Immediately after the results of the January 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections were announced, President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the public. “I am committed to implementing the program upon which you elected me,” he said. “This is a program understood by the whole world. It is a program based on negotiations and a peaceful solution for the conflict with Israel.” Abbas pointedly ignored the program of the party that won a clear majority of seats in the legislature, the Islamist movement Hamas, which advocates an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, and has claimed responsibility for tens of suicide bombings in Israel since 2000.

It was not long before Abbas was conferencing with other Palestinian Authority officials, and key leaders of his losing Fatah faction, to determine how the presidency should traverse the uncharted territory of a Hamas-led government. Fatah’s top leadership, including Abbas, set two strategic goals: first, to work for early elections that would cut short the government’s usual four-year term, preferably in a matter of months, and second, to ensure that Fatah wins the second time around.

The President and His Men

Crucial to these discussions was the assessment, borne out by subsequent events, that an international boycott of Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions would commence once Hamas formed its government. Another sound guiding assumption was that the Palestinian public would blame Fatah if the president were to challenge Hamas in plain view. Rather, Fatah’s actions had to be guided by avowed respect for the sanctity of the democratic process that had brought the Islamists to power. Therefore, the suggestion that Fatah openly isolate Hamas by refusing to hold coalition talks was rejected as appearing too confrontational. It was agreed, instead, that Fatah should refuse to join the government after negotiations, and do everything in its power to prevent other factions from joining as well.

In similar fashion, the proposal by some Fatah leaders that a shadow government be created alongside the Hamas-controlled structures was rejected; the president himself was particularly averse to this idea. Abbas was advised, however, to make use of all of his powers under the law, including those that had been ceded to other branches of government when Fatah controlled them. Ironically, by activating powers granted to the president in the PA’s 2002 Basic Law, Abbas would be stepping back from the delegating that had marked his presidency into the powerful shoes of commander-in-chief that he had scorned when they were fashioned by his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Having settled these matters, Fatah embarked on coalition negotiations with Hamas—not exactly in good faith.

The talks culminated in deadlock. Fatah argued to outsiders that Hamas must recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (the body that has signed agreements with Israel) in its government program. It was a position easily supported by most other parties who had won seats in the parliament. Even the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO member allied with Hamas in opposing peace agreements, chose to remain outside the cabinet. Thus Fatah won a crucial point: Hamas would be forced to face the coming crisis alone.

Once the Hamas parliament had formed a cabinet, comprised mostly of party members along with a few technocrats, the PLO Executive Committee headed by Abbas denounced the government program. Media reports promulgated by various unnamed Fatah sources gave the impression that the PLO had the power to disband the government, but had chosen not to, so as to conciliate their Islamist rivals. In fact, under the Basic Law, only the parliament can dissolve the cabinet.

These studied attempts by the president to appear dissenting but cooperative quickly fell by the wayside once the cabinet began its work. In one episode, the European Union sent several notices to the PA complaining of breaches in security at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Only weeks before, on March 14, British and US forces stationed at the Jericho prison by agreement with the Palestinians and Israel had withdrawn after similar complaints, whereupon Israeli forces stormed the last remaining major PA detention center in the West Bank and arrested tens of men wanted in Israel. The incident, which implied Western collusion with Israel, led to Palestinian attacks on US and European institutions, kidnappings of Westerners and a volley of accusations directed at Abbas himself. What most stuck out about the Jericho incident, however, was the foreign powers’ eagerness, with Hamas in power, to renege on their security agreement with Israel and the PA. Clearly, the Rafah border crossing, where European staff served as security monitors, could easily suffer the same fate. As such, the president’s advisers calculated that Hamas would not object to his “reacquiring” control over the border from his security delegate.

