for the settlers’ exclusive use.
The second theme calls for wrenching the Palestinian struggle out from under the tutelage of US regional diplomacy and Israeli hegemony to where Fatah believes it properly belongs — the United Nations and, above all, the Arab world. In particular, the tanzim asserts that any “end of conflict” must be predicated on Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem, and recognition of the principle of Palestinian refugees’ right of return “to their homes” in geographic Palestine. In Barghouti’s view, “the Palestinians will not accept, and Arafat cannot accept, anything less than what Egypt and Jordan received and what Syria and Lebanon will receive from Israel.”
Finally, the West Bank “insiders” advocate a genuine national coalition between all the Palestinian factions, especially the non-PLO Islamist movements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, united behind the commonly held national goals of independence, return, sovereignty and ending the occupation. The precondition of such a coalition, of course, is the destruction of the terms of the Oslo process and, above all, the security cooperation it envisioned between the PA, Israel and the CIA. The spontaneous eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada has enabled Fatah to advance each of these political goals with concrete action.