Fatah Revolutionary Council

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Fatah Revolutionary Council


LEADERS: Yasser Arafat; Farouk Kaddoumi


ESTIMATED SIZE: More than 10,000

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Israeli-occupied territories; Jordan; Syria


Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini, translation for Palestinian National Liberation Movement) is one of the oldest, and, largely because of the all-pervasive role in Palestinian politics of its late leader, Yasser Arafat, arguably the preeminent Palestinian political-military organization during the five decades of its existence. Following the death of Arafat in November 2004, it has been beset by an internal power struggle.


Fatah was formed by Palestinian graduates working in Kuwait in 1957 as a Palestinian liberation organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, Khalil Wazir, and Salah Khalaf. Initially, they believed that the sort of armed struggle that would lead to the eviction of the French from Algeria in 1962 could be replicated in Palestine.

In its early years, it was little more than a talking shop, and it was not until 1965 that Fatah announced itself to the world with its first cross-border raids from Jordan and Lebanon. The first raid was stopped by the Lebanese authorities; and the group's first "martyr" was killed not by the Israelis, but by Jordanian border guards.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Fatah moved its operations to Jordan on a wholesale basis, and began operating a guerilla movement in the recently occupied West Bank in an effort to bring about a popular uprising and usurp its new conquerors. Fatah organized guerilla cells to attack Israeli occupiers, but found the Israeli forces too pervasive and West Bankers too shocked by the occupation to collaborate on a wide scale. Again, Fatah initially enjoyed little success, but it soon switched tactics. Instead of working from within the West Bank, it instead started to mount hit and run attacks from outside Israel's new borders. This show of defiance and the relative success of the attacks had a galvanizing effect on the hitherto demoralized population. Moreover, for the first time since Israel's formation two decades earlier, a distinct Palestinian-Israeli conflict opened up as part of the wider Arab-Israeli conflagration.

Things came to a head on March 18, 1968, when an Israeli bus struck a mine left by Palestinian fighters in the south of the country. A doctor and instructor accompanying a party of high school students were killed, and several teenagers injured. It was Fatah's thirty-eighth such operation in barely three months.

Israel decided to strike a reprisal attack at Fatah's headquarters in a refugee camp outside Karameh in Jordan three days later. However, Jordanian intelligence had tipped-off the Palestinians about a likely attack, and they were waiting when Israeli paratroopers landed at dawn. Unexpectedly, Israeli troops came under fierce fire from gunmen, while the main Israeli force faced heavy fire from Jordanian units. What had been planned as an operation to liquidate Fatah's leadership became a pitched battle. In the end, the Israelis destroyed the town, killed 120 Fatah men, and took a similar number prisoner. But, the Israelis had themselves suffered twenty-eight dead before finally retreating, and worst still, abandoned both casualties and equipment in the field.

Less than a year after the disaster of the 1967 war and in the wake of successive routings by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Karameh represented a triumph of sorts, and for the first time removed some of the aura of invincibility that seemed to hang over the IDF. It also transformed Arafat—who had masterminded the Palestinian battle—into an iconic figure, not just within the Palestinian and Arab world, but also across the globe. Suddenly, he found his face on the cover of Time magazine.

Although Israel largely stamped down on the emerging rebellion, Fatah enjoyed considerable success in recruiting and deploying the large numbers of Palestinian youths attracted to the cause of Palestinian nationalism. Moreover, it used its expanding popularity to open up a number of proto-state institutions within Jordan, including a political department, newspapers, and grassroots recruitment networks.

In an effort to try and control the emergent Palestinian liberation movement and boost his own prestige in the Arab world, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser had backed the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in May 1964 in Jerusalem. This was conceived of, and served as, an umbrella for all Palestinian resistance groups, providing political and military coordination when needed, but essentially leaving individual groups free to act as they liked. In July 1968, Fatah joined the PLO. The following year, Yasser Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO executive committee, a position he was to hold for thirty-five years. This made him not just Fatah's preeminent individual, but Palestine's, too.

Fatah's rise and enduring appeal result from the consistent and relatively simple ideology it propagated and maintained. It was a Palestinian nationalist organization above everything else, and linked its basic message of recovering a Palestinian homeland to historic episodes of Palestinian nationalism, like the 1936–1939 uprising and Karameh, to huge effect. It never tainted itself by pledging and confusing the Palestinian cause with rival doctrines, such as Pan-Arabism, Communism or Ba'athism; and its nationalistic focus tended to cut across class and religious lines. It also maintained the necessity of recovering the Palestinian homeland through an armed struggle. By maintaining this basic, consistent line, and by the ubiquity of its leaders, particularly Arafat, it succeeded in forming a fairly uniform Palestinian political and national identity and helped restore a Palestinian dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a way, the late 1960s and early 1970s became the most potent era for Palestinian-led terrorism, with high-profile hijackings, assassinations, and guerilla assaults a seemingly weekly occurrence. With one eye on Arafat's role within the PLO, Fatah tried to distance itself from many of these acts.

