CAMERA Op-Ed: How ‘Moderate’ and ‘Secular’ is Fatah?

“We are all capable,” the writer George Orwell once warned, “of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts to show that we were right.” But, he added, “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against a solid reality”—and “usually on a battlefield.”

Orwell’s warning is certainly applicable on the battlefield of the Israel-Islamist conflict, where mistaken assumptions are often uncritically heralded as truths.

One such belief—championed by press and pundits alike—is that Fatah, the movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is both “moderate” and “secular.”

Evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

To be sure: Fatah is both more moderate and secular than its Gaza-based competitors like Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood derivative, or Iranian proxies like Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). But make no mistake: Fatah is neither moderate nor particularly secular, as those terms are often understood. The group’s history makes this clear.

Fatah was formed sixty years ago this October when twenty or so men gathered in a Kuwaiti home. They chose the name Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyya (Palestinian Liberation Movement), whose acronym reversed spells Fatah—meaning “conquest.”

The movement had a decidedly immoderate objective: the destruction of the Jewish nation of Israel.

Yasser Arafat, Fatah’s leader for the next 45 years, proved adept at making broad statements that wouldn’t alienate potential followers. As Arafat explained, “We do not have any ideology—our goal is the liberation of our fatherland by any means necessary.” As for the means, Arafat exhorted: “It is the commandos who will decide the future” of the Palestinian movement.

Indeed, not only did Fatah embrace terrorism, its dehumanizing rhetoric and depiction of the Jewish state as an illegitimate “other” practically demanded that it do so. Israel, Arafat said, was “an embodiment of neo-Nazism” and “intellectual terrorism and racial exploitation.”

As Arafat said in a March 29, 1970 interview with The Washington Post, “The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromise.”

Accordingly, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Fatah carried out numerous terrorist attacks that targeted Israeli civilians. The group fed regional instability by carrying out assaults from the nations of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, with varying levels of support from those governments. Many of the attacks were planned by Khalil al-Wazir, a top Arafat aide who went by the nom de guerre Abu Jihad (Father of Jihad).

On March 1, 1973, Fatah operatives carried out a terror attack in Khartoum, Sudan, murdering an American ambassador and his deputy chief of mission. Although the terrorists identified themselves not as Fatah, but as Black September, communications intercepted by the National Security Agency led the CIA to conclude that “the operation was carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval” of Fatah head Yasser Arafat.

But some persisted in seeing moderation—despite evidence to the contrary. As the journalist Ronen Bergman recounts in Rise and Kill First, his history of Israel’s intelligence agencies, even after Khartoum, CIA officials wined and dined Ali Hassan Salameh, the head of Fatah’s Force 17, Arafat’s bodyguard and counterintelligence unit. The CIA even gave Salameh a custom leather holster for his pistol and helped organize the terrorist’s honeymoon in Hawaii and Disneyland, in which a “senior official escorted the couple wherever they went, including on all the rides in the California theme park.”

Among Force 17’s star operatives was Imad Mughniyah, who would later join Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Mughniyah played a key role in numerous terrorist attacks, including the April 18 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut—an attack that murdered Robert Ames, Salameh’s CIA contact, among 62 others. Ames, his biographer Kai Bird has noted, had viewed Force 17’s Salameh as a sympathetic and moderating force in Fatah.

By the early 1990s, Fatah was in disarray. Its top leadership resided in Tunis, Abu Jihad had been assassinated by the IDF in 1988, and it had lost its chief financiers: the Soviet Union, as well as many Arab nations upset who were upset with Arafat’s support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

However, the 1990s Oslo peace process provided Fatah with an opening. Arafat and Fatah’s leadership promised to eschew terrorism, to engage in bilateral negotiations with Israel to resolve outstanding disputes, and to desist from inciting anti-Jewish violence. In exchange, they were offered the opportunity for “limited self-rule” in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip.

Many commentators claimed to discern a more “moderate” Fatah. But Arafat soon made it clear that he wasn’t interested in “two states” for “two people.” Indeed, in televised remarks carried on Jordanian television, as well as in speeches in South Africa and at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Arafat admitted that Oslo was but a deception and, he proclaimed in a 1996 speech in Stockholm: “We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state.”

To offset gains made by Islamist Palestinian competitors like Hamas, Arafat began to change his rhetoric and tactics. Arafat created the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terrorist group culled from the ranks of Fatah’s Tanzim faction. The Brigade’s very name and its rhetoric and insignia employ Islamist motifs, and the group—bankrolled and controlled by Fatah—partnered with Hamas, PIJ and others in carrying out terror attacks during the Second Intifada (2000-05).

In the years since Arafat’s 2004 death, Fatah can still not be described as moderate. The movement has insisted on paying salaries to terrorists and their families. It glorifies slain terrorists by naming Palestinian sports teams, schools and streets after them. And like his predecessor, current Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas has rejected U.S. and Israeli proposals for peace in exchange for a Palestinian state.

And while he’s no Islamist, Abbas has used religious imagery to incite anti-Jewish violence. In Sept. 16, 2015 remarks, for example, Abbas exhorted: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every shaheed (martyr) will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward.”

“Al-Aqsa,” he said, “is ours and the (Church of the) Holy Sepulcher is ours. Everything is ours.”

George Orwell once wrote that it is a “constant struggle” to “see what is in front of one’s nose.” Accordingly, he suggested keeping “some kind of record of one’s opinions.” The record of Fatah, however, is clear.

(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post on May 13, 2019)

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