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St. Martin's Press
Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine

Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine

by Jonathan Schanzer, Daniel PipesJonathan Schanzer
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In June 2007 civil war broke out in the Gaza Strip between two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Western peace efforts in the region always focused on reconciling two opposing fronts: Israel and Palestine. Now, this careful exploration of Middle East history over the last two decades reveals that the Palestinians have long been a house divided. What began as a political rivalry between Fatah's Yasir Arafat and Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin during the first intifada of 1987 evolved into a full-blown battle on the streets of Gaza between the forces of Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and Ismael Haniyeh, one of Yassin's early protégés. Today, the battle continues between these two diametrically opposing forces over the role of Palestinian nationalism and Islamism in the West Bank and Gaza.

In this thought-provoking book, Jonathan Schanzer questions the notion of Palestinian political unity, explaining how internal rivalries and violence have ultimately stymied American efforts to promote Middle East peace, and even the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230609051
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/11/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Schanzer is the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center. He has served as counterterrorism analyst for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a research fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he authored the book Al Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror. He has appeared on Fox News, CNN, and Al-Jazeera. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Hamas vs. Fatah

The Struggle for Palestine

By Jonathan Schanzer

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Schanzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61645-5



Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) blazed a trail that other Islamist groups have only imitated or built on since. The Brotherhood's ideology has inspired, to one extent or another, many of today's radical movements, including al-Qaeda. Hamas was a splinter faction of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Fatah had nominal ties with the Palestinian and Egyptian branches of the organization but emulated some of its activities. Indeed, it would be difficult to fully comprehend the intra-Palestinian rivalry, which began in the late 1980s, without first understanding the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded a full seven decades earlier.

* * *

Founded by a bearded religious schoolteacher and watch repairman named Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood sought to inculcate and spread fundamentalist Islamic beliefs and values in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. Born in 1928 of frustration with British (more broadly, Western) influence in Egypt, the movement envisioned the return to a time marked by a global Islamist order (the caliphate) in which Islam reigned supreme through one devout Muslim ruler (the caliph). Al-Banna's fiery orations captured the imagination of many Egyptians growing restless under British rule. He identified the primary ills affecting Muslims as "orientations to apostasy and nihilism" and the "non-Islamic" or "secular" currents that were growing stronger. Al-Banna was also a talented networker; he made connections throughout Egypt with Muslims who identified with his religious outlook. Inevitably, frustration over a lack of progress on the part of his network of advocates led him to determine that the "time for action" had arrived. Al-Banna and his followers soon developed armed cells that attacked Egyptian officials and supporters of the secularism that had taken control of Egypt. It is believed that in an attempt to quell the movement, elements within the Egyptian government killed al-Banna in Cairo in 1949.

Al-Banna's death did not prevent the rapid spread of the movement he founded. The Brotherhood found further inspiration in Sayyid Qutb, a captivating Egyptian speaker and writer who declared the era in which he lived (the twentieth century) to be one of jahiliyya (ignorance and darkness) due to the Muslim world's lack of adherence to shari'a law. Qutb, a gaunt figure with a mustache and protruding eyes, spent two years studying in Colorado but left unimpressed. His skewering of permissive U.S. culture in his writings captured the imagination of his Brotherhood followers, who were already seeking reasons to hate the West. He also provided Quranic justifications for attacking Muslim leaders whose governments were not in accordance with shari'a. The Egyptian regime executed Qutb in 1966 for his incendiary politics, but his legacy, like al-Banna's, survived. His most famous book, Ma'alim fil Tariq (Milestones), is considered to be on the must-read list of today's Islamist thinkers and is even said to have influenced Usama bin Laden.