On April 5, Abbas moved to regain control over the crossing. The next day, he appointed Rashid Abu Shabbak, the Gaza head of the Preventative Security Service (known for its political imprisonments of Hamas members) as deputy to the new Hamas interior minister. These moves were all within the prerogatives assigned to the president (Arafat had insisted on staffing the top levels of the ministries), but they were met with the grave displeasure of the Hamas government. A three-hour summit was held between Abbas, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahhar and Interior Minister Said Siyam. The president’s follow-up statement was telling: “For my part, I don’t have any opposition to the government having the authority owed to it according to our law,” he said. “I will not punish Palestinians for making a democratic choice.”

A compromise had been reached, and a few days later, the presidential guard took over operations at the Rafah terminal. Enmity was brewing under the surface, however. “We were flexible with the president, and we agreed that we would do things with coordination, but we have discovered that this is not what is happening,” said a source close to the Hamas cabinet. At press time, this source said he expected that the prime minister and president would soon need to meet again.

Those of Abbas’ advisers who urge a swift blow to Hamas are clearly gaining the president’s ear. It helps their case that the Fatah rank and file has been lashing out at their leadership ever since word of the January election results spread. Party leaders would prefer to see this anger directed at Hamas.

Anger and Entitlement

In Ramallah, hours after the extent of Hamas’ landslide became known, a buoyant, flag-waving Hamas demonstration paraded down a main thoroughfare, as a muscular man in a shiny new car fired a furious retort through the sunroof with his semi-automatic weapon. Two Fatah men watching the Hamas festivities placed the blame at the feet of the president himself. He shouldn’t have allowed the elections to proceed, they said.

“The president has a different style than Arafat,” responds Fatah spokesperson Ahmad Abd al-Rahman on behalf of the presidency. “He was trying to delegate and build institutions; those who were against this style blamed him, and didn’t blame themselves.” Abd al-Rahman goes on: “Maybe his mistake was that he was respectful. For example, before the elections he called on [Fatah members] running as independents, pleading with them, to withdraw. But they didn’t listen. He could have made a decision then to kick them out, but he didn’t operate this way. He allowed them to remain, and they made us lose.”

The fact that nearly 80 Fatah members ran as independents was enough to convince many party loyalists that the elections had been stolen from them. It is true that, in many of the 66 district races, Fatah would have won the popular vote had the rebels’ tallies been added to those of the “official” candidates. Immediately after the elections, all of those who had stayed in the race as independents despite the president’s admonitions were expunged from the membership rolls.

The sense of injustice was driving even Fatah’s upper ranks. Just after the elections, the outgoing speaker of parliament called an eleventh-hour session for February 13 to shore up Fatah’s positioning before Hamas deputies took their seats a few days later. Several laws were passed in the meeting, which had no quorum, including a law giving the president the power to appoint a constitutional court, and a change in bylaws adding a Fatah-controlled position to the parliament’s already bulging staff.

“I personally saw [these moves] as disrespectful,” said independent lawmaker Hasan Khreisheh, one of the few returning parliamentarians. The jockeying appalled even bureaucrats. Qasim Abd al-Hadi, the man in charge of parliamentary international relations, and two other officials lodged an official protest on procedural grounds. In the end, the legislative scuffle did not preserve any measures of control for Fatah. When the Hamas-dominated parliament met for the first time to conduct business, it approved the minutes of the session prior to February 13, acting as if the proceedings of that day had never occurred. Fatah deputies walked out, claiming they would take the matter to the Supreme Court. But at press time, Khreisheh said the issue is moot, as there are enough votes in the parliament to repeal any of the last-minute legislation. Nor are these Fatah maneuvers garnering public support. “They must think that we are stupid,” said one elderly woman. “We all know they want to control the courts before Hamas opens those corruption files.”

