What is Fateh FOR?

The excellent Palestinian political analyst Mouin Rabbani recently left the International Crisis Group. Their huge loss. But already he has published a very informative piece of analysis on Fateh’s very convoluted attempts to convene the sixth session of its policy-setting General Conference, which appears in the latest edition of the Arab Reform Bulletin.
He notes, “Much has changed since Fatah held its Fifth General Conference in 1989.” Indeed it has! Not only the passing of Yasser Arafat– along with, as Rabbani notes, that of fully one-third of the other 21 members of Fateh’s allegedly highest decisionmaking body, its Central Committee. But also the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the broad frame that the whole Cold War provided to Arab-Israeli issues. And the First US war in the Gulf and the Madrid conference. And that whole small matter called “Oslo” and the disappointments that it engendered, including Israel’s integration of considerable additional portions of the West Bank into its string of colonial settlements…
And the rise of Hamas and the worldview and strategy it has presented, in stark contrast to those of Fateh. And the building of the Apartheid Barrier in the West Bank. And Israel’s determinedly un-negotiated exit from both South Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. And the 2003 Iraq war and the subsequent degradation of US influence in the Middle East. And the transformation of substantial portions of Fateh into US-financed kapo forces within the Palestinian movement. And the 33-day war of 2006…
And, and, and… The head positively spins to recall all the Palestine-related events that have occurred since 1989!
Yes, it is probably high time that Fateh held another General Conference. Though as Rabbani explains, having it be successful– or even, having it happen at all– will not by any means be easy. Read the whole of his analysis there (it is not long) to discover why.
He writes,

    Fatah in recent years has fragmented, not just into two or three rival camps but into multiple, competing power centers. These power centers (generally associated with individual leaders engaged in constantly shifting alliances) consist of networks based on patronage, shared history, geography, foreign sponsorship, ideology, policy, or various combinations of the above.

This is generally true. However, I don’t think it’s true to say this is only a phenomenon of recent years. In my experience, Fateh has always consisted of “multiple, competing power centers.” To a great extent, this was by design– for reasons both understandable (and perhaps even laudable) as well as less savory. So long as Fateh was an underground movement, reweaving the fabric of Palestinian nationhood out of a (refugee) population that was dispersed and very vunlerable, and still daily tasted the bitterness of exile, dispossession, and defeat, having multiple overlapping networks was probably the only way to proceed. But that model of organization made no sense at all– in fact, became actively counter-productive– once the leaders of the movement had made the “Return” to the homeland, as they were finally able to do in 1994, after Oslo.
Okay, make that a “Return” to a tiny portion of the homeland.
But still, once they were back in the homeland, they confronted the rooted, much more settled population of Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza– the communities whose steadfastness and heroism during the First Intifada had brought Arafat and his cronies back into the negotiating business and back into the homeland, in the first place.
So did Arafat and the cronies then look at the relatively very effective new forms of organizational model that the Palestinians in the homeland had developed, recognize their strength, integrity, and resilience, and transform the whole of Fateh into a new nationalist organization based on that model?
They did not. Indeed, one of the first thing Arafat and his circle of enablers did after they got back to the OPTs in 1994 was to set about dismantling as many of the community-based grassroots organizations as they could. Those they could not dismantle, they sought to co-opt. And in the post-Oslo years Arafat had access to enormous great pots of money to distribute in the form of patronage.
Rabbani concludes his analysis thus:

    The stakes are extremely high. If Fatah fails to hold the General Conference—and in the process to make the necessary leadership reforms and formulate a meaningful national program—in 2008, it is probably finished as a movement. Despite the rise of Hamas, Fatah remains the spinal cord of the Palestinian national movement, and its disintegration could only mean further Palestinian paralysis.

