February 4, 2019 marked an important, albeit unheralded, date: the fiftieth anniversary of the ascension of Fatah in Palestinian politics. On Feb. 4, 1969, the movement’s founder, the Egyptian-born Yasser Arafat, was appointed chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). For most of the half century since, Fatah has dominated Palestinian affairs—with fateful consequences for the Middle East and beyond.
Arafat, his biographer Barry Rubin wrote, “succeeded at creating and remaining the leader of the globe’s longest-running revolutionary movement.” Yet both he and Fatah would also lead “his people into more disasters and defeats than any counterpart.”
It was a swift, but uneven, rise for both.
Arafat and about fifteen others founded Fatah on Oct. 10, 1959 in a private home in Kuwait. At the time, Arafat was an engineer working for Kuwait’s Department of Public Works. Most of his compatriots were young Palestinian students or workers employed in the country, which was then experiencing an oil boom and economic growth. They called themselves Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyya (Palestinian Liberation Movement), whose acronym reversed spells Fatah, which means “conquest.”
Arafat himself was deeply influenced by his time at King Fuad University in Cairo, where he received military training from Muslim Brotherhood members who were active on the campus. Arafat, Rubin records, would later seek “to play down his connections with the Brotherhood since it posed political problems” for him in future dealings with Arab nations that viewed the organization as a threat.
But the Muslim Brotherhood nevertheless influenced his ideology. Arafat and Fatah’s role models “did not come from Arab nationalist leaders or thinkers” like the Syrian or Iraqi Ba’athists or Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, “but from the struggle of the early Muslims for whom only total victory over infidels and Crusaders was acceptable.” Indeed, as Rubin pointed out, Arafat’s chosen nom de guerre was Abu Ammar—in honor of a man the Palestinian leader described as “the first martyr of Islam.”
The founding of Fatah in a private home was a perfectly inauspicious start for a group whose pretensions to dominating Palestinian politics likely struck contemporaries as far-fetched. For more than a decade, the Palestinian Hitler collaborator (and distant Arafat cousin) Haj Amin al-Husseini had seen his influence wane. An inspiration to Arafat, who worshipped and admired him, al-Husseini had dominated the Palestinian movement since its nascent beginnings in the 1920s, but by the 1950s he was widely distrusted by both the West and many fellow Arab rulers.
When Fatah was launched, Arab nations in general, and Nasser in particular, exerted control over Palestinian politics. Indeed, many future Fatah members had served as part of a 700-man Palestinian commando unit that was established in Gaza in 1955 and trained by Egyptian forces.
Arab leaders established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a 1964 summit of the Arab League. Nasser hoped to use the PLO to control and manipulate “the Palestinian issue,” and wanted to ward off criticism from regional rivals that he was insufficiently devoted to Israel’s destruction. He placed Ahmad al-Shuqayri, an ally, in charge of the organization. Nevertheless, several Palestinian groups, including Fatah, criticized the PLO as inept and inauthentic.
Backed by Syria, The Storm (al-‘Asifa), the armed wing of Fatah, carried out no fewer than thirty-five attacks against Israel in 1965. The first raid, a Dec. 31, 1964 attack against a water pump, ended poorly, explosive charges failed to detonate and Fatah members were arrested by Lebanese police. Yet, in what was to become a long-standing pattern, Arafat presented the defeat as a victory, heralding it as part of a “duty of Jihad (holy war) and…the dreams of revolutionary Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf.”
Fatah’s own rise had to await Nasser’s misfortunes.
Arab nationalism—and its archetypal leader—was severely discredited by Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 Six Day War. No longer were Nasser and his ideology viewed as the key to destroying the Jewish state. Fatah would seek to claim that mantle. And another loss sold as a victory would give it to them.
In March 1968, Israel raided Fatah’s headquarters in the southern Jordan Valley town of Karama. The excursion was prompted after an Israeli school bus hit a land mine planted by Fatah, murdering two adults and wounding ten children.
The battle that followed, Barry Rubin pointed out, “was an Israeli victory and the main credit for any resistance belonged to the Jordanians.” Nonetheless, Arafat “persuaded Palestinians and the Arab world that Karama was a great victory for his forces, making them appear heroic next to the Arab armies’ cowardice and incompetence a year earlier.” Ever the showman, Arafat had a shattered Israeli tank dragged through Amman.
The Fatah chieftain was rewarded with a meeting and endorsement from Nasser, who also gifted him with a radio station—an important medium in currying favor with the masses as Nasser himself had learned. The Egyptian leader even arranged a July 1968 meeting between Arafat and his own Soviet patrons, who subsequently provided Fatah with arms and training.
Fatah also expanded its presence in Jordan, which it considered part of a future Palestinian state, and began to establish bases in Beirut, Lebanon.
By 1969, Fatah took control of the PLO. That same year, the military historian Richard Gabriel noted, Nasser and Syria pressured Lebanon into signing the Cairo Agreement, “which formally granted the PLO areas of operation beyond effective control of the Lebanon government” and gave it “a number of extraterritorial rights mostly in the refugee camps in the south.”
Fatah and Arafat would never have complete control of the PLO; the interests of a number of other Palestinian groups, each with their own state sponsors and ideologies, would have to be taken into account. But Fatah’s hegemony was never seriously challenged—although the mid-1980s saw acrimony with other, mostly Syrian-backed, factions.
The year 1970 would witness both Nasser’s death and Fatah’s expulsion from Jordan, the latter after the group murdered Jordanian officials and sought to take control of the Hashemite Kingdom itself. Now ensconced in Lebanon, and with a growing terrorist apparatus in western Europe, Fatah’s dominance was assured thanks to Arafat’s skill at playing rival groups off one another, as well as an adroitness at public relations—aided in no small part by an often fawning foreign press.
Indeed, in his book on the Lebanese Civil War—which was sparked, in part, by Fatah’s presence in the country—The New York Times’ Tom Friedman would note that many reporters there were “PLO groupies…who unquestioningly swallowed everything the PLO fed them.”
Fatah’s rise to power is one of the most important events in the modern Middle East, entrenching an authoritarian model of political rule for Palestinians and cementing the then-young PLO as its standard bearer. In the half-century since, only Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood derivative, has emerged to seriously challenge Fatah’s grip. Other leaders and movements have risen and fallen, but Fatah remains—despite its disasters and defeats.
(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Feb. 20, 2019)