Soon after Qutb's death, following the shocking Arab loss to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Muslim Brotherhood received a surprising boost in support. Moderate Muslims began to look for meaning in these seemingly inexplicable events. The Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had lost a war to the Jews, a people many Islamists regard as inferior. True, Jews are sometimes referred to as "people of the book" (Ahl al-Kitaab) among Muslims, due to a shared belief in one God as well as shared religious heritage rooted in the teachings of the Old Testament. However, Jews have also been treated as second-class citizens within Islam, or "dhimmis. " This meant that they were allowed to practice their religion but had to pay a tax to Muslims and recognize the supremacy of Islam. This led to a commonly held belief that Israel was inferior to the Muslim states.

Moreover, Muslims were in shock over the fact that Israel had conquered Jerusalem, often described as Islam's third holiest city after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. This holy ground, like Israel itself, was considered to be waqf, or land endowed to Muslims by Allah. It was therefore unacceptable that it would be under the political and military control of non-Muslims.

Thus, an increasing number of Muslims returned to their Islamic roots and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which believed that the loss of this land was Allah's punishment for Muslim sinners. The goal, then, was for Palestinian and other Muslims to return to their faith. Only then could they reclaim what they believed to be Palestine, including Jerusalem. This liberation theology remains the immutable cornerstone of the Hamas belief system today.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Muslim Brotherhood expanded rapidly, despite periods of government repression in several countries, to become one of the largest (if not the largest) Islamist organizations in the world. Experts often haggle over the exact membership of the worldwide movement, but the Brotherhood has penetrated every Muslim country, with predictably strong membership in the Arab world but also surprisingly large numbers in the West. The secretive society maintains strong chapters in the United States and western Europe. The movement's Egypt-based chairman, Dr. Mohammed Mahdi Akef (who continues to come under pressure from the Egyptian government) reaches out to his followers through the Brotherhood's English Web site (, which charts the news and progress of the organization in Egypt and around the world.

* * *

The British mandate of Palestine was one of the first territories to be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In fact, the Brotherhood was believed to be the first religious and political movement of its kind in mandatory Palestine. A handful of branches were founded even before the State of Israel was established in 1948.

The Brotherhood first established branches in the West Bank between 1946 and 1948. The movement created more chapters there after the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan conquered the territory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Islamist organization subsequently extended into the Gaza Strip, where Egypt had taken military control. However, in 1948—when the State of Israel was founded, Jordan occupied the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza—the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood was forced to split into two separate organizations for geographic reasons.

The Brotherhood grew steadily but separately in the two disputed territories over the next several decades, albeit under the watchful eyes of the Egyptian and Jordanian mukhabarat (security services). Indeed, the Brotherhood's Islamist ideology was not particularly welcomed in either state. The religiosity of Islamism posed a threat to the popularity of Pan-Arabism, a brand of secular socialism championed by Egypt's strongman, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the Alexandria-born son of a postal worker who came to be seen as the leader of the entire Arab world. Islamism's populist appeal threatened the legitimacy of several traditional Arab monarchies, including those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

* * *

After Israel's conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War, it was not Islamism that won the hearts and minds of Arabs. Rather, revolutionary Palestinian nationalism was seen as the panacea for the Arab world's failings. Yasir Arafat, a zealous engineering student turned activist with vague ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged as the unlikely leader of this movement. Arafat had sought to fight alongside the Arab armies in the 1948 war with Israel but was turned away by the invading Arab regimes that sought to maintain control of the battlefield, and ultimately, the land they expected to conquer. It is believed that this experience served as an awakening for Arafat, who came to believe that the Arab regimes would never defeat Israel. He believed that only a Palestinian revolutionary movement could achieve that goal.

In 1968, Arafat was given control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a hitherto ineffectual organization created by the Arab League in 1964 that paid only lip service to "liberating" the lands that Palestinians coveted. Arafat soon positioned the PLO, under the leadership of his own Fatah organization, as the only entity that actively sought to conquer Israel.

As previously noted, Fatah was undoubtedly influenced by Islamism. HATAF, which means "death" in Arabic, might have been a natural Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniya (the Palestinian Liberation Movement). Arafat's group, however, decided to reverse the order of the letters to give it a quranic meaning; fatah means "conquest," "victory," or "triumph." Thus began the Fatah tradition of wielding Islamist words and symbols when expedient without relinquishing the socialist, revolutionary zeal that motivated the movement's thinking and actions.

