Palestinian Politics

How do Palestinian politics work?

Part of: Hey Alma’s Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Who is in charge of the Palestinian territories? Is it one person or party? Are there elections? What does the Palestinian political spectrum look like?

Lots of questions. Let’s start with…

Palestinian Liberation Organization

In 1964, at the first meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, formed. (Earlier that year, at the first Arab League summit in Cairo, Arab leaders called for the creation of an organization to represent Palestinians.) According to Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, “The PLO was founded in response to a number of factors, including the growing salience of the Palestine question in inter‐Arab politics, the increasing friction between the Arab states and Israel over water diversion projects and other issues, and the growth of underground, independent Palestinian nationalist activity, which Arab governments, notably that of Egypt, wanted to preempt.”

The PLO became an umbrella organization for Palestinian groups; at its founding, it stated its goal was the “liberation of Palestine” via armed struggle. The Palestine National Charter of 1964, also called the PLO Charter, reads:

We, the Palestinian Arab people, who faced the forces of evil, injustice and aggression, against whom the forces of international Zionism and colonialism conspire and worked to displace it, dispossess it from its homeland and property, abused what is holy in it and who in spite of all this refused to weaken or submit.

Yasser Arafat (center) with Nayef Hawatmeh and Kamal Nasser in Amman, Jordan, June 1970 (Al Ahram Weekly/Wikimedia Commons)

From the start of the PLO, it was a government-in-exile. First, it was headquartered in Jordan until Black September, then Lebanon, then Tunis, until it arrived to Ramallah in 1993 following the Oslo Accords. In 1994, the Palestinian Authority was established.

Is the PLO a terrorist organization?

The world at large does not consider the PLO a terrorist organization (the way it does Hamas, for example), but things are still a little complicated. In 1993, then PLO leader Yasser Arafat renounced terrorism and acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, yet many Israelis on the right saw that statement as merely lip service, given the fact that the PLO had carried out terrorist attacks in the past. There were factions and/or affiliates of the PLO that continued to engage in terrorist acts after that denouncement.

As My Jewish Learning points out, “During the 1970s, the PLO became virtually a synonym for terrorism — a strategy that, ironically, increasingly won the Palestinian cause sympathy in the international arena. The PLO invented airplane hijackings and carried out many of them, and its constituent groups were responsible for a large number of other terrorist attacks, including the assassination of Jordan’s prime minister in Cairo in 1971 and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.”

Who led the PLO?

There have been four leaders of the PLO:

  1. Ahmad Shuqayrī, a lawyer and ally of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, from 1964 until his resignation in 1967.
  2. Yahia Hammuda from 1967 to 1969.
  3. Yasser Arafat from 1969 until his death in 2004.
  4. Mahmoud Abbas from 2004 to present.

Arafat is the big one here — he defined the PLO for decades, leading the Palestinian resistance movement from Jordan, then Lebanon, then Tunisia, until he returned to Palestinian territory in 1994. During the majority of this time, he was widely considered a terrorist leader, directing numerous violent acts against Israeli citizens.

L-R: Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (Government Press Office/Israel)

So what’s the Palestinian Authority (PA)?

The PA was formed in 1993, by the Oslo Accords, to manage and control the areas that Israel withdrew from. This was supposed to keep going until the permanent status agreement with Israel; the idea was the PA would run Palestinian affairs until a future Palestinian state was established. The PLO approved the accords, which entailed the creation of the PA.

As part of the PA, there’s the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). You can think of the PLC sort of as the Palestinian parliament. The PLC members are elected by Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian Legislative Council, Ramallah, West Bank, 2006 (Jasmine Halki/Flickr)

This is different than the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), a parliamentary body that is elected by Palestinians everywhere except for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Basically, there are still a bunch of disparate Palestinian organizations with their own individual structures.

But wait, I thought Arafat led a different group?

He did! It’s called Fatah, and it’s a secular/nationalist group founded in the late 1950s by Arafat and other Palestinian nationalists. They pre-date the PLO, but once the PLO was formed, they became the most powerful faction within the organization.

As NPR points out, “Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group’s constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians.”

So, if you’re still with us: The PLO controls the PA, but Fatah is the majority faction of the PNC (in the PLO) and PLC (in the PA), so they’re the party in power. Got it?

Yasser Arafat posters, Al-Bass Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, September 2010 (iStock)

Basically, this fractured government means Palestinian political bodies still kind of function independently because they never became a traditional state with a unified leadership structure.

How does Fatah get elected?

Well, staring in 1994, after the PA was formed, elections were held in Palestinian Autonomous areas, under the framework of the Oslo Accords. In the 1996 general election, Fatah won 55 of the 88 seats, cementing its power.

So, Fatah controls the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

It did, until 2006.

What happened in 2006?

Let’s back up a sec.

Some history to situate us: In 2004, Yasser Arafat died, and in 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. It wasn’t what you’d call a smooth disengagement. Following that, tensions between Fatah and Hamas — an organization we somehow have not discussed yet, but we’ll get to them soon, we promise — began to rise.

In the January 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats, and Fatah only won 45 seats. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya formed a unity government — a power sharing deal with Fatah — but it didn’t go well. There was violence between Hamas and Fatah, leading to what some call the “Palestinian Civil War.”

After the sporadic violence, Mahmoud Abbas (who was president) dissolved the government in early 2007.

Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza, April 2012 (Joe Catron/Flickr)

Haniya still says he is prime minister of the PA. When Hamas pushed Fatah out of Gaza, Hamas became the de facto leader of Gaza (it has ever since) and Fatah remains in charge of the PA in the West Bank.

Wait. What is Hamas?!

Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement.

Sheikh Ahmad Yasin founded Hamas in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, shortly after the start of the First Intifada. Their military wing is called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Unlike Fatah, a secularist party, Hamas is explicitly Islamist.

The 1988 Hamas Charter called for jihad against Israel — “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” — and the liberation of Palestine through violence, to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”

Hamas is widely classified as a terrorist organization, and the group has carried out numerous acts of violence against Israelis, including suicide bombings, kidnappings, and rocket attacks. But some Palestinians may support Hamas because they provide a wide range of social welfare services — like schools, orphanages, and health clinics.

As we just talked about, Hamas currently controls Gaza.