Palestine Liberation Organization

views updated Jun 11 2018


PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION (plo), Palestinian organization founded in May 1964 at a Palestinian Congress held in East Jerusalem (then under Jordanian rule) following intensive efforts of Ahmad al-Shuqeiri, until then the representative of the Palestinian Arabs in the League of Arab States. The Congress was convened under strict Jordanian control and received the personal congratulations of King *Hussein, who indicated his intention to give full patronage to the newly established organization. The Congress, comprised mainly of senior Palestinian figures from Jordan and the Gaza Strip, approved the "Palestinian [Pan] National Charter" (almīthāq al-qawmī al-filasṭīnī) and the plo's organic law, giving decisive powers to its Chairman Shuqeiri, including the appointment of the Executive Committee members.

The foundation of the plo, which was fully supported by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel *Nasser, and reluctantly acquiesced to by King Hussein of Jordan, was the result of two separate processes: an authentic rise of self-assertion and revolutionary trends among young Palestinian refugees, and inter-Arab circumstances. Attentive to growing frustration and an urge for autonomous action for the liberation of Palestine among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, already in 1959 Nasser suggested the establishment of a "Palestinian Entity" – a political organization that would represent the Palestinian national cause in the international arena. The Jordanian position reflected concern lest any expression of Palestinian nationalism might arouse separatist tendencies among the Palestinians in the kingdom, who constituted a majority of the population and could threaten the very existence of the Hashemite regime. In the strained relations between Nasser and his archrival, Abdel Karim Qassem, then the ruler of Iraq, Nasser's call was challenged by Qassem, who called for establishing a militant Palestinian organization which would operate against Israel from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

By the end of 1963 Nasser's prestige as champion of pan-Arabism had reached an impasse following Syria's secession in September 1961 from the union with Egypt (the United Arab Republic) and his entanglement in a costly and unsuccessful military involvement in Yemen. In addition, he came under increasing pressures from Syria's new Bath regime, which urged him to go to war with Israel over the ensuing inauguration of its National Water Carrier exploiting the Jordan River's water to irrigate new areas in the northern Negev.

Nasser perceived these as pressures detrimental to his priorities – unity first, then total war against Israel – and Egypt's security, repeating his rejection of an untimely war against Israel that could end with a disaster for the Arabs. To escape the trap set for him by the Syrian regime, Nasser called for an Arab summit conference in Cairo, which was held in January 1964. The summit, which was meant to preserve Nasser's control of collective Arab action against Israel and his all-Arab leadership, approved a plan of preventing Israel's use of the Jordan River's waters by diverting its tributaries originating in Lebanon and Syria in other directions. In view of Israel's possible military response against the diversion plan, the summit established a Joint Arab Command to supervise military preparations for the imminent war with Israel. The summit also discussed the issue of establishing a Palestinian Entity, but could not reach an agreement on this. Jordan adhered to its objection to the proposed institution on political grounds. Other states, such as Syria and Algeria, wanted a militant organization that would wage a popular armed struggle against Israel, while the Saudis feared it would be merely an Egyptian political instrument which would be used against them. The Arab summit thus refrained from officially approving the establishment of a Palestinian Entity and, instead, instructed Shuqeiri to examine the attitudes among the Palestinians regarding such an idea, without even mentioning the word "entity" in its decisions. Nonetheless, the decision enabled Shuqeiri to embark on a series of visits to Palestinian communities in the Arab states, which indicated their strong support for the idea fostered by Nasser. The enthusiasm with which Shuqeiri was received by Palestinians in Jordan apparently convinced King Hussein that his best choice was to coopt the Palestinian Entity project rather than resist it.

Although the second Arab summit conference, held in Alexandria in September 1964, approved the establishment of the plo, the organization remained highly controversial. It was criticized by militant Palestinian organizations, such as Fatah, and Arab regimes alike. In the coming three years the plo, headed by Shuqeiri, was the subject of much discontent and bitter attacks by almost all the states. Seen as Nasser's protégé, the plo could not escape its image as an instrument serving Nasser's Arab policies and primarily to legitimize the latter's desire to avoid war with Israel. In addition, though the plo was meant to be merely a political organization, Shuqeiri constantly pushed the limits initially set for plo activities in a military direction, if not armed capability. Challenged by Fatah, which began its military operations against Israel in early January 1965, Shuqeiri managed to bring about the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Army, which comprised three regular brigades deployed in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq (Ein Jallout, Hittin, and Qadisiyya, respectively, named after great historic Muslim victorious battles). However, these brigades were fully subordinated to the military establishment of these states while the plo maintained only a nominal command. By late 1965, Shuqeiri had become anathema to the Jordanian authorities due to his inexorable efforts to propagate the establishment of Palestinian recruitment centers in Jordan on behalf of the plo, openly challenging the Jordanian monarch's authority and leading to arrests of plo activists there. The growing tension between King Hussein and Shuqeiri coincided with the collapse of the summit-generated detente in inter-Arab relations as of late 1965, which led to Nasser's return to his aggressive policies in the inter-Arab arena, especially against the Western-backed monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Until the June 1967 War, the Palestinian National Council (pnc – a sort of parliament of the Palestinian people) convened twice more in Gaza. In the meantime, Fatah and other newly established Palestinian guerrilla groups supported by Syria, won some prestige for their warfare against Israel, leading to further marginalization of Shuqeiri and his plo, who lost even Nasser's interest.

In the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, Shuqeiri became a burden for Nasser as well as to Palestinian military and political activists. At the Khartoum Summit Conference convened in September of that year, Shuqeiri found himself isolated in his effort to pressure the Arab leaders to include a fourth "no" in their resolutions, namely that there should be no compromise of Palestinian national rights, which led to his walkout from the conference. At the same time, the success scored by the Palestinian guerrilla groups in entangling the Arab states in war against Israel and the defeat of the Arab regular armies in this war boosted the prestige of guerrilla warfare, which strengthened demands by Fatah and other guerrilla factions for a substantial representation in the plo. Shuqeiri resigned in December 1967 and was replaced by Yahya Hamuda, another veteran Palestinian politician, who did not represent the guerrilla groups. The fourth session of the pnc, held in Cairo in July 1968, which approved Shuqeiri's resignation, recognized the success of the guerrilla organizations by including them for the first time and electing their leaders to key positions in the organization, most significant of which was the election of Fatah's leader Yasser *Arafat as the plo's spokesman. The heavy representation in the pnc and the plo Executive obtained by the guerrilla groups led, in February 1969, at the fifth council session, to their seizure of full control of the plo, with majority on the Executive. Yasser Arafat was elected chairman, signifying that the guerrilla groups had taken over the plo.

Thus the plo represented the core claim of the new Palestinian generation, which intended to play an active role in determining their people's fate rather than leaving it to the Arab states. The fourth pnc session of July 1968 already represented a watershed in plo history. It changed from being merely a political representative of the Palestinians to a loose umbrella organization for various Palestinian groups, military and civilian alike, with the guerrilla groups as its hard core, as well as for Palestinian communities all over the world. A major result of the changing nature of the plo was a persistent and uncompromising claim for exclusive authority to speak in the name of the Palestinian people, sometimes imposed by violence on Palestinian figures under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza strip who dared broach ideas such as the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories only, or those conducting talks with the Israeli authorities about the political future of these areas.

