Fatah Chapter Closed: Creating a Palestinian National Congress

Posters with Marwan Barghouti (L), who has been imprisoned by Israel since April 2002, Abu Jihad, who was assassinated by Israel in Tunis in 1988, and Yasser Arafat (R) on a wall in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. (Arjan El Fassed)

I used to provoke my Fatah affiliated friends and prison mates that revolution led by Fatah will not achieve its goals and yet, there is no revolution without Fatah. In these simple and cynical words I understood Fatah, the long leading faction within PLO and the long-time leader of the Palestinian people in the struggle for independence and self-determination.

The late Yasser Arafat, better known as Abu Ammar, started the Fatah movement in the late 1950s, but it was not until 1965 that it was officially founded. Since its establishment, Fatah has been committed to the struggle for the full independence and self-determination of the Palestinian people and to building a secular state within historical Palestine. Fatah, which means, “to conquer” in Arabic, became increasingly important in the late 1960s, and gained full control over the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1969 after joining it in 1967. Furthermore, Fatah written backwards forms an acronym for “Palestinian Liberation Movement” in Arabic. Fatah remains the most powerful group in the PLO and had also been the main party of the Palestinian Authority since its establishment until the last election, when Hamas won over Fatah. The approach of Fatah has changed drastically from its military line of the 1950s and 1960s into pragmatic politics in past decades. Strangely enough however, it has always kept the same slogans, including “Revolution until Victory” or “With armed struggle we will liberate Palestine”.

This paradox was one of the most distorting factors within Fatah to my mind, and it only added to its confusion and vagueness. In other words, they have tended to educate members on these old slogans, while their practice it totally different.

It is equally important to explain that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) is an umbrella organisation established in May 1964 in Jerusalem and made up of a handful of individuals, institutions and organisations, such as Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and others. The member organisations and institutions are very different in their ideologies, but they all share the same goal of achieving an independent Palestinian state.

The PLO has a democratic structure and is made up of three bodies, the Executive Committee, the Central Committee and the Palestinian National Council (PNC), which is the Palestinian parliament in exile.

Despite its democratic structure, on a political level the PLO has always been dominated by Fatah, which was itself dominated by one person for almost all its history: Yasser Arafat.

Despite the fact that PLO is the most important achievement to the Palestinian people and its long history of resistance and achievements in keeping the unity and promoting the cause of the Palestinian people, the history of the PLO is also marred with many defeats. Such defeats can be partly attributed to the PLO leadership.

Following a conflict with Jordan between September 1970 and July 1971, the PLO was forced to move from Jordan to Lebanon, an event which later became known as Black September. In 1974, the PLO gained total support from the Arab states and was proclaimed the sole and the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In the same year the UN also recognised the PLO as “the representative of the Palestinian people.”

Unfortunately the spirit of this important moral victory did not last long and in 1975, the civil war of Lebanon started, and the PLO found itself caught up in the middle of it. The PLO’s presence in Lebanon came to an abrupt end in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and the PLO had to move its headquarters again to Tunisia, whereas the fighters had to stay in military camps in different Arab countries. They stayed there until the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, when the bulk of PLO members and structures came back to the occupied territories accompanying Arafat who was elected as President of the Palestinian Authority in 1996.

Fatah, which became the ruling party in the newly established Palestinian Authority, flourished and more members joined the movement, most of them for the sake of getting benefits from the new reality on the ground.
Fatah, in the past, has always managed to survive different splits and internal turmoil within the movement due to the personal power and charisma of Arafat and the way he led the movement. Although some other less important factors also played a role, it is obvious that the cohesion of Fatah came primarily from Arafat’s talent in management. His successful but dubious approach could be added to the curriculum of management schools across the world – let us call it Arafatism. This seemingly liberal approach consisted in allowing people the free space to pursue their personal interests and gain benefits within the movement, but he would cleverly use this against them whenever they tried to criticise him or his leadership style.

Fatah’s success in the past was also due to its lack of ideology, claiming that it represents all Palestinian people with all its classes and sectors. Its principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of Arab States resulted in gaining all the financial and moral support possible from the Arab countries, although this principle did not forbid the Arab countries from interfering in the internal affairs of the Palestinian people and influencing the decisions taken.

What is happening right now within Fatah, with regard to internal divisions and conflicts, is not new and had been building up for several years. It intensified on a later stage as a split between a younger generation of activists who had come to prominence during the first Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s and the “old guard” who had spent those years exiled with Arafat in Tunis. As mentioned, Arafat managed to keep the unity of the movement until he died; once he passed away however, all the latent conflicts surfaced.

