Backgrounder: Tanzim

In late July 2017, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the head of the Fatah movement that dominates it, “mobilized the shadowy militia elements of his party,” for protests against Israeli efforts to improve security near the Temple Mount. Among these elements was a group known as Tanzim. According to Grant Rumley, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank: “In activating the Tanzim, a faction of his own party that Abbas has struggled to control, the Palestinian President was sanctioning his people’s unrest (“The End of the Abbas Era, The American Interest, Aug. 9, 2017).”

Rumley stated that by calling on Tanzim, the PA head was effectively ending the “Abbas Era” himself, while edging towards a violent abyss; the “closest the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got to an actual third intifada (violent uprising.)” This raises the question: Who is the Tanzim faction—and how does the media cover the group?


The Fatah Tanzim (Arabic for “organization”) was formed in 1995 by Yasser Arafat to serve as a counterbalance to rival groups, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Unlike PIJ or Hamas, however, Tanzim had more of a base in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Indeed, Tanzim is an “insider” organization, with close ties to Fatah, according to the analyst and journalist Arlene Kushner (Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, Pavilion Press, 2004, pgs. 138-141).

Yet, unlike the current leadership of Fatah, which was in Tunis at the time, many Tanzim members were jailed and “seasoned veterans of the first intifada (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO).” Further, although its members are part of Fatah, they are of a different, younger clique—one removed from the group’s founding generation.

As Kushner noted, “The Tanzim actually offers young men not only a way to identify but also a safety value to expressing grievances against what they see as the corrupt nepotism of the Tunis elite.” Tanzim provides other benefits for Fatah leadership, as well.

Although ties with the PA are “very real,” Tanzim gives the authority’s leadership “distance and deniability” while still carrying out terror attacks. For this reason, Tanzim’s links with PA leadership are “deliberately nebulous (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO).” Arafat himself used Tanzim as “a tool to forment violence, which he then used to enhance his negotiating position with Israel. He claimed that he did not control the movement and that Tanzim’s pressure was forcing him toward a more militant position (Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, Oxford University Press, 2011, pg. 82).”

David Schenker, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, has called the Tanzim the “ideological heir to the Fatah hawks—Arafat’s armed enforcers during the latter days of the [first] intifada—which was dismantled through a security agreement with Israel in 1995-1996(Inside the Fatah Tanzim: A Primer, Oct. 6, 2000).”

Daniel Byman, a Georgetown professor and former U.S. State Department terrorism analyst, noted that “the Tanzim began with Fatah youths who had been active in the First Intifada, and its ranks swelled as thousands of Palestinians eventually joined. At the heart of the Tanzim were local PLO figures, like its leader on the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, who made their mark before and during the First Intifada…. The Tanzim offered Fatah street power outside the official organizations. Part of its purpose was to maintain ‘street cred’ with younger radicals who were attracted to the more militant Islamists and supported resistance (Byman, A High Price, pg. 81).”

History of terror

Tanzim’s first major attack was the so-called Tunnel Riots of September 1996. These occurred when the Israeli government opened up an archaeological site in the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinian leadership spread rumors that Israel sought to change the status quo at the al-Aqsa mosque, located near the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. During these riots, Tanzim operatives attacked Israeli security forces (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, pg. 140).

In March 1997, Arafat reorganized Tanzim “with a goal toward using it as a spearhead in a future military confrontation,” according to Middle East analyst Efraim Karsh. Unlike Kushner, Karsh argues that Tanzim was “established in the early 1980s by Fatah youth,” but was “largely dormant during the early 1990s (Efraim Karsh, Arafat’s War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest, Grove Press, 2003, pg. 154).”

Tensions with Fatah

Shortly after this period, tensions emerged between Tanzim and the old guard of Fatah’s leadership. Writing in 1999, the Middle East analyst Barry Rubin noted that the “local” and grassroots structure of Tanzim—many of whom were not with Fatah’s founders in Jordan, Lebanon, or Tunis in the previous decades—presented a threat to Arafat’s rule.

Although he founded Tanzim, Arafat was always concerned about other power bases developing. Accordingly, in October 1998, PA military intelligence, operating under an Arafat relative named Musa Arafat, conducted a raid on a Tanzim office in Ramallah, searching for unauthorized weapons. Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti responded with a protest at Musa Arafat’s office in Ramallah. PA security services opened fire, killing and wounding several Palestinians, including a relative of the PA’s own Minister of Civil Affairs, Jamal al-Tarifi (The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, Harvard University Press, 1999, pg. 103).

Tanzim’s “position vis-à-vis the peace process is maximalist, with members sometimes protesting perceived concessions made by the PA,” according to Kushner. Byman noted another reason for Tanzim’s stance during the 1990s: The group “resented the dominance of the Fatah old guard.”

