Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs' brigades: armed struggle as a response to a crisis of legitimacy.

Author:Cheong, Damien D.
Position:Case study


Since its inception in the late 1950s, the Fatah movement has developed several armed wings. Some such as al-Asifa (the Storm), the Fatah Hawks and the Black Panthers have been officially recognised, while others, such as the Black September Organisation (BSO), have not. The existence of such armed wings has proven advantageous to Fatah. They have enabled the movement to switch between strategies of political violence and diplomacy and vice versa in accordance with the prevailing political climate of the time. In the early 1970s for instance, Fatah disavowed its association with the BSO following the movement's acceptance by the international community as a legitimate nationalist movement.

Following the conclusion of the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993, Fatah transformed from a liberation movement into a 'party of state' (1). By virtue of Fatah's dominance of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), it also dominated the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was established by Oslo to administer sections of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fatah's new role implied that maintaining its armed wings were unnecessary given that the PA was allowed to establish its own security forces. Therefore, the movement's main armed wings at the time, the Fatah Hawks and Black Panthers, were disbanded and its members absorbed into the security forces.

The changing political environment that resulted from the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 provided the rationale for Fatah's resurrection of its armed wing. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (AMB) as they were called was comprised mainly of younger Fatah cadre, and was established sometime before 2002. As the AMB strongly advocates the use of political violence to achieve its objectives, and has used suicide attacks against civilians during the al-Aqsa Intifada, they have been classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. (2)

Fatah's armed wings have traditionally played a secondary role to the parent movement. They often followed the course/agenda that had been set, and were generally subservient to the senior leadership. However, this new generation of fighters have not only sought to gain legitimacy independent of the parent movement, but have also been quick to challenge the senior leadership on several issues. These included: (a) more representation in decision-making; (b) more employment opportunities and; (c) strategy vis-a-vis Israel. (3) A showdown between the AMB and Fatah did not, however, materialise although there were violent skirmishes between them from 2002-2006.

This article attempts to shed light on the complex relationship between the Fatah-PA leadership, the Fatah movement, and the AMB. It employs as its theoretical premise Mia Bloom's thesis that Palestinian non-state actors use acts of violence to 'outbid' each other so as to increase their popular support and legitimacy. (4) It will firstly examine the reasons for the AMB's formation in light of the declining popularity of the Fatah movement. Secondly, it will look at how the AMB was able to increase its popular support through armed struggle against Israel. Thirdly, the paper will analyse the impact of the AMB's armed struggle on the legitimacy of both the Fatah-PA leadership and the Fatah movement as a whole.

The Roots of Fatah's Crisis of Legitimacy

The return of the Fatah leadership from Tunis (the outsiders) to the occupied territories in 1994 following the Oslo Accords was expected to be problematic. Although Fatah leaders had, since the late 1970s, cultivated supporters in the territories through the Popular committees and affiliated NGOs, there was still a concern by the returnees that local Fatah leaders would pose a threat to their authority. (5)

Fatah leaders in the West Bank and Gaza (the insiders), while generally enthusiastic about the return of the Tunis leadership, were nevertheless concerned that the dictatorial leadership style and questionable practices characteristic of such leaders would inevitably be replicated in the territories. (6) It was for this reason that Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah leader from the West Bank, now imprisoned by Israel, cautioned that:

...there must be a clear distinction between the PA and the Fatah movement. A government must serve the people as a whole, not only one faction. To maintain this distinction we must draw clear lines of demarcation between Fatah and the PA, and these lines must be inscribed by law.while Fatah supports the PA, it must preserve its organizational and political independence from it. (7)

In terms of legitimacy, leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were clearly advantaged in comparison with their Tunis counterparts. This was because the Tunis leadership had spent most of their time abroad and had not lived under occupation or shared similar hardships with Palestinians in the territories as local leaders had. (8) This fact was known to the Tunis leadership, and as a result, they made concerted efforts to boost their standing and consolidate their power upon returning to the territories. (9)

Co-option and Corruption

A primary tactic used by the Fatah-PA leadership to consolidate their power was cooption. The ability of the leadership to co-opt its rivals and detractors resulted from its access to financial and developmental resources granted by the Oslo Accords. The PA obtained its finances from foreign aid, tax revenue, (10) and other economic activities. (11) In addition, physical resources such as land were made available to the PA for the purposes of state-building.

