Fatah’s fortunes: From revolutionary zeal to settling for scraps

30 years after Oslo Accords, a Palestinian state remains as elusive as ever

The Palestinian Fatah movement was founded in 1959 by members of the Palestinian diaspora. Over the years, its tactics have evolved.
Lina Jaradat
The Palestinian Fatah movement was founded in 1959 by members of the Palestinian diaspora. Over the years, its tactics have evolved.

Fatah’s fortunes: From revolutionary zeal to settling for scraps

With no formal political entity, independent territory, or unified communal identity, the challenges confronting the Palestinian national movement today are many.

Home was once 'from the river to the sea’, words sung by supporters for decades about historical Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

But within that land, which is now under Israeli sovereignty, Palestinians now face diverse political and legal regimes that define their lives and set their agendas.

This fragmentation extends to Palestinians within the 1948 borders, as well as those in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Beyond, Palestinians are dispersed across several countries in which they have different political and legal frameworks.

It even covers refugees in host nations like Jordan, where some have acquired citizenship, and Lebanon, Syria, or Egypt, with unique challenges in each.

Lina Jaradat
Fatah has had to adapt to the changing local, regional, and international conditions.

Before the Oslo Accords of 1993 established a ‘Palestinian Authority’ in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians had no prior experience of self-governance.

The Palestinian Authority was meant to administer the affairs of Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza, not in the diaspora.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), a political body, lacked any sovereign territory over which to govern or any institutions with which to administer Palestinian communities, either at home or abroad in the diaspora.

Yet the Palestinian Authority has not developed into a fully sovereign state as many an optimist had hoped. It remains under the influence of the occupying power.

This situation has led to increasing ambiguity regarding the definition of Palestinian national identity, its implications, and its boundaries. It is a far cry from the early days.

The Palestinian Authority has not developed into a fully sovereign state, as many hoped. It remains under an occupying power. 

Getting established

The Palestinian national movement could not assert sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza prior to their occupation in 1967, even though its formation predated this.

For years, Egypt controlled Gaza while the West Bank came under Jordanian governance, which only added to the complexities of Palestinian governance.

Since its inception in 1965, the Palestinian nationalist party Fatah (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) has dedicated itself to freeing the Palestinian people from occupation.

It has also sought to free them from Arab guardianship, organise them into a political entity, and lead their struggle for the liberation and return of all Palestinians.

It has distanced itself from class struggle or ideological debate in order to represent all Palestinians, yet Fatah's journey has not been straightforward.

It came into being when the Arab world was being influenced by the nationalism of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, alongside the Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq and the Arab Nationalist Movement.

Left-leaning parties backed by the USSR were widespread, as were influential Islamic movements. Into this milieu, Fatah fledged.

Lina Jaradat
Fatah's fighting days now seem to be over. At its formation and zenith, it sought to reclaim Palestine militarily.

Nationalist trailblazer

It sought an independent Palestinian political entity to reconcile a fragmented people and reunite its diaspora, laying the groundwork for an eventual real, physical, geographical state.

As such, Fatah is seen as the nationalist trailblazer for Palestinians, though in later years, other nationalist movements sprang up in the Arab world, leading to clashes and rivalries in states like Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Much of Fatah's popular appeal can be attributed to its defiance of official Arab interventions in Palestinian affairs and its prioritisation of the national aspect of Palestinian independence.

Yet the Palestinian movement had to adjust to each country's policies and practices, which hindered its quest for a fully independent political movement.

Financially, too, Fatah could not rely on the Palestinian people since the economic conditions were not conducive. Instead, it had to rely on external funding.

Fatah's vision for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland did not strike a chord in Arab capitals, and yet the Palestinian national movement survived despite this.

In its quest, Fatah did not disregard the Arab dimension, which regarded Palestine as an integral part of the Arab nation and the Palestinian people as integral to the Arab country. In this version, their struggles are intertwined.

For its part, Fatah cleverly portrayed the fight for a Palestinian homeland as an Arab fight, adding that the Arab nation was "a partner in the struggle".

Cheekily, Fatah adopted a slogan of the era. 'Arab unity as the pathway to the liberation of Palestine' thus became 'Liberating Palestine is the pathway to unity.'

Since 1965, Fatah has sought to free Palestinians from Arab guardianship, organise them into a political entity, and lead their struggle.

Founding principles

For six decades, specific ideas have guided Fatah through its achievements and failures, ascent and descent.

Its founding document, titled Principles, Objectives, and Methods, serves as a template for its political ideology.

