FATAH'S EMBRACE OF ISLAMISM
By Ido Zelkovitz
Before the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a Palestinian public opinion survey (conducted between November, 1997, and March, 1999) revealed that 87.6 percent of Fatah supporters believed Islam should play a major role in the future life of Palestinian society, and 80 percent said that any future Palestinian state should be run according to Islamic law. 
Fatah was the dominant political movement in the West Bank and Gaza from the Oslo-sanctioned return of PLO leader Yasir Arafat in 1994 until at least 2000. In September, 2000, the Palestinians launched an uprising and unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks, which they named the "Al-Aqsa" Intifada. Fatah re-branded its armed wing — previously known as the Storm, Al-'Asifa  — calling it Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a name chosen to bolster both Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and Fatah's religious claims. In one of the brigades' earliest proclamations, its members said they fought for independence, and national and religious values. 
Previously, Palestinian figures embraced the sectarian diversity of Palestinian Arabs, especially for the Western audience. For example, in a London press conference, Yasir Arafat said that "according to our religiousness, Christians should be mentioned before the Muslims," which was in the context of the suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the Intifada.  But, today, Palestinian society emphasizes Muslim supremacy. Fatah expresses its new Islamist discourse not only in educational and cultural terms, but also in its embrace of suicide bombing — "self-martyrdom" (istishad) — as a tactic.
Fatah infused its icons with religious imagery in support of its fighters and suicide bombers. A proclamation in memory of Suhail ‘Ali Bakr, an Al-Aqsa member responsible for producing and launching rockets and killed in a February 7, 2007, Israeli air strike, combined the traditional colors of the Islamic jihad flag with the black-and-white checkered headscarf (kaffiyeh), long the symbol of the Fatah movement.
Fatah has embraced Islamist discourse for several reasons. First, competition with Hamas led its leaders to invoke Islam as a way to create a system of symbols and images that, combined with the national struggle, would fuse past and present and pave the way to an ideal future.
In the mid-1980s, Fatah established satellite groups with an Islamic appearance in response to the activities of Islamic Jihad.  Then, as Hamas became a competitor in the run-up to and after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades printed a Qur'anic verse on their banner that read:
It is no coincidence that Hamas used the same verse on its proclamations during the First Intifada. 
Even Arafat embraced religious reference. Arafat often used the language of the Qur'an to mobilize the Palestinians,  especially during times of war. For example, on July 22, 1981,  in the months before the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Arafat told his followers:
Arafat then cites the Qu'ran to promise the afterlife to those who fight for God and Palestine:
God has bought from the believers their lives and their money in exchange for Paradise. Thus, they fight in the cause of God, willing to kill and get killed. Such is His truthful pledge in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur'an — and who fulfills His pledge better than God? You shall rejoice in making such an exchange. This is the greatest triumph. 
In response to allegations that the Israeli army planned to deport him from the West Bank and Gaza, in 2002, he said:
He then quoted the Prophet Muhammad:
In many ways, Arafat paved the way for the growth of Islamism within Fatah.
Second, given Israel's military dominance, Fatah may have embraced Islamism to counterbalance its technological weakness. Faith can be a useful counterweight to science and technology. During the Iran-Iraq war and in subsequent Arab suicide bombing campaigns, Islam provided the motivation for young fighters to confront technologically superior enemies, which conventional forces usually refrain from fighting.
Third, Islam may have provided a useful glue to overcome factionalization within Fatah. The Second Intifada left Fatah beset by internal divisions and rivalries. The clan and sub-clan nature of Palestinian-Arab society compounded the problem.  Arafat empowered the biggest clans and extended families as a counterweight to the rising, young, local leadership from the "new middle class."  Bodies which rely on a sub-national identity in the broader framework of a national movement need an additional element to broaden their power base. Islam provided a useful mechanism by which to hold the clans together.
Islam also provided Fatah a much-needed makeover. Implanted as a political entity in the West Bank and Gaza after the 1993 Oslo Accords, by 2000, Fatah was associated with corruption in the minds of many Palestinians.  An Islamist patina enabled Fatah to create an image of incorruptibility, purity, and devotion to jihad.