The rising number of violent incidents, however, particularly those carried out from Jordan, led the Jordanian ruler, King Hussein, to believe his position was coming under threat. Fearing revolution by Palestinian radicals within his country, on September 16, 1970, Hussein declared military rule, and the Jordanian military killed and expelled thousands of Palestinian militants.

This assault became known as "Black September," and again radicalized Fatah, which was forced to relocate to Lebanon. Although it denied any links, a Fatah offshoot also known as "Black September," emerged determined to take revenge on Hussein. This was a leaderless resistance and also comprised members of other Palestinian resistance organizations. Its list of attacks—including the assassination of the Jordanian prime minister, the highjacking of a Belgian passenger jet, and an attack on the Saudi embassy in Khartoum (killing U.S. and Belgian diplomatic staff)—was topped for notoriety by the attack on the Olympic village during the 1972 games in Munich, which killed eleven Israeli athletes. When the Israeli government sent out a Mossad death squad to kill its perpetrators, the list of casualties that emerged over the years included a number of individuals with close links to Fatah, including Ali Hassan Salameh, a commander in Arafat's personal security detail.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 marked a downturn in Palestinian international terror, although the PLO soon became deeply embroiled in the Lebanese civil war. Virtually, the only organization actively carrying out international terrorist attacks was Abu Nidal's group of followers. Nidal, a deeply paranoid and psychopathic individual, had previously been allied with Arafat at Fatah, but had broken away in 1973 and carried out a hideous range of terrorist attacks, eventually it seemed, almost on a freelance basis. Fatah's acts of "extremism" during the late 1970s and 1980s tended to be limited to attacks on Abu Nidal members or the regimes that sheltered them. The exception came in 1985 when Fatah murdered two Israeli undercover agents in Barcelona.

Arafat, in his dual role as head of the PLO and Fatah, continued to carve out a political niche for the Palestinian cause. But in 1982, like the majority of the Palestinian leadership in exile in Beirut, he was outcast again as a result of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and forced to relocate to Tunisia.

By having to move even further from the heart of the action, Fatah was weakened, but at the same time it reinforced Arafat's conviction that it could not defeat Israel on the battlefield. He renewed moves towards a political solution, heightening the need for internal discipline among Fatah ranks, even at a time when his recognition of Israel on behalf of the PLO (1988) and his removal of paragraphs within the Palestinian Charter calling for the destruction of Israel (1989) caused deep domestic anxiety and opposition to Fatah.

These moves would culminate in the Oslo Accords of 1993, when Arafat renounced terrorism in exchange for the right to form a Palestinian-led administration in Gaza and the West Bank. A year later, Arafat would be made a Nobel Peace laureate.



Farouk Kaddoumi is among the longest-standing figures within the Fatah movement, having joined the Arafat-led organization as far back as 1960, while working in the United Arab Emirates. He went on to forge a career as a PLO and Fatah bureaucrat, at one time heading the PLO's Political Department in Damascus.

A noted hardliner, in 1983 he led a mutiny attempt against Arafat, later switching sides to be reunited with him. Nevertheless, he resolutely opposed the Oslo Accords, even refusing to leave exile in Tunisia to take up a role in the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Following Arafat's death in November 2004, Kaddoumi emerged as the surprise victor in the Fatah leadership election. He has indicated a willingness to engage in talks with Israel, but equally pledged to return to an armed struggle if necessary.

However, in 1995, partly to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants and partly to protect his own position, Arafat formed a new militia, Fatah Tanzim. This was initially involved in the suppression of militants within the Palestinian Authority, following a series of suicide bombings within Israel in 1996 and 1997. Yet when the al-Aqsa Intifada broke out in the fall of 2000, Tanzim stood accused of becoming embroiled in the violence. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle Eastern Reporting in America (CAMERA) accuses Fatah Tanzim of more than a hundred deaths since 2001. (It is worth mentioning that CAMERA is vehemently pro-Israeli, and accuses Fatah Tanzim of killings that different sources have attributed to other groups.)

Another group associated with Fatah is the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which carried out a number of suicide attacks against Israeli civilian targets. Although the brigade was neither officially recognized nor openly backed by Yasser Arafat or Fatah, brigade members tended to belong to Fatah. Israel prosecuted Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank and potential successor to Arafat, for being the head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a charge he continues to deny.