The new nature of the plo now also came to be manifested in ideological terms. At the July 1968 pnc session radical modifications were introduced in the plo Charter. Unlike the pan-Arab (qawmī) character of Shuqeiri's plo, the new Charter assumed a clear Palestinian national nature, bearing the title "The Palestinian National (watanī) Charter." The Charter stated that "the Palestinian Arab people" (being an "inseparable part of the Arab nation") "possesses the legal right to its homeland." The Palestinians were defined as those … "Arab citizens who were living permanently in Palestine until 1947" and their descendants, as well as "Jews who are of Palestinian origin" (1964) – or "who were living permanently in Palestine until the beginning of the invasion" (1968), dated in another resolution of the Council as 1917. Only they "will be considered Palestinians" in the future Palestinian state to be established on the whole territory of Mandatory Palestine. The Charter stipulated that the *Balfour declaration, the mandate, the partition of Palestine, and the establishment of the "Zionist entity" were "null and void"; "the claim of a historical or spiritual tie between Jews and Palestine" was denied, "Judaism… is not a nationality, …the Jews are not one people." "The liberation of Palestine… is a national duty to repulse the Zionist, imperialist invasion… and to purge the Zionist presence from Palestine." "The Palestinian people… through the armed Palestinian revolution, reject any solution that would be a substitute for the complete liberation of Palestine." "Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine" and is defined as "a strategy and not a tactic," and the "Fidā'iyyūn [i.e., guerrillas] and their action form the nucleus of the popular Palestinian war of Liberation." The Charter stated that it could be changed bya two-third majority of the pnc.

The new Charter served as a rallying point among the various factions coalesced in the plo under Fatah leadership, but also subjected the plo to much criticism in the Western world, due to its extreme language and determination to eliminate the state of Israel as well as to force most of its citizens toleave historic Palestine. It is against this backdrop that in the following years the plo's political thinking began gradually changing albeit without actually modifying anything in the Charter until May 1996 (see below). Thus, in 1969 the plo adopted the idea of establishing a secular democratic Palestinian state in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews would be living in harmony. However, this idea was met with objections by some factions, and failed to attract world public support. In the early 1970s, as the Palestinian national cause began penetrating the world's public consciousness – primarily due to Palestinian international terrorism – the plo leadership also came under growing pressure in the inter-Arab arena to modify its practical political positions. Hence, following the defeat and expulsion of the Palestinian guerrilla groups from Jordan in 1970–71, President Anwar al-*Sadat of Egypt repeatedly urged the plo leadership to accept a realistic solution based on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but to no avail.

In the first two decades following the 1967 war the plo, now dominated by Fatah, focused its efforts toward achieving two main goals: bringing the Palestinians at large to accept the plo as their exclusive national movement, and pushing the issue of Palestinian national rights, primarily their right to self-determination, into the international limelight in order to finally obtain Arab and international recognition of the organization as the sole legitimate political representative of the Palestinians. Initially, these efforts focused mainly on the Arab world and did not always suit the interests and considerations guiding the Arab regimes. Nonetheless, the combination of the diminished prestige and legitimacy of leading Arab regimes following the defeat of 1967; strong popular support among leftist and nationalist groups in Arab countries for the "Palestinian resistance"; the ongoing guerrilla warfare against Israel and Israel's massive retaliations; and most of all the participation of Palestinian factions in headline-grabbing international terrorism – all turned out to be decisive elements in a process of growing international awareness of the Palestinian issue and the magnification of the plo's stature both in the Middle East and worldwide. Hence, the relative Arab success in the 1973 war against Israel, and especially the ensuing skyrocketing oil prices and embargo by the Arab oil producers against the United States and Holland, led most of the international community, including the Western European states, to recognize the Palestinian people's right for self-determination, despite reservations about its political course and violent modes of action. By the mid-1970s the plo had attained full recognition by the majority of the Palestinians in the Arab states and Diaspora as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The success of the Palestinian organizations in combining terrorism with diplomacy was indeed unique in the worldwide community of underground and terrorist organizations.

The aftermath of the 1967 war also witnessed an increase in the efforts to build the national institutions and mechanisms of an effective Palestinian national organization. The result was that, from 1969 on, the plo became increasingly dominated by Fatah, whose members or supporters constituted the majority of the bureaucratic personnel in the plo institutions and organs.

One of the main lessons learned by the founding fathers of Fatah from the national struggle against Zionism during the Mandate and up to the 1948 Palestinian disaster was the need for a centralized national authority based on social and political institutions. This was necessary in order to ensure maximum capability of mobilization of the constituents of the Palestinian community and compliance with the plo's decision making. However, in the absence of territorial sovereignty and ability to reach out to the major Palestinian communities in the Arab world, the plo could hardly impose its full and exclusive authority on all Palestinian factions – some of which represented the interests of Arab regimes. Under these circumstances Fatah had to compromise and accept a loose confederation of independent organizations, each with its own agenda and sources of financial and military resources. The plo under Arafat thus functioned more as an overall national framework than a practical structure of a "state in the making." The plo consisted of the main following representing institutions:

(1) The "Palestinian National Council," which functioned as an occasional parliament and consisted of representatives from military organizations (the main constituent), civil trade unions such as workers, writers, engineers, doctors, women, and students, as well as delegates of Palestinian communities of refugees both in the Arab world and the Diaspora. In the absence of regular elections (except in the trade unions), the majority of the Council members, whose number changed from session to session according to internal political compromises, were appointed, not elected. Effectively, the composition of the Council and other Palestinian national bodies was determined by the heads of the military organizations and reflected their relative strengths, even in the case of civil bodies. Being the largest representative body of the Palestinian people, the main function of the Council was to legitimize major decisions and policies shaped by Fatah's leadership, headed by Arafat. With neither the readiness nor ability to introduce changes into the Palestinian National Charter, especially from the mid-1970s, the National Council, through successive decisions – such as the adoption of a "two states solution" and participation in the Madrid process of the 1990s effectively sanctioned the plo's deviation from strict adherence to the Charter,.

(2) The Executive Committee, functioning as a government with representatives of the main military organizations and several independent members, usually identified with Fatah. The Executive Committee was composed of departments acting as ministries, such as Foreign Affairs, Military, Finance, Propaganda/Information, Education and Culture, and Refugees. Beside the Executive Committee there existed bodies dealing with operations, security and intelligence, research and planning, culture and humanities and publishing institutes responsible for the frequent publications. The plo established a system of official representatives functioning as embassies and had standing and diverse contacts with international organizations such as the United Nations and its agencies and with left-wing parties and Arab lobbies worldwide. The Executive Committee offered financial aid to families of the fallen and those injured in the course of actions and protest acts. It also ran productive enterprises under Fatah responsibility established for the employment of the families of the fallen. Along the years it developed into a profit-making financial concern (samed).

(3) The Central Council, established in 1969 as an emergency body, consisted of 50–60 members of the major military organizations. The necessity for such a body stemmed from the occasional difficulties of convening the pnc and the need for legitimizing the Executive Committee's decisions on important political matters.

The plo was also most active in setting up a Palestinian educational system, primarily in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, which deepened the bond between the national organization, Palestinian society, and the military groups. The main effort of the Palestinian organizations in the military and political spheres (mobilization and institutionalization) was directed at the inhabitants of the refugee camps, which the plo wished to turn into ex-territorial bases, or "states within a state," and in fact it succeeded in getting semi-official recognition from the host states for a time (Lebanon, 1969–82; Jordan, 1969–70). The preference for the refugee camps may be attributed to the fact that the majority of the Palestinian leaders were refugees themselves and had drawn much of their legitimization from this common background.