The Oslo process enabled the Palestinian Authority to develop a formal armed force. Arafat built ten separate security apparatuses, each headed by loyalists.  For example, Amin al-Hindi led General Intelligence, and Faisal Abu Sharkh led Presidential Security. 
On September 28, 2000, followers of Marwan Barghouti, a West Bank Fatah leader convicted on May 20, 2004, of five counts of murder, formed the core of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.  The brigades' operations are decentralized, in part because of the tension between the young guard, born in the West Bank and Gaza, and Fatah's old guard, who spent most of their lives overseas.  Islam provided a bond to hold the factions together and, unlike Palestinian nationalism, also allowed the group to establish links to non-Palestinian movements under the banner of Islamic solidarity. Zakaria Zubaydi, the Chief Commander of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the Jenin area, for example, said that his group receives funds from Hezbollah. 
Hawks' communiqués abound in Islamic discourse. Reference to "pure soil" is also a frequent motif in Hawks' statements as the group seeks to claim the land of Israel as exclusive Muslim property. Their statements often speak about "the Arabic and Islamic people," tying Fatah to a struggle greater than just Gaza and the West Bank. 
Visual material about the Hawks also testifies to the importance of Islam in their ethos. The profession of faith and the cry of "God is Great," both of which fighters recite on their way to jihad, appear on their flag.
On their shield, the Hawks also use visuals, such as the Dome of the Rock, which reflect Palestinian folklore as national symbols. From the dome arises a map of Palestine, incorporating all of Israel and colored green to represent Islam. That the map rises from the dome suggests a reference to Muhammad's nocturnal ascent to heaven. While the Qur'an does not mention Jerusalem, and the Arabs built Al-Aqsa mosque more than fifty years after Muhammad's death,  Muslims commonly consider it the site of Muhammad's night journey to heaven. Above the image is a Qur'anic verse, "When God's Succor Comes, and Victory."  The Arabic term nasr, which appears at the pinnacle of the Fatah shield, has two meanings: "salvation" and "victory." Fatah seeks to intertwine the two even further with its slogan, "Revolution until Victory" (thawra hata' an-nasr).
The Shahid Ahmad Abu'r-Rish Brigades, a Fatah faction centered in the Khan Yunis and Rafah areas, also accord Islam a central role. The brigades acknowledge a close relationship with Hamas, based both on shared religious principles and on having fought together "in the trenches against the enemies of the motherland and religion."  On their Internet site, they call themselves Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), an expression that refers to the companions of Muhammad in Medina. 
The Abu'r-Rish Brigades declare their aims to be not only the liberation of Palestine but also exaltation of God and flying the flag of Islam. They explain, "We believe that Allah is God, and Islam is our faith, for the Prophet is a model and teacher for us, for our way is the way of the jihad for the sake of Allah."  This slogan, which mirrors one used by the Muslim Brotherhood, is now a staple of Fatah demonstrations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.  They also use the Arabic hijra calendar.
On an earlier home page, the brigades appealed to religious emotion, portraying the Qur'an and the Dome of the Rock on a green background. This page was shut down by the Canadian government in mid-2006, after a Canadian court accused the Abu'r-Rish Brigades of terrorism.  Like their mother organization, the Fatah Hawks, they created a motif of a map of undivided Palestine in green above the Dome of the Rock, denoting the whole of Palestine as a waqf, or religious endowment. Crossed Kalashnikov rifles signify fulfillment of the goal of liberating the land through jihad — through armed struggle against the Israeli presence. The Abu'r-Rish Brigades forbid any Western solution involving compromise with Israel. They mix classical Fatah discourse describing Israel as a branch of Western imperialism  with Islamic terminology and suggest jihad to be the only solution to the Palestinian question.  This policy is reflected in the Qur'anic quotes:
By this quote they portray themselves as a nationalist-Islamic force that stands against the "imperialist-infidel" conspiracy to divide Palestine.
The Clear Victory Brigades, whose name in Arabic derives from the Qur'an,  call for the continuation of the struggle by means of the word and the rifle and seek both moral reckoning and the preservation of social values now in decline.  The use of names indicating the Islamic roots of Fatah falls into a pattern reminiscent of the First Intifada, when the political struggle between Fatah and Hamas was expressed in part through Fatah graffiti bearing a religious complexion:
"There is no god but Allah — thus we have always believed [Fatah, Nablus]."