Byman added that Tanzim “denounced the corruption and incompetence of the PA and called for more democracy and transparency within the organization. The Tanzim itself had internal elections and had far more grassroots strength than the PA” did during this period (Byman, A High Price, pg. 82).

Strength and support

Tanzim’s headquarters are in PA-ruled Ramallah. Universities have historically served as a source of organizational strength for the faction: Bir Zeit University in Bethlehem and An-Najar University in Nablus, in particular, have provided recruiting grounds for a movement that has a “grassroots structure.” The group also has cells in high schools, refugee camps, and various villages (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO). A Washington Institute for Near East Policy report by analyst David Schenker noted that many Tanzim members “are believed to be either university students or recent graduates.” Additiona
lly, “many serve in the Palestinian security services (Inside the Fatah Tanzim: A Primer).”

Similar to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other U.S.-designated terror groups, Tanzim controls mosques, charities, and government institutions (Byman, A High Price, pg. 335). As with Hamas, this tactic helps Tanzim shore up support.

The exact number of Tanzim members is unknown, although, as noted above, potentially thousands of Palestinians have participated in some sort of training with the organization. The group relies on grassroots organization with individual members of Tanzim receiving orders from local commanders. During the Arafat-era, the Fatah head himself selected senior Tanzim leaders; its unclear to what extent this is still the case, however (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, pg. 139).

As an entity of Fatah, the “Palestinian Authority underwrites the activities of the Tanzim.” The group’s arsenal and capabilities have grown in the more than twenty years since their founding. The group possess “assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles, some of which, Kushner notes, have “been provided by the Palestinian Authority. Additional weapons are purchased from various sources, while still others are smuggled from Egypt and Jordan (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, pg. 140).”

Fatah’s role in creating and underwriting Tanzim, as well as choosing its leadership, makes hollow any claim that the Fatah and the PA do not oversee the organization.

The Second Intifada

According to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Tanzim initially “confined itself to shooting attacks on Israelis on roads in the disputed territories.” In part, this was because the group “lacked the resources” for carrying out “professional” bombings a la Hamas or PIJ during the mid-1990s (“The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—A political tool with an edge,” March 24, 2002).

However, this changed with the launching of the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-05, also known as the Second Intifada) by Yasser Arafat, the head of Fatah, the PA, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). According to Kushner, Tanzim was “key to organizing” the five years or so of open warfare on Israelis, civilian and non-civilians alike.

ICT noted that Arafat “ordered his security services to release the majority of the imprisoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants—many of them convicted terrorists who had been jailed under the terms of the Oslo agreements with Israel.” Fatah’s Tanzim and its associated group, the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, joined in carrying out attacks.

Writing in late 2002—midway through the intifada—ICT noted:

“The Fatah Tanzim and the Martyrs of al-Aqsa have taken responsibility for more than 300 terror attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed. Israeli authorities say that since September 2000 the Fatah-linked groups have carried out more than 1,500 attacks and attempted attacks, including car bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and knife attacks.”

Despite the tensions noted above, Tanzim has close ties to the PA’s security services. During the Second Intifada, Tanzim operated, at times, in conjunction with Force 17, nominally Arafat’s bodyguard unit (for more, see CAMERA’s Backgrounder on Force 17). Indeed, the authority’s security forces provide military training to Tanzim members at summer camps. Tanzim has claimed, “Tens of thousands of their members have received training.” This figure, however, could be an exaggeration; like other Palestinian terror factions, Tanzim is adept at exploiting the media for propaganda purposes (Kushner, Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO).

One tactic that Tanzim utilized during the Second Intifada was attacking Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from the cover of Palestinian crowds. This use of human shields—a common tactic by terror groups—resulted in increased injuries and deaths of civilians; a propaganda coup in the media war against Israel.

Relations with the PA and terror groups

Tanzim also used the Second Intifada to send a “message” to Arafat and Fatah leadership “not to sideline them,” Byman notes (Byman, A High Price, pg. 118). In part to “mollify” the Tanzim, Arafat allowed the group to create the National and Islamic Higher Committee for the Follow-up of the Intifada, and authorized local Tanzim factions to attack IDF forces during the early months of the intifada. This led to the creation of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in late 2000, and Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza.

This, Byman points out, was an attempt by Arafat to make PA-forces appear to be uninvolved in terror attacks, while simultaneously supporting Fatah groups carrying out anti-Jewish violence (Byman, A High Price, pg. 120-21). In his biography of Yasser Arafat, Barry Rubin noted:

“While Tanzim, Force 17, and the Iraqi-backed Palestine Liberation Front…were killing Israeli civilians despite his public requests for them to stop, Arafat wrote notes on his own personal stationery ordering payments to the gunmen. Some of this money was sent by Arafat in response to a personal request by Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Tanzim. Another of those he paid was Atef Abiat, a terrorist Arafat had said he could not find when Israel requested his arrest (Yasser Arafat: A Political Biography, Oxford University Press, 2003, pg. 258-9).”