Not every Fatah member, however, believes that only Hamas stands in the way of the party’s reinstatement in power. Rafah was one of the few districts that succeeded in holding primaries to select Fatah candidates. Elsewhere, primary balloting was marked by infighting and armed interference, before the top leadership stepped in to annul the results. It is interesting, then, that Rafah and Qalqilya were the only areas where Fatah swept the legislative seats. A leader in Rafah, who declined to give his name to avoid tensions with the national leadership, ascribes Fatah’s success there to a process of consultation that led to successful primaries, and then active general campaigning for all Fatah candidates. He contrasts that with conditions in Gaza City, where all eight candidates were handpicked. And he cautions those who believe that, by virtue of a slimmed-down list, Fatah could win new elections tomorrow. “To this minute, we have not done anything to convince people that there has been change,” he says.

He holds out a challenge to his peers. “The difference between the number of votes for Hamas and Fatah [for the national seats] was only two percent. Do we really want to win by that amount? Our true representation among the Palestinian people is much greater. If we had done our work [in the government] properly, then the true difference between us and Hamas would be perhaps 17 percent.”

Reorganizing the House

On the face of it, Fatah’s national leadership is working hard to prepare for new elections. Spokesperson Ahmad Abd al-Rahman offers a lucid excursus of Fatah’s defeat. He describes a movement built on patronage and then left rudderless by the demise of Yasser Arafat. His successor, Abbas, tried to build institutions instead, but was met with resistance by an organization lacking internal political processes and fallen prey to opportunists. Most importantly, Abbas was weakened, he says, by Israel’s refusal to deal with him seriously in negotiations. US policy, too, strengthened Hamas by rejecting it, and marginalized Fatah by playing up its internal politics. Finally, the Fatah campaign slogan, “guardian of the national project,” wrongly emphasized past glories, instead of addressing the real problems Palestinians face today.

To win the next elections, says Abd al-Rahman, Fatah must organize its ranks. “All of Fatah’s forces and groups agree on their political program, but they fight over power. We need a drastic restructuring,” he says, “and to impose discipline over the movement.” As such, the leadership is enforcing regulations stipulating that each member hold a membership card, pay dues and serve on an active committee. This, he says, will energize members for local Fatah elections.

It is a program Fatah insiders expect to take three months, barring any difficulties. But already, there are difficulties. Apparently, in a classic manifestation of the fiefdoms that have been built within the movement, members of the security forces are trying to gain additional representation. Eventually, the local elections in the movement are intended to usher in the oft-postponed Fatah General Conference, including elections for Fatah’s top rungs of leadership, the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council. Abd al-Rahman sets a tentative timeline of six months.

Local leaders confirm that consultations have begun for local Fatah elections. “When [Arafat] was alive, no one told him no. His status was very important, and the general conference was repeatedly delayed,” says the Rafah leader. “Now there is intent, a real intent.”

But what is interesting about the promised “democratization” of Fatah is the exclusion of the mid-level Fatah constituency that once clamored most loudly for it. The parliamentary contests strengthened Abbas’ role, as he remains the main focus of international energies. In the elections’ aftermath, Abbas has virtually ignored the contingent of Fatah whose most prominent member is Israeli-imprisoned parliamentarian Marwan Barghouti. When Fatah primaries failed, Fatah nearly split into two lists—one headed by Revolutionary Council member Barghouti, and the other topped by Fatah Central Committee member Ahmad Qurei. The last-minute compromise to unite the lists put Barghouti at the top but marginalized his colleagues, who have scant representation in the new parliament. Now Qaddura Faris, director of the Prisoners’ Club and an ally of Barghouti, says that relations with the president have deeply soured.

“The Central Committee, over time, is becoming irrelevant,” he predicts. “After that, we might be able to have a conference. It could be that we will split, that we will split into two, three, four or five movements. We would like for Fatah to stay united, but we don’t believe that in the coming months, the top leadership of Fatah is willing to do anything serious for Fatah.” While he supports the registration and activation of members, Faris says that the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council are trying to shirk responsibility and place it on the local leaderships.

Of the president himself, Faris says that he and his circle reached out repeatedly since the elections, only to be ignored. “[Abbas] has been kidnapped by the old leadership in Fatah,” he says bitterly. “They are trying to use his power against the new generation.”