"Fatah everywhere — even in the Qur'an." 
The Holy Warriors Brigade, active in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City, was created from within Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades after the death of Jihad ‘Amarin, one of the founders of the brigades in the Gaza Strip. Abu al-Sheikh, one of its activists, said the name symbolizes
The Pioneers of the Army of the People — The Brigade of the Return — is another clear example of the mixing of religious and national symbols. Its banner also features a green map of repartition Palestine and an image of the Dome of the Rock with crossed rifle-barrels. Accompanying the banner is the Qur'anic verse, "Kill those who fight you everywhere."  Its members devote themselves to liberation of land "completely under the aegis of God and in the fulfillment of His commandments." 
Despite their internecine struggles for prestige, all of these Fatah factions duplicate certain symbols: the Dome of the Rock and a green map of Palestine. Quotations from the Qur'an cement the link between religion and Palestinian nationalism. Yunus Karim, a senior Fatah member imprisoned in Israel for twenty-five years for the murder of an Israeli soldier, complained that the new generation of Fatah fighters know about jihad, but only learn about Fatah's philosophy when in prison. 
Today, the gap between Fatah and Hamas in terms of the role of Islam has narrowed. Fatah is more likely to see Islam as one component of national identity, while Hamas preaches the primacy of Islamic identity,  but both agree that Palestinian society should be Islamist. Fatah leaders may try to keep their movement distinct, not by reversion to its secular past, but rather by arguing that its version of Islam is less extreme than that of Hamas.  It is not a coincidence that Fatah organized mass prayers in public areas in the Gaza Strip to protest against Hamas policies. 
Fatah's loss to Hamas in the January, 2006, parliamentary elections, though, forced it to externalize its Islamism. This may further a trend within the West Bank and Gaza — as well as, perhaps, in Jordan — toward Islamist radicalism.
It is no surprise that Fatah chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently attended Friday prayers at his Muqata‘a mosque, accompanied by the political leadership of Hamas in the West Bank.  To preserve his legitimacy, as well as national unity among Palestinians, Abbas must strengthen the Islamic elements in his political behavior. Fatah has deepened its own Islamic terminology and now preaches on the importance of prayer and faith in God during training and indoctrination of its new members.  Fatah has also started a propaganda campaign accusing Hamas of being a servant of Iranian interests and Shi‘i supporters,  thereby using Islam to criticize its rival.
Fatah's new religiosity cannot easily be undone. It is ironic that, while many Western diplomats now turn to Fatah as an alternative to Hamas's Islamism, the real Fatah is much closer to Hamas, while the secular Fatah now appears to be a relic of the past.
 Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 91.
 Rafiq Shakir an-Natsha, Al-Islam wa-Filastin (Beirut: Manshurat Filastin al-Muhtalla, 1981), p. 17.
 Nels Johnson, Islam and the Politics of Meaning in Palestinian Nationalism (London: Kegan Paul International, 1982), pp. 65-6, 77-86; Saqr Abu Fakhr, Al-Haraka al-Wataniya al-Filastiniya: Min an-Nidal al-Musallah ila Dawlat Manzu'at as-Silah (Beirut: Mu'assasa al-‘Arabiya li'd-Dirasat wa'n-Nashr, 2003), pp. 26-9.
 Emanuel Sivan, Hitnagshut be-Tokh ha-Islam (Tel Aviv: ‘Am ‘Oved, 2005), pp. 190-2 .
 Fawaz Turki, Soul in Exile: Lives of a Palestinian Revolutionary (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988), p. 53.
 "Political Beliefs and Preferences of People Who Trust Fatah and People Who Trust Leftist Factions," Analysis of Palestinian Public Opinion on Politics, Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, Sept. 2000, p. 35.
 Kata'ib Shuhada' al-Aqsa, "Kilmat al-Kata'ib—Min Al-'Asifa ila Kata'ib Shuhada' al-Aqsa," accessed Nov. 21, 2007.
 Kata'ib Shuhada' al-Aqsa, "‘An al-Kata'ib," Sept. 21, 2005.
