A youth waves a Palestinian flag as he climbs a tree during a rally marking the 48th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City, January 2013.
Ahmed Zakot / Reuters

On August 22, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and nine of his colleagues tendered their resignations from the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to force the election of a new executive committee—likely an effort to fill the committee with Abbas supporters. The news shined a spotlight on the PLO, but the real attention should be on Fatah, the dominant faction in the PLO, whose internal politics pose the largest threat to the future of Palestinian politics.

As the Fatah leadership prepares for its annual congress, its internal turmoil has become more pronounced. Younger members, known as the “young guard,” who were raised in the West Bank and Gaza and participated in the first and second intifadas, have aired a number of grievances against the Fatah leadership and the “old guard,” the older members who have spent most of their lives fighting for the Palestinian cause in the diaspora.

Tensions came to a head following the overwhelming loss of the Fatah student bloc at Birzeit University, on April 23, when the son of a jailed Fatah leader and militant, Qassam Barghouti, published a scathing critique of the Fatah leadership in the Palestinian press. Speaking for many younger members of Fatah, he criticized Fatah’s inability to integrate the “new guard,” its lack of accountability, and its poor liberation strategy.

THE OLD AND THE NEW

Fatah’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council hold primary decision-making power, and have left little room for the views of younger members. Even as younger Fatah leaders reach middle age, they find it difficult to assume influential roles within the organization, remaining stuck in the rank and file. As Barghouti wrote in a June 26 email, “If we carry out a simple calculation to determine the average age of the members of the Central Committee, Revolutionary Council, and regional councils, we would find that representation of the younger generations is almost nonexistent, and the average age is 60.”

Palestinian members of the Fatah movement roll down a poster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank,  January 2011.
Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters

Barghouti is not alone in his frustration. Another prominent Fatah activist, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said, “The Fatah leadership needs to let new blood into the leadership because nothing will change otherwise. The younger leaders who organized and participated in the first and second intifada can inject innovative techniques and strategies into the movement.”

Fatah has also struggled with accountability. When leaders make poor decisions, the Fatah leadership seldom exacts consequences, according to younger members. Following the Fatah student bloc’s loss at Birzeit University, Abbas vowed to hold Tawfiq Al-Tirawi, the Fatah Commissioner for Popular Organizations, and Mahmoud Aloul, the Fatah Commissioner of Mobilization and Organization, to account, but more than three months later, no action has been taken. In an interview in his office in Bethlehem, Jarees Qumsieh, the former secretary general of Fatah in Beit Sahour, said, “There is a system to hold members accountable, but it is not used.” Younger Fatah members have increasingly lost patience for the Old Guard’s neglect of the issue.

Without fully integrating its younger cohort, Fatah will struggle to remain the vanguard of the Palestinian national movement.
More broadly, from the point of view of the so-called young guard, Fatah has struggled to adopt an effective liberation strategy and achieve tangible results. Since its first official diplomatic engagement with Israel in 1991, Fatah has been largely focused on negotiations. But the group’s failure to deliver a Palestinian state has convinced younger members that it should pursue alternative strategies. Although younger members appreciate current efforts to internationalize the Palestinian cause through the International Criminal Court and the United Nations, they also believe the Fatah leadership should endorse and support an aggressive popular resistance movement.

“The Fatah leadership should stop clinging to the negotiations process as the sole available option and launch a wide ranging [campaign] of popular, peaceful resistance not only to achieve international recognition of Palestinian rights but also to besiege and punish Israel,” Barghouti said.

“If we carry out a simple calculation to determine the average age of the members of the Central Committee, Revolutionary Council, and regional councils, we would find that representation of the younger generations is almost nonexistent, and the average age is 60.”

Qadura Fares, who came of age during the first intifada, went further. “Negotiations have arrived at a dead end, and armed resistance has also. I believe the Palestinian issue has matured to the point where we can announce a civil disobedience campaign that will continue until the occupation ends. In particular, I am talking about cutting all connections to Israel. The first thing to do is to burn our ID cards. Then people should take to the streets … impeding the movement of settlers and the Israel Defense Forces. Palestinian leaders should negotiate with Israel, but they should not end the civil disobedience as a precondition to negotiations.” In interviews, younger Fatah members almost uniformly confirmed this view.

A Palestinian Fatah militant fires a weapon in the air during a rally in Ramallah, January 2015.
Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

A COMMON CORE

The disconnect between the Fatah leadership and its younger generations has continued to widen. Yet on many issues, the two generations are more similar than they think. When asked why they joined Fatah, for example, younger members, like older ones, consistently cited Fatah’s secular, nationalist ideology and its focus on liberating Palestine. Moreover, the younger members I interviewed overwhelmingly support a two-state outcome for Israel and Palestine, which they worry may no longer be possible, another position held by the senior Fatah leadership. And younger members, like older ones, appear to prefer popular resistance to armed resistance.

Nonetheless, without fully integrating its younger cohort, Fatah will struggle to remain the vanguard of the Palestinian national movement. Younger Fatah members may become disillusioned with the movement and leave its ranks, joining the increasing number of exasperated Palestinians unaffiliated with a political movement. Lacking a robust younger membership, Fatah will struggle to mobilize popular support for its future international and domestic initiatives, further undermining its legitimacy and potential to regain the favor of the Palestinian public. 

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