I’m trying to think through this “spinal cord” analogy a little more… On reflection, I still don’t think it’s an apt analogy. A “spinal cord” would imply that this entity is commanded by a single, unified intelligence, which then distributes its messages through different limbs and organs? But at this point Fateh has no single, unified intelligence. It has survived since the seismic shock of 1993 only by having its members everywhere– inside the homeland and outside it– “agree to disagree”.
But even that is understating the depth of the ideological and political chasms inside Fateh. For example, Rabbani writes that, ”

    Organizational preparations for the General Conference rest with a committee led by the Tunis-based FCC member Abu Mahir Ghnaim, whose refusal to enter the occupied territories prior to their liberation has meant that preparations within the West Bank and Gaza Strip are the responsibility of Fatah’s Department of Organization and Mobilization … currently headed by FCC member Ahmad Qurai (Abu Alaa)…

But then he treats this situation as if it is merely a logistical, organizational problem. It is not! The refusal of many weighty members of the Fateh leadership to return to the OPTs while they were still under Israel’s control– and also, the inability, under the terms of Oslo, of most of Fateh’s historic followership from the refugee camps of Lebanon and elsewhere in the diaspora to be allowed to do so– is certainly no mere “organizational” matter. It is a symptom of the extremely harsh ideological divides within the organization.
Back in 1993-94, perhaps Arafat and the cronies thought they could fudge those disagreements. After all, wasn’t Oslo supposed to result, within five years from January 1994 in the conclusion of a final-status peace agreement with Israel? So if Abu Mahir Ghnaim refused on grounds of ideological purity to enter the West Bank “under Israeli occupation”, or if 10,000 Abu Fulan’s and Um Fulan’s from the Fateh base were still prevented by Israel from entering the West Bank under the terms of Oslo– then surely, that did not really matter very much? At the time, Abu Mazen and the rest of the Inside Ramallah gang were quite confident that– if only they showed the Israelis the necessary degree of love!– by 1999 they would end up with their fully independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. And then Abu Mahir Ghnaim, and Abul-Lutf, and all those thousands of Abu Fulan’s and Um Fulan’s from the diaspora could all come flooding “home”… Well, either to the new Palestinian state, or perhaps even for some of them, under some form of negotiated “return” agreement with Israel, to their original homes inside Israel.
None of it happened. It has all been a tragedy for everyone involved. (Thanks, Bill Clinton and your 7-year procrastinating in the diplomacy there! More of the same if the Missus gets elected, I fear?)
But the political bottom line for Fateh at this point is that it is both absolutely imperative and, in my judgment, absolutely impossible for this venerable movement to define exactly what it is for. And I mean that in both philosophical and in functional terms: What does it stand for? What is it good for?
I respect Mouin Rabbani’s work a lot and I understand that, most likely, in this piece he focused on the organizational nuts and bolts of the preparations for Fateh’s Sixth General Conference because that is what the people at the Arab Reform Bulletin asked him to do. But I hope that in a next article he will address some of the bigger political questions?

28 thoughts on “What is Fateh FOR?”

  1. I just deleted four comments here. They started with one of Joshua’s name-calling specials, after which a few people intervened to defend me from his contentless accusations. I thank them for their defense– both of me and of the integrity of this discursive space. But the whole discussion looked as though it was going to be about that. Hence the deletions.
    So now, let’s start over. Let’s deal with the topic of the post– not a trivial one by any means. And let’s not get into ad-feminam or ad-hominem discussions. Okay?

  2. Lying again, Helena?
    I didn’t call you any names. I did point out that you criticize anyone that doesn’t hate Israel and Jews as much as you do. And I pointed out that you were again shamelessly attacking the American President who tirelessly worked to bring the Palestinians a state and in return got spat on. And I did point out how you have recently gone on a particularly hateful anti-Israel tirade (just look at your last posts, can you even pretend to be operating with journalistic integrity?)
    That’s not name calling, that’s pointing out the substantive flaws in your “analysis” and the serious hate and prejudice behind them.
    Of course, you can have certain other figures on here who post explicitly anti-Jewish screeds and you “just happen” to be away at those times even though some of them “might not be appropriate.” What hypocrisy.

  3. I too question that Fateh remains the spinal cord of the Palestinian national movement. With leaders such as Dahlan whose interests appear to be more corrupt and self-serving than nationhood, Fateh needs major purging and reformation.
    Rose’s Gaza Bombshell article in Vanity Fair is quite informative!