A neo-patrimonial system consequently emerged in which the economic and political fortunes of individuals were dependent upon their allegiance to the Fatah-PA leadership and/or to the Fatah movement. The PA regularly awarded government contracts to companies that were owned by Palestinian notables, Fatah-affiliates and senior officials. Such contracts were highly profitable especially when the PA-linked company could monopolise the import and export of a particular good. (12)

The leadership also appointed Fatah loyalists to top positions in PA departments regardless of their qualifications or suitability for the job. (13) Sometimes, entire clans were given ministerial posts such as the al-Qawasmi clan who were placed in various positions in the Ministry of Transport. (14) This neo-patrimonial system invariably encouraged many companies and individuals to seek patronage from the leadership. (15)

In 1997, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) published a report on corruption within PA institutions. (16) The report highlighted several incidents in which PA officials had knowingly interfered in the operations of their departments for personal gain. For example, it was revealed that a Ministry of Finance official had used public funds to import flour. He is alleged to have then attempted to monopolise the supply of flour by restricting the entry of a competitor's products through a contact at the border. (17)

Perhaps the most serious of all corrupt practices was the misappropriation of public funds by officials and senior officials of the PA, including former President Yasser Arafat. (18) In 2003, the IMF reported that from 1995 to 2000 approximately US$900 million had been diverted from the PA budget into special bank accounts beyond the control of the Ministry of Finance. (19) One account was controlled exclusively by Arafat and his financial advisor Mohammad Rachid, and was used to collect revenue from petroleum excises that rightfully belonged to the treasury. (20)

The President's personal budget of US$74 million was also scrutinised in the report. (21) Apart from utilising the funds to provide financial assistance to needy Palestinians, the President, as the report suggested, had used the funds to assist his cronies. (22) Media reports have also alleged that the 'upkeep' of the then Palestinian first lady Suha Arafat in Paris also contributed to the President's high expenses. (23) Hasan Abu Nimah, Permanent Representative of Jordan at the UN remarked:

What remains to be explained is why the Palestinian First Lady is living in Paris in the first place instead of remaining with her people and sharing their plight... And why should such an enormous sum be allocated to one small Palestinian family... The same amount of money could support almost 6,000 Palestinian families for an entire year, given that many survive on no more than $6 per day. (24) The use of official funds for co-option and the corruption that resulted was believed to have significantly impaired the PA's ability to provide better health, education, and welfare to Palestinians in the territories. (25) Moreover, social welfare provision was adversely affected by the leadership's decision to monopolise all social services.

Prior to the establishment of the PA, social welfare provision had traditionally been the responsibility of NGOs. They provided essential services in the health, education, agriculture, welfare and legal sectors. (26) While many NGOs were aware that their organisations would inevitably be absorbed into the PA bureaucracy, it was generally believed that those outside the PA would continue to operate in cooperation with the Authority.

However, the Fatah-PA leadership perceived the NGOs as a threat, and sought to curtail their influence and activities through a series of repressive measures. (27) For instance, the security services, most notably the General Intelligence Service and Force 17, were often used to harass NGO leaders and to monitor NGO activity. (28) Despite the tense relationship between the PA and the NGOs, the PA acknowledged that such NGOs were still valuable in the provision of services to niche sectors of society. (29)

The Islamic NGOs, especially those affiliated with Hamas, were a case in point. According to Sara Roy, Islamic NGOs were most active in the fields of relief and charitable works, education (pre-school, primary and...

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