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The Origin and History of the PLO by Khalil Barhoum

Frequently Asked Questions

Fact sheet # 5

The Origin and History of the PLO

Dr. Khalil Barhoum, Program Coordinator, M.E. and African Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Stanford University

What were the political realities faced by the Palestinian people after their Diaspora?

As a result of the founding of the state of Israel and the consequent dispersion of the Palestinian people in 1948, Palestine ceased to exist as a political and administrative entity. As a people, the Palestinians found themselves at once stripped of their national patrimony, totally fragmented, and enduring discrimination everywhere. Lacking an overall authority to guide and sustain their national life, they had no control over their cultural, social, and economic institutions. Despite confronting multiple difficulties in the years following the dismemberment of their country, the Palestinians persisted in their political activism. Their aim was to keep the struggle for their national rights in the forefront, while at the same time striving to improve their social, economic, and educational conditions in the neighboring Arab countries acting as their hosts. Simply put, Palestinians wanted to establish a national authority capable of addressing their inalienable and legitimate rights as a people; however, their early attempts at political mobilization in the host countries were routinely met with these countries’ penchant for manipulation and control.

What was the historical background that led to the creation of Fatah, the main PLO predecessor?

The period between the Suez War (1956) and the June War (1967) is believed to mark the real emergence, or rather reemergence, of the Palestinian national movement. The rise of Fatah, whose founding leadership included Yasir Arafat, Farouk Qaddoumi, Salah Khalaf, Khalid al-Hassan, and Khalil al-Wazir, in the late 50’s is viewed as a direct result of the inability of the Arab regimes and the mainstream Arab political parties to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian problem. Moreover, the failure of the union between Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) merely helped reinforce the Palestinian premise that Arab unity should not be considered the main vehicle, let alone prerequisite, for the liberation of Palestine. As such, Fatah molded itself and ultimately shaped the character of the entire Palestinian movement according to a set of core principles. To begin with, it set off to reassert control over Palestinian affairs and destiny by wresting away Palestinian decision-making from Arab governments and parties. Concomitantly, it practiced a non-interference policy in internal Arab matters as long as Arab states pledged a reciprocal commitment toward the emerging Palestinian movement. Fatah also declared that ‘revolutionary armed struggle’ was by far the most effective means to liberate Palestine. Naturally the models for this strategy were third world revolutions, most prominently the Algerian FLN, in addition to the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese experiences. Finally, to assure its legitimacy among its Palestinian followers, Fatah affirmed that Palestinians first and foremost must spearhead the struggle for Palestine, while Arab involvement in the struggle must be assigned a strictly supportive role.

What distinguished Fatah from later PLO factions?

In addition to being the first and largest of the Palestinian factions, Fatah early on exhibited a clear disdain for political ideology. Such disdain was not shared by later rivals, especially the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Although the original leaders of Fatah were clearly influenced by prevailing political currents in the Arab world at the time, they nevertheless believed that it would be counterproductive for the Palestinian movement to favor one political ideology (i.e., Nasserism, Baathism, Communism, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) over another, or to get entangled in intra-Arab rivalries involving governments and personalities. The decision, hence, was to postpone adopting a political ideology until Palestine was liberated, since the Palestinian national movement could not be expected to serve the interests of a given social class or political line. As Hani Al-Hassan, a founding member of the organization, put it: Fatah is not a movement of the right or left, but rather one of ‘the new progressives,’ the movement which has gone beyond right and left.

What led to the establishment of the PLO?

Although the absence of a sociopolitical ideology within Fatah proved appealing to many Palestinians, such absence also made it easy for the primarily middle class leadership to dominate the movement. Yet, the lack of a dependable territorial base of operations, along with the fact that the Palestinian people were widely dispersed, considerably hindered the Palestinian movement’s freedom and significantly reduced its leadership’s effectiveness and overall independence. On several occasions, in fact, Arab governments imprisoned members of the Fatah leadership, often for months at a time. Through the mid-1960’s, the pan-Arab governments, parties, and personalities continued to represent an undeniable factor in the Palestinian equation, sometimes vying successfully with Fatah over the support and loyalty of Palestinian constituents. But in order to maintain their hold over a rather restive Palestinian population, the Arab states resolved to launch a Palestinian movement officially sanctioned by the Arab leadership. Therefore, in 1964 the Palestine National Council convened in Jerusalem mainly at the behest of Arab leaders and moved to establish the Palestine Liberation Organization. The mandate given the PLO by the PNC, a Palestinian parliamentary body), was to mobilize the Palestinian people for the eventual liberation of the land of Palestine. So, whereas the PLO received official Arab backing, Fatah’s relations with Arab governments remained on the whole antagonistic and its operations had to be clandestinely carried out.

What role did the PLO play before the 1967 War?

As a result of the Arab official stamp conferred on the PLO, two divergent and often competing political efforts crystallized in the 1960’s. The first consisted of the PLO, which moved above ground and coordinated closely with Arab regimes; the second was populist and secretive, operating mostly underground in a more activist and radical fashion. Despite the lack of support from the underground nationalist movement, the PLO was nevertheless gaining legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians. While the radical underground current known collectively as the Palestinian Resistance movement, or simply the Resistance, operated independently of the PLO, the latter was now cultivating Palestinian support through more conventional means in the form of occupational, social, and health service organizations. Best known among these were the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPWom), the General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW), the General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT), and the Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS).