Despite their rhetoric in support of the Palestinian goal of liberating Palestine, however, the Arab states were ambivalent in their practical relations with the plo due to the contradiction between their raison d'état and the Palestinian raison de la nation. This problem was acute in politically divided countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, where large numbers of Palestinians lived. With the growing presence of armed Palestinian groups in these states and repeated Israeli military raids in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist operations across the borders and abroad, the collision between the state and the Palestinian establishment was inevitable, as demonstrated by the elimination of the Palestinian military presence in Jordan in 1970–71 and the failed attempts of the Lebanese army to impose control over Palestinian military activities in 1968–73, which was one of the main reasons for the eruption of the Lebanese civil war (1975–90). Israel's invasion of Lebanon and pressure for the expulsion of plo headquarters and military units from this country deprived the plo of its last semi-autonomous territorial base and practically eliminated its military options, giving rise to other strategies of international diplomacy and civil mobilization of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Following the October 1973 War, confronted with Egyptian and Syrian determination to employ diplomacy as a legitimate means to recover their territories occupied by Israel, and induced by the Soviet Union to adopt a "strategy of phases," the plo resolved, at its 12thpnc meeting held in Cairo in June 1974, to establish a "combatant Palestinian National Authority on any liberated part of Palestine." The decision also reflected the plo's intensifying competition with Hashemite Jordan over attaining exclusive representation of the occupied West Bank in the internationally-supervised diplomatic process. Indeed, in November 1973, the Arab summit conference held in Algiers recognized the plo as "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" at the expense of Jordan. Furthermore, in October of the following year the Arab summit conference held in Rabat resolved that the plo was the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," effectively excluding Jordan from the Middle East peace process. From an Israeli and American viewpoint, however, the plo remained inadequate as a partner in the peace process due to its extreme ideology, terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian targets, and its objection to the very existence of Israel, or to un resolution 242, which established the legal international basis of a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In retrospect, the decision of June 1974 came to be interpreted as the beginning of the plo's shift toward acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only, alongside Israel. This tendency became clearer in the following years. Thus, in March 1977, the plo adopted the resolution made by the Arab summit conference in Cairo (October 1976), affirming the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to "establish its independent state on its own national soil." In the late 1970s, plo leaders were willing to meet non-Zionist "progressive" Israeli figures and then also leftist-Zionists – under the auspices of Communist European governments such as Romania and Hungary.

Although the plo itself possessed neither military power nor a specific guerrilla apparatus, it was often identified with terrorist activities. This was mainly because of the direct responsibility of Fatah leaders, including Arafat, for such actions and their dominant position within the plo. The early 1970s witnessed intensified international terrorism against foreign airliners – hijacking, attacks on passengers in terminals, and the taking of hostages – waged by some plo member organizations, primarily the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (pflp) and Fatah. Despite the worldwide image of the plo as a terrorist organization, its participation in international terrorism was marginal and never rose above 5 percent. Nonetheless, the impact of Palestinian terrorism was of far-reaching international dimensions owing to the innovation and novelty displayed in the Palestinian terrorist actions both in the selection of targets and in their execution, making them a model for other terrorist organizations. Furthermore, the support of the Palestinian organizations by the Arab states enabled them to supply various underground and terrorist organizations with weapons, training, documentation, liaison agents, and escape routes. Fatah ceased its involvement in international terrorism in 1974 out of political considerations and a desire for plo inclusion in the Middle East peace process. However, this type of guerrilla warfare was continued by the pflp (and, from 1975, only by its dissident group headed by Wadi Haddad) and by other dissident factions such as that of Abu Nidal.

From the outset, the plo managed to extract funds from the oil monarchies in the Gulf as well as from Palestinians working in those countries. These Arab funds enabled it to build a growing institutional system and bureaucracy and run political, economic, and financial enterprises, social, health, and educational institutions, a diverse press, research centers, and enterprises publishing books and periodicals. In addition, the plo established diplomatic representation in many world capitals as well as a worldwide information/propaganda network. plo chairman Arafat was constantly traveling around the Arab and developing world capitals for consultations and conferences (including a November 1974 appearance at the un General Assembly, at the latter's invitation). In the course of the 1970s the plo won recognition from an increasing number of states and Arafat came to be received as a head of state. From 1969, and more so from 1974, the plo became a recipient of "steadfastness" (ṣumūd) funds which allowed the organization to distribute them among its followers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Baghdad Arab summit conference of November 1978 allocated for this purpose an annual sum of $100 million (apart from allocations to the plo itself) for 10 years. This aid was to be jointly distributed to the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Jordan and the plo. Despite their animosity, a "Jordan-plo Joint Committee for the Occupied Territories" was established to distribute these funds, and a limited presence of plo offices and representatives was again permitted. This enabled Fatah to deepen its penetration within the Palestinian population in the occupied territories and build an institutional political infrastructure to support the organization from within.

The Joint Jordan-plo Committee paved the road to further rapprochement between the two contenders, which took place following the expulsion of the plo and its military buildup from Lebanon in late August 1982 and the Reagan Plan of September 1. In 1983–85 King Hussein and plo Chairman Arafat conducted a series of talks with the aim of reaching a formula for joint Jordanian-Palestinian political action in the context of the Middle East peace negotiations and future Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

The problem of plo participation in the peace process was indeed a major procedural obstacle for moving from the Israel-Egypt and Israel-Syria military disengagement agreements signed in early 1974 to a comprehensive settlement which was to be discussed within the framework of the Geneva conference. The problem was a result of the plo's status as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," as recognized by the Rabat summit conference in October 1974. However, knowing the Israeli attitude toward the plo, the Arab regimes had been well aware of the implications of such a decision on the peace process. Moreover, in 1975, following the signing of the Israel-Egypt Interim Agreement in Sinai, Israel received an American commitment that the U.S. government would not have contacts with the plo as long as the organization did not renounce terrorism, accept resolution 242, and recognize Israel's right to exist. The plo, however, adamantly objected to making such compromises before being recognized as an equal party in the Arab-Israeli peacemaking process. It was this deadlock regarding the Palestinian participation in the Geneva conference that led Sadat to his decision to take the initiative and visit Jerusalem. This, however, did not make plo decision-making any easier. The Israel-Egypt peace negotiations forced the plo leaders to close ranks with the radical Arab regimes, in order to survive politically. Thus, the plo joined the "Steadfastness and Confrontation Front" established in Tripoli, Libya, in December 1977 in response to Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. Hussein's pressure on the plo to accept un Resolution 242 in the course of their negotiations in 1983–86 failed, as did that of Egypt's President Husni *Mubarak. The main obstacle to a renewed peace process in the 1980s was a formal acceptance by the plo of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of terrorism in all forms, and a clear commitment to peaceful coexistence with Israel. In the diplomatic code this was formulated as "accepting Resolution 242."

On the plo's part, there was an additional reason for rejecting Resolution 242: The resolution spoke of the need to resolve the "refugee" problem, without mentioning the Palestinian refugees and certainly not the Palestinian people and its national rights. Suggestions by the U.S. administration to accept the principles of the resolution while registering a reservation concerning Palestinian national rights proved unacceptable to the plo. Evasive, open-ended remarks – like accepting "all" un resolutions – were unacceptable to the U.S. and Israel, as were the plo's pre-condition that it be recognized by the U.S. (once it endorsed Resolution 242), or receive a priori acceptance of its demands for Palestinian statehood and self-determination. The vital issue of accepting the principles of Resolution 242 therefore remained unresolved through most of the 1980s.

Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the siege of Beirut ended in late August, after nine weeks of fighting, in the expulsion of the Palestinian armed forces and bureaucracy. The evacuation of 11,000–14,000 plo personnel from Beirut was internationally supervised, and tacitly supported by most Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon. The plo headquarters and military units moved to Tunisia, while others were accepted in Sudan, Yemen, and South Yemen. With its headquarters in Tunis and military forces dispersed and far from the borders of Israel, the plo was stripped of its military option, politically weakened, and under threat of demise. In December 1983 Arafat and 4,000 of his men were evacuated from Tripoli – again with international supervision and support. In 1983–86, Arafat succeeded in reinfiltrating some of his apparatus into Lebanon and renewing the military infrastructure by smuggling weapons into the Palestinian camps, especially in the southern parts of the country.

The *Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which erupted in late 1987, came as a surprise to the plo, sending a threatening message viv-à-vis the plo's authority over the Palestinian people "inside" the homeland. At the 19thpnc session, in November 1988, the plo proclaimed the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of un Resolution 181 (of November 1947, on the partition of Palestine). One month later Arafat publicly renounced terrorism and accepted Resolutions 242 and 338. The decision was taken under pressure from the Palestinian "inside" leadership following a year of Intifada and American pressure conditioning the opening of a political dialogue with the plo on such steps.

However the dilemma within the plo still existed as to whether to abandon the armed struggle and cling to the political process or to keep both on the agenda. This dilemma was manifested on several occasions, such as the terrorist action conducted on Israel's coastline in May 1990 by the Palestine Liberation Front (plf), which Arafat refused to denounce, causing the cessation of the diplomatic dialogue between the plo and the U.S. Another example was the support shown by Arafat for Iraq during the Gulf crisis in 1991. This position brought on Arafat and the plo the wrath of the Gulf oil monarchies and a decision to cease all funding by these states to the plo and the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This led to a financial crisis within the plo's mainstream Fatah, forcing it to reduce activities such as the publication of newspapers, welfare services, and funding of its supporters in Arab states and the occupied territories. Furthermore, the growing power of *Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) in the occupied territories and its refusal to join the plo as one of its factions and on Arafat's conditions, all determined the plo's reluctant acceptance of the American formula for the Madrid conference in late 1991. The plo had to acquiesce to Israel's conditions for the participation of Palestinian delegates from the occupied territories within the framework of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. However, during the talks, the Palestinian delegates were constantly and overtly instructed by the plo.

During the winter-spring of 1993, the plo and unofficial Israeli delegates began exploring ways in Washington to overcome the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian talks. The secret talks held in Oslo, Norway, soon amounted to full-fledged official negotiations, representing the plo's attempt to regain control of the diplomatic process with Israel and keep the American hosts at bay. In August, Arafat informed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the plo was committed to the peace process in the Middle East, reaffirming its recognition of Resolutions 242 and 338. A few weeks later the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the plo was signed on the White House lawn. The most conspicuous part of the document was the parties' mutual recognition. The plo was officially recognized by Israel and the U.S. government as the legal representative of the Palestinian people in the peace process and in implementing its resolutions until elections to the *Palestinian Authority (pa) were held. The elections for the pa's council and chairperson were held in January 1996, reaffirming Arafat's unchallenged position, with Fatah members winning a dominant position in the Council. Arafat remained the plo chairman and at the same time the chairman of the pa.

Although in principle the plo stands above the pa and the Oslo accords were all signed between Israel and the plo, in the late 1990s the plo was increasingly shunted aside by the pa, with the latter occupying the center of Palestinian society and politics. The plo retained its headquarters in Tunis, with Farouq Qaddoumi as the main figure identified with the organization and its commitment to Palestinian Diaspora communities. In spite of funds funneled by Arafat to refugee camps in Lebanon, the plo's scope of action and responsibilities were reduced considerably after the establishment of the pa. Arafat's control of plo-pa funds enabled him to transfer financial aid to Palestinian communities, especially in Lebanon, in violation of the conditions of the donating countries. This was also manifested in the pnc session in April 1996 in Gaza, whose aim was to express support for the peace process and alter the Palestinian National Charter in accordance with Arafat's commitment in his letter to Prime Minister Rabin of September 11, 1993. In this letter Arafat undertook to alter the Palestinian National Charter by nullifying those articles in the Charter that explicitly or implicitly denied Israel's right to exist or called for its destruction. With the changing of governments in Israel in May 1996 and the election of Netanyahu as prime minister, however, Israel demanded an unequivocal decision in this matter, reflecting the weakening of trust between the two parties. In November 1998, in the presence of U.S. President Clinton, Arafat convened the plo's Central Council and passed the necessary resolution which won Israel's approval.

The eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000 and deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations into murderous violence against Israeli citizens and massive military retaliations by Israel against pa headquarters and installations; and the confinement of Arafat in his compound in Ramallah in late 2002, all underscored the importance of Arafat as the living symbol of the Palestinian resistance and continued struggle against Israel.

The death of Arafat in November 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the pa's new chairman (in addition to his appointment as plo chairman) introduced little change in the relations between these two institutions. However, with Abbas at the helm, the plo lost much of the revolutionary, militant image symbolized by Arafat with his rhetoric and military uniforms. Instead, the new pa leader tried to introduce a clear civilian image and statesmanlike thinking in managing the pa. At the same time, he had to accept Qaddoumi, an ardent opponent of the Oslo process and a symbol of the plo revolutionary legacy, as chair of the Central Committee of Fatah, the main decision-making body of the mainstream Palestinian movement. All these equations were thrown into confusion with the surprise victory of *Hamas in the pa's parliamentary elections of January 2006. (For Israel's subsequent clashes with Hamas, see *Israel, State of: Historical Survey.)


H. Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics, 1984); M. Shemesh, The Palestinian Entity 19591974, Arab Politics and the plo (1988); J.R. Nassar, The Palestine Liberation Organization: From Armed Struggle to the Declaration of Independence (1991); B. Rubin, Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the plo (1994).

[Avraham Sela (2nd ed.)]

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

views updated May 29 2018

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

LEADER: Mahmoud Abbas

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Israeli-occupied territories


The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the representative body of the Palestinian people. It comprises an umbrella group of various Palestinian organizations, many of which have paramilitary connections, that makes up the 689-member Palestinian National Council, although most political power rests with the fifteen-man PLO Executive. The PLO also holds permanent observer status at the UN General Assembly. Despite its status as a political organization, the PLO's critics, particularly Israel, say that this is nominal and they have accused it of carrying out a vast number of terrorist and extremist acts.


The PLO was founded at a Palestinian Congress held in East Jerusalem (then under Jordanian control) in May 1964. It marked the culmination of several years of efforts to create a formal representative body for the Palestinian Diaspora, refugees, and Israeli-Arabs by Ahmad al-Shuqeiri, representative of the Palestinian Arabs in the Arab League, and the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdul Nasser. In 1959, Nasser had suggested the creation of a "Palestinian Entity" to further the cause of the Palestinian people internationally but also to advance his own interests within inter-Arab politics and to maintain a decisive say across Egypt's northeastern border. At the Arab Summit in January 1964, Nasser had further argued the case for this Palestinian Entity and talked a reluctant King Hussein of Jordan around to the creation of what would, four months later, become the PLO. This comprised the Palestinian National Council, a kind of Palestinian Parliament, topped by an Executive Committee, that would, in practice, hold much of the power.