It affirms that "Palestine as an integral part of the greater Arab homeland" (Article 1), and that Palestinians have "the right to self-determination and sovereignty over all its lands" (Article 2).

It declares as "invalid" all UN resolutions that "squander the right of the Palestinian people to their homeland".

Article 8 states that "the Israeli presence in Palestine is an aggressive Zionist invasion with an expansionist colonial base".

Here, Fatah pledges to "completely liberate Palestine and liquidate the Zionist entity economically, politically, militarily and culturally".

Fatah was established prior to the 1967 war, so its concept of Palestine was holistic and not confined to the occupied territories. The right of return is inherent within this.

In its founding document, Fatah pledged to 'completely liberate Palestine and liquidate the Zionist entity.'

Article 13 speaks of "establishing a democratic Palestinian state... on the entire Palestinian territory that reserves for citizens their rights... on the basis of justice and equality without discrimination based on race or religion or belief".

It also deals with the difference between Zionism and Judaism and the liberation of Jews from Zionism, which was daring and innovative at the time. Most Palestinian political discourse dodged the issue for fear that it may legitimise Israel.

Fatah argued for "resisting the political solutions proposed as an alternative to the liquidation of the Zionist entity".

Events quickly overtook the document. Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Article 24, drafted in 1968, was designed to recognise this new reality.

It stated that Fatah "does not exercise any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Gaza Strip, or the Al-Hamma area."

It further added that Fatah would operate "on a national popular level, encompassing liberational, organisational, military, and financial aspects".

Some felt this implied that the Palestinian leaders were relinquishing their rights and responsibilities over their land to Arab regimes. A 'national charter', comprising two new articles (28 and 29), was introduced to clarify things.

Getty Images
Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein with PLO leader Yasser Arafat

Article 28 reaffirmed the rejection of "all forms of intervention, trusteeship, and subordination," while Article 29 reaffirmed that Palestinians "possess the fundamental and genuine legal right to liberate and retrieve their homeland".

Becoming homeless

In the early 1970s, Palestinian leaders were grappling with the challenge of guardianship and marginalisation, particularly after the Battle of Amman in September 1970.

Tensions between the numerous Palestinians in Jordan and Jordan's King Hussein had been building for years, not least since 1951, when Jordanian King Abdullah I was assassinated by a Palestinian after he annexed the West Bank.

In the weeks running up to September 1970, Palestinian fedayeen had begun to demand the king's overthrow.

Things came to a head when Palestinian commandos hijacked three commercial planes, landed them in Jordan, and threatened to blow both them and their passengers up if Palestinian prisoners in Switzerland were not released.

As the United States deliberated on military action, Jordan's royal army – comprised mainly of Bedouins loyal to the king – attacked Palestinian strongholds in the capital.

A brutal 11-day war followed, with vicious house-to-house fighting.

On the sixth day of war, PLO leader Yasser Arafat wrote that "thousands of our people are under the rubble", adding that "this is a massacre that history has never witnessed".

By the time the fighting ended, the Red Cross estimated that there were up to 10,000 killed.

Jordan's royal army had reclaimed the capital, the Palestinian fighting force had been severely weakened, and the PLO had been expelled from the country.

By 1968, some felt that Palestinian leaders were relinquishing their rights and responsibilities over their land to Arab regimes.

Dealing with challenges

Fatah called an emergency session of the Palestinian National Council in Cairo in 1972, at which it rejected Jordan's proposal to establish a Jordanian-Palestinian federation known as the 'United Arab Kingdom'.

This plan relied on Israel ceding control of east Jerusalem, which would serve as the capital of the federation's Palestinian district.

Palestinian leaders had always refused any initiative seen as undermining the Palestinian cause and/or relinquishing any Palestinian territory, so their rejection of the federation idea was expected since it was a continuation of that.

Arafat added that the PLO was "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" and that no one else had "the authority to determine the fate of Palestine, its territory, and its people".

The PLO's leadership were reacting to Israel's attempts to promote alternative local and municipal Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

It said: "The Zionist occupation is paving the way to grant (these alternative local leaders) a representational status that surpasses their authority, extending even beyond the borders of the West Bank".

The Palestinian Popular Conference declared that this "seeks to fracture the unity of the Palestinian people and drive them towards internal discord, thereby eroding their collective identity, national presence, and armed popular uprising".

The Conference said Israel's move "aims to shield collaborators, establish a counterfeit representation of the Palestinian people, and engineer a Palestinian alternative to endorse initiatives designed to undermine the Palestinian cause and the historical rights of the Palestinian people".

Getty Images
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat speaking to the press after meeting Jordan's King Hussein.