  4. Helena,
    Re the organizational issue: I understood, after many conversations in Ramallah and Jerusalem, that this is a strong political issue. Not for the conference’s venue (in or outside West Bank, in this case), but for the question of the delegates, the people invited to partecipate, the struggle between the Tunisian and the grassroot’s leaders. Still, this is the struggle. It’s not a question of generation. It’s a question of PA people, on one hand, and politicians formed during the intifada (especially the first, of course). I found a lot of discontent, anger, discomfort, and a lot of pessimism. Many expect that something (not nice) will happen before the end of the year. Fatah people told me that Fatah is still considered PA, and PA is still considered Fatah. Nothing changed. Hamas is now on the rise in the WB, and Fatah is paying the price of the mukhabarat policy during the last months: this is the feeling among the grassroot’s leaders.

  5. Adjectives and analysis-Personally, I am inspired at the dialogue that takes place here, and other times just appalled at the smearing and insults-if you have an argument, make it, if you don’t, why be here?
    I really enjoy Helena’s analysis, although for what it is worth, I do think that some of the opinion making detracts from her ability to sharply analyze events…i.e. Siniora’s boo-hoo moment? I mean here is a guy who leads his country, knows he has enemies within and from without, and for better or worst, is watching his country be pummelled…knowing that he cannot control Hezbollah nor the US’s complicity in letting Lebanon burn….I personally was disappointed when I read Helena’s characterization of him…why say this? I deplore the “if you do not agree with me you are this or that”…which Joshua, you engage in on a regular basis-if you are a Patriot, well, argue…but why name call? How babyish. You must have a university degree, yes?
    I do not know…Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is the most complex problem-why? Because of the reactionaries…the extremists who claim their divine right to something…so pummel each other till the end of time…just my 2 cents…
    Why not work to end human suffering?

  6. These groups that encourage negotiation with Israel, like Fatah and the American Task Force…, really are for nothing except their own positions. They are actually anti-Palestinian movements. At one point Fatah was pro-Palestinian, but it became a movement of the corrupt. and as such, it lost its ability to feel the pulse of the Palestinian people. And in teh process, the only thing left to keep it alive at all was its position as a negotiating partner with Israel. So, for all these fossils who are still Fatah members, they have now become totally dependent on Israel and the USA for any significance they have left. As a result, they no longer have a role in the political debate among Palestinians, but are simple reactionaries (in Nasser’s words) in search for any bone thrown to them to keep them “relevant”. Ok, fine, the USA and Israel can keep them marginally in the equation for some time to come, i am sure. Israel used to appoint local politicians to run its occupation authority before Oslo. Those people played a role, but they were essentially non-factors. The same holds today with Fatah. and as you can see, they are FOR nothing except themselves. they have lost all strategic role. And thus, if they keep up the negotiations and the dependence on Israel and the USA, they are doomed.
    And good riddance! they have done enough damage to the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, now the Islamists are the alternatives. It is only too bad that leftist forces are no longer powerful. But i guess they shot themselves in the foot too. so maybe the Islamists deserve their shot…