The PLO's first Executive Committee was formed on August 9, with Ahmad al-Shuqeiri nominated chairman. At the second Arab Summit in September 1964, it established what was intended as a regular army—the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA)—to fall under PLO control, although in practice its units (comprised of Palestinian battalions already set up by the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi regimes) would remain under the control of their host nations. The only PLA force that ever came under PLO command was the Ein Jalut Brigade, which participated in the Yom Kippur War and later served in the Lebanese Civil War until the evacuation of Palestinians from Beirut in September 1982. (The Syrian brigades were also used in the same conflict, though for Syria's purposes and under Damascus' orders).

The early life of the PLO was dogged by accusations that al-Shuqeri was merely a Nasserite puppet and that the organization was an extension of Egyptian foreign policy. The catastrophic Six Day War of 1967 and the growing number of guerilla attacks carried out by increasingly popular groups such as Yasser Arafat's Fatah Revolutionary Council, quickly shook away these vestiges of complacency. The Battle of Karameh, of March 1968, when Fatah destroyed the myth of Israeli invincibility by reaping a limited victory after an Israel Defense Force (IDF) border raid, gave Arafat an inexorable momentum. That July, at the Fourth Session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Cairo, Fatah joined the PLO along with several other militant groups, whose leaders were elected to key positions within the organization. Arafat became the PLO's spokesman and was elected chairman the following February.

The Fourth Session of the PNC transformed the PLO from the talking shop, political sop envisaged and encouraged by Nasser, to a radical umbrella organization for various Palestinian interests, be they the guerilla groups—that now formed its core—civilians, or the large-scale Palestinian Diaspora. Fatah dominated the new movement, a factor that brought it into conflict with the likes of George Habash's Popular Front For The Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which were unwilling to accept the political discipline demanded by Arafat. The PLO also claimed to speak as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, centering attention on Arafat, which quickly made him one of the most famous men on earth—a completely unparalleled position for a guerilla leader still to carry out his "revolution."

The essence of what the newly radicalized PLO stood for was encompassed in its charter, to which it had made sweeping changes at the Fourth Session of the NPC. When it had been constituted four years earlier, the charter had included clauses denying PLO sovereignty over parts of Palestine occupied by Jordan and Egypt and been circumscribed by the demands of other Arab states. These were ripped up and replaced by clear demands that the "Palestinian Arab people [Arab citizens living permanently in Palestine until 1947 and their descendents; also Jews living permanently in Palestine until the invasion were 'considered Palestinians'] possess the right to a homeland." It declared "the claim of a historical or spiritual tie between Jews and Palestine" to be "null and void" and that "Judaism … is not a nationality … the Jews are not one people."

It also contained a call to arms: "The liberation of Palestine … is a national duty to repulse the Zionist, imperialist invasion … and to purge the Zionist presence from Palestine … The Palestinian people … through the armed Palestinian revolution, reject any solution that would be a substitute for the complete liberation of Palestine … Armed struggle [defined as 'a strategy not a tactic'] is the only way to liberate Palestine … [guerilla] action forms the nucleus of the popular Palestinian War of Liberation."

The revised charter attracted much criticism in the West, particularly Israel, for its extreme language and was usually referred back to as evidence of PLO complicity whenever one of the growing number of Palestinian international terror attacks were carried out.

This was one of the principal problems facing the PLO. Despite Arafat's calls for moderation and his attempts to rein in the extremists, the PLO would be repeatedly singled out by Israel for responsibility whenever there was a hijacking or shooting by one of its member groups. According to the Israeli government, as self-appointed representatives of the Palestinian people, the PLO bore responsibility for whatever excess were carried out in the name of Palestinian liberation. Indeed, for many years, the Israelis would make no distinction between the PLO, groups within it, or even groups—like the PFLP—opposed to it. It was a situation akin to blaming the Arab League in it entirety for an act carried out by just one of its member states. This did much to discredit the PLO in the eyes of a world usually unable to distinguish between rival Palestinian factions and discredited Arafat's attempts to be seen as a legitimate political leader. The reality was, however, that the PLO itself had no specific means to carry out military raids, despite Arafat's Fatah movement frequently being identified with them.

The Arab Summit of November 1973 recognized the PLO as "legitimate" representatives of the Palestinian people. Subsequently, at the twelfth PNC session in Cairo in June 1974, the PLO moderated some of its demands and accepted the strategy of building a Palestinian state in stages. With hindsight, this acknowledgement can be seen as the first step towards the creation of the modern Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank.



Dr. Mahmoud Abbas (or Abu Mazen) became leader of the PLO on November 11, 2004, following the death of Yasser Arafat. One of the founding members of Fatah in 1957, he had accompanied Arafat for the majority of his five-decade-long political career, through exile in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and finally back in the occupied territories in the 1990s.

For most of this time, he was known more as a backroom operator than political ideologue and has been credited with engaging in secret talks with Israeli "doves" in the late 1980s, discussions that directly led to the peace agreements of the early 1990s. He was also instrumental in repairing damage done in the PLO's relationship with Gulf States, after it had backed Iraq in the first Gulf War.

As Arafat's credibility crumbled during the al-Aqsa intifada, both Israel and the United States refused to deal with him, forcing him to appoint Abbas as Prime Minister in March 2003. He resigned six months later after Arafat repeatedly undermined his position.

As the preeminent Fatah politician (the other candidate, Marwan Barghouti, was in an Israeli jail) following Arafat's death, Abbas was the natural candidate to take over as Chairman of the PLO and followed this up with election as President of the Palestinian Authority the following January. This was greeted with renewed optimism that the peace process would resume, and even the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, called Abbas to congratulate "him on his personal achievement and his victory in the elections and [to] wish him luck."


PLO formed in Jerusalem.
Fourth Congress of the PNC: PLO Charter rewritten; militants elected to key positions.
Yasser Arafat elected chairman of the PLO.
Arab Summit recognizes PLO as "legitimate" representative of the Palestinian people.
PLO involvement in Lebanese Civil War; this eventually prompts a full-scale Israeli invasion and PLO exile into Tunisia.
Arafat renounces terrorism.
Madrid Talks.
Oslo Peace Agreement between PLO and Israel.
Formation of Palestinian Authority.
Al-Aqsa intifada.
Death of Arafat and accession of Mahmoud Abbas.

The PLO also received generous funding from other Arab states (the Israelis claimed that this was diverted into the bank accounts of militant groups) with which they set up the apparatus of a government in exile, and social, health, and educational institutions in the refugee camps. In November 1974, Yasser Arafat's appearance before the UN—the first representative of a liberation movement and not a government to do so—and the PLO's subsequent invitation to join the UN as an "observer" gave the PLO an additional vestige of political credibility.

The confusion about PLO's identity—was it an extremist organization or a political force?—grew with the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. After King Hussein had removed the Palestinians from Jordan in 1970, groups under its umbrella had regrouped in Lebanon, particularly in the south and in parts of Beirut. This led to accusations that Arafat had effectively formed a "state within a state." Maronite Christian militias massacred twenty-seven Palestinians on a bus in April 1975, and reprisal killings bubbled over into all-out civil war.

The subsequent fifteen-year-long conflict became muddled by the input of external forces, but what of the PLO's role? Certainly, there was collusion between individual Palestinian guerilla groups acting under the umbrella of the PLO; the PLA also fought in the conflict. However, Israeli and Maronite forces accused the PLO of virtually every attack carried out by Palestinians—accusations that betrayed the actual capability of the PLO. Moreover, many Palestinian groups, such as the PFLP-GC, were fighting not under PLO orders, but those of external powers, such as Syria or Iran. At several stages within the conflict, anti-Arafat Palestinians even turned on PLO forces.