A shift in mood

Fatah's guiding principles were simple and clear, with an expansive vision that made them popular, yet the challenges of the late 1960s and early 1970s changed the political landscape enormously.

As a result, Fatah found itself quietly abandoning some of its original demands and objectives since they were no longer possible or achievable.

In particular, the appetite for armed resistance had waned in some quarters, especially abroad, so the focus of Palestinian activism shifted inward.

The first Intifada (Uprising) in 1987, followed by the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, was evidence of this shift.

In terms of the potential outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, minds were focused across the region in the aftermath of the October 1973 war, during which an Arab force led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel.

It ended with the Egyptian Third Army encircled, Israeli forces in the south just 100km from Cairo, and Israeli forces in the north shelling the outskirts of Damascus.

Notions emerged regarding the potential resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the outcomes of that war, but the impetus for the shift in focus came with the force of the first Palestinian Intifada.

Due to the political, geographical, and human dynamics of the Intifada, the objectives of freedom and independence were prioritised over those of return and liberation.

In the early 1970s, Fatah quietly abandoned some original demands. The appetite for armed resistance had waned in some quarters.

Changing aims

Fatah has convened seven general conferences since its inception, the first in 1964 and the second in 1968, following the 1967 war.

Further conferences were held in 1971, 1980, 1988, 2009, and 2016 in Jordan, Damascus, Beirut, Bethlehem, and Ramallah, respectively.

Throughout, Fatah has consistently upheld many of its core principles, but some have undergone a reversal. For instance, in 1974, the PLO adopted a "phased programme" in which it now advocated a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

This signified the transition of its objective from total liberation to establishing an authority or a state within any liberated territory.

Subsequently, this evolved into advocating for the rights of self-determination and return and establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

However, the practical emphasis has primarily been on establishing a state in the West Bank and Gaza. This could be strategic, with Palestinian leaders prioritising pragmatic policies over ideal scenarios.

Revolution to sedation

Pragmatism soon became a defining characteristic of the PLO and Fatah, often employing ambiguity.

At the sixth conference in Bethlehem in 2009, Fatah endorsed all forms of struggle, including armed resistance, yet this was mainly rhetoric aimed at appeasing the movement's base and audience.

In fact, it was engaged in daily security coordination with Israel, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords.

US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) on September 13, 1993, after signing the Oslo Accords.

Read more: 30 years later, Oslo's real objectives are clear

At the fourth conference in 1980, the PLO was confirmed as being a "revolutionary nationalist movement aimed at liberating Palestine, dismantling the Zionist entity, and establishing a democratic state that upholds the legitimate rights of all citizens, ensuring justice and equality without discrimination".

The sixth and seventh conferences were after the unsuccessful Second Intifada (2000-2005) and the death of Yasser Arafat, whose leadership of the PLO was a balance between revolutionary zeal and diplomacy.

Under the leadership of Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO shifted its focus towards governance and negotiation.

It signalled the emergence of a political class more content to maintain the status quo than to pursue the nationalistic ideals once championed by Fatah. This facilitated the rise of Hamas.

Agreeing to settle

The conference in Bethlehem in 2009 reflected a broader transformation within Fatah, moving from armed struggle and national liberation to a pragmatic approach centred on authority, governance, and diplomatic negotiation.

Fatah has, therefore, evolved significantly, diverging from its foundational principles and the holistic concept of Palestinian national unity that linked the people, the land, and the cause to pursuing a state on a fraction of Palestinian land for a subset of the Palestinian people, with limited rights.

This strategy appears to be an attempt to gain Israel's approval for the creation of a Palestinian entity on just 22% of historical Palestinian territories.

In 1974, the PLO adopted a "phased programme" in which it now advocated a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Moreover, Fatah now frames the conflict primarily as a territorial dispute, focusing on achieving an independent state and elevating its status from observer to full member in the United Nations.

Contrastingly, Israel has consistently treated the Palestinian territories and people as a single entity despite implementing varying policies across different regions.

This approach is manifested in its aggressive military actions in Gaza, alongside its policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and measures against Palestinians within the 1948 borders.

Israel's overarching strategy aims to suppress and potentially displace the Palestinian population across the entirety of the territory, from the river to the sea.

It also undermines the Palestinian Authority's influence by collaborating with it solely for security, administrative, and economic purposes.

The challenges confronting the Palestinian national movement today are many — no formal political entity, independent territory, or unified communal identity.

Palestinians remain dispersed, stateless, and subject to the whims and differences of others. The fortunes of its representatives are not on the up.

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