Perhaps the estrangement derives in part from US policy, which has highlighted the tensions within Fatah over the internal transfer of power. “How else was President Bush informed enough to speak on the day of the elections about the ‘old guard’ and corruption?” asks Abd al-Rahman, in an irritated aside. The US push for elections sought to rejuvenate Fatah by organizing its younger ranks. Instead, the leadership of Fatah finds itself in a Gordian knot of mutual interest with the United States and its allies that in the end can only damage the Palestinian faction in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

A Confluence of Interest

In the face of its defeat, Fatah and its allies quickly sought to assure the US and the international community that it was still in the game. These efforts led to rather bizarre exchanges. “These guys know nothing about procedure or democracy,” one ministry undersecretary heatedly complained to a US diplomat about the Hamas-led parliament. He then vowed to fight back against his own government.

Former national security adviser Jibril Rajoub was said by the Times of London to have told an audience at a February 8-9 follow-up meeting to previous bilateral talks that the elections had been a reversible “political accident.” The implication of the article was that the Palestinian president’s office meant to plot with the US against Hamas, a charge that the president’s office roundly denies.

There is no denying, however, the confluence of Fatah’s aspirations with the interests of the United States, which has boxed itself into a position criminalizing material or other support of any one Hamas member, or the government as a whole. The State Department’s review of the $404 million earmarked for the Palestinian Authority areas cut out not only money for roads that could be construed as support for the government, but also tens of millions of dollars in private-sector projects. Legislation moving through Congress would further tighten the ban on financial support, while allowing exceptions for humanitarian assistance and aid routed through the Palestinian president’s office.

“This is fully and totally a Hamas government, from the prime minister through the cabinet on down to the people who work in those ministries,” said David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, in an April 7 briefing. “By contrast, the president, the presidency and entities reporting to the president are segregated from Hamas and that part of the Palestinian Authority is untainted by their presence in government. That said, we have not made a decision on whether to assist those elements in any regard at this time.” The European Union, while following the lead of the US in halting most aid, has not targeted the president’s office as a possible alternative recipient.

Hamas said early on that it would not oppose the funneling of aid through Abbas, if that measure would help fill Palestinian coffers. But that was before Abbas’ ulterior motives became more apparent. “Hamas is amazed at the participation of Palestinian elements in the campaign being conducted against its people,’ said an April 14 Hamas leaflet reported in Haaretz, which charged Abbas with gathering power and funds under his control. Despite Abbas’ public and private assurances that he has no intention of creating a shadow government, the dangers of free-flowing aid to Fatah-controlled areas of the government are becoming eminently clear to Hamas.

“Fatah shaped all the institutions that are on the ground,” explained Yusuf Harb, a Fatah man in Nablus, as he predicted the scenario after a poor Fatah election showing. “It’s not easy to surrender these organizations to Hamas. We labored over them.”

The starkness of US policy is clearly intended to close all options before Hamas and force its early exit from the government. But history proffers a warning here. In 1976, when Israel advocated municipal elections in the West Bank to counterbalance the PLO, nationalist candidates celebrated a resounding victory. Israel responded by banning the municipal councils, and instituting direct military rule. The collapse of the Palestinian government will not hurt Hamas, which is not deeply invested in PA institutions, but it will pull the international community further into administering Israel’s occupation. The prospect of government dissolution raises the specter of direct international intervention between armed warring groups: Somalia.

Currently, Hamas is gambling that it must do its best to operate as a government for two or three months before the international community will reengage. The PA need not collapse, however, before security chaos reigns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Already, there are daily reports of family and political disputes spilling over into civilian lives. Some Fatah members are exercising the law of the gun—in Gaza City, militants stopped traffic, and in Ramallah they took over several ministries to protest the new government’s refusal to hand them pricey taxi licenses as promised by the former government. While the first post-election suicide bombing, which killed nine Israelis in Tel Aviv on April 17, was claimed by Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades insisted that they had helped, too.