H. R. 4693

During the second session of the 107th Congress House, in 2002, Resolution 4693 (H.R. 4693) was sponsored or cosponsored by eighty representatives and resulted in nothing more than subcommittee hearings. The bill was designed to "hold accountable" the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, and for other purposes.


This Act may be cited as the 'Arafat Accountability Act".


Congress makes the following findings:

(1) The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under the leadership of Chairman Yasser Arafat, has failed to abide by its promises, enumerated in the Oslo Accords, to commit itself to "a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides', that "all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations', and that the PLO "renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violence, and discipline violators".

(2) Yasser Arafat failed to exercise his authority and responsibility to maintain law and order in the West Bank and Gaza, which has resulted in ongoing acts of terrorism against Israeli and American civilians in the State of Israel.

(3) Yasser Arafat has failed, through words and deeds, to offer credible security guarantees to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, and has once again violated his commitment to peace through the recent purchase of 50 tons of offensive weaponry from Iran.

(4) Yasser Arafat and the forces directly under his control are responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent Israelis and the wounding of thousands more since October 2000.

(5) Yasser Arafat has been directly implicated in funding and supporting terrorists who have claimed responsibility for homicide bombings in Israel.

Under the present circumstances, Yasser Arafat's failure to adequately respond to end the homicide bombings further complicates the prospects for a resolution of the conflict in that region.


(a) SENSE OF CONGRESS—It is the sense of the Congress that—

(1) the United States should continue to urge an immediate and unconditional cessation of all terrorist activities and the commencement of a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians;

(2) the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority should immediately surrender to Israel for detention and prosecution those Palestinian extremists wanted by the Government of Israel for the assassination of Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi; and

(3) PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization must take immediate and concrete action to—

(A) publicly condemn all acts of terrorism, including and especially homicide bombings, which murdered over 125 Israeli men, women, and children during the month of March 2002 alone, and injured hundreds more;

(B) confiscate and destroy the infrastructures of terrorism, including weapons, bomb factories, and other offensive materials;

(C) end all financial support for terrorism; and

(D) urge all Arab nations and individuals to immediately cease funding for terrorist operations and payments to the families of terrorists.

SUPPORT FOR PEACE EFFORTS—The Congress supports the President's efforts, in conjunction with Israel, the Arab states, and members of the international community, to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region, and encourages continued efforts by all parties.

Source: H.R. 4693 U.S. Congress Congressional Record Washington, D.C., 2002.

On most occasions, Israeli reprisals or attacks were far in excess of what the PLO could muster. For instance, in July 1981, Israeli artillery bombarded the West Beirut suburb where Fatah's headquarters were based, killing 200 and wounding 600, most of whom were civilians. Arafat then ordered rocket attacks on northern Israel. This killed six people and wounded fifty-nine. In 1996, the World Maronite Union accused the PLO of genocide and the deaths of 100,000 Lebanese civilians, entirely spurious claims that exaggerated the PLO's role in the civil war beyond recognition (the U.S. State Department puts the number of dead for the "entire" conflict at 100,000).

In June 1982, Israel accused the PLO of attempting to murder its London ambassador, Shlomo Argov, and used it as a pretext to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. The accusation was entirely false; it was actually the PLO's avowed enemy, Abu Nidal, who had been responsible for the attempt. In the ensuing conflict, approximately 17,000 people died, including 2,000 Palestinian refugees at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Within months, Israel fulfilled its intention of driving the PLO out when a peace deal saw 15,000 PLO members leave Lebanon into exile, mostly to Tunisia.

Despite being demonized by Israel, Arafat continued to preach—if not always practice—moderation among the PLO. His case had weakened following Israel's peace deal with Egypt in 1978, which removed one of the PLO's more moderate backers and allowed countries like Iraq, Libya, and Syria to exert a greater influence on the more radical elements within the PLO. Likewise, the Lebanese experience had had a negative impact on the PLO and physically removed the organization to the fringes.

Arafat was not averse to launching terrorist raids, however. He had his own personal guard as Fatah leader, Force 17, which began launching seaborne attacks against Israeli targets in 1985. After it killed three Israeli civilians aboard a yacht in Cyprus in September, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered a bombing raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunisia, killing fifty-six Palestinians and fifteen Tunisians. Israel's difficulty in recognizing the difference between the PLO and one of its member groups (even if it did share the same leader) was never more apparent.

But the slow path to peace picked up again when, in December 1988, Arafat publicly renounced terrorism. Talks with Israel opened at Madrid in 1991, but were tentative; more progress was made at secret talks staged in Oslo in 1993, which resulted in a Declaration of Principles (DOP) between Israel and the PLO. The PLO reaffirmed its commitment to the peace process, and Israel and the United States formally recognized it as the legal representative of the Palestinian people. In 1994, Palestinians, including Arafat, began returning from exile into the occupied territories, and in 1995, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was formed. However, Arafat was poor at day-to-day government and administration, but also stubbornly unwilling to delegate. Life in the PA quickly deteriorated.

Arguably, this was not helped by the Israeli government, which—despite recognizing the PLO as a partner for peace—continued to list it as a "terrorist organization."

Nevertheless, when the peace process ground to a halt in 2000 and the al-Aqsa intifada (uprising) broke out, there was less of a readiness to tar the PLO with the crimes of some of its constituent members. Even if Yasser Arafat was again singled out for culpability, that was more in relation to the activities of various Fatah offshoots and the failings of his government, than the suggestion that the PLO was operating as a homogenous terrorist organization.


The PLO is an umbrella organization comprising a number of Palestinian liberation organizations that are committed to the creation of a Palestinian homeland. In the pre-Oslo Accords era, it served to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and to serve as a kind of government-in-exile. Since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1995, many of these functions have been duplicated between the two bodies. It publicly renounced violence in 1988, although the involvement of organizations that still use extremism mean that this commitment is often treated with skepticism.

It does not propagate any sort of political philosophy, although it is a secular organization. It nevertheless continues to campaign about political issues relevant to the Palestinian people. According to its Department of Negotiation Affairs, these include the right of return for refugees, either in Palestine or resettlement in a third country; an equitable share of water supply from the Jordan River; full control of its economic borders and policies; compensation for Palestinian property stolen or destroyed by Israel; the removal of Israeli settlements from the occupied territories; and control of East Jerusalem in conformity with the Oslo DOP and international law.


Ghada Karmi, assessing the impact of the PLO in the Guardian in 2003, believed that its achievements are monumental. She recalled: "In 1969, Israel's prime minister Golda Meir astonished the world with this: 'It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them,' she said. 'They did not exist.' Such a statement would be unimaginable today, thanks mainly to a tireless Palestinian struggle for recognition and legitimacy. Today's Middle East road map would seem to be an important landmark in this struggle. It establishes some significant benchmarks: it explicitly acknowledges the need for Palestinian statehood and underlines the role of territory as fundamental to a settlement of the conflict.

"It is hard to believe that in the 1960s, the very word 'Palestine' had slipped out of the lexicon. Growing up in England, I remember people thinking I meant 'Pakistan' when I said where I was born. The 1948 exodus, tragic though it was, created a new category—'Arab refugees'—but no one remembered where they came from. It took the PLO's establishment in 1964, an armed campaign against Israel and several terrorist attacks in the 1970s to force the Palestine question on to the international agenda. Political maneuvering thereafter, led by the much disparaged Yasser Arafat, kept it there. The eruption of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation in the 1987 intifada forced Israel to negotiate the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Failed though these were, they helped establish the structures of Palestinian statehood and make it broadly acceptable."

