The Palestinian National Liberation Movement – Fatah (I)

The Palestinian National Liberation Movement – Fatah (I)


After the popular resistance to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1956, a number of educated Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who were working in the Gulf started to think concretely about what had long been on their minds: to create a Palestinian fighting organization that would be independent from Arab governments and from ideologically driven political parties and that had as its goal the liberation of Palestine and the return of the refugees to their homes.


The core group of Fatah was most likely founded in Kuwait in autumn 1957 by five or six Palestinians, among them Yasir Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir. This core group agreed on the movement’s name, drafted its manifesto, and planned its “Revolutionary Organizational Structure.” New recruits soon followed: Salah Khalaf, Kamal Udwan, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, Walid Ahmad Nimr al-Hassan (Abu Ali Iyad), Khalid al-Hassan, and Salim al-Zaʿnun; they were later joined by Faruq al-Qaddumi, Mahmoud Abbas, Mamdouh Saidam, Nimr Salih, Hayel Abdel-Hamid, Hani al-Hassan, Muhammad Ghoneim, Ahmad Qurei, Majed Abu Sharar, Abbas Zaki, and Nabil Shaath. The name Fatah, the Arabic acronym in reverse for Harakat al-tahrir al-watani al-Filastini (The Palestinian National Liberation Movement), came to attention in the first issue of the magazine Filastinuna–nida’ al-hayat (Our Palestine–The Call of Life), in Beirut in October 1959, and cells of the group began to be formed in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

As a movement of refugees, Fatah needed support from the Arab world, which it initially found in Algeria starting in 1962, then in Syria starting from 1963. Relying on this support, the movement leadership began preparations to set up a clandestine military wing named al-ʿAsifa (storm), which carried out its first operation inside Israel at dawn on 1 January 1965: blowing up an Israeli water supply network. This act (known as the Aylaboun tunnel operation) also claimed the movement’s first martyr, Ahmad Muhammad Musa (“Salama”).

In July 1968, during its second conference held in the Syrian town of Zabadani (the first conference took place in Damascus in Summer 1964), Fatah finalized its organizational structure. Its composition was based on two decision-making committees that constituted its leadership: the Central Committee, which included ten members who represented the movement’s senior leadership, and the broader Revolutionary Council, considered an intermediary body between the Central Committee and the party’s general membership.

Guiding Principles

Fatah was the first national liberation movement since 1948 to be started by Palestinians themselves and that brought together Palestinian activists from different ideological and intellectual backgrounds. It called on all politically active Palestinians to abandon their party affiliations and to be united under its banner as a movement to “organize a vanguard that would rise above factionalism, whims and leanings to include the entire people.” The Arab nationalist slogan prevalent at the time was “Arab unity is the path to the liberation of Palestine.” Fatah reversed it, contending that “the liberation of Palestine is the road to Arab unity”;  it acknowledged the pan-Arab dimension of the Palestinian cause but insisted that the Palestinian people had to rely on themselves in their struggle for liberation. For Fatah, the Palestinian revolution would be “Palestine in origin and [pan] Arab in its development.”

The movement’s leadership saw armed struggle as its primary means of liberating Palestine. It modeled itself after the revolutionary struggles in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam. It anticipated that this struggle would pass through three stages: the stage of small-scale operations by guerrilla fighters known as fedayeen [“sacrificers”]; the stage of full-scale guerrilla warfare; and the final stage of an all-out people’s war. In the first stage, the movement would rely upon an “indirect” strategy whose aim would be “to wear out the enemy and deplete his capabilities” through targeted guerrilla attacks. In the second, the guerrilla war would be “a dynamic war in a constant state of shift” carried out by “the few relying on the support of the many”; the most important element in this would be “training on how to create a mass support base.” After successfully winning the support of the masses, the movement would gradually shift into a form of “limited engagement” with the enemy. Then, the armed struggle would enter its third and final stage of “the long-term people’s war of liberation.”

