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Fateh and the Palestinian Authority

The Politics of the Palestinian Authority from Oslo to al-Aqsa by Nigel Craig Parsons. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. 464 pp. including maps, appendixes, notes and index. Hardcover, $125.

Menachem Klein

Prof. Menachem Klein is senior lecturer in the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan University. His book A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine - An Insider's Account of the Geneva Initiative was recently published by Columbia University Press.


Between 1993 and 2004 Nigel Parsons spent his time in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Cairo collecting highly valuable material on the political development of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Manchester. Parsons deals with Fateh's taking over of the PA and its failure to promote the Palestinian national project through the Oslo Accords.
Fateh succeeded in counting among its supporters a wide variety of groups and individuals, from businessmen to people in refugee camps and a wide array of middle-class professionals and blue-collar workers in-between. All of them preferred Fateh's social conservatism to the radical left-wing organizations. Fateh's widespread support allowed it to achieve hegemony within the PLO and create a bureaucratic elite, military command and an authoritarian and paternal leadership. The Fateh leadership's decision to base its legitimacy on armed struggle strengthened a tendency towards populism and authoritarian leadership, which did not help promote democratic patterns for Fateh and did not correspond with its self-projected image.
After the 1967 war the old aristocracy and bourgeoisie in the occupied territories lost their role as intermediaries between the Palestinian population and the Jordanian and Egyptian authorities, while Israel established a form of colonial rule. While the settlement project resulted in loss of land for the old aristocracy and intensified the weight of occupation, the opening up of Israel's job market created a new bourgeoisie. As universities were established beginning in the second half of the 1970s, education gave the new generation an opportunity to form national unity and to find expression for its national frustration through involvement in the PLO. The time spent in Israeli jails also created social and national unity within the younger generation and contributed to the creation of the Tanzim1. Fateh activists from different regions got to know each other in prison or in the universities - often in both. During this same period, the Palestinian elite decided to take the political path to achieving its goal of nationhood. The return to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994 closed the circle in a way for the Fateh leadership, which put an end to the strategic debate over the role of the armed struggle.
Parsons ignores the failure of the revolt within Fateh in 1983 and its role in strengthening Yasser Arafat. He believes that Fateh and Arafat were politically and financially weakened by their support for Saddam Hussein and his occupation of Kuwait in 1990. In his opinion, this was the reason for their decision to take part in the 1991 Madrid Conference, despite its limitations, and for their agreement to some of the terms which were dictated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Oslo agreements enabled the authoritative leadership in Tunis to assume responsibility for the national project, to gain international recognition, huge funds and institutional power. In this way the national project was subsumed by the leading elite's own political needs.
The added value of this book lies in two chapters that meticulously describe Fateh's structure and its control of the PA. In these pages Parsons provides us with an X-ray photograph of the movement, showing how Fateh imported its structure and operating principles from Tunis into the PA. Fateh built a state-like institution based upon a pact between the bureaucracy led by the authoritarian Arafat and the local elites. These elites enjoyed what they did not receive from Israel - a share of governmental rewards and political patronage in return for their support of the administration. Parsons identifies those who were left on the margins of the political system who demanded radical reforms within Fateh as the "Young Turks"- Fateh members who carried the first intifada on their shoulders. To his view, the struggle between this younger generation and the Tunis elders is a struggle mostly between locals and newcomers, recently arrived from Tunis. One could say, however, that it is more a struggle within the elite between those who hold power and those who wish to hold it.
Fearing competition, the Fateh leadership in Tunis had not enabled the growth of national leadership and institutions. It was its "entry" into the arena via the Oslo agreements and the legitimacy won in the 1996 elections that produced an internal opposition initially from first intifada activists who were not integrated into Fateh's hierarchy in accordance with their public standing. Most of the key functions in the PA - including the security apparatuses - were held by senior "Tunisians," members of the two highest Fateh institutions - the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, while the first intifada activist hit the glass ceiling at secretary or the undersecretary level. The district governments were out of their reach. Arafat hired district governors and mayors among the aristocracies and the old elite, who were bitter rivals of the first intifada activists. The governor was the president's personal representative in the district and reported to him personally. Each governor had his own police force and ran his business separately from the Interior Ministry. He would also have a legal department that preferred to end rivalries outside of the courts through compromise and his own mediation.
Fateh's hierarchy and power structure were duplicated in the PA's institutions, against which the younger activists protested. Parsons describes the procedures of Fateh's internal elections between 1997 and 2000, from which the new party apparatus, the Tanzim, headed by Marwan Barghouthi, was formed. The elections were organized by the leaders of the first intifada in order to reinvigorate the leadership, educate the activists and help Fateh move from being an underground movement to a party. The Old Guard, headed by Arafat, interfered in the election process and tried to influence its results. It appointed supervising committees to confirm the new regional leadership. The Old Guard also tried to block Barghouthi by co-opting some of his Tanzim colleagues. These actions reinforced criticism from the opposition to Fateh and eroded the positions of Arafat and other senior Fateh officials. Indeed, in the governments formed after 2003, there was a larger number of opposition members, but they remained in inferior positions. Their support for the Oslo process was tied to the commitment made by the upper echelons to opening the ranks. The disappointment resulting from this hope not being fulfilled coincided with the disappointment in Israel's policies, especially the expansion of the settlements. During the Oslo years, social and political stability was undermined. The state-building process progressed, but the structure was based on very shaky foundations.
The intifada of 2000 found the security apparatus command confused and paralyzed. The apparatus dissolved into Tanzim militias lacking a central command, coordination or efficiency. The aggressive Israeli reaction did not help the command to regain control; rather, it brought its lower strata, and later some of the senior officials, into the bloodletting. In response, Israel destroyed the PA's apparatuses and did not allow the central government to operate. The faltering institutions, which were hard to control for they were dependent on Arafat's patronage, on the one hand, but decentralized on the other, were dismembered by Israel into small units. Thus Israel contributed to the chaos created by Fateh. The election of Hamas in 2006 was the Palestinian people's response to Fateh's failings and Israeli actions.

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