As the situation deteriorates, it is worth remembering that the US Office of Transition Initiatives spent $1.9 million to support Fatah in the lead-up to the January 25 elections, cleaning streets and staging soccer matches to make the government look abler and more beneficent. US officials complained to the Washington Post that Abbas was reluctant to claim credit for the projects. The president was wary for good reason: parliamentarian Hasan Khreisheh says one of his hottest campaign issues was his condemnation of Palestinian institutions set up using foreign funds in the years since the 1993 Oslo agreements.

“I am not talking about those NGOs that give services that were here before the occupation and continued during the occupation,” he explains. “I am talking here about the 3,000 ‘storefronts’ that opened at the behest of foreign governments. These organizations minimize the important causes, and broadcast the minor issues. Everyone is talking about early marriage, but no one is talking about [Israeli] settlements or the wall. They are driven by the interests of these foreign governments, and not by Palestinian interests.”

Apparently, his constituents agreed, for Khreisheh received a greater percentage of his district’s popular vote than any other parliamentary candidate in the country. Something has gone rotten in Palestinians’ relationship with the international community, and the confluence of interests between Fatah and the US or Europe will most definitely reap new constituencies for Hamas.

The PLO as Both Problem and Solution

During the years that Fatah spent building the PA, it neglected both itself and the PLO. “For the last ten years, Fatah has been working to build a government and not as a political organization,” said Harb. “Fatah never imagined that such a large opposition would grow in this period, and wasn’t directing its energy to fighting that opposition.”

Now, however, Fatah is building its opposition to Hamas around the movement’s refusal to recognize the PLO, gathering together a coalition with other PLO member factions and the small new political parties. The stage was set for this encounter when Abbas invited the new parliament to be sworn in at his headquarters, in the presence of foreign dignitaries, on February 18. All PA parliamentarians automatically become members of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s largely appointed parliament in exile. Hamas was not averse to symbolic participation in the PLO as a powerful opposition bloc, but its election victory had transformed the implications of joining the hostile PNC. It was significant, then, that the swearing-in ceremonies were kicked off with a meandering speech by PNC speaker Salim Zaanoun. When Zaanoun became windy in his tales about Arafat, new Fatah parliamentarian Muhammad Dahlan leaned forward and told him he was taking too long.

Finally, Abbas took the podium. “Our achievements would not have been possible,” he told the audience, “without the insistence of the PLO on national unity, and its adoption of the most effective forms of struggle based on carefully examined and studied policies, governed by the national higher interest of the Palestinian people, and in accordance with international resolutions.”

His speech repeatedly emphasized the roles of the PLO as steward of the two-state solution and signatory to peace agreements with Israel. It was not the overtly combative message that members of his office had leaked to the press. But it was the opening salvo that Fatah would use to recruit its allies in the parliament.

“How can a representative of the Palestinian Authority sit before the United Nations and not acknowledge its resolutions?” Fatah council member Saeb Erekat asked from the parliament floor. The Hamas bloc had submitted a government program with broad promises to approach “responsibly” international resolutions and peace agreements with Israel. In this way, Hamas believed it could build coalitions without specifically endorsing UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the 1988 Algiers communiqué (in which the PNC first accepted UNSC 242), the PLO’s basic frameworks for the two-state solution. The program also said Hamas would commence negotiations with Israel after an Israeli withdrawal behind the 1967 borders. In response to Erekat and other parliamentarians, Hamas charged that the PLO is not a democratic institution and that its top decision-making bodies do not represent the will of the Palestinian people. “We say, open up the doors of the PLO to other factions, to Hamas and others, in a democratic process,” Prime Minister Haniyya insisted in the parliamentary debate.