Evolution of Fatah’s Experience in Armed Struggle

After Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the June 1967 war, the Fatah movement reckoned that the newly occupied Palestinian territories could become the principal arena for the armed struggle. On 28 August 1967, it announced the start of combat operations in the West Bank as part of what it called “the second launch.” Its leaders imagined at the time that the support bases that they wanted to establish would eventually develop into semi-liberated zones. However, the Israeli government countered their plans and those of other resistance groups with a sweeping campaign of suppression by its security services, which resulted in the near-cessation of the phenomenon of armed guerrilla action in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, these operations maintained their momentum until late 1971, but any hopes for the possibility of building support bases for armed resistance in the occupied territories receded.

Soon, the east bank of the Jordan River became the largest launching pad for the Palestinian fighters and the main passage to infiltrate into the occupied territories. Meanwhile, the bases that Fatah had established in Syria in the latter half of 1968 helped its military presence to expand to South Lebanon. On 21 March 1968, a relatively major battle occurred in the town of al-Karama in the Jordan valley between Israeli forces and a mixed group of Palestinian resistance fighters and Jordanian soldiers, which inflicted relatively heavy losses on the Israelis. The news of this battle led to a spike in popularity of the Palestinian resistance movement, particularly Fatah, which suddenly found its ranks swelled by tens of thousands of Palestinian and Arab volunteers, and a number of smaller Palestinian factions integrated themselves into its framework. This influence of the Palestinian guerrilla groups over the makeup of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mounted and was reflected in the fourth session of the Palestine National Council (PNC), held 10-17 July 1968, where these groups, with Fatah the strongest among them, taking control of the PLO’s main governing bodies. They managed to introduce important amendments to the Palestine National Charter of 1964, changing its name in Arabic from the pan-Arabist sounding al-Mithaq al-qawmi to al-Mithaq al-watani, which put greater emphasis on the charter’s uniquely Palestinian nationalist character. Then, during the PNC’s fifth general meeting, held 1–4 February 1969, they succeeded in securing the election of Yasir Arafat, Fatah’s official spokesperson, as the president of the PLO Executive Committee.

The bloody clashes that broke out in September 1970 between the Jordanian army and Fatah and the other armed Palestinian organizations led to the elimination of the Palestinian resistance from Jordan in July 1971. Palestinian fighters withdrew to Syria and then Lebanon, where most of them established a longterm presence in the south. Fatah, along with the other resistance groups, had already rejected UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967. They saw it as a “threat” to the continuation of the armed struggle and an obstruction in its path to liberating “the entire” land of Palestine. In the latter half of 1968, the movement formulated the concept of “the democratic Palestinian state.”

The outcome of the October 1973 war opened a path toward a negotiated political settlement. Fatah (along with other factions in the PLO) expressed its willingness to adopt a “phased” strategy for its struggle. During the PNC’s twelfth session, held 1–8 June 1974 in Cairo, it played a major role in pushing the council to adopt the PLO’s “Interim Political Program” (the "Ten-Point Program"). As a reaction to this shift in its position, Fatah experienced its first split as an organization in 1974. Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal), the head of its Baghdad bureau, broke ranks with the movement and set up his own organization called the Fatah Movement-Revolutionary Council, which started to assassinate Fatah leaders and senior movement representatives in several countries across the world.

