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What are Fatah and Hamas?

Kathleen Schuster
October 4, 2017

Fatah and Hamas are trying to establish a unity government after years of pursuing rival paths to a Palestinian state. DW looks at the movements, their goals and what has hindered the two groups from working together.

The Palestinian don masks of President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniya's faces
The Palestinian don masks of President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniya's facesImage: AP

The founding of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948 — the day on which the British Mandate over Palestine expired — was the result of several historical narratives: European colonialism in the Middle East, the Zionist movement and, finally, the Nazi regime's attempt to systemically exterminate the Jewish population in Europe.

The legal basis for Israel's claim to statehood rests on the Balfour Declaration of 1917 — in which the British Empire declared its support for a Jewish homeland — and the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 181, which in 1947 partitioned the British-ruled Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state, an Arab state and an international trusteeship.

As a result, Palestinians consider the land to be stolen and various political factions have called for a reversal of the establishment of the Israeli state ever since. This situation worsened as Israel expanded its territory by absorbing Palestinian land following 1967's Six-Day War with the building of several settlements that, according to the UN Security Council, have "no legal validity."

A Palestinian man in Gaza City commemorates what Palestinians call the "Naqba" ("catastrophe") in reference to the founding of Israel in 1948
Gaza City commemorates what Palestinians call Nakba Day (the Day of the Catastrophe) in reference to the founding of Israel in 1948. The keys symbolize homes lost by more than 700,000 people as a result of the UN-mandated partitioning of landImage: AP

Fatah and Hamas have emerged as the main political forces in the Palestinian liberation movement, both with different goals.

Here’s a look at their origins, their strategies, their goals regarding self-determination and the status of their political partnership. 

What is Fatah?

Formed in the late 1950s by Yasser Arafat, the secular party originally sought to establish a Palestinian state through guerrilla warfare. Arafat led the party until his death in 2004. Under his leadership it became the leading force in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella group created in 1964 to represent various factions seeking self-determination.

Fatah means "conquest" or "victory" in Arabic and is the reverse acronym of Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filistinya, which translates to Palestinian Liberation Movement.

Read more — Interpol approves Palestinian membership 

Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres hold up their Nobel Peace Prize medallions at a ceremoney in Oslo Norway in 1994
Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their peace efforts in the Middle EastImage: Getty Images

What is Hamas?

The militant organization was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987 with the aid of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious members of the PLO. The nonsecular party rose to prominence in 1993 when it denounced the Oslo Accord, which the Fatah-led PLO signed on to: The agreement formally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas stands for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah, which translates to Islamic Resistance Movement.

How do their goals differ?

Although the two parties seek Palestinian self-determination, their ideas of how to achieve this goal diverged markedly in the late 1980s.

After waging guerrilla warfare on Israel, Fatah eventually became the chief proponent of peace talks. It has since endorsed a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

A man wearing a green headband with Fatah's symbol, his face covered and wearing bullets around his neck looks beyond the camera
Fatah views the establishment of Israel as an illegal act and seeks to reclaim territory it considers stolen from the Palestinian people. It first rejected attacks on Israeli civilians in 2002Image: Reuters/S. Salem

Hamas, by contrast, does not recognize Israel's right to exist. It has called for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state that would subsume Israel.

Read more — Was the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre avoidable?

Are they terrorist organizations?

Though the movement fought militarily against Israel for several decades, Fatah is not classified as a terrorist organization. However, the US state department does classify the Abu Nidal Organization and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, both of which claim ties to Fatah, terrorist groups. 

Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the EU.

Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talking
Jordan's King Abdullah (left) has been involved in mediating peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was one of the original members of Fatah and became the head of the PLO in 2004 following Arafat's deathImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gharabli

What is the status of their coalition government?

The parties have begun to work in earnest toward a power-sharing agreement that has been stalled for over a decade. Violent clashes flared between the two groups following a landslide victory by Hamas in late 2006 and early 2007, prompting Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the tenuous coalition government.

In the years since, Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip and Fatah the West Bank. By 2011, an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement nudged the two sides closer to revisiting a power-sharing agreement.

Fatah and Hamas last attempted to form a sustainable unity cabinet of nonpartisan ministers in 2014.

Read more — 'Palestinians want reconciliation' between Fatah and Hamas

A map of Israel and Palestinian territories showing where Israeli settlements have been built
Critics point to Israeli settlements as a major stumbling block in peace efforts. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has pledged to continue settlement expansion