Fatah, al-

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Palestinian nationalist movement headed by Yasir Arafat.

The name Fatah has a double meaning: It is both the Arabic word for conquest (literally, "opening up"), used to denote the seventh-century Muslim Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa, and a reversed acronym of Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). The full name of the group is Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani alFilastini (Palestinian National Liberation Movement). Although it was identified for nearly three decades with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), al-Fatah (also al-Fateh, al-Fath) existed separately and before the foundation of the PLO. It was established by a group of Palestinian exiles working in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf countries, many of whom would be its principal leaders for many years. Most important were the engineer Yasir Arafat; his friend and colleague Salah Khalaf; Khalil al-Wazir; Khalid al-Hasan, an employee of the Kuwaiti government, and his brother Hani al-Hasan; and others working in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Europe. The founders sometimes date al-Fatah's beginning to 1959, when the Kuwait group was working together and took over a magazine, Filastinuna (Our Palestine).

The movement has been led from the beginning by a central committee, and occasionally holds general conferences. A revolutionary council was formed early on, but gradually its power was overshadowed by the central committee. (It should not be confused with al-FathRevolutionary Council, the name adopted by the dissident organization of Sabri al-Banna.) It also created a military wing that operated under the name al-Asifa (the storm), which began military action against Israel at the end of 1964. During 1965 it continued to claim guerrilla operations, though these had little effect upon Israel. Meanwhile, in 1964, the League of Arab States, with Egyptian prodding, had created the PLO under Ahmad Shuqayri, to some extent preempting al-Fatah's constituency. After the June 1967 ArabIsrael War, Arafat and other al-Fatah leaders slipped into the West Bank (from which alFatah had previously launched operations) to organize resistance. Failing to successfully pull together a revolt in the newly occupied territories, Arafat and other al-Fatah leaders withdrew and established new training camps in Jordan and Syria. Al-Fatah and other Palestinian guerrilla groups were able to increase their military capabilities and training in the camps.

Al-Fatah's ideology was ill defined and not highly theoretical. Its main principles were armed struggle, "Palestine first," and noninterference in the affairs of the Arab states. Al-Fatah cadres insisted upon liberating Palestine themselves rather than waiting for the Arab states to do it, and through armed struggle rather than negotiation. This "people's war" would also give the Palestinian people an identity and a sense of empowerment. Instead of viewing the liberation of Palestine as a derivative of pan-Arab unity, al-Fatah stressed "Palestine first": The Palestinian cause could not wait any longer for Arab unity. Finally, al-Fatah sought to avoid the radical sociopolitical agendas advocated by some leftist Arab parties that sought to bring about revolution in the Arab world. Al-Fatah pledged to cooperate with both radical and conservative Arab states. All considered, this vague bourgeois nationalist agenda reflects the conservative background of al-Fatah's founders: Most were middle-class Muslims whose vision of national liberation did not include sweeping socioeconomic change in Palestinian society.

Meanwhile, al-Fatah began to undermine Shuqayri's leadership of the PLO. In December 1967 Shuqayri, who had close ties to Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and therefore to Egypt's massive defeat in June 1967, resigned. In January 1968 al-Fatah convened a meeting in Cairo of most of the guerrilla groups and set up a coordinating bureau among them. On 21 March 1968, Israeli forces raided alFatah base at Karama in Jordan. Forewarned, the guerrillas were able to inflict relatively heavy losses on the Israeli attackers with considerable support from Jordanian troops, and Karama became a rallying cry for the Palestinian resistance. Al-Fatah's numbers and reputation swelled. During the fourth and fifth Palestine National Council (PNC) sessions in 1968 and 1969, the various guerrilla groups, including al-Fatah, won larger and roles in addition to an amendment to the Palestine National Charter to support armed struggle. At the fifth PNC in February 1969 in Cairo, al-Fatah elected Yasir Arafat the new chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The following year, he was given the title commander in chief as well. Thereafter, alFatah gained greater control of senior PLO positions, with Arafat's close aides Salah Khalaf (known by the nom de guerre Abu Iyad), Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), Faruq Qaddumi (Abu Lutf), Khalid al-Hasan, and others taking key posts.

Since 1969 the history of al-Fatah has been intertwined with that of the PLO, though the other guerrilla movements have often been able to limit al-Fatah's freedom of action. Until after the PLO's withdrawal from Beirut in 1982, al-Fatah's positions were sometimes hard to distinguish from the PLO's, but with each successive split within the PLO (or withdrawal of various rejectionist groups from the PLO leadership), al-Fatah's role as the main pro-negotiation faction became more pronounced. Starting in the late 1970s, al-Fatah merged its al-Asifa forces within the PLO's Palestine Liberation Army.

With the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank in 1987, al-Fatah leaders inside the occupied territories became prominent in the Unified National Leadership of the Intifada. At the same time, Arafat and his al-Fatah colleagues in exile were the main force in pushing the PLO toward recognition of Israel's right to exist. Despite many predictions over the years that al-Fatah would lose control of the PLO or that Arafat, at least, would be replaced as its head, and despite the assassinations of Khalaf and al-Wazir, Arafat and the al-Fatah leadership moved the PLO toward a negotiated peace with Israel in the September 1993 Oslo Accord.

The Oslo Accord led to the emergence of the Palestinian Authority (PA), an autonomous government under the PLO's leadership. Al-Fatah-dominated leadership cadre became the leaders of the PA, as factions opposing the Oslo Accord either broke from the PLO or were unable to reverse the new course. Yet the former al-Fatah exiles, some of whom built luxurious homes in the West Bank and were involved in cronyism and corruption, were resented by West Bank al-Fatah veterans who had lived through years of Israeli occupation. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000 led to the emergence of armed al-Fatah groups in the West Bank, the Tanzim militia and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The latter was involved in suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. The divisions within al-Fatah were most acrimonious during the summer of 2003, when Arafat was locked in a bitter power struggle with his former colleague and PA prime minister, Mahmud Abbas, which he eventually won. Abbas was replaced by another veteran alFatah member, Ahmad Qurai (Abu Ala), who also faced a power struggle with Arafat. In February 2004, the revolutionary council met for the first time in three years to deal with al-Fatah's mounting internal strife, which included mass resignations over alleged misrule by the group's veteran leadership.

See also Abbas, Mahmud; Arafat, Yasir; Banna, Sabri al-; Hasan, Hani al-; Hasan, Khalid al-; Khalaf, Salah; League of Arab States; Oslo Accord (1993); Palestine National Charter (1968); Palestine National Council; Palestinian Authority; Qaddumi, Faruq; Qurai, Ahmad Sulayman; Shuqayri, Ahmad; Wazir, Khalil al-.


Aburish, Said. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. New York: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power, and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Iyad, Abou, with Rouleau, Eric. My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle. New York: Times Books, 1981.

Khalidi, Rashid. Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

michael dunn updated by michael r. fischbach