Civil war broke out in Lebanon in mid-April 1975, and Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat embarked on unilateral negotiations with Israel, which ultimately resulted in the Camp David accords in September 1978 and then a peace treaty. The PLO organizations, with Fatah at their forefront, gradually became embroiled in the Lebanese civil war, which they regarded as determining their future in Lebanon, and they fought alongside the Lebanese left-wing and “Islamic” forces. At the same time, Fatah continued to launch military operations inside Israel and the occupied territories. The two most spectacular of these were the Savoy Hotel operation on 5 March 1975 and the Beach operation of 11 March 1978. (The latter came to be known by the name of the guerrilla team leader, Dalal al-Mograbi.) After the second operation, the Israeli army invaded southern Lebanon up to the Litani River and established a buffer zone, while Fatah started to transform from a movement of fighters engaged in a guerilla war into an organization akin to a conventional army, with full time troops organized by rank and who were arranged into units that waged a static and trench warfare relying on heavy artillery and missiles.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government, led by Menachem Begin, had begun to prepare for a broad ground invasion of Lebanon, which commenced on 4 June 1982. After the PLO forces stood firm and resisted the Israelis for nearly three months in the ensuing war, an agreement was reached where the PLO fighters were allowed to leave Lebanon with their light weapons under the supervision of a multinational force. After Fatah’s departure from Lebanon, its fighters were dispersed over various Arab countries, and the movement lost the “secure base” that had provided it the freedom of political action. Its leadership moved to Tunis and thus lost its ability to contain the internal political and organizational disputes that arose, which worsened a few months after its departed Beirut. At the beginning of the second week of May 1983, some pro-Syrian military commanders and leaders considered part of the “leftist” current within the movement broke away to form a new faction called “Fatah al-Intifada [uprising],” led primarily by Nimr Saleh (Abu Saleh), Samih Abu Kweik (Qadri), Said al-Muragha (Abu Musa), and Musa al-Amla (Abu Khalid al-Amla). This rift took a dangerous turn when clashes broke out between Fatah “defectors” and “loyalists” in Lebanon in the Beqaa region and in Tripoli, which caused the PLO itself to split into three distinct currents. This continued until the outbreak of the first intifada in the occupied Palestinian territories on December 9, 1987.

Through its second in command Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), the Fatah leadership played an important role in the actions and organizing of the intifada, together with the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories. This drove the Israeli government to order his assassination in Tunis on 16 April 1988, which made him the latest in a number of prominent Fatah leaders who were assassinated at the hands of the Israeli security services or the Fatah Movement-Revolutionary Council. The list that includes Kamal Udwan, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, Majed Abu Sharar, Saad Sayil, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and Hayel Abdel-Hamid.

The Fatah leadership also played a significant role in pushing the PNC, during its nineteenth session, held in Algiers on 12–15 November 1988, to adopt a “peace initiative” based on the Declaration of Independence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with the acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. This opened the way to the start of the US-Palestinian dialogue in December 1988.

On the other hand, the intifada presented Fatah with a major challenge represented by the rise to prominence of Islamists as its primary opponents. The Islamist political program was contrary to the Fatah program, and the Islamists refused to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Selected Bibliography: 

Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf). My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle (with Eric Rouleau). New York: New York Times Books, 1981.

Acosta, Teophilo. Al-Fat'h Commandos. Lahore: General Union of Palestinian Students [1969].

Denoyan, Gilbert. El Fath Parle, les Palestiniens contre Israël. Paris: Albin Michel, [1970].

Kurz, Anat N. Fatah and the Politics of Violence: The Institutionalization of a Popular Struggle. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

Palestine Lives: Interviews with Leaders of the Resistance: Khaled al-Hassan, Fateh, Abu Iyad, Fateh, George Habash, PFLP, Nayef Hawatmeh, PDFLP, Sami al-Attari, Sa'iqa, A.W. Sa'id, Arab Liberation Front. Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization, Research Center, 1973.

The Palestine National Liberation Movement: Al-Fateh. Beirut: Palestine National Liberation Movement, al-Fateh, Information Office, 1969.

Revolution until Victory. Amman: Palestine National Liberation Movement, al-Fateh, 1970.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: the Palestine National Movement, 1949-1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Wazir, Khalil (Abu Jihad) [Interview]. “Khalil al-Wazir: The 17th Palestine National Council”. Journal of Palestine studies. vol. 14, no. 2 (winter 1985): 3-12.