By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Since its takeover of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the summer of 1968 (and its assumption of the presidency in February 1969), Fatah movement has been inclined to dominate Palestinian decision-making. Until this day, it has not offered genuine partnership that seriously may reflect the will for peaceful transfer of power.
Historical experience with the Fatah leadership indicates that it initiated the activation of the reconciliation file with Palestinian opposition (especially Hamas) only in one of three cases:
First: When the Palestinian leadership have milestones to reach, and the Fatah leadership wants to show that they were reached within the framework of Palestinian “democracy” and with the presence of all Palestinian forces, including the opposition. This happened when Fatah invited Hamas to participate in the 19th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in November 1988 (in which the independence of Palestine based on the Partition Resolution was declared and Resolution 242 was approved). It also happened prior to the convening of the PNC’s 21st session, which was preparing for the participation in the Madrid Conference. Also, Cairo dialogues were held in December 1995 prior to the elections of the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC), while the Cairo meetings 2003–2005 sought to end al-Aqsa Intifadah and deal with the implementations of the “Roadmap for Peace” which was put forward by US President George W. Bush and gained international support.
Second: When Fatah faces popularity and credibility crises, especially when the popularity of Hamas and the resistance soars during uprisings or Israeli aggressions. This applies to the Cairo dialogues in 2002–2003 during al-Aqsa Intifadah in which Hamas led resistance action, and to the dialogues after the Israeli aggressions on Gaza Strip (GS) in 2008–2009, 2012 and 2014, during which the resistance proved its strength, its popularity surged and got Palestinian, Arab and Islamic support, while at the same time, there was anger at the Palestinian leadership (Fatah leadership) which is committed to the Oslo Accords, mired in security coordination with Israel, and wants to crush the resistance. It also applies to the recent meetings in Istanbul and Cairo following the strong resistance in Jenin. The Fatah leadership thus seeks to reduce blame against it, re-legitimize itself in the Palestinian scene and undermine the popularity of resistance forces.
Third: When the Fatah leadership wants to evade external pressures and when there are impediments in the peace process, or problems in its Israeli, Arab and international relations, it resorts to a kind of “repositioning” (and the temporary cover of national unity) in order to insinuate that it has other options. Hence, urging other sides to improve their stances towards it. The reopening of the reconciliation dossier in the summer of 2020, amidst US pressure to implement the “Deal of the Century” presented by President Donald Trump, might be a clear example in this context.
There is another case of response not related to Fatah’s own initiative, but to the calculated tactical response to Arab and Islamic initiatives calling for reconciliation and end of division. It was to avoid embarrassment and accusations of being the reason for obstructing reconciliation. This applies to several initiatives and meetings under Egyptian auspices, as well as to many Saudi, Yemeni, Qatari, Senegalese and Turkish initiatives; besides an international Russian one. The most recent is the Algerian initiative in which the Algerian leadership has made a tremendous effort to make it work, however, it realized that the Fatah leadership lacks seriousness in implementing it.
The Fatah leadership was also forced to do this kind of “courtesy,” though partially, with the rise of “political Islam” movements in the Arab uprisings, 2011–2013. It wanted to absorb the reverberations of the soaring popularity of Hamas and the resistance course among the rising forces leading a number of Arab regimes, especially in Egypt.
Often, the Fatah leadership used to empty the initiatives or any related agreements from their content by impeding their implementation through conditions that could not be realized, such as Hamas’s commitment to “international legitimacy” and the conditions of the Quartet, or commitment to the agreements signed by the PLO leadership (Oslo Accords), or to surrender resistance weapon in GS. The Fatah leadership sought to achieve cumulative tactical gains through a number of reconciliation agreements and arrangements, as in Hamas’s abandonment of the premiership (Doha Agreement 2012), the dissolution of the government headed by Hamas (Al-Shati’ Agreement 2014), Hamas’s dissolution of the GS administration committee and handing over the administration of the Strip to the Ramallah authority (Cairo 2017), in addition to Hamas’s waiver of the condition of simultaneous presidential and legislative elections and its disregard of not activating the PLC before the elections (2021). Thus, Fatah continued to pursue a “take-and-demand” policy to strip Hamas and the resistance forces of any elements of legitimacy and strength.
As for the PLC elections in 2006, these were an exception resulting from a mistake on the part of the Fatah movement, and on the part of the Arab and international intelligence, in underestimating the popularity of Hamas. Indeed, Hamas was not expected to receive the majority of votes, rather it was expected to obtain a “reasonable” share of votes that would keep it under control, facilitate its containment and make it a minority that has to abide by the “Palestinian legitimacy” that Fatah leads and represents. This was a mistake that the Fatah leadership, as well as the forces that support its stay in power, learned not to repeat. In any case, the Fatah leadership (by the powers of the president and the PLO leadership) disrupted the PLC, thwarted the formation of the government and emptied Hamas’s victory of its content.
Background and Causes of Fatah Behavior:
Fatah’s leadership of the PLO and PA and the peace process, has made it gain Israeli, Arab and international recognition, which became a leverage for it to be recognized as the “legitimacy.” This advantage was used to pressure and besiege Hamas and the resistance forces, and to manage the reconciliation file without having to make concessions due to the absence of any serious pressure on this leadership. Furthermore, the US and Israeli pressures always sought to obstruct reconciliation, veto real partnership with Hamas and even threaten to punish the Fatah leadership, the PLO and the PA, thus giving the Fatah leadership an excuse to demand more concessions from Hamas.
Regardless of the reconciliation agreements and the renewed invitations to meetings, the Fatah leadership does not see any interest in Hamas entering the PLO, based on its real size and popularity. On the one hand, Fatah sees such an admission as a significant weakening of its position and dominance in the Palestinian arena. On the second hand, it means that there would be material and moral damage to the administrative and leadership status of many of its cadres, its sources of income, and the network it controls through representative missions, embassies and others. On the third hand, the Fatah leadership believes that the entry of Hamas and the Islamic and resistance forces would disrupt the peace process to which the PLO leadership is committed. In this case, the resistance option would gain momentum and the Oslo Accords would be abandoned, which will cause a major shake-up to the international status of the PLO. Many countries would withdraw their recognition of it as the representative of the Palestinian people, with even a strong possibility of classifying it as a “terrorist organization,” since the US and EU have already classified Hamas a “terrorist movement.” According to Fatah, such consequences would cause severe damage to the Palestine issue in international forums. On the fourth hand, Fatah believes that all of this will lead to the disruption of the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state and will justify the Israeli occupation and aggression, in addition to the continued siege and destruction of the infrastructure of the West Bank and GS.
For nearly 36 years, the strategy of Fatah leadership has focused on managing its relations with Hamas and the resistance forces with attempts to marginalize or assimilate them within a system that can be controlled or dominated. It has never sought a strategy that would reflect true partnership and takes into account the clout of each party. Thus, Fatah views reconciliation as a tactical structure, which should not harm its dominant position nor its basic strategic commitments or affect the prices and entitlements related thereto.
Hence, Fatah leadership behavior seeks to put the partnership with Hamas, whatever its size or popularity may be, at the “second-class” level. There is no real opportunity to change this behavior except with either a radical change in the Fatah leadership mentality, or a significant decline in Fatah’s popularity, or the emergence of new developments such as a change in the Arab and Islamic realm, more supportive of the resistance and Islamic movements, or by the unification of reform and resistance forces that enjoy sweeping popular support, at a time the PA and its institutions are collapsing.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 14/8/2023