Friday, March 28, 2008

Fatah and Hamas—Natural Brothers

P. David Hornik | 3/28/2008
The astonishing news about the Israeli and U.S. governments’ Fatah-fetish keeps rolling. On Sunday it was Israel approving a shipment from Russia to the nominally Fatah-ruled West Bank of 25 armored vehicles, in the wake of a visit to Israel by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

The sticking point had been Israel ’s objection to Palestinian Authority and Russian insistence on fitting the vehicles with automatic weapons. Now Russia has agreed to ship the vehicles without the guns—good enough for Israel , even though back in 2000 after the Second Intifada erupted its air force had to destroy an earlier set of armored vehicles then possessed by the PA. As for the U.S. , last week it agreed to send the PA $150 million in budgetary support—the first installment on $550 million that the U.S. pledged at a Paris donors’ conference in December. PA prime minister Salam Fayyad called it “the largest sum of assistance of any kind to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority by any donor in one trench since the Palestinian Authority’s inception [in 1994].”

Simultaneously, Fatah leaders have been conducting talks with Hamas leaders in Yemen on—reunification. Although the talks have reportedly hit snags, that they’re being held at all would seem to be a direct slap to the U.S.-Israeli strategy of building up Fatah militarily and financially as a supposed moderate force aiming to overcome Hamas and make peace with Israel .

As detailed in an expose by David Rose in the April issue of Vanity Fair, that strategy has kept running aground in recent years while being pursued even more relentlessly by the U.S. than by Israel, sometimes over Israeli objections.

The U.S. pushed for the PA elections in January 2006 and was stunned when Hamas won. The U.S. was again shocked when later that year Abbas joined Hamas in the first (not necessarily last) Fatah-Hamas unity government.

According to Rose and his sources, the collapse of that government and Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 was actually prompted by a U.S.-engineered coup attempt by Fatah—with the U.S. once again dismayed when Hamas routed Fatah in five days of fighting in Gaza .

An important new article by Ido Zelkovitz in Middle East Quarterly explains a major part of why these efforts keep floundering. Called “Fatah’s Embrace of Islamism,” the article notes that “while Fatah…may have its roots in the revolutionary, secular-oriented ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s, Islamist discourse is also integral to the movement…. as Western diplomats seek to bolster Fatah’s Abbas as an alternative to Hamas, they underestimate the degree to which Palestinian nationalism now intertwines itself with Islam.”

Indeed, even in the old days the then Fatah leader Yasser Arafat wasn’t averse to leavening his “secularism” with religion, as when he told his followers in Lebanon in July 1981:

God has bought from the believers their lives and their money in exchange for Paradise . Thus, they fight in the cause of God, willing to kill and get killed. Such is His truthful pledge in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an—and who fulfills His pledge better than God? You shall rejoice in making such an exchange. This is the greatest triumph.

That was back when Fatah was still under the Soviet Union ’s wing and vaguely communist in ideology. By the late 1990s, well into the “ Oslo process” and before the “Second Intifada” or intensified anti-Israeli terror war that it spawned, a Palestinian poll found 80 percent of Fatah supporters saying “any future Palestinian state should be run according to Islamic law.”

Conditions were ripe, then, for Fatah to further heighten its Islamic identity as the brutal campaign broke out. In September 2000 “Fatah re-branded its armed wing—previously known as the Storm, Al-Asifa—calling it Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades”—Al-Aqsa being the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and “martyrdom” being a central theme of Islamic religious warfare.

As Zelkovitz details, other Fatah factions have since followed suit by making Islam an integral part of their discourse and iconography. The Fatah Hawks, who earlier cast themselves as a nationalist antagonist of Hamas, now display on their shield the Qur’anic verse “When God’s Succor Comes, and Victory” along with an image of the Dome of the Rock (also on the Temple Mount) with a map of all Palestine, sans Israel, arising from it.

Similarly, the Shahid Ahmad Abu’r-Rish Brigades, a Gaza-based Fatah faction, acknowledges its closeness to Hamas and touts the slogan “We believe that Allah is God, and Islam is our faith, for the Prophet is a model and teacher for us, for our way is the way of the jihad for the sake of Allah.” The Abu’r-Rish Brigades also uses a map showing all of Palestine as an Islamic waqf and upholds jihad as the only “solution.”

“…today,” Zelkovitz observes, “Palestinian society emphasizes Muslim supremacy. Fatah expresses its new Islamist discourse not only in educational and cultural terms but also in its embrace of suicide bombing…as a tactic”—the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades alone being responsible for dozens of suicide bombings including all those perpetrated in Israel since 2005.

So “it is ironic,” Zelkovitz concludes, “that while many Western diplomats now turn to Fatah as an alternative to Hamas’s Islamism, the real Fatah is much closer to Hamas while the secular Fatah now appears to be a relic of the past.”

Since “secular” Arab leaders of recent times have included the likes of Gamal Abdul-Nasser, Assad pere et fils, and Saddam Hussein himself, it is hard to see why Fatah’s alleged secularity would have been presumed to guarantee peacefulness toward Israel and the West in the first place. But, “secular” or Arab-nationalist actors having been in brutal conflict with Islamists in Arab states like Syria , Egypt , and Algeria , there may have been—at least theoretically—more warrant for hoping Fatah would square off against Hamas in a way that would make life easier for Israel .

But with the Islamist tide sweeping the Middle East in general, views of Fatah as “secular,” “moderate,” or all that different from Hamas are by now ignorant and outmoded. It is because the U.S. and Israeli governments continue to cling, myopically and inexcusably, to that discredited vision that they keep pursuing policies that lead to ruin and bloodshed and the increased endangerment of Israel.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at

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