A Disorienting Loss for Fatah

Times Staff Writer

Walid Bayed was reared on the mother’s milk of the Palestinian cause.

As a child in a refugee camp, he saw his mother arrested by Israeli authorities for running messages for the Palestinian underground. Bayed and all four of his brothers would also serve time in Israeli jails for their activities in the once-outlawed Fatah movement, founded by the late Yasser Arafat to lead the fight for Palestinian independence.

Bayed joined the Fatah movement at 15, was elected as a teen to its youth committee and as an adult won a leadership spot in the party’s Ramallah branch.

“My personal character was developed inside Fatah,” said Bayed, 33, now an investor.

But the party’s humiliating loss to Hamas in parliamentary elections has thrown Bayed and thousands of other Fatah activists into a painful period of soul-searching. Many activists are stunned and angry, and they have begun to look for explanations for the fall of a party that dominated Palestinian politics so thoroughly that it was nearly indistinguishable from the Palestinian Authority government.


At the same time, they are vowing a comeback. Fatah must be overhauled, they say, and some of its leaders should pay the price for turning it into an embodiment of corruption and failure in the eyes of many Palestinian voters.

“People are asking, ‘Where did the leadership take us? Certain people have to be responsible. We’ll hold them responsible,’ ” said Samir Awad, a professor of international politics at Birzeit University who describes himself as a former Fatah activist.

In addition, Fatah has been beset by internal divisions that sapped the party’s energy and left it in disarray before the elections, contributing to the defeat.

The opportunity to address these problems may come soon. Fatah has tentative plans for a long-delayed party congress, its first such gathering in more than 16 years. The timing is in question, but if the convention takes place, Fatah members are to pick members of two key leadership panels, the 135-member Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee, whose 18 members in turn choose a party chairman. The session was to have been held last year but was postponed.

The chairman’s post is currently held by Farouk Kaddoumi, who lives in Tunis. He chose to stay in the Tunisian capital when Arafat and other exiles returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994 after an interim peace agreement with Israel. Yet the most visible face of Fatah is that of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Fatah is the central faction of the PLO.

Many younger, mid-level Fatah activists have long sought a party convention to break the monopoly on leadership positions held by PLO veterans who, like Abbas, were close to Arafat.


Resentment among younger members created internal tensions even before Arafat’s death in November 2004. But the fault lines have deepened since.

Some members in their 40s defied the leadership in November by presenting a rival list of parliamentary candidates. A full split was averted when Abbas agreed to merge the two lists and give more prominence to younger members on the official slate.

That didn’t help. Some senior figures such as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei sat out the elections and watched Hamas win their seats. The younger generation of Fatah for the most part failed to win races. Dozens of members broke away to run as independents, diluting the pro-Fatah vote.

The housecleaning got underway last week when Fatah elders booted 76 members from the party, including eight members of the Revolutionary Council, who had run as independents.

Fatah also must figure out how to win back the support of an electorate that seemed eager to punish it for a range of ills, from corruption and mismanagement to chronic joblessness and unfulfilled hopes for an end to Israeli occupation.

Analysts said it was only natural for voters to take out their frustrations on Fatah. Party members for years reaped the benefits of a sprawling patronage system that gave Fatah preferential treatment in the awarding of government jobs, help with business start-ups, university scholarships and other perks.


Fatah was founded by Arafat in 1959 as an instrument of revolution. But it also built a grass-roots network of public assistance that gave food and money to the poor and families of imprisoned Palestinians. In that sense, it won public sympathy in much the way that Hamas has become popular, especially in the streets of the impoverished Gaza Strip, by funding schools and medical clinics.

But in the recent balloting, voters expressed disenchantment with Fatah, even though its policy of recognizing Israel and backing a two-state solution matches the beliefs of most Palestinians.

Despite the Hamas victory, government jobs are likely to remain firmly in the hands of Fatah adherents, said several party members. Most of the approximately 135,000 public workers are believed to be Fatah supporters, and the party is especially strong among the nearly 60,000 members of the security forces. Civil service rules will probably protect most government workers, officials said.

Some members hold out hope that their chance for a return may come soon. Under their scenario, Hamas would prove unable to form a government and Palestinians would be summoned to the polls again.

Despite Israel’s dismay over Fatah’s election loss, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that Israel would do whatever it could to prop up Abbas. “As long as he does not cooperate with Hamas and the Palestinian government is not a Hamas government, we will cooperate with the Palestinian Authority cautiously and responsibly,” he said.

Palestinian officials said Monday that they would seek release of $300 million in international aid already promised.


Meanwhile, many Fatah stalwarts are busy trying to shake off a sense of disorientation.

Faraj Zayoud, who works for the party’s foreign relations commission, said he kept his cellphone off and wept after learning of Fatah’s loss. The party had seemed so central to Palestinian life for so long, he said, that the public’s rejection was inconceivable.

“It’s all of my life for me,” said Zayoud, 40, who joined Fatah 22 years ago as a first-year university student in Jordan. “Every day and night I spend working for Fatah. It means everything to me. It means the past, the present and the future.”

Still, Zayoud said an internal shake-up could clear room for mid-level party functionaries like him who have felt stymied by an ossified hierarchy. “I don’t like to call it a defeat,” Zayoud said. “I like to call it a stage of loss. It’s a battle, but it’s not the end.”