As also mentioned above, Fatah gained more supporters after the formation of the Authority. Most of the newcomers joined the movement to advance personal interests. One could say that Fatah’s approach encouraged people with these motives to join the movement because the way it ran the Authority did not convey the message that it was trying to run any governmental structure based on professionalism and dignity. Everything was linked to bribery or the need to have a signature from a Fatah member if you wanted to send your child for medical treatment or to get him/her a scholarship. It was enough for people to be registered in Fatah to go on financed trips or attend conferences or be eligible for other benefits. These new members were not an asset to the movement but a burden. Fatah received its strongest blow after the death of its founder Yasser Arafat, which eventually resulted in losing the Palestinian Legislative Council elections to Hamas. Most post-election analyses suggest that voters were unhappy with corruption and nepotism in Fatah and the chaos in the Palestinian Authority and thus voted for Hamas.

Although we cannot ignore these strong factors, the reality is that Fatah became too old and never managed to turn itself into a modern political party with some discipline. Fatah did not work on changing or modernising its structure and organisation for a long time and has never managed to hold its national assembly in the past 20 years. During the trials for change, they did manage to get support from the Olof Palme Institute in order to train their members on how to become a political party. This training which lasted for years did not get the support of the core members and was not applied.

Moreover, Fatah never managed to renew its leadership. Up till his death, Arafat ruled the roost, pulling people in and out based on his vision. It is said that after forming the Authority, Arafat himself had the idea of destroying Fatah because he realised more than others the need to switch to a state-building project instead of remaining in resisting fighters’ mode. However, he could not ignore that Fatah was a huge organisation and he might have been confronted if he tried to compromise more.

As of present, Fatah stand at a crossroads, but with very limited choices. Some members think that by calling for a conference they will mange to bring the unity back to the movement. Others think that by dismissing some members, a healthy balance can be created again.

In my opinion, unity of the movement is not an option any more. Unity within Fatah has also been fragile and reliant on two or three factors that are now all missing from the equation: the charisma of their historical leader, their money and being in power. It is not only the old guards versus the younger generation; everyone is fighting within Fatah- the opportunists, the fighters, the war capitalists, the corrupt members and the honest and loyal figures are all battling it out. There is no longer any common language within the movement despite what some of the leaders are trying to say.

Fatah will tear itself apart whether they like or not. The best choice for Fatah would be to dismantle in a structured way, allowing a new stronger faction to emerge, especially for the honest cadre among them and for the national liberation movement as a whole. This new identity of Fatah could attract other factions and individuals to form something innovative and modern; an answer to the new needs and demands; something honest and reliable with a clear vision; something solid and democratic which could lead the people to their aims for independence and self-determination and safeguard the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

The current calls to emphasise the role of the PLO coming from Fatah and the other political factions cannot be very convincing to the Palestinian people. Although I don’t suspect the intentions of some factions like the PFLP, DFLP, PP and some other smaller factions, I am very sceptical about Fatah’s intentions. Fatah bears the bulk of responsibility in destroying the PLO and marginalizing it. It did so to give itself the chance to move freely. Its call now for emphasising the PLO is only because they lost the elections and they see the PLO as their only remaining tool to maintain power. Whichever the motives, Fatah and all Palestinians must recognise that trying to revive the PLO as it stands is not the answer. The structure and methodology is outdated. There is no other way but to build up a different political body to represent the Palestinians everywhere. A body, which will reorganize the Palestinian struggle to achieve its aims. A body which will represent and use all political parties, civil society structures, NGOs, trade unions and individuals and organize their efforts internally and externally.

Let us call this new body the ANC Palestine or PNC (Palestinian National Congress). Somebody like Marwan Barghouthi, who is serving five life sentences, could be a Palestinian Mandela. There are similarities between the two beyond the fact that they were/are both serving long sentences in prison. Taking Barghouti as an example, being in prison will keep him disciplined and not give him the chance to go astray. This would be inspiring for the people. Marwan still has a solid foundation within the bases of Fatah and among others. A field leadership, which would cover all Palestinian sectors, could be formed inside the territories and outside implementing the mandate of the new body.

The PNC, which would replace the PLO, could be a wide coalition of factions and parties with a new vision, mandate and methodology. The coalition should learn from the mistakes and sins of Fatah and the PLO. It should be democratic and allow all factions and the Palestinian people to own it. All democratic factions on the Palestinian front could and should join this wide coalition. The PNC would have a four-fold agenda: a “national” agenda to keep the unity of the Palestinian people worldwide and to enrol them in the political struggle; a socio-economic agenda for the sake of building a healthy Palestinian society on Palestinian soil; a political agenda to continue struggling for the immediate end to occupation and an external agenda to bring more international support to the just cause of the Palestinians.

Fatah should see this internal crisis as an opportunity. The other important factions have similar problems and need renewal and this could be their way out; thus they should see the same opportunity to form a wider democratic coalition. Following the Hamas landslide victory in the PLC elections, it is crystal clear that the Palestinian people are ready to go beyond their political affiliation if they can find people who are honest and competent enough to lead them.

Rifat Odeh Kassis is a Palestinian human rights activist en president of Defense for Children International