  7. KDJ, really, I need to remind you yet again to keep on topic. This thread is NOT about Lebanon. I’ve suggested to you before that you start your own blog on Lebanon if you want, but not keep coming and interjecting it into non-Lebanon discussions here.
    On the question of Abu Mazen, I did not write anything here about him having a Siniora-style “boo-hoo moment”, though I have done so recently. Believe me, I know how agonizing the decisions are for these Arab leaders who are, most of them (including Abu Mazen), fundamentally decent people but who at one point essentially mortgaged their personal, family, and political fortunes to the US government. For the Palestinians, in particular, since they have no state apparatus of their own to defend them, finding outside allies/sponsors has often been seen as absolutely crucial for the survival of political movements. (For Siniora, the calculus would have to be differently described.)
    But identifying the most actually helpful combination of outside sponsors, and then building up an indigenous Palestinian movement that is strong enough to give its leaders some room for political maneuver (aka bargaining power) with those outside sponsors are also, therefore, crucial aspects of movement leadership. As Abu Iyad told me once, back in the day, “They are all snakes! The trick is just to choose the snake you can wrestle with rather than the one who eats you.”
    As I indicated above, the Arafat clique in Fateh absolutely didn’t pay enough attention to movement maintenance. Just the opposite! When they accepted the terms of Oslo and returned to the Duffeh they set about destroying the grassroots movements inside the OPTs– and the terms of their return also left in a paralyzing limbo the many grassroots networks they had built throughout the Palestinian ghurba. They thus wilfully destroyed most of the basis of whatever bargaining power they had with any outside party at all (Israel included; but also including potential ‘allies’ for the Palestinians in the negotiating battle.) And they also threw a quite disproportionate number of their eggs into the US basket.
    It was a gamble; and up to now it notably has not worked.
    It has been tragic. For this, three generations of Fateh activists have struggled and far too many of them died in the struggle?
    I certainly hope there are groups inside Fateh that still have a nationalist political integrity and that can find and start articulating a convincing political program for the movement. To be convincing and resilient, though, it has to be a program that is allied to a strong commitment to grassroots movement-building, preferably through nonviolent mass organizing. Honestly, I am not optimistic that there are any such trends left inside Fateh at this point. What I have seen of Fateh in various places in recent years has been functionaries, payroll-sitters, and a lot of angry, disillusioned people. Hence my question of “What is Fateh FOR?”

  8. … perhaps Arafat and the cronies thought they could fudge ….
    These groups that encourage negotiation with Israel, like Fatah and the American Task Force, really are for nothing except their own positions. They are actually anti-Palestinian movements. At one point Fatah was pro-Palestinian, but it became a movement of the corrupt ….
    Oh dear, “cronies” and “corrupt” in all around they see!
    Fortunately for our High Mugwumps, the McCain Epoch is about to radiantly dawn, in which there shall be no more of that pestiferous nonsense allowed. In but a few short months, possession of cronies or practices of corruption will exclude one not merely from Uncle Sam’s list of pensioners, but from the Moral Progress of the Human Race — perhaps eventually from the human race itself.
    Not only will there be no particular reason for the Fatáh to continue to exist, there will be no possibility of its doing so. The same swift and certain doom awaits the ingenious, but blatantly immoral, Bribe-a-Tribe™ gizmo in the former Iraq.
    Unthinkable that the cobegetter of McCain-Feingold should buy anybody’s political support! Mister President Clean will have no truck with these obsolete abominations, nor will networks based on patronage, shared history, geography, foreign sponsorship, ideology, policy, or various combinations of the above continue to rule the roost once the incomparable J. Sidney has taken the planet in hand.
    Promotion will henceforth be based strictly on merit.
    The Sewer of Romulus has been slated to be closed down at 1200 hours EST 20 January 2009. Preparations for life in the Republic of Plato should commence at once. Consider yourselves hereby caveated.
    Wishing you happy days in advance,
    I remain as ever,

  9. Apologies for the Lebanon post-I know I am able to host my own blog-I host the Society for Lebanese Scholarship at Facebook if anyone is interested-I believe the rest of my postings were very relevant.
    Thanks for your comments, HC.

  10. Helena’s thread decries (rightly!!!) the way Arafat systematically destroyed the local grassroots Palestinian movement after Oslo.
    In the 2006 elections Salam Faayad formed a “Third Way Party” along with Hanan Ashrawi. Ashrawi is one of those Palestinian Fatah “grass roots” activists who were marginisalised by Arafat and the PLO.
    Fayaad who founded the Third Way is now the appointed prime minister of the emergency PA government.
    My questions are, Helena, did you write any posts supportive of the Third Way alternative in 2006?
    If not, what was it about the grassroots derived “third way” that wasn’t worthy of support in that important election?
    And finally – could you write some commentary of Faayad’s emergency government. Is it composed of technocrats as the western media reported at the time?
    Do you think Abbas should hold new elections? If not why not?