Despite their ties to the PA, Tanzim and Force 17’s roles in carrying out terror attacks during the Second Intifada led to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon designated them as terrorist entities (Karsh, Arafat’s War, pg. 227)

Arafat himself, discounting a future Hamas threat to Fatah rule, supported Hamas actions during the al-Asqa intifada. With his support, Tanzim called for “the resumption of Hamas’s martyrdom operations.” Tanzim members “in particular began to conduct joint attacks with past rivals,” including Hamas, PIJ, and others (Byman, A High Price, pg. 139)

Tanzim members have cooperated with other terror groups, including Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The cooperation spans the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, as well.

According to a Dec. 12, 2005 report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Tanzim has links to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based, Iranian-backed terror group. The center noted that Israeli forces had detained a man named Majdi Kamal ‘Abd al-Jabbar ‘Amer near Nablus on Oct. 16, 2005. During his interrogation, the man stated that “he took orders from Hezbollah in Lebanon through a kind of front-line headquarters in the Gaza Strip, which liaised between Hezbollah handlers in Lebanon and terrorist-operatives in the West Bank to transfer money and instructions to Fatah/Tanzim operatives.” Majdi ‘Amer also stated that many of the Tanzim operatives being financed by Hezbollah belonged to the PA’s security services.

Tanzim’s own attacks were well organized and evidenced opportunism. In one instance, an operative named Mohammed Matlah helped set up an ambush near Road 443 in Israel. Matlah waited at a gas station and struck up a conversation with a woman named Yoela Chen—seeking
to confirm her nationality. Upon finding out that she was Israeli, Matlah notified other Tanzim operatives who murdered the girl (Byman, A High Price, pg. 137).

Tanzim’s areas of operations are largely confined to Israel and PA-ruled areas. However, the group has killed Americans in their attacks—including an American Israeli farmer in a April 19, 1998 terror attack near Hebron (Barry Rubin and Judith Rubin, Chronologies of Modern Terrorism, 2015, Routledge,).

Tanzim’s skill at media manipulation was also evidenced throughout the intifada. In one March 2002 incident an operative was arrested while working as an ambulance driver for the Palestinian Red Crescent. His ambulance contained “explosive belts and explosive devices destined for delivery to Tanzim activists in Ramallah.” One belt was even hidden underneath the body of a child lying on a stretcher in the vehicle. Similarly, in July 2004, the IDF arrested two Tanzim members who were also PA security service officers—they were part of a plot to deliver material to suicide bombers in Jerusalem (Byman, A High Price, pg. 164).

Among Tanzim’s leaders was a dentist, Dr. Thabet Ahmad Thabet, who headed the group’s operations in Tulkaram. An IDF sniper shot Thabet on Dec. 31, 2000 during the Second Intifada. The dentist/terror leader was active in peace negotiations in his Fatah role, while simultaneously engaging in terrorism (Byman, A High Price, pg. 314).

Marwan Barghouti

The head of Tanzim is Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti was born in 1959. He served as student council president at Bir Zeit University, where he was active in Fatah’s youth movement. Barghouti spent several years in Israeli jails after being sentenced in 1976, before he was deported from the Israeli-ruled West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in 1987. While in prison, Barghouti learned Hebrew (Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder: Profiles on Palestinian Leaders). Within two years, he was elected to serve on Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. In 1994, with the signing of the Oslo peace accords, Barghouti returned to the West Bank and was elected as member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996, representing Ramallah (Inside the Fatah Tanzim: A Primer).

On occasion, Barghouti publically criticized positions taken by Fatah’s leadership. For example, he disagreed with Yasser Arafat’s decision to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David (Inside the Fatah Tanzim: A Primer). These criticisms prevented an appointment to Fatah’s influential Central Committee and led to tensions with Arafat.

As the head of the Tanzim, Barghouti played a key role in the terror attacks of the Second Intifada. Working with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that he reportedly helped create, Barghouti planned and carried out numerous assaults. He was arrested in 2002 and subsequently convicted of four counts of murder. The Tanzim head was sentenced to five life terms in prison.

As CAMERA has noted, Barghouti was serving concurrently as the head of the Fatah supreme committee in the West Bank, and leader of both Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (“Marwan Barghouti’s Links to Terror,” CAMERA, Sept. 4, 2002).

Barghouti has continued to remain an influential force in Palestinian political life despite being imprisoned.