In Time magazine, at the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, Tony Karon and Jamil Hamad argued that, while the PLO had been effective negotiators and had succeeded in raising global awareness of the Palestinian problem, the long years in exile had seen it lose the Palestinian street (a term used to denote popular opinon). "Many of those who led the last intifada believe it was their efforts that saved Arafat and the PLO and made the peace process possible, and yet there's widespread resentment in their ranks at being sidelined politically once the exiled leaders arrived home," they argued. "To be sure, it's unlikely that Chairman Arafat's headquarters would have moved from Tunis to the West Bank without the intifada. The PLO's efforts to launch guerrilla warfare against Israel from neighboring Arab states had been singularly unsuccessful. Arafat's headquarters had been in Jordan in the late '60s and Lebanon in the '70s and early '80s, but by 1987 he was billeted in far-off Tunisia with few instruments to pursue his nationalist struggle. Then came the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. The young men of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 may have suffered heavy casualties as they hurled stones and gasoline bombs at a well-armed adversary with little patience for their protests, but they also created a political crisis for Israel. It was the intifada more than anything that forced Israel to abandon efforts to foster an alternative leadership in territories under their control, to acknowledge the PLO as the legitimate representative of Palestinian aspirations and to open negotiations."


Mahmoud Abbas's takeover of the leadership of the PLO and PA in 2004 has done much to restore the diminishing credibility of both organizations. Although closely associated to Yasser Arafat for the majority of his political life, he does not carry the hint of extremism his predecessor—right or wrongly—once did. His acknowledgement of the problems caused by Palestinian violence and readiness to tackle insurgency head on have been welcomed by Israelis, while his steadfast adherence of the PLO's historic principles have won him plaudits among the Palestinian population. Nothing can be foretold with any great accuracy in the uncertainty of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Abbas has already progressed the cause of the PLO from the state of stagnation in which he inherited it.



Aburish, Said. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. New York: Westview, 2000.

Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation. England: Oxford, 2001.

Wallach, Janet. Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder. Amsterdam: Citadel, 2001.


Fatah Revolutionary Council

Popular Front For The Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

views updated May 18 2018


Palestinian political institution (Munadhdhamat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniya).

Meeting in Jerusalem at its first congress on 28 May 1964, the Palestine National Council (PNC) created the PLO by adopting the Palestine National Charter and the PLO Fundamental Law, and becoming itself a member. As an umbrella organization for the Palestinian national struggle, the PLO replaced the moribund Arab Higher Committee, which had been presided over by Hajj Amin al-Husayni, and eventually became the most important of the Palestinian political organizations. Ahmad Shuqayri, a Palestinian lawyer and former assistant to the secretary general of the Arab League, was named chairman of the PLO executive committee.

The PLO platform was based on four principles:
1) rejection of the partition decreed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947; 2) armed struggle

for the liberation of Palestine; 3) the fight against Zionism; and 4) ultimate establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The organization comprises three principal components: the Palestine National Council (PNC, al-Majlis al-Watani al-Filastini), with 300–600 members—roughly 30 percent from the resistance and guerrilla organizations that are members of the PLO, 20 percent from affiliated mass organizations and trade unions, 20 percent from the diaspora, and 30 percent independent members; the executive committee (EC, al-Lajna a—Tanfidhiya), with 15 members elected by the PNC, similar to a cabinet-style government, who direct the bureaucracy and apply policies adopted by the PNC; and the Central Council (CC, al-Majlis al-Markazi al-Filastini), with 50–70 members who act as a constitutional council to oversee the functions of the executive committee.

Although the Central Council serves a consultative role, acting as an intermediary legislative entity between the PNC and the EC, it can use its veto to sanction the action of the executive committee. The executive committee supervises the PLO's departments or ministries. It meets at the request of its members; and in the past has met often in Tunis, sometimes in Baghdad. During the deliberations of the EC, a quorum of two-thirds of its members is required, although decisions can be made by a simple majority of those present. Because of regional disturbances, the headquarters of the PLO has been moved successively from Jerusalem to Amman (1967), Beirut (1970-71), Tunis (1982), and Ramallah (1995). The PNC was originally headquartered in Cairo, then moved to Damascus (1979), Amman (1984), and Gaza (1996).

At first considered merely a tool of the Arab League, the PLO became truly independent in 1969. Defeat of the Arab forces in the 1967 War discredited the leadership of both the Arab states and the PLO; Shuqayri resigned in 1967 and was replaced by another lawyer, Yahya Hammuda. When the fidaʾyyun groups, primarily al-Fatah, increased guerrilla attacks against Israel, they earned the respect of the Arab public, receiving many new recruits and greater financial assistance from the Gulf states. On 4 February 1969 Yasir Arafat, head of al-Fatah, was elected chairman of the PLO executive committee, and since then, al-Fatah has been the dominant element within the PLO. Arafat has followed a pragmatic course designed to balance internal differences and further move the PLO toward its single overriding goal.

At times other leaders and organizations have disagreed with Arafat's strategies, leaving the organization and later rejoining it; but the PLO's core membership has remained stable. It includes all the major Palestinian liberation movements, encompassing a diversity of orientations. The largest groups are the centrist al-Fatah, the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the PFLP–General Command (PFLP–GC), and the Marxist-Leninist inspired Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

In July 1969, the PLO was invited for the first time to attend a meeting of nonaligned countries that took place in Belgrade. Confronted by internal rivalry and affected by regional political changes, there was much dissidence within the PLO, reflecting ideological cleavages among the Palestinian movements. These disagreements came to a head in 1970 when the PFLP launched a violent campaign to sabotage and overthrow the monarchy in Jordan, the base of PLO activity, provoking the government to strike back brutally during what became known as "Black September" 1970. The result of this conflict was the PLO's expulsion from Jordan and transfer to Lebanon, where it had already compelled the government there to grant it a degree of autonomy in governing and providing for the large population of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and in defending them from many Lebanese enemies.

On 26 October 1974, a year after the 1973 War, the PLO was recognized at the Arab League summit in Rabat as the "only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." On the following 13 November Arafat made a historic speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, after which the PLO obtained observer status at the UN. With the exceptions of Israel and the United States, the international community thereafter recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.

The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975, threatening Lebanese sovereignty and contributing to the destabilization of Lebanese politics. PLO operations in that country were partly to blame for the war because they were so extensive that the organization was often referred to as a "state within a state," and parts of southern Lebanon were known as "Fatahland." These operations included not only military organizations and activities, but civilian institutions that provided security and social services to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had no other resources within a Lebanese population that was largely hostile to them. Both for these reasons, and for the need to defend its people and maintain its operations, the PLO became a major participant in the war.

In September 1976, Palestine, represented by the PLO, was given full membership in the Arab League. The following year saw the famous journey of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat to Jerusalem, followed by the Camp David Accords in 1978, and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. This treaty led to a schism in the Arab world that affected the PLO because, besides returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, it provided for negotiations toward a future settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issue "on the basis of" UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, and contained a vague Israeli plan for Palestinian "autonomy" within restricted zones in the West Bank and Gaza without committing Israel's removal of settlements. The other signatories, Egypt and the United States, agreed with Israel's view of Resolution 242—that despite calling for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, it did not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Jordan, which was part of the Camp David negotiations, and the PLO, which was not (although there were Palestinian representatives on the Jordanian delegation), along with the entire Arab world, rejected the treaty. In effect, Israel had removed Egypt, which was strong enough to threaten it, from the Arab-Israel dispute while conceding nothing to the Palestinians.

