ATbar Hizballah and Fatah: a New Alliance against Israel

Hizballah and Fatah: a New Alliance against Israel

22/10/2000 | by Paz, Reuven (Dr.) Z"L  
In the present violent events between Israel and the Palestinians, called by the Palestinians “the Al-Aqsa Uprising,” two prominent phenomena have come to the fore as the most important new developments in the Palestinian arena and in future Israeli-Palestinian relations. One is the relative independence of the armed Fatah militia ranks and their consolidation, at least for the time being, as a popular semi-opposition group. The other, and the more dangerous development, is the success of Hizballah, and indirectly of Iran, in significantly increasing their influence among the Palestinians.

These two new developments, which are interconnected, were best shown during the violent demonstrations of the past weeks, particularly the protest demonstrations against the participation of Arafat in the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh on 16-17 October. No one can ignore the combination of Fatah members and the yellow flags of Hizballah, which in some instances dominated even the green flags of Hamas.

Iran and Hizballah in the Palestinian arena

The relationship between Hizballah and the Palestinian national leadership, as represented by the PLO and later the Palestinian Authority, has been complicated for many years. This is due to the hostility between the Palestinian leadership and Iran, on the background of the uncompromising support of the Palestinians for Iraq since the early 1980s.

The Iranian Islamic regime has emphasized the “liberation of Al-Quds” from its early days, as part of its efforts to “export” the Islamic revolution and its ideology to the Sunni Arab world. It failed to greatly influence the Shiites of Iraq during the Iran-Iraqi war of 1980-1988, but succeeded in using the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in June 1982 to increase its influence among the Shiites of Lebanon. However, the Islamic Shiite resistance to Israel, dominated since 1985 by the Iranian-sponsored Hizballah, did not really affect the Palestinians. Even the powerful Islamic movement of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood that in 1987 became Hamas was not much influenced by the combined Hizballah-Iranian efforts. Only a minor group of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) became totally identified with the Iranian regime. This failure, recurring all over the Arab world as well, was reinforced by the political process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians since 1993.

Arafat and senior officials of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, including security officials, have accused the Iranians many times during the 1990s of attempting to stop the peace process, and even of attempting to kill Arafat. In general, the struggle of Hizballah against Israel in Lebanon gained a relatively low level of interest among the Palestinians in the Territories, until last year.

Hamas and Iran

All this began to change gradually in 1992-93, as a result of the contacts established between Hizballah and the 415 deportees of Hamas and the PIJ to South Lebanon. But the relations between the Lebanese and Palestinian Islamic groups had primarily an operational nature in the field of military and terrorist training and support. The clandestine nature of the relations was not translated into Palestinian public support for the Iranians or significant support for Hizballah. Between 1994-1999 several tens of Hamas members were trained in Iran, and others reinforced their contacts with Hizballah in Lebanon, mainly through activists of the PFLP-GC (Jibril’s Front).

The first significant contacts between Iran and Hamas started in mid 1990s in the Sudan, whose influential Islamic regime was one of the most prominent elements in encouraging and promoting terrorist activity in the Arab and Islamic world. However, the Sudan, which was involved during the 1990s in attempts of mediation between Hamas and Fatah, remained insignificant in the Palestinian arena.

The breakthrough of politically significant contacts between Hamas and Iran occurred with the visit of Ahmad Yasin to Tehran in April 1998, following his release from prison. The improving relations between Iran and Hamas brought about two main processes:

1. Legitimacy of Iran in the Territories for the first time.
2. The improvement of relations between Hizballah and certain Palestinian groups in the refugee camps in Lebanon, including certain Fatah elements.

Hizballah gains popular support in the Territories

Public support for Hizballah among the Palestinians in the Territories started to rise on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. The first signs came during the visit of the French Prime Minister to the Palestinian Authority on February 2000. His announcements of condemnation towards Hizballah were met with violent demonstrations by Palestinian students. The Israeli withdrawal three months later was publicly interpreted among the Palestinians as an obvious victory for Hizballah over Israel, and brought about waves of Palestinian sympathy for the Lebanese movement, primarily among the students and the youth of all the Palestinian political trends.