With “his vast popularity on the Palestinian street,” Barghouti briefly challenged Mahmoud Abbas for the PA presidency in 2004, before dropping out (Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas, Promethus Books, 2016, pg. 109).

Barghouti’s popularity has been useful, at times, to the Fatah leadership: Prior to the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the al-Jazeera network was granted an audience with Barghouti who was interviewed from his Israeli prison cell, north of Tel Aviv. Barghouti told Palestinians to participate in the elections and to vote for Fatah over its rival Hamas. The rare interview was perhaps evidence that both Fatah and Israel were increasingly concerned that Hamas would win the election—the first held since 1996. Hamas, nonetheless, won the majority of the vote (Rumley and Tibon, The Last Palestinian, pg. 119).

In the weeks before the election, a gulf had emerged within Fatah, with Marwan Barghouti and his supporters receiving considerable support within the movement over old-guard members like Abbas. Importantly, PA security figures like Jibril Rajoub and Mohammad Dahlan “merged” with members of Barghouti’s “camp (Rumley and Tibon, The Last Palestinian, pg. 119).” This is perhaps reflective of how the Second Intifada empowered groups like Tanzim, as well as a leadership void that followed Arafat’s death.

To maintain his relevancy, Barghouti has used his prison pulpit to criticize Abbas, attack Israel and solicit frequently uncritical media coverage. As CAMERA documented, Barghouti—who earned a PhD in political science while incarcerated—launched a “hunger strike” for better “prisoner conditions” in Israeli prisons in April 2017 (“Marwan Barghouti Gets a Political Science PhD in Jail,” The Jerusalem Post, March 14, 2010).

Tanzim and the Fourth Estate

The convicted terrorist was allowed to publish a April 17, 2017 Op-Ed in The New York Times announcing the strike. The byline used by The Times infamously omitted Barghouti’s record as a terrorist, instead referring to him as merely a Palestinian politician. Similarly, The Washington Post also ran a piece whitewashing Barghouti’s record—and trying to paint him as a Palestinian version of Nelson Mandela, the South Africa leader who worked to end apartheid (“Washington Post Commentator Whitewashes Palestinian Terrorism,” Algemeiner, April 28, 2017).

Both outlets omitted the demands of the prisoner strike. As The Times of Israel noted, Barghouti claimed mistreatment for not receiving “20 channels of television, unrestricted books and magazines, [better] air conditioning…public telephone use” and other considerations. The strike ended on May 27, 2017—but not before Israel released a video of Marwan Barghouti breaking his self-proclaimed “hunger strike” by secretly eating in his jail cell (“Palestinian prisoners end hunger strike,” The Times of Israel, May 27, 2017.

As the analyst Grant Rumley pointed out in his 2015 report entitled The Race to Replace Mahmoud Abbas:

“Barghouti has stayed active by leveraging a popular pulpit in Palestinian politics—Israeli prisons—where he has been issuing statements and even advising graduate students. He regularly challenges decisions made by Abbas and issues his own policy prognoses. Many Palestinians envision a Nelson Mandela scenario with Barghouti, wh
ereby some form of popular pressure might secure his freedom and pave his way to power.”

In addition to Barghouti, another prominent Tanzim head is Jamal Abu Lel, who led the group out of a base in the Qalandiya refugee camp. Abu Lel was arrested in February 2016 for funneling money to and overseeing terror attacks. At the time of his arrest he was a resident of eastern Jerusalem and possessed an Israeli ID card (“Israel Arrests Head of Fatah Armed Wing,” The Times of Israel, Feb. 16, 2016).

Tanzim’s future prospects seem bright. As Rumley stated in The American Interest, the three likeliest contenders to replace Abbas, “Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, and Mahmoud al-Aloul…all represent a significant shift of power back to the Palestinian street. And all three figures have connections to the Tanzim…”

As CAMERA has highlighted, al-Aloul (aka Abu Jihad) is a convicted terrorist. In February 2017, he was appointed to be Abbas’ deputy in the Fatah movement—the first such appointment in Fatah’s nearly sixty-year history. The press, however, largely ignored his ascension (“The Washington Post and the Case of the Missing Abu Jihad,” CAMERA, Aug. 14, 2017). Rumley told CAMERA that al-Aloul has identified himself as a Tanzim member. Rajoub, also a convicted terrorist and former PA security official, was described by Politico magazine as an “urbane diplomat (“Politico: Convicted Palestinian Terrorist is an ‘Urbane Diplomat,’” CAMERA, May 19, 2017).

Tanzim might be inheriting the future of the PAa significant beneficiary of U.S. aid and support. It remains to be seen, however, whether the media will note the faction’s history and objectives. Early returns are far from encouraging.

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