Hamas developed as a grassroots movement. Its emphasis on Islamic charity allowed it deep penetration into Palestinian society, nurtured immense popular goodwill toward Hamas, and recruited true followers. In contrast, Fatah was always a top-down organization—envisaged by a few Palestinian students in Cairo, structured by the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence services, developed in Kuwait, and flourishing in Jordan. Fatah never had Palestinian roots. Superficially, Fatah distributed aid and social services just like Hamas did, but the difference was enormous; everyone understood that Fatah acted as a proxy. It distributed foreign aid, and in that sense deserved no more gratitude than a truck driver who delivered it. Unlike Fatah, which was financed by several large sponsors, Hamas earned its bread by appealing to underground Muslim organizations and thousands of small donors. Hamas really worked to get the money, rather than merely channeling foreign aid. Common Palestinians saw and knew that difference, and paid Hamas for its efforts in the currency of loyalty.
Many Palestinians supported the PLO (not actually Fatah) causes, but never provided the grassroots activism necessary for a popular organization. The PLO never developed the village-level presence characteristic of Hamas. Fatah has a reputation for treachery: even in the 1970s, many factions left the PLO because of Fatah. Saiqa and PFLP-GC actually fought with Fatah, which was widely seen as a collaborationist organization, ready to give in to Israeli demands, accept a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank, and make concessions on the right of return. By the late 1980s, the PLO in Tunisia was almost non-existent and totally irrelevant.

After the Beilin-Peres clique brought Fatah from Tunisia and installed it in the West Bank as a nominal peace partner, Fatah concentrated on embezzling foreign aid and in this way sought to centralize power, rather than dispersing it to create a support base. Fatah did not evolve into a popular party, but became a group of conspirators admired by masses. Popular mood changes rapidly, and Fatah cannot form a viable backbone for Palestinian statehood.

Fatah hijacked the PLO. In doing that, it was helped initially by Egyptians and Jordanians who feared the radical and uncontrollable PLO. Fatah’s situation in the 1960s is relevant now: at that time, Fatah was really a moderate organization of talkative university activists. They talked, however, of insurrection. When the PLO actually began the insurrection, Fatah had to follow suit in order to maintain its credibility. So the moderate demagogues often shift to radicalism. Abbas is moderate now, but his speeches addressed to Arabs are still full of the radical, we-are-waiting-for-our-chance rhetoric. When Hamas, PIJ, and others act daily against Israel, Abbas will have to make good on his promises to the Palestinians and start fighting Israel as well. Now Fatah acts indirectly, through its Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade wing. Palestinians understand that Fatah and Al Aqsa Martyrs are the same group, but Israeli and Western supporters of the peace process can comfortably tell their voters that Fatah abstains from terrorism. But at some point, if a peace treaty with Israel is not signed, Fatah will either be forced to engage in terrorism directly or pass away in the polls.

In practical terms, it doesn’t matter whether Fatah fights willingly or not. Egypt entered the 1967 war rather unwillingly. In fact, the Egyptian army fought Fatah’s armed wing, Assifa, around 1965, charging that the Palestinians drew Egypt into the war with Israel before Egypt was “fully prepared,” a euphemism for “don’t bother us.” Nasser was working on his pet idea of Arab unification, and both Israel and the Palestinians fell out of his sphere of immediate interests. But willingly or not, Arab leaders follow their rhetoric and eventually fight Israel.

Fatah and Hamas don’t fight for real: look at the massive amounts of ammunition expended with next to no casualties. When the Palestinian internecine fighting was for real, thousands of casualties were incurred in battles between Fatah and PFLP-GC and other factions.

Hamas and Hezbollah marked a new stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was easy for Israel to uproot the PLO from the West Bank (a few hundred leaders) and Lebanon (a few thousand guerrillas). The Jordanian and Lebanese governments tacitly approved of Israel’s intervention, as they were fed up with the PLO. Hamas and Hezbollah, on other hand, are intertwined with the population. They are impossible to fight without massive civilian casualties, and aren’t susceptible to being uprooted by exiling a handful of their leaders. This is not yet a popular war on par with Vietnam, but it is close to it—the polls show 30-50 percent approval ratings for Hamas and Hezbollah. On a positive note, popular movements tend to turn inward. As long as they can maintain popularity by catering to the supportive population rather than fighting, they opt for peace. Both Hamas and Hezbollah will preserve animosity toward Israel, but will increasingly occupy themselves with domestic affairs. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have tremendously decreased the number of cross-border attacks on Israel, and almost ceased them after coming to power. Even Hamas’ semi-independent Izz ad-Din Kassam military wing refrained from significant attacks on Israel until forced to adopt a militant posture by the continuing restrictions Israel imposed on Gaza following Hamas’ takeover.