The struggle of Hizballah, which in Palestinian eyes led to the termination of the Israeli occupation in Lebanon, was adopted as a model by many Palestinian youngsters, and not necessarily supporters of Hamas or the Islamic radicals. Such sympathy was also found among certain Israeli Arab elements, primarily the radical faction of the Islamic movement, and even Arab members of the Knesset, who praised the Lebanese movement without raising any great outcry in the Israeli government. Hamas openly called for the “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian Territories and was backed by public statements by some Fatah factions.

As was obvious in the recent events in the Territories, the support for Hizballah affected mainly the younger Palestinian generation in general, and the ranks of Fatah’s Tanzim in particular. The frustration of the Palestinian public that followed Arafat’s decision not to announce the establishment of a Palestinian state on September 13th, led to anger among wide circles of the Palestinian populous.

This pushed Arafat to oppose any further implementation of the peace process by popular violence initiated and directed by his so-called Fatah loyalist Tanzim, and encouraged by the official security forces. The outcome was violent armed clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, of the kind reminiscent of the violence in the Lebanese civil war. However, the struggle of Hizballah turned out to be not only the preferred model but gave the Shiite movement full legitimacy in the Palestinian arena. The call of Hamas to “Lebanonize” the Territories right after the Israeli withdrawal fell on open Palestinian ears.

The consolidation of a new alliance

The new situation was preceded by certain developments in Lebanon and among Palestinian refugees. At the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, there were violent clashes with the Lebanese police and security forces, which brought to light a new phenomenon—a collaboration of Fatah military activists in the Palestinian refugee camps with small local militant Islamic groups.

One of the prominent figures in this regard was Munir Makdah, one of Fatah’s most powerful commanders. At the same time, Makdah was accused by the Jordanian authorities of membership in a terrorist group dismantled in Jordan in December 1999. The group was accused of planning terrorist operations against American and Israeli targets in Jordan and maintaining connections with Osamah Bin Ladin. Makdah himself was sentenced to death in absentia. Details of the investigations published by the Jordanian authorities revealed that Makdah and other Fatah activists in Lebanon were in close contact with Hizballah and the PIJ. This was in addition to the constant improvement of the relations between Iran and Hamas, on both the operational and political levels following the expulsion of Hamas leaders from Jordan in 1999.

Another element to note here is the silent support of Hamas for the Palestinian national leadership during the recent events. In most instances Hamas as a movement did not take any organized part. The movement has generally aligned itself with the Palestinian national interests. Furthermore, in most of its pamphlets and official pronouncements Hamas called for the increase of the popular means of struggle rather than terrorist operations. It would seem that at least in the field of the popular struggle there was a sort of coordination between Hamas and Fatah’s Tanzim, in which Hamas gave the Tanzim the seniority in leading the events.

It should also be noted, that besides the yellow flags of Hizballah in the Palestinian demonstrations, the demonstrators also displayed photos of Hamas martyrs, especially that of Yahya `Ayyash. In the past years, it appears that Hamas terrorist operations against Israel have gained a good deal of support and popularity among the younger generations of the Palestinians, including Fatah ranks. Hamas supplied the Palestinian youngsters and supporters of Fatah the military legacy they lacked in the wake of Fatah’s abstention from the terrorist operations since the early 1990s.

Conclusion: Whither Fatah after Arafat?

It seems so far that the deterioration of the relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, together with the symbolic position of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa in the events, gave rise to the consolidation of a new alliance: Hamas with Fatah’s Tanzim in the Territories; Hizballah with Fatah ranks in Lebanon. On the two sides of this alliance stand the past rivals, Iran and the Palestinian leadership.

One question for the near future is on one hand how far Arafat and his leadership are controlling events and how much they are controlled by them, and whether they control the so-called loyal opposition of Fatah. In addition, there is the question of how far the new alliance affects the Palestinian security forces, among which exist rivalries and hostilities beneath the present united public front.

But the most important question is whether we see in the present position of the Tanzim the beginning of the struggle for the succession of Arafat. If this is the case, the increasing influence of Hizballah, and indirectly of Iran, could be significant to the future of the Palestinian population of the Territories and Lebanon, as well as the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.