 Tony Blair and Yasir Arafat, news conference, Prime Minister's Office, Oct. 15, 2001.
 Ronni Shaked and Avivah Shabi, Hamas: Me-emunah be-Allah le-derekh ha teror (Jerusalem: Keter, 1994), pp. 204-6; Meir Hatina, Islam and Salvation in Palestine (Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, 2001), p. 69.
 Qur. 9:14.
 See Hamas proclamations, nos. 3, 5, and 7, in Shaul Mishal and Reuven Aharoni, eds., Avanim zeh lo ha-kol: ha-Intifadah v?e-neshek? ha-keruzim (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad and Avivim, 1989), pp. 202-13.
 Hillel Frish, "Nationalizing a Universal Text: The Quran in Arafat's Rhetoric," Middle Eastern Studies, May 2005, pp. 322-5.
 Munazzamat at-Tahrir al-Filastiniyya, Rasail al-Akh Abu A'mmar Ra'is al-Lijna at-Tanfidhia li-Munazzamat at-Tahrir al-Filastini—Al-Qa'id al-‘Amm li-Quwwat ath-Thawra al-Filastinyya ila Abtal al-Quwwat al-Mushtarika wa-Jamahir ash-Sha‘bayn al-Lubnani wa'l Filastini fi'l-Harb as-Sadisa, Wathiqa 1-2-3-4-5 (n.p., n.d.), pp. 23-40.
 Qur. 22:39-40.
 Qur. 60:111.
 Al-Hayat (London), Oct. 5, 2002, in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series, no. 428, Oct. 11, 2002.
 Ephraim Lavi, "Zehoyot Kibotziot Mitharot be-He'ader Medina Leomit," paper delivered at "The Solidarity of the Arab State—Is It in Decline?" conference, Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, Mar. 21, 2006.
 Michael Milstein, Fatah ve-Hareshot Hafalastinit Bein Mahapekha le-Medine (Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, 2004), p. 57.
 Fabio Forgione, "The Chaos of the Corruption: The Challenges for the Improvement of the Palestinian Society," The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group Report, Jerusalem, Oct. 2004.
 Gal Luft, "The Palestinian Security Services: Between Police and Army," Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 1999.
 Nigel Parsons, The Politics of the Palestinian Authority: From Oslo to Al-Aqsa (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 154.
 Medinat Israel Neged Maerwan Iben Hatib Barghuthi (The state of Israel vs. Maerwan Iben Hatib Barghuthi), file no 1158/02, Beit Ha-Mishpat Ha-Mehozi Be-Tel Aviv, May 20, 2004.
 Anat N. Kurtz, Fatah and the Politics of Violence: The Institutionalization of a Popular Struggle (Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2005), p. 140.
 Ar-Ra'y al-‘Amm (Kuwait), Mar. 6, 2004.
 Rema Hammami, "From Immodesty to Collaboration: Hamas, the Women's Movement, and National Identity in the Intifada," in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 204-6.
 Sukur al-Fatah, ‘Ashat Dhikra al-Marid al-Fathawa'i, Jan. 1, 2005.
 Hatina, Islam and Salvation in Palestine, p. 66.
 Daniel Pipes, "The Muslim Claim to Jerusalem," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp. 49-66.
 Qur. 110:1.
 Kata'ib ash-Shahid Ahmad Abu'r-Rish, Hawla Mushkilat Kata'ib ash-Shahid Ahmad Abu'r-Rish ma‘a Hamas (n.p.: Rabi'a al-Thani 4, 1426 A.H., May, 13, 2005).
 Sivan, Hitnagshut be-tokh Ha-Islam, pp. 190-2.
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 "Masirat Fatah fi Mukhaym al-Bureij," Sept. 20, 2007.
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 Lavi, "Zehoyot Kibotziot Mitharot be-He'ader Medina Leomit."
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Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East
Islamism & Jihadism -- Radical Islam & Islamic Terrorism
Page Three Page Two Page One
International Politics & World Disorder:
War & Peace in the Real World
Page Two Page One
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Ido Zelkovitz is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.
The foregoing article by Ido Zelkovitz was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1874)
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