On April 3, Abd al-Rahman announced that plans were underway to hold factional discussions in Cairo. He himself, he said privately, was drafting a paper aimed at uniting the other factions to further isolate the Islamist movement. “Hamas came out against national legitimacy, Arab legitimacy and international legitimacy,” he said. “Hamas has put the national project in a dilemma, and it has no [other] political solutions. The other forces, which have borne the national project for 30 years, need to underscore two requirements: that the PLO is the sole representative [of the Palestinian people] and that the two-state solution [is our goal]. We do not think that the PLO is a coffee shop that anyone can enter and sit where he wants.”

A Hamas spokesperson says privately that he does not expect talks in Cairo to begin as long as the government is trying to find the money to pay salaries and fending off Fatah’s maneuvers. It appears, however, that as the government seeks to cope with international pressure, there is increasing discussion of using the auspices of the PLO as a “big tent” to help unify energies and strategies.

“We are in need of a national unity government, including a small cabinet representing all factions,” Mustafa Barghouthi, head of the National Initiative, which garnered two chairs in the parliament, told Voice of Palestine Radio. “Furthermore, we believe in the necessity of incorporating three active Palestinian movements within the PLO: Hamas, the National Initiative and Islamic Jihad.” It may seem strange for this leftist secular party to be allying with the radical Islamist right, but the joining of all these parties within the PLO could be the only means of warding off the political dissolution that threatens not only Fatah, but all of Palestinian political life.

The obstacles to a unified position are huge. “Hamas lied to the Palestinian people,” Faris rails. “They lied that they succeeded in the resistance. They lied about reform, too. It must be made clear to the Palestinian people that Hamas is a group of liars.”

Fatah members, no matter their other gripes, cling to the two-state solution. Hamas, while accepting the notion of gradual liberation of land, will find it difficult to abandon its strategic and religiously determined goal of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine. What could push these positions together, however, is an Israeli strategy ghettoizing Palestinians, setting unilateral borders and ignoring both as partners for negotiations. A path other than “national unity” under those conditions will mean political balkanization.

More Than One Imam

Those who predict the death of Fatah do so at their own risk; in 1987, an interviewer asked founding father Salah Khalaf how long the movement could go on enduring dissident breakaways.

“The Fatah Conference settles these differences,” replied Khalaf, in the newspaper al-Anba’. “However, these differences will never lead to division and fragmentation because we all know that division and fragmentation is a very serious state.” While the movement founded in the late 1950s has faced serious challenges, it has never done so without an internal mechanism for solving them.

Already the allies of Marwan Barghouti have effectively split away, investing in their own publications and waiting for the top leadership to render itself irrelevant. Fatah members banished to political exile are organizing to form a new movement. Talal Abu Afifa, who ran as an independent in Jerusalem and was expelled, says negotiations should be clinched in a matter of weeks with other disillusioned Fatah members and key political figures. New monies funneled away from Hamas toward Fatah-run civil society organizations will create islands of control, not unlike the process that dismantled the Palestinian left after the signing of the Oslo accords. (In the course of research for this article, I encountered four new or just-conceived organizations hoping to tap “democratization” funds routed away from Hamas.)

Finally, the top leadership of Fatah has embarked on a path that can only lead to its own marginalization. Because Fatah’s strength remains within the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, its legitimate efforts to combat its political rival, as expressed by the consolidation of power in the presidency, are actually weakening the movement itself. If the unlikely scenario of a Fatah election victory in 2006 or 2007 were to come about, the leadership invested in this policy would inherit a dismembered government, if not a civil war. Its authority would rest on a broken public trust, and its governance would fare no better than before.

Qaddura Faris uses a religious analogy to describe Fatah’s ills: “Before prayer at the mosque, everyone sits and chats with his neighbor. But as soon as the imam offers the call to prayer, we fall silent, we stand in one line, and we kneel and rise together. In Fatah, the prayers are ready, but we have much more than one imam. With the right leadership, all will be well.”

How to cite this article:

Charmaine Seitz "Fatah Ventures Into Uncharted Territory," Middle East Report Online, April 19, 2006.

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