The History of the Fath Movement: Ilyas Shufani remembers


The daughter of Ilyas Shufani sent me three books of his, including his just-released memoirs. From the first page I knew that i would not be able to leave it without finishing it on the same day. I read it yesterday and it was not an easy read: it was painful and sobering. It is a history of the Fath Movement and its failures, defeats, and shortcomings, along with the efforts of a lone principled great man. I always despised Fath and its leaders: it was always corrupt and showy and ineffective. Yet, I knew a small number of principled and dedicated members: but I have always said that by 1982, all the decent and principled Fath leaders and members had either left in disgust, or were assassinated by Israel. Ilyas Shufani is from Mi`liya in the Galilee. His father was a tough fighter in Palestinian revolt against Zionism and fought in 1948, along with his young son. Ilyas was in his teens when Palestinian was occupied by the terrorist Zionists. His account of living under Israeli occupation was honest: for me, it was not easy. You can't live under occupation and stick to the boycott rule. This is why we--those Arabs living outside of Palestine--were always unfair to the Palestinians living under Israeli rule. We wanted them to stay but to never say a word or acknowledge the presence of the Israeli usurpers. He attended Hebrew University and then went to University of Pennsylvania. His account of the Hebrew University is really good in how he described politics of the university and the nature of Israeli Orientalism. He was supposed to do his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania but quickly realized that his professor, Shelomo Goitein, had no interest in his Arab/Islamic studies although he was the Orientalist on campus. He wanted to utilize the language skills of Elias for the purpose of his non-Arab/non-Islamic studies of the Middle East. Elias described how Arabs dealt with a holder of an Israeli passport at the time: he went to attend a conference of Arab students in the US, but was not allowed to register (at first) by the Arab organizers because he was a holder of an Israeli passport. Nabil Sha`th was a student at the time and did not want "an Israeli" to be allowed in. He was later allowed to attend as an "observer." Shufani later moved to Princeton where he wrote his dissertation on the wars of Riddah. Elias got a job at the University of Maryland and just as he received tenure, he decided to resign and move and become a full time activist in the Fath Movement, which he had joined. He describes life as a Fath activist in the US in the late 60s and early 70s. He was followed by FBI agents everywhere he went, and just before he was about to leave the US for good, his FBI harasser told him that he was deep down "as an Irish" sympathetic to his cause and that he hated Jews.(p. 114). Why do Western anti-Semites think that Arabs who champion the Palestinian cause would be appreciative of their anti-Semitism? We don't need that kind of support, for sure. None other than Abu Mazen was chief of "Mobilization and Organization" of the Fath movement at the time, and he quickly led a chauvinist trend whereby the pan-Arab activism in the US on behalf of Palestine was transformed into only-Palestinian organization of Palestinian students.(p. 82) This was the policy of Arafat under the name of achieving "the independent Palestinian decision making". Of course, he caused an alienation of Arabs from Palestinian activism and far from achieving an independent Palestinian decision making he surrendered the decision making process to the House of Saud. Shufani had utter contempt for Abu Mazen through out the years: perhaps because he was a real expert of Israel and Zionism while Abu Mazen liked to pose as an expert of Zionism. When Abu Mazen wrote his PhD dissertation in Moscow at the Patrice Lumumba University for people's friendship, a dissertation that contains anti-Semitic references, he sent it to the Institute of Palestine Studies for publication. Abu Mazen was hurt when the experts at the Insitute, like Elias Shufani, made it very clear that this is not something that could be published. Shufani had another encounter with Abu Mazen: when Shufani became a member of the Palestinian National Council, he attended his first meeting. Abu Mazen saw him there and urged to speak during the meetings. Shufani--a modest guy--said that he would listen first. Abu Mazen blurted: "Those are cows." (p. 194) Shufani also mocks the theories of Abu Mazen regarding the demise of Israel: as is well-known, Abu Mazen always predicts the ultimate demise of Israel (he says that in closed door meetings with fellow Palestinians). He argues that we need to make a settlement and then Israel would collapse on its own in no more than 20 years from now. But during the 1970s, Abu Mazen had a hair brained scheme: he would tell fellow members of the leading bodies of the Fath Movement that he was working "in secret" on a plan that would lead to the flight of all Moroccon Jews from Israel (and their return to Morocco). Shufani decided early on that this man is not very bright and is not very effective and is not very sincere. But Shufani's time in Fath was not easy: here was a principled scholar surrounded by the likes of Arafat, Abu Mazen, Abu Al-Hawl, etc. He worked at the Institute of Palestine Studies and at the Planning Center of the PLO. He was a pioneer of the scholarly Arab studies of Israel and Zionsim, and suprvised much of the Arabic translation from Hebrew at the time. But what people did not know at the time--or a few of them knew-- that he was also active in a leftist secret organization within Fath. He was working closely with that brillitant Palestinian, Hanna Mikha'il (was a close friend of Edward Said at Harvard, and he wrote about him. Shufani tells about his first meeting with Said in the US and that Said told him: I want to be a Palestinian). Mikha'il was an energetic organizer and mobilizer within Fath, and he also had left academic life in the US to work for Palestine liberation (he did not complete his PhD at Harvard). Hanna Mikha'il died mysteriously in Lebanon in 1976 when he among other members of the secret leftist faction in Fath left in a boat from Beirut to Tripoli. They were never to be found, and Shufani suspects Arafat foul play in this. Shufani stayed within Fath and continued to work hard on contributing to the Arab studies of Israel and Zionism. Arafat and his lieutenants hated Shufani, and used every method to weaken him. He has a vivid description of the way Arafat and his corrupt and incompetent commanders were responsible for the way the resistance to the 1982 invasion was frustrated. He has very interesting things to say about the military appointments within Fath and the way Arafat managed the organization. And the 1982 Israeli invasion was the last straw: Shufani left Fath and joined Fath-Uprising. But he provides here the best profile of the Fath-Uprising: he tells us that basically, it was a replica of the old corrupt Fath. He talks about Libyan (and avoids mentioning Syrian) control of the organization. The Libyan wanted the Fath-Uprising to merge with Fath-Revolutionary Council of Abu Nidal. Shufani had had enough and he retired from political life altogether. You read this and admire those Palestinians who give up their life, their careers to work for the liberation of Palestine, only to be frustrated by the constraints of Arafat's conspiracies and ploys. This is a book that the Institue for Palestine Studies should translate into English. The author lives in Syria and the book was published in Syria, which explains (in my mind) why he was reluctant to criticize the role of the Syrian regime. By the way, Shufani also tells that important story of how Prince Saud Al-Faysal misled the PLO leadership in June 1982 when he ruled out a full scale Israeli invasion of Lebanon.