Tanzim (which means “Organization” in Arabic) was established in 1995 by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to serve as a quasi-military force for his Fatah organization. With this new entity, Arafat hoped to counterbalance the growing power of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had recently engaged in a number of deadly skirmishes with Palestinian Authority security forces.
From its inception, Tanzim acted as an informal “Palestinian army” that could, because of its “unofficial” status, combat Israeli security forces or attack Jewish civilians without technically violating signed agreements between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. In September 1996 the organization played a major role in the so-called “Tunnel Riots,” where its members fought alongside Palestinian policemen against Israeli security forces after the Israeli government had opened a Jerusalem archaeological site to tourists.
Tanzim militants were in the vanguard of the violent Intifada that erupted in October 2000, after Arafat had rejected the Clinton-Barak peace offer and derailed the Camp David talks. In that uprising, numerous Tanzim operatives ambushed civilian vehicles and detonated bombs on crowded buses in Israeli cities. Particularly notable was a late 2001 attack on a bus in the West Bank that killed ten people and injured more than thirty. Between September 2000 and March 2001, Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades took combined responsibility for more than 300 separate terror attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed.
Also during that period, Tanzim worked closely with members of Hamas (and possibly Hezbollah) in coordinating various actions. Moreover, Tanzim is believed to have been responsible for the formation of numerous militia groups in the early months of 2002. The group’s day-to-day activities at that time were financed by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, to the tune of approximately $2.4 million annually.
A popular Tanzim tactic was to provoke Israeli security forces into public confrontations, which then become the subject of Palestinian demonstrations designed to garner sympathetic media coverage from around the world. In these rallies, hordes of Palestinian civilians—including children whose schools permitted them to skip classes so they could participate—were transported by chartered buses to Israeli Defense Force positions. There, the demonstrators advanced defiantly, in unison, on the IDF forces, throwing stones and petrol bombs in the process. Meanwhile, armed Tanzim members who were widely scattered throughout the crowd fired their guns at the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers inevitably had great difficulty returning fire at their attackers, because the latter were protected by the young “human shields.” If any unarmed Palestinian civilians happened to be killed by crossfire, Fatah and Tanzim leaders exploited the deaths extensively for propaganda purposes.
Divided into geographical sectors that are further subdivided into cells, Tanzim today has branches in every Palestinian town, neighborhood, and refugee camp. Its members are mostly men between the ages of 20 and 35. Tanzim has also recruited a number of female suicide bombers to its cause. One of these was 20-year-old Andaleeb Takafka, who detonated an explosive belt at a Jerusalem bus stop on April 12, 2002, killing six Israelis and injuring sixty.
Advocating a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, Tanzim, many of whose senior commanders have held prominent posts in the Palestinian Authority, is unwilling to make any negotiated compromises with Israel. On the theory that a self-sustaining Palestinian state would need to have many people active in nationalistic and political pursuits, Tanzim operates summer camps that have already instructed thousands of young men in the use of weaponry, military tactics, self-defense, first aid, and civil defense.
The Palestinian Authority, under the terms of the Oslo agreements, promised to disarm Tanzim and rein in the organization’s activities. But instead, Tanzim has continued to distribute weapons to its supporters and organized militias; distribute flyers advocating violence against Israel to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and hold regular meetings and strategy sessions with Hamas leaders. Tanzim also pressures Israel to release incarcerated Palestinians who committed acts of terror against the Jewish state.
Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in prison for the murders of five Israelis, is Tanzim’s recognized leader. He continues to wield much influence over the group, even from behind bars.