  11. ps Would like to add to the above that I that I believe this thread deserves substantive comment/response and analysis and should not descend into the usual mindless Israeli/Palestinian bunfight that always occurs, not just here but everywhere this issue comes up.
    Abbas was one of the founders of Palestinian resistance. Without the PLO and Fateh the Palestinian cause would be nowhere. True, both Fateh and the PLO made grievous mistakes after Oslo. They faced huge pressures on the one side by Israelis, on the other from the religious fundamentalist Hamas, whose extreme military wing is fundamentally rejectionist of not just Israel but of a secular, Palestinian alternative.
    Hamas’s implacable ideological agenda is not sufficiently recognised on this site. It is one of the few criticisms I have of Helena. She does not seem to apply the same stringent analysis to Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood as she does to PA/Fateh/PLO/Israelis.

  12. BB, Fayyad and Ashrawi’s Third Way was not the only “third way” in 2006. Nor was it even the most promising. The Third Way party was founded by former Fatah-niks and technocrats who had no grass roots power base, which is part of the reason it did so poorly in elections. A better third (fourth?) way was Mustafa Barghouthi’s Independent Palestine, which was based on civil society and which appeared to me to be a conscious attempt to re-create the grass roots resistance that existed before 1993.
    Dr. Barghouthi was not as accommodating toward Israel as Abbas, but he had more ideological flexibility in that regard than Hamas, and his would have been a true popular government. Or then again maybe not – Hamas also was grounded in the “alternative” civil society that it developed under the Arafat regime, but now that it is in power, it is succumbing to the temptations of government and becoming less popular. (I use “popular” to mean “of the people,” not “well liked.”) On the third hand, Hamas was a political group that spawned a civil society while Independent Palestine was a civil society coalition that spawned a party, so maybe it would have held together better.
    In the event, after reading back to some of Helena’s posts around the time of the election campaign, I believe she did have some supportive things to say about Dr. Barghouthi. And yes, I think she does not scrutinize Hamas or Hezbollah enough, but she is on the money about Fatah’s corruption and anomie.

  13. With respect to Hamas not getting enough scrutiny here, I should add that Hamas reminds me of nothing more than Shas, and I can’t stand Shas. Just declaring my biases.

  14. I agree completely with azazel about Moustapha Barghouthi who has a lengthy track-record of very serious grassroots organizing, community empowerment, and service provision, primarily through the Medical Relief Committees. The MRCs have made a notable contribution to the resilience of threatened Palestinian communities ever since before the First Intifada. Hanan and Fayyad, in contrast, are technocrats and (he much more than she; but both to some extent) elitists.
    For me, Moustapha Barghouthi is a good bellwether in Palestinian politics: a serious political leader with whose positions and attitudes I nearly always agree. Compared with him and his lengthy, homegrown experience, Salam Fayyad is such a lightweight! He was “parachuted in” by the Americans from his job in the IMF. I find it interesting that the US has used financial technocrats as its favored “parachuted-in Prime Ministers” in both Palestine and Lebanon. Not sure whether this means anything or not; but it’s interesting.

  15. Jack, thanks so much for that link, which I had missed. I have a lot of respect for Bar’el so I’ll read the piece with interest.

  16. Mr Barghouti hasn’t seemed to have gotten much press since Hamas short circuited the Prisoner’s Letter by tunnelling into Israel, killing two soldiers on Israeli soil and kidnapping the third?
    Hamas, on the other hand, has now achieved full military control of the Gaza Strip, is gradually imposing sharia law there and intends to eventually take over the West Bank too. So I’m not sure where Mr Barghouti fits in any more?

  17. BB, you’re confusing two Barghouthis. The one who took part in the prisoners’ letter was Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah figure. The one who heads the Independent Palestine party is Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi. I believe, although I could be wrong, that the two are distant cousins.

  18. Palestinian political life is chock-full of Barghouthis, covering every single point on the political compass. The doyen of them all was Bashir Barghouthi, for a long-time the widely respected head of the Palestinian Communist Party. Recently, for example, the Fateh security forces apparebntly tortured to death a well-known pro-Hamas religious leader from the West bank called Sheikh Majd al-Barghouthi. Back in 2004 or was it 2006 I had the pleasure of visiting the ancestral village of all the Barghouthis not far from ramallah. Gosh it was an embattled place, almost completely necklaced around with Israeli settlements.
    Of course they are all in some degree “cousins.” Palestinian society in most of Mandate Palestine is a real, long-rooted agrarian/national community.