Fatah was founded in 1958 in Kuwait by Arafat, along with seven other Palestinian activists: Khalil Wazir, Salah Khalaf, Khaled al-Hassan, Adil Abdel Karim, Mohammed Yusuf al-Najar, Khalid al-Amira, and Abdel Fatah Lahmoud. Their dream was to one day defeat Israel by force and raise a Palestinian flag over the land that had been conquered in 1948. Fatah was influenced by Islamic ideology but stood for the establishment of a secular state after the destruction of Israel. Over the course of two or three years, Arafat and the others had laid the foundation for a network of secret cells to launch terrorist attacks against Israel. By 1960, Arafat had a small Middle East network and raised enough money to publish a magazine called Filastinuna: Nida' al-Hayat (Our Palestine: The Call to Life) to raise consciousness about the Palestinian plight. The magazine's circulation was negligible, but it left the impression that there was an active Palestinian underground.

On January 3, 1965, Fatah launched its first military operation when commandos placed a small explosive in the water system in Israel's Galilee region. A worker for the Israeli Mekorot Water Corporation found the bomb, however, before detonation. When the commandos crossed back over into Jordan, they were arrested by a Jordanian patrol. From a military standpoint, Fatah's subsequent attacks were also unimpressive. Most of its bombs did not explode, and Israel actually captured one Fatah commando when his rifle misfired. Still, Fatah carried out ten raids against Israel in the first three months of 1965.

Early on, Fatah was based in Syria but launched operations from every state bordering Israel. Syria trained Fatah's commandos and even broadcast its military communiqués on its state radio but denied responsibility for the attacks, which increased in number and intensity. Between February and May 1965, Fatah carried out several operations from Gaza, prompting Israeli reprisals against the towns of Qalqilya and Jenin inside the West Bank.

Between May and October 1966, Arafat ordered his Fatah group to execute 15 sabotage operations, 14 of which came from Jordan. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, an intense man of Ukrainian background, ordered an antiguerrilla offensive. Israel attacked the Jordanian village of Samu in the West Bank on November 13, killing more than 70 people. The devastating offensive only appeared to legitimize Fatah. By the end of 1966, Arafat's terrorist group claimed to have carried out 41 raids into Israeli territories.

In the first half of 1967, the rate of terrorism in Israel doubled. Arafat and his lieutenants ordered 37 attacks against the country in just six months. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also clashed with the Syrian military repeatedly in the Golan Heights, culminating in an air battle over Damascus in which six Syrian MiG fighter planes were shot down, humiliating the Syrian defense minister, Hafiz al-Asad—the man who would wrest control of Syria by coup in 1970 and subsequently maintain authoritarian rule for three decades.

Thanks in part to Fatah, war was on the horizon. Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia made the situation worse by taunting Egypt with claims that it was frightened of a conflict with Israel, choosing instead to hide behind the United Nations (UN) forces that buffered Egypt and Israel. On May 15, 1967, Egyptian President Nasser ordered the UN to withdraw from Sinai and positioned two Egyptian divisions on Israel's southern border. Nasser, who took power by coup in Egypt in 1954, was widely recognized as the leader of the Arab world; he inspired the Arabs with an ideology that synthesized Arab nationalism and socialism. The world looked on anxiously as he blocked Israeli ships from accessing the Red Sea port of Eilat. Fatah made the situation worse by carrying out five sabotage missions against Israeli targets between May 15 and May 26.

Seeking to preempt what appeared to be an inevitable war, the Israelis launched a surprise attack on June 5 that decimated the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies. In six days, those three Arab states lost East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. All of the territory that the Arabs had captured in 1948 was now under Israeli control.