Fatah is a secular Palestinian organization committed to the recovery of Palestinian homeland on the territory of the state of Israel. It emphasizes its nationalistic strain as its central tenet. As a political party, it propagates a brand of moderate socialism, but has traditionally distanced itself from rival doctrines such as PanArabism, communism, or Ba'athism. Its nationalistic focus has tended to cut across class and religious lines, but its secularism has brought it into conflict with rival Palestinian movements, such as Hamas, founded on religious lines. Although it is regarded as a moderate organization in the scheme of Palestinian politics and recognizes Israel and the need for a political dialogue, it has maintained the "necessity" of recovering the Palestinian homeland through an armed struggle.

Although it started out as a political-military organization and was behind the Palestinian resistance at Karameh, Arafat's preeminence in the PLO and engagement as a political leader saw Fatah largely abandon its military struggle. In a way, this helped breed its success: political discipline bred continuity, and stability led to ubiquity and ascendancy.

Nevertheless, Fatah has continued to be linked to extremism through its armed wing, Fatah Tanzim. Moreover, it has also been hit by accusations that its leaders have maintained links with breakaway militant groups, including Black September, Abu Nidal, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade.


Profiling Arafat in 1974, Time magazine believed it was his single-mindedness and ability to network that catapulted Arafat and his Fatah movement to preeminence. "Arafat has never married," noted Time. "Palestine is my wife," he once remarked, and those who know him well agree with the judgment. "It is his complete devotion," says one Palestinian friend, "twentyfour hours a day, thirty days a month, 365 days a year. There is no stop—ever." Says a PLO official: "He is one of the few people I can think of who can fly directly from Riyadh to Moscow and get along well in both places."


Formed by Palestinian graduates working in Kuwait.
Fatah moves its operations to Jordan, from where it launches hit and run attacks across the Israeli border.
Battle of Karameh.
Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat, elected head of the PLO.
Fatah expelled from Jordan; Black September movement emerges.
Murders of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Black September.
Abu Nidal Organization breaks ties with Fatah.
Fatah leadership forced into exile from Lebanon to Tunisia.
Oslo Accords followed by Fatah's return to the occupied territories.
Arafat's death.
HAMAS wins control of Palestinian Authority Parliament.

The article continues: "Despite his fire eating anti-Israel rhetoric, Arafat in private is quiet, almost self-effacing. He seldom talks about himself or his past life, largely, it seems, because he wants to avoid creating a personality cult. Within Al Fatah and the PLO, he has no close-knit circle of advisers or a kitchen cabinet. At staff meetings he solicits opinions from everyone, picking and choosing from the advice given him. Compared with Egypt's expansive President Sadat or even with the zealous George Habash, Arafat has little in the way of charisma, but he can inspire devotion nonetheless. In part, that may be because he seems to care genuinely about his fellow Palestinians—in exile."

Writing in the Guardian in November 2004, as Arafat lay on his death bed, Ahmad Samih Khalidi, a former Palestinian negotiator and senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford, stated why he believed Arafat was so important not just to Fatah, but the Palestinian people as a whole: "The clichés used to describe him—father of the Palestinian people, symbol of their resistance, supreme decision-maker on their behalf—are well-founded. But Arafat's most important role has been twofold: first, to lead the Palestinian people out of the state of political concussion that befell them after the loss of their homeland in 1948; and then to lay the foundations for a resolution of the conflict with Israel, based on a Palestinian state living alongside Israel."

Kahlidi continued: "Arafat, along with other founder members of the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement Fatah, played a decisive role in recreating the Palestinians' sense of national identity and reconstructing the shattered remnants of Palestinian political society, pulverised and dispersed as a result of the destruction of their homeland."

Khalidi wrote: "The emergence of Fatah marked the transition of the Palestinian cause from a humanitarian issue of destitute refugees into one of a people who had taken their destiny into their own hands. Fatah soon transformed itself—as it took over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the late 1960s—into the overarching umbrella encompassing all shades of Palestinian opinion, creed and ideology. Indeed, it became synonymous with the Palestinians themselves. Arafat's importance emerges from this sense that he embodies the national spirit not only within Palestine itself, but—crucially—outside Palestine, too, in the larger diaspora where the majority of Palestinians still live."


A sweeping upset victory by HAMAS backed candidates in the January 2006 elections threw Fatah and the Palestinian political scene into turmoil. HAMAS gained control of Parliament and clashed with Fatah leaders over the control of security forces and foreign policy.

Despite HAMAS gaining political supremacy in Parliament, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, elected President in January 2005, stated that his government would continue to honor peace agreements with Israel and urged outside nations not to withdraw aid to Palestine. HAMAS control of parliament did not directly threaten Abbas's role as President, but forced him to negotiate with HAMAS to select a new prime minister. Criticism began to grow regarding Fatah leaders' alleged corruption and lack of progress in both domestic and foreign issues.



Aburish, Said. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Nashville, TN: Westview, 2000.

Wallach, Janet. Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder. New York: Citadel, 2001.


Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade

Abu Nidal Organization

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