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by Pinhas Inbari



The Myth of "Secular" Fatah

The current political efforts on the Palestinian track are based on the assumption that "moderate" Fatah should be empowered versus "radical Hamas." The internal infighting in the Palestinian arena has also been described as "secular versus religious." Yet while Hamas is religious in nature by definition, a Fatah defined as secular is far from reality. A brief review of its websites reveals frequent Muslim phrases and tenets in its discourse, for example, on the holy duty to liberate Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque, and the religious terminology of jihad that has an equal footing with the secular term "resistance." Hamas also uses "resistance" and jihad as synonyms, and the term "resistance" is even part of Hamas' official name -- "the Islamic Resistance Movement."

While one cannot claim that Fatah is a religious movement, it has strong Muslim features. Its military wing is the "Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade," whose military announcements are heavily laced with Koranic verses identical to those used by Hizbullah, according to which "the weakest on the face of the earth" will become strong and inherit "and become the imams -- the rulers." This is the verse that Fatah leader Yasser Arafat chose to cite when he first entered Gaza in 1994 after the Oslo agreements.

Islamic Jihad's Roots in Fatah

The similarity in religious discourse between Fatah's Aqsa Martyrs and Hizbullah is not accidental. The most recent terror operation in Eilat was endorsed jointly by Islamic Jihad and the "Army of the Believers," an Aqsa Martyrs affiliate. In fact, both Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah were established with deep Fatah involvement. Originally, Islamic Jihad was actually a purely Fatah offshoot and was a shadow of Fatah for years.

Islamic Jihad was born as a result of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, when Fatah was its main supporter in the Arab world. Khomeini saw Fatah as a prime tool to spread his Islamic revolution in the Sunni world. But the Fatah-Shiite honeymoon broke down over Khomeini's demand of Fatah to "convert" to Islam and become what Hamas and Islamic Jihad are today, as well as due to Sunni pressure on Arafat, especially by Saddam Hussein, not to cross those red lines. However, the original founding of Islamic Jihad was as part and parcel of the military apparatus of Arafat's deputy, Abu Jihad.

Abu Jihad, as his name may convey, was the major promoter of Islamic features in Fatah, as opposed to Abu Iyyad, Arafat's second deputy, who was closer to the Soviet Union and then to the U.S. The initial appearance of Islamic Jihad was the attack on Beit Hadassah in Hebron in May 1990, killing six Israelis and wounding sixteen. When the members of the cell were captured, they revealed that they were sent by Abu Jihad, who told them that the ultimate goal of establishing Islamic Jihad was to Islamize Fatah.

The recognized founder of Islamic Jihad was Fat'hi Shqaqi, a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood member in Egypt who believed that the Egyptian parent organization was neglecting the Palestinian cause. Once in Israeli prison, Shqaqi told Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on Muslim radical movements, that he conceived Islamic Jihad as the promoter of an Arab revolution that would revive the Muslim caliphate. In due course, Shqaqi adopted the Shiite religion.

Even after Islamic Jihad left the Fatah womb, the special relationship between the Abu Jihad wing in Fatah and the Khomeini revolution was never broken. During the first Lebanon war, Abu Jihad followers helped Iran establish Hizbullah on the ruins of the Fatah infrastructure that Israel had destroyed in the war. Anti-Iranian elements inside Fatah objected to the tight connections between Fatah's military wing and Iran, and in internal clashes Abu Iyyad's followers were defeated by Abu Jihad's followers led by Abu Ali Shaheen, who later became one of Arafat's main supporters in Gaza. After the PLO left Lebanon, the remnants of the pro-Iranian elements left behind in the Palestinian refugee camps became either linked with Hizbullah or later became the core for the al-Qaeda group "Ansar al-Sunna."

Islamic Jihad-Fatah Cooperation in the 2000 Intifada

More significant was the tight cooperation between Islamic Jihad and Fatah during the second intifada beginning in 2000. While previously there had been significant resistance inside Fatah to links with Iran, this disappeared after the Oslo agreements. The major element opposing Iranian influence on Fatah was Arafat's Praetorian Guard -- Force 17. But when he established his security forces in the Palestinian territories, Arafat left Force 17 commander Abu Tayyib (Mahmud Natur) outside and preferred the pro-Iranian Mahmud Damra, who was engaged in linking the upcoming uprising with Hizbullah and Iran. When the Aqsa Martyrs were established, their commander, the mysterious Abu Mujahid, was later named as Munir Maqdah, the military commander of Fatah forces in Lebanon and the closest Fatah figure to Iran and Hizbullah at the time.

Hence, while during the years prior to Oslo a balance was kept within the military echelons of Fatah between pro- and anti-Iranian elements, after Oslo, during the rebuilding of Fatah military forces, Arafat connected both Force 17 and the Aqsa Martyrs. The remnants of the old Force 17 were placed in the negligible "General Command," while the new Force 17 was reshaped in a way to be linked with Iran and Hizbullah. Islamic Jihad, as was apparent during the uprising, was the closest to the Aqsa Martyrs in terms of both operational cooperation and sources of funding, meaning Iran. This was apparent not only on the daily tactical level but, as the case of the Karine A weapons ship revealed, on the strategic level. The joint plan of Fatah and Hizbullah was to surround Israel with terror rocket power from all sides. This master plan still exists, but now after the demise of Arafat, the main role has been given to Hamas.

When the initial cooperation between Fatah and Iran began, Hamas did not yet exist and the Muslim Brotherhood was no less anti-Shiite than it is today. But as Hamas became stronger and Fatah weakened, the center of gravity shifted to Hamas. Yet, as far as Fatah and Islamic Jihad are concerned, their bonds are stronger. As a matter of fact, they are brothers.

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently reports for several foreign media outlets. He is the author of a number of books on the Palestinians including The Palestinians: Between Terrorism and Statehood.

This article was published as a Jerusalem Issue Brief -- Vol. 6, No.21 -- March 1, 2007 -- by the Institute for Contemporary Affairs. It is archived at: 111&FID=377&PID=0&IID=1510&TTL=Brothers_in_Arms: _Fatah_and_Palestinian_Islamic_Jihad
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