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The Role of Fatah

A FrontPage Interview

Jamie Glazov
SOURCEFrontPage Magazine

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. He has served as a counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a research fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of the new book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine. Daniel Pipes wrote the foreword to the book and some of the research was undertaken at Pipes’ Middle East Forum.

FP: Jonathan Schanzer, good to have you back.

Schanzer: Good to be back, Jamie.

FP: I’d like to talk to you today about Fatah’s role in the Palestinian civil war. But first, for our readers, describe the thesis of your new book.

Schanzer: The book is about the power struggle between the Palestinian Fatah faction and its Islamist rival, Hamas. The struggle between these two violent organizations dates back to 1988, in the early days of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, when Hamas began to compete openly with Fatah and the PLO, which were both controlled by Yasir Arafat. What began as a political struggle has since evolved into a violent conflict for control of what are commonly regarded as the Palestinian territories – the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What is hard for readers to understand is that there really may not be a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in this struggle. In fact, radio personality Michael Medved likes to joke that this struggle is not unlike the movie, “Alien vs. Predator.”

FP: This is an important point. What exactly is the background of the Fatah organization?

Schanzer: Fatah was formed in 1958 as a socialist, revolutionary guerrilla group with the intent to destroy Israel. Fatah was actually founded by a number of practicing Muslims, some with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Yasir Arafat. The group’s original name was Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniya (Palestinian Liberation Movement), with an acronym that should have read “HATAF.” However, the group elected to reverse the order of the letters to give it a Quranic meaning; FATAH means “conquest” or “victory.” Thus began the Fatah tradition of adopting Islamist words and symbols when convenient.

By 1960, Fatah began to publish a magazine called Filastinuna: Nida’ al-Hayat (Our Palestine: The Call to Life), which left the impression that there was an active Palestinian underground. Then, in 1965, Fatah launched a series of attacks against Israel from Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian territory. Nearly all of them failed. By 1966 and 1967, however, Arafat’s terrorist group was responsible for dozens of attacks, some successful.

After the June 1967 Six-Day War when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, Arab regimes were disgraced. Perhaps the only Arab personality to emerge with more power was Arafat, who captured the imagination of the Arab world as a Palestinian “freedom fighter.”

In 1968, Arafat took control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was originally created by the Arab League. When Arafat and Fatah infiltrated the PLO, it soon became synonymous with shocking acts of terrorism around the world.

FP: Please describe those acts of terror.

Schanzer: The spate of violence carried out by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah-backed PLO against civilians in the 1960s and 1970s was unprecedented. Beginning in 1968, Palestinian terrorists initiated 35 airplane hijackings. Other acts of terror included the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games; the 1973 attack on the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, that led to the murder of the U.S. embassy’s chief of mission; and the 1985 attack on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which a wheelchair-bound American Jew was shot dead and dumped into the ocean.

FP: Were Jews and Israelis the only victims?

Schanzer: No. The mere presence of Arafat’s Fatah and PLO produced death and destruction in nearly every territory they inhabited.

In the early 1970s, for example, the Fatah-backed PLO attempted to hijack the kingdom of Jordan. The result was Black September, a bloody war that resulted in thousands of Palestinian and Jordanian casualties, and the eventual ouster of the PLO.

Fatah and the PLO then attempted to create a mini-state inside Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which contributed to a brutal civil war. Unable to control the violence launched against it from the north, Israel invaded Lebanon and the Palestinians were forced to flee once again, leaving a decimated Lebanon in their wake.

Finally, following a decade of exile in Tunisia, the PLO descended on the West Bank and Gaza after the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. Since then, the two territories have plummeted into utter disarray, culminating in the 2007 civil war and the violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Thus, with the exception of Tunisia, every home base of the PLO has been destroyed by the tragic blight of the Palestinian mini-state.

FP: So why is Fatah commonly referred to as the “good guy” in the mainstream media?

Schanzer: Arafat worked with Israel and the United States in the name of Middle East peace from 1988 to 2000. However, he was also responsible for attacks during that time against Israel. Then, in the year 2000, when peace talks broke down, Arafat launched a war against Israel known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. He called upon Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to join forces with Fatah to “march on Jerusalem.” The intifada resulted in more than 1,000 Israeli civilian and military deaths and perhaps 5,000 Palestinian deaths.

FP: What about this recent flare up in violence with Hamas? Is Fatah the good guy there?

Schanzer: Fatah is commonly viewed as the less aggressive of the two primary Palestinian factions. This is misleading. After the 2007 Hamas coup that toppled Gaza, Fatah set out to get even with its Hamas rivals in the West Bank. Fatah rounded up hundreds of known Hamas activists throughout the West Bank. Scores of other acts of violence were reported around the West Bank. Fatah’s leadership was undeniably responsible for dismantling a number of Hamas-controlled city councils, along with charities and businesses tied to Hamas in the West Bank. Some Hamas political offices were set ablaze. In less than one year, hundreds of Hamas charities were shut down.

By the fall of 2007, rights groups were reporting that Fatah was using “the same practices on Hamas detainees that Hamas is using on Fatah detainees in Gaza.” According to one report, 600 suspected Hamas members were arrested in the West Bank between June and October 2007. Amnesty International claimed the figure was closer to 1,000. As arrests continued into 2008, Palestinians wondered whether Fatah was any less brutal than Hamas.

Just like Hamas in Gaza, Fatah also engaged in heavy-handed press restrictions. Fatah arrested several journalists sympathetic to Hamas. Indeed, Fatah arrested the director of the Amal television channel, which is not affiliated with Hamas, but had aired a speech by Hamas’ political leader in Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, which the police said was “illegal.”

FP: Did Israel approve of these crackdowns?

Schanzer: In some cases, Israel helped Fatah round up Hamas terrorists. But, for the Israelis, Fatah’s successes were bittersweet. For years, Fatah leaders had claimed that the very presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank made it impossible to detain Palestinians linked to terrorist attacks. All the while, Hamas, PIJ, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades carried out suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilians.

Finally, with a clear interest in neutralizing Hamas, Fatah has accomplished what it always insisted it could not: a clampdown on Hamas operatives within its jurisdiction.

FP: So, what exactly are the differences between Hamas and Fatah?

Schanzer: The main difference is that Fatah has a faction within that appears to be interested in negotiating peace with Israel, while Hamas is unanimous in its refusal to engage.

Still, there are fewer differences than the mainstream media would have us believe. The charters of both Hamas and Fatah both openly call for the destruction of Israel. Both groups have been consistently responsible for terrorist attacks against Israel. And both appear to be willing to let the Palestinian people suffer as the struggle continues for control of the Palestinian territories.

FP: Jonathan Schanzer, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Schanzer: Thanks again for having me, Jamie. It has been a pleasure.

Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine’s managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.