  19. Independent Palestine won three of the 66 proportional representation seats on about 5 percent of the vote, but did not win any of the 66 territorial seats. It got the most votes of any of the minor parties – it was polling at 10 percent at some points during the campaign, but lost out to the organization and patronage machines of the major factions. The PFLP also won three seats (I think – can’t be bothered to look it up right now), Third Way two and a left coalition two.
    For what it’s worth, it appears that Fatah badly outsmarted itself on the proportional representation issue. Hamas wanted all the seats to be proportional, but Fatah held out for half the parliament to be elected territorially because it thought that its local patronage would guarantee a victory. What it didn’t count on was its own fragmentation as well as the discipline and organizational talent of Hamas. Had Fatah given in to Hamas’ pre-election demands, Hamas would still have been the largest party but would not have been able to form a government, and sensible factions like Dr. Barghouthi’s would have held the balance of power and been able to discipline Fatah’s corruption. Ifs, buts, candied nuts and all that, though.

  20. Azazel
    Thanks again. I checked out wiki and apparently Barghouti’s independence party and Fayaad’s Third Way both polled less than 3% of the vote and each elected two members. In other words both had the same (tiny) level of support.
    It was interesting to be reminded that Hamas only polled 3% more of the popular vote than Fateh did. That small plurality in no way justified Hamas refusing to uphold the agreements signed between the PA and Israel. Had they done so there would have been no international boycott and most probably Hamas would still have been the government today. That decision by Hamas was particularly disgraceful in so far as its palestinian consitutionency was concerned imo as Hamas had ostentatiously avoided seeking a mandate on the issue and had campaigned solely on “Reform and Change” What a confidence trick and how cynically motivated can we see in retrospect, given Hamas’ later actions in splitting the territories and imposing its own military rule on Gaza? However all Helena ever seems to do these days is extoll Hamas’ military prowess. Her sympathies appear to lie with the “one state” solution.
    Technocratic governments may be boring and elistist but it must be a change for the Palestinians in the West Bank to have a govt that isn’t corrupt, at least in a comparative sense, but Helena isn’t even interested in discussing the PA govt.
    All this Fateh conference is about is how to get da boyz snouts back in the trough again. Pity the poor Palestinians – having finally got the chance to vote in a free election to find themselves caught between the corrupt and venal Fateh and the betrayal of Hamas promising them “reform and change”, with the western peacemakers cheering on the latter and sneering at a financially literate and uncorrupt government.

  21. Thanks for the correction, BB. I’d thought that Independent Palestine got more votes than the PFLP (which ran as the “Martyr Abu Ali Mustafa” list) but, upon checking the results, I see it did not. The PFLP was the only party to win three seats; the other small parties (including the secular leftist “Alternative”) all won two. It is true, though, that at one point a few weeks prior to the elections, Independent Palestine was polling at 10 percent.
    I tend to agree with you that Hamas overplayed its hand. I am not privy to its inner deliberations but, based on following the news, I think several factors may have played a part: the inexperience of power, the natural tendency to confuse a large majority of seats with a popular mandate, and friction between the elected members of the Hamas government and Hamas’ own expatriate and military leadership. And then of course, by imposing a boycott and setting preconditions for talks, Israel put Hamas in a position where it couldn’t change its mind without appearing to surrender. If there’s one thing common to every Middle East story, it’s that there are many fools.
    As for Fayyad’s government, the West Bank economy is apparently growing, so technocratic governance has led to at least some improvement in life there. Unless it can do something on the political front, though, economic growth is only an illusion, and Fayyad seems to be leaving all the negotiating to Abbas’ team, so he is diplomatically irrelevant. Since Helena is writingn about diplomacy, she has a plausible reason to ignore it.
    It would be better also if this discussion were about Palestinian politics and not about Helena. As you said above, this is an oasis among JWN threads thus far, and let’s keep it away from the personal.

  22. Fair enough, Azazel.
    Sorry Helena, sometimes my frustration gets the better of me, but it is a privilege to have a site like this to comment on.

Comments are closed.