What happened after 1967?

Unlike the first phase, which emphasized political activity and organization building, the phase between the 1967 War and the October War (1973) is characterized by heightened military activity. It is during this period that the Palestinian national movement experienced one of its greatest triumphs (the Battle of al-Karameh, March 22, 1968) as well as one of its first major setbacks (Black September, 1970). In Karameh, not only did the Palestinian fighters prove the viability of guerrilla warfare, they also helped puncture the myth of an invincible Israeli army. As a result, financial and military support started flowing into the movement from all over the world. But with the increase in the number of volunteers came also an increase in the number of organizations, some of which were little more than watchdogs for the Arab regimes that essentially helped organize and finance them. However, unlike the previous period, in which Fatah was persecuted by Arab governments and had to compete with its Arab-sponsored rival, the PLO, Fatah now had a wide-open and unchecked field of operations. Not unexpectedly, it also found itself competing with newly founded Palestinian groups of varying ideological persuasions. Although most of these groups professed a nationalist line, ideological differences between them and Fatah sometimes proved too difficult to surmount. Gradually, however, the PLO was freed of official Arab control and, in 1969, began to function as an umbrella organization for all these disparate groups. With Yasir Arafat elected as its chairman and the feda’iyyin (fighters) coming under PLO tutelage, Arafat now was operating under official Arab sanction. As the movement’s political and military infrastructure expanded, an accompanying network of social services (i.e., hospitals, clinics, orphanages, childcare centers, and schools) was created to meet the Palestinian community’s vastly growing needs. Meanwhile, each guerilla organization came to interpret the role of the Palestinian revolution differently, even though all the organizations shared a broad agreement on the general aim of what they were fighting for (i.e., the liberation of Palestine).

What was the outcome of Black September?

In September 1970, the Palestinian movement in Jordan--having essentially grown into a government within a government--clashed militarily with the Jordanian army under the command of King Hussein. After a great deal of bloodletting, the PLO was defeated and eventually was forced out of Jordan. This tragic event is usually credited with the beginning of a hard transition period for the Palestinians. The PLO was consequently compelled to substitute Lebanon for Jordan as it principal military and political base; however, the new base soon proved to be no less treacherous and tenuous than the first one. Not only was the PLO dragged into the Lebanese civil war shortly thereafter (1975), thus losing its unquestioned massive support in the Arab world, but the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon effectively ended the PLO’s last political and military presence in yet another country adjacent to Palestine. For all practical purposes, the PLO, now exiled to faraway Tunis after 1982, became a strictly political organization bereft of any viable fighting option. Not surprisingly, this turning point also came with the rather unappealing consequence of the re-admittance of Arab states as major players in the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The late 1980’s and beyond:

Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the PLO endured its worst political exile during the second half of the 1980’s. Also, the Palestinian issue fell precipitously from the list of priorities drawn up by the Arab governments at their Arab summit conference in Amman (August 1987). However, just as it seemed that the Palestinian cause was relegated to utter indifference and the PLO role was being overlooked, a dramatic turn of events began to take shape with the start of the Palestinian intifada (uprising) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza in December 1987. Without a doubt, the intifada, which lasted until 1992, brought the PLO back to the forefront of Palestinian life and politics, reaffirming once again the supremacy of its role and the legitimacy of its leadership in the eyes of the world. The intifada not only helped reenergize the Palestinian national movement, but it also evoked a great swell of international sympathy with the plight of Palestinians under occupation. Bowing to sustained Palestinian resistance, backed by worldwide support, the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin decided to conclude a deal with the PLO, which, in effect, put an end to the intifada. The agreement, reached after lengthy secret negotiations between the two parties in Oslo, was signed on the White House lawn in 1993. Premised vaguely on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the Oslo accords called for mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, setting in motion a tortuous path to peacemaking that has left unanswered the main issues. To this day, the most pressing questions which have plagued the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past three decades: Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination; the status of occupied Jerusalem; the dismantlement of Israeli settlements; and the Palestinians’ right of return have not been adequately addressed. Not only has the promise of Oslo gone largely unfulfilled so far, but seven years later, the PLO has effectively transformed itself from a national liberation movement to a Palestinian bureaucracy (i.e., authority) which is corrupt, inefficient, and politically inept. That is, while theoretically, the PLO represents all of the Palestinian people's collective and individual rights, and the Palestinian Authority "governs" the Palestinian areas of control in the occupied territories, in effect, Arafat's Palestinian Authority has subsumed the PLO under it.

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Sources:

Sameer Abraham, “The Development and Transformation of the Palestinian National Movement,” in Naseer Aruri (ed), Occupation: Israel over Palestine. AAUG Press, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1989.

Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (ed), The Transformation of Palestine. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1971.

Naseer Aruri, The Obstruction of Peace: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians. Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 1995.

___________ (ed), Occupation: Israel over Palestine. AAUG Press, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1989.

Samih Farsoun & Christina Zacharia, Palestine and the Palestinians. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1997.

Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity. Columbia University Press, New York, N.Y., 1997.

____________, Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking during the 1982 War. Columbia University Press, New York, N.Y., 1986.

Fred Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, N.Y., 1968.

Edward Said, The Question of Palestine. Times Books, New York, N.Y., 1980.

__________, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination. Vintage Books, New York, N.Y., 1994.