Where Are These Three Smiling Fatah Figures Today?

Liberation and freedom are always beautiful during the period of struggle. But when ex-freedom fighters become members of the new regime, the cracks overshadow their heroic past

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Leaders of the Palestinian Fatah movement who were expelled by Israel, in Amman, Jordan, in 1988 or 1989, from left: Mohammed Dahlan, Abu Ali Shahin and Marwan Barghouti
Fatah heroes expelled by Israel, in Amman, Jordan in 1988 or 1989, from left: Mohammed Dahlan, Abu Ali Shahin and Marwan Barghouti.Credit: No credit

There are three smiling men in this picture. The middle one is older, with a graying beard, high forehead and a pipe. He looks like a Cuban revolutionary. He is flanked on either side by younger men who look like hot students from the cafeteria. One has a mustache; the other wears glasses. The one with the glasses is Mohammed Dahlan, a bit of a dandy, who rests his elbow affectionately on the shoulder of the older man, Abu Ali Shahin. The smile of the mustachioed one, Marwan Barghouti, looks more like his infectious laugh, behind which is a self-deprecating sense of humor. (At our first meeting in 1997, he explained to me, at my request, how the Oslo Accords would lead to independence. At the end of his explanation, I said I didn’t understand, and he said, “I don’t, either.”)

The smiles were apt; the photo is apparently from 1988 or 1989, at the height of the popular uprising known as the first intifada. But the three smiling men are not in their proper place: Israel had expelled them from their homeland. Nevertheless, their smiles and joy look so authentic one could cry.

All three were the present and future of the Fatah movement, courageous popular heroes who had founded the Fatah Youth Movement, whom Israel imprisoned and then exiled. Here, in a photo on a sofa in Amman, they were convinced that the end of the occupation was near; after all no tyrant could stand up to the will of a united people.

The joyful photo captures a tragedy typical of national liberation movements: Liberation and freedom are always beautiful during the period of oppression and struggle. When the former freedom fighters become members of the new regime, the cracks start to overshadow their heroic past and reveal problems that were hidden or thought to be secondary.

The terrible difference between the Palestinian struggle and those of others – in South Africa and Algeria, for example – is that from a formal perspective, not just a philosophical or economic one, foreign rule has not been overthrown. The Palestinians are living with both Israeli tyranny and the malfunctioning of their handicapped self-government. Actually, with the malfunctioning of two governments – that of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Two non-states for one people, and within each the ruling party creates its own latifundium, such as government ministries, security and police forces, entities that create jobs and salaries that subordinate their recipients to the ruler and silence any protest or criticism.

Shahin, a native and refugee from the village of Basheet, southwest of Ramle, died in Gaza in 2013 at the age of 80. In his last years he had to reject rumors about corruption as a minister.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah last year.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Dahlan, from a family of refugees from the village of Hamama, between Ashkelon and Ashdod, stained his past as a freedom fighter with his oppressive role as head of the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza, his accumulation of wealth and his involvement in business and military adventures in foreign countries.

Barghouti, from the village of Kobar, near Ramallah, is paying with life imprisonment for an uprising that began as a popular, spontaneous one and that was appropriated by the armed forces of Palestinian organizations. Yasser Arafat, taking his example from Algeria, saw this as the way to improve his position in the negotiations while rebuffing popular criticism of his regime. Barghouti, contrary to his understanding and inclinations, got caught up in the machismo contest that developed among the various armed groups, and between them and the Israel Defense Forces.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard the sentence, “they’ve hijacked our movement” from several Fatah members trying to put up a list to run against the slate loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, to take place, God willing, on May 22. They are referring to the authoritarian regime of intimidation and silencing that Abbas and his associates created in Fatah and the PA institutions. Most of those saying this are from the first-intifada generation, who were shunted aside by the founding generation that returned from exile in the 1990s. The latter are referred to by the intifada alumni as the “Tunisians” or “new immigrants,” but they still constitute a majority of the Fatah Central Committee.

But that’s not the sole source of the tension, which existed in other liberation movements between “outside” and “inside” leaderships. The fact is that among Abbas’ loyalists on the central committee, there are several “insiders” with their own histories as anti-occupation activists since their youth who turned into repressive strongmen: Majed Faraj, head of general intelligence, whom the Palestinian public refers to as “America’s man”; Hussein al-Sheikh, known as “Israel’s man” due to his role as mediator with the Israeli authorities, and Jibril Rajoub, who in his role as chairman of the Palestinian Football Association marvelously demonstrates his political skills and desire to rule.

On the other hand, there’s Nasser al-Kidwa, a “returnee” and who, as a nephew of Arafat, can say he has Fatah in his blood. In recent years, though, he has been a leading critic of Abbas and the current political system. Last Thursday he confirmed that he is involved in formulating the alternative list of to that of formal Fatah, in an effort to move toward a democratic path of building a proper liberation strategy. In an online symposium at Bir Zeit University, he said, “If we don’t succeed this time, we will have to get out of politics. For me personally, if I were to flee responsibility now, it would mean that I will not have any political role in the future.”

Then he uttered the sentence that revealed the depth of the tragedy: “Either we do what’s required of us, or we leave. Enough of what we did to the Palestinian people.”

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