Egypt's defeat was devastating. Nasser was seen by many, not just in Egypt, as the only figure who could restore Arab power in the region. After his army's abject failure on the battlefield, many Palestinians ceased trusting the Arab regimes to "liberate Palestine." With no one else to turn to, the Palestinians looked to their indigenous freedom fighters for salvation. Fatah had captured the imagination of the Arab world.

"We do not have an ideology," Arafat stated in 1969. "Our goal is the liberation of our fatherland by any means necessary." Those means would soon include shocking acts of violence outside of the territory that Arafat sought to conquer.

Among all the Arab actors, Arafat emerged as the only clear winner of the Six-Day War. The self-styled guerrilla, with his trademark checkered headscarf and sunglasses, assumed control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and quickly thrust it onto the world stage with spectacular acts of terrorism against Israeli targets around the world. In so doing, Arafat became the de facto leader of the Palestinian people and the military commander in the "struggle for Palestine."

* * *

As Arafat, Fatah, and the PLO launched a campaign of terror against Israel, the Palestinian revolutionary movement captured the admiration and respect of the Arab world. By 1974, the PLO was recognized as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinian people at an Arab summit. The summit, held in Rabat, Morocco, and attended by 20 heads of state from around the Arab world, officially recognized Arafat and the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."

The Rabat conference rattled Israel. The PLO was an unabashedly violent organization that continued to attack Israeli civilian targets worldwide. Thus, Israel sought to find strategies that would undermine the guerrilla movement, particularly among the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By the late 1970s, the Israelis believed they had found Fatah's Achilles' heel. Indeed, Fatah had become anxious over the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. In fact, arguments there between Fatah and the Gaza Brotherhood sometimes turned violent, spilling over into the streets. Israeli officials correctly determined that the Muslim Brotherhood was Fatah's primary competition. Seeking to undermine the terrorist group, the Israelis made the ill-fated decision to permit the Brotherhood to operate with relatively little oversight.

This flawed and dangerous plan stemmed from the fact that the Brotherhood maintained a rather strict policy of refraining from armed struggle against Israel. Faced with unprecedented guerrilla violence, the Jewish state was relieved to find groups that opposed Israel in word rather than deed. In retrospect, had Israel cracked down on the Brotherhood, there might have been less support for Hamas after its founding in 1988.

The Brotherhood received an unexpected boost after the 1967 war; once Israel took administrative control over both Palestinian territories, the Gaza and West Bank Brotherhood chapters united. Both groups also established ties with the Islamist movement among Arabs inside Israel's Green Line, (the internationally recognized borders following the 1948–1949 war). The biggest boost for the Brotherhood came in 1973, however, when the Israeli military provided Ahmed Yassin, the eventual founder of Hamas, with a license to establish al-Mujamma' al-Islami (the Islamic Center). For the next 15 years, his center served as a political and cultural center for most Brotherhood activities in the Gaza Strip. More important, it provided a vehicle through which Yassin could reach out to all Palestinians. The center boasted an aggressive network of health services, day care, youth activities, and even food services that won the support and loyalty of the destitute Palestinians living in Gaza's refugee camps. These services were part of a long-term strategy of dawa, or outreach, to the Palestinian people. They gained Yassin many supporters and laid the foundation for a powerful movement that even he likely could never have foreseen.


Excerpted from Hamas vs. Fatah by Jonathan Schanzer. Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Schanzer. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by D.Pipes

Introduction: Islamism vs. Palestinian Nationalism

The Roots of Hamas and Fatah

Hamas, Fatah, and the First Intifada

Hamas Under Fire

Hamas, Fatah and the Oslo Years

History Repeats: The 2000 Intifada


Hamas Digs In

Prelude to War

Hamas Conquers Gaza

Fatah's West Bank

The Threat of al-Qaeda in Gaza

The Gaza-West Bank Split

Annapolis and the Hope for Peace

The Effect of Sanctions

The Winds of War

The Prospects for Change from Within

Conclusion: Between Fitna and Fulfillment


About the Author

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