With the Egyptian threat neutralized by the treaty, Israel began aiding and subsidizing Lebanese who were hostile to the Palestinians; and in June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to attack the PLO directly in an attempt to destroy it. A cease-fire mediated by the United States in August obliged Arafat and his followers to leave Lebanon, which they agreed to do after receiving an American promise to protect Palestinian refugees. Under the protection of a multinational force, the leadership of the much weakened PLO and about 14,000 fighters went to Tunis where the remnants of the organization found itself cut off from both the Palestinian territories and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Within days of the PLO's withdrawal, the Israelis abetted the Phalange by invading two adjacent refugee camps in Beirut, perpetrating the Sabra and Shatila Massacre and leaving the entire community vulnerable. Later in 1982 the United States proposed a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, the Reagan Plan, based on the same Israeli autonomy plan as was in the Camp David Accord, again refusing to allow the PLO a part in the negotiations.

In late 1983 Arafat sought to restore the PLO in Lebanon; Syria, which under President Hafiz al-Asad had entered the Lebanese war in 1976 and wanted to control the PLO, thwarted him by helping Fatah-Intifada, a breakaway group founded by Saʿid Musa Muragha (Abu Musa), to defeat him. Asad, wanting Syria to replace Egypt as the primary deterrent to Israeli power—and as the leading state of the Arab world—aided opponents of Arafat's policies, led by former PNC president Khalid al-Fahum, to organize the Palestinian National Salvation Front (PNSF) in March 1985. Gathering together the Fatah-Intifada, the PFLP–GC, the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), al-Saʿiqa, the Palestinian Revolutionary Communist Party (PRCP), and some members of the PFLP, the PNSF strove to constitute an alternative to the PLO. The DFLP and the balance of PFLP members, opposed to foreign interference in Palestinian affairs, refused to join because of Syrian backing. Riven by personality conflicts and ideological divergences, the PNSF was a failure and had faded away by 1989.

Meanwhile, the policies of the PLO in Tunis began to evolve away from armed struggle toward political action. Despite this change, the Israelis bombed PLO headquarters in an attempt to kill Arafat on 1 October 1985. At the 17th congress of the PNC in Algiers in April 1987 there was a reconciliation among the principal Palestinian movements, including al-Fatah, the DFLP, the PFLP, and the PCP.

Then in December of the same year the first Intifada broke out; and a new, younger leadership began to form within the Occupied Territories, forcing the leadership of the PLO to adapt and revise its strategy again. Many members of PLO organizations in the territories joined the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), the network of leadership committees that rose spontaneously early in the Intifada. Using the argument of "popular legitimacy," the Intifada proclaimed the state of Palestine, with Jerusalem as the capitol, at the 18th PNC congress in Algiers on 15 November 1988.

From that time the leadership of the PLO launched a diplomatic offensive, particularly in Western countries, and especially the United States. In December 1988 Arafat renounced terrorism and declared before the UN General Assembly the PLO's acceptance of Israel's right to exist. The United States rewarded him by opening a diplomatic dialogue. Israel, however, neither acknowledged nor responded to this declaration. Consequently, in the crisis beginning in July 1990 that led to the Gulf War of 1991, and in spite of the reservations of a majority of the PLO cadres, Arafat decided to throw his support behind Iraq.

He may have felt that Saddam Hussein would be able to change the balance of power in the region, but the decision was a disaster for the PLO and the Palestinians. The immediate results were the persecution, expulsion, and impoverishment of the large Palestinian community in Kuwait, reducing a population of about 350,000 before the war to about 30,000 after it. The earnings of this community had supported many family members in the territories and camps, and the PLO had collected taxes from it for the Palestinian National Fund. Arafat's support of Iraq also cost the PLO and Palestinians the financial aid they had been receiving from the Arab states (mainly Saudi Arabia) and Arab diplomatic support for the PLO in international affairs. The PLO, therefore, responded positively in September 1991 to the American-Soviet proposal for a Middle East peace conference, which opened in Madrid on 30 October 1991.

The PLO, which Israel considered a terrorist organization, was not permitted a delegation, but Palestinian representatives, advised by a committee that consulted with the PLO, were included in the Jordanian delegation. The negotiations were unproductive, however, blocked by a combination of intransigence on the part of the Israeli Likud government and Palestinian resentment of the format for the negotiations and distrust of the American negotiators, some of whom were associated with the Israeli lobby in Washington. When a new Labor government in Israel repealed the prohibition against dealing with the PLO, Arafat was able to seek talks outside of the Madrid conference. This led to the Oslo Accords and Declaration of Principles of 1993, embodying Israeli recognition of the PLO and containing a plan for partial autonomy of the Palestinian territories in anticipation of a treaty on their definitive status. In May 1994, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the PLO created the Palestinian Authority (PA), an interim government responsible for putting the autonomy into effect, presided over by Arafat. Most PLO departments were moved to the PA, except for the political department which remained in Tunis headed by Faruq Qaddumi. On 7 July 1998 the UN upgraded the status of the PLO, according it the right to participate in political debates in the General Assembly. That same year the PNC altered the Palestine National Charter to conform to the provisions of the Oslo Accords.

In the early twenty-first century, many of the PLO's functions have been absorbed into the PA. The primary independent purpose of the PLO is to conduct negotiations with Israel, although there has been little talk between them since the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000. The PLO also oversees affiliated mass organizations such as the General Unions, civic organizations such as the Red Crescent Society, and various social service organizations that serve the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon, Jordan, and camps in the Occupied Territories.

In October 2004, the removal of the seriously ill 75-year-old Arafat to France for medical treatment, and the uncertainty of his recovery, set off a wave of uncertainty and political maneuvering within the leadership of the PLO. Arafat's demise will leave a vacuum at the center of Palestinian political institutions. Initial speculation over the succession centered on PLO general secretary and former PNA prime minister Mahmud Abbas, PNA prime minister Ahmad Qurai, and security chiefs Jibril Rajub and Muhammad Dahlan. Abbas is the most senior of Arafat's collaborators, and the chief of the commission established to run the PLO's affairs in his absence (other members are Qurai and PNC chairman Salim Zanoun). Qurai has little independent support, and Rajub and Dahlan have made many enemies. They face potential competition from a younger generation of leadership that has been alienated from the PLO establishment by its ineffectiveness and corruption, as well as from outside organizations like HAMAS that have opposed PLO policies toward Israel but have refrained from attacking or disrupting the PLO as long as Arafat, a living national symbol, remained in control. When Arafat is gone, there will likely be a struggle for power among the various factions: The established PLO leadership, the younger generation of secular leadership, and the Islamic organizations that have been keeping alive the al-Aqsa Intifada in the face of PLO opposition.

SEE ALSO Abbas, Mahmud Rida;Aqsa Intifada, al-;Arab Higher Committee;Arab-Israel War (1967);Arab-Israel War (1973);Arafat, Yasir;Asad, Hafiz al-;Black September 1970;Camp David Accords;Dahlan, Muhammad;Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine;Fahum, Khalid al-;Fatah, al-;Fatah-Intifada;Gaza (City);Gulf War (1991);HAMAS;Husayni, Hajj Amin al-;Hussein, Saddam;Intifada (1987–1993);Israel Labor Party; Israeli Settlements;League of Arab States;Likud;Musa Muragha, Saʿid;Oslo Accords;Palestine;Palestine National Charter;Palestine National Council;Palestine Red Crescent Society;Palestinian National Fund;Palestinian National Salvation Front;Palestinian Revolutionary Communist Party;Phalange;Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine;Qaddumi, Faruq;Qurai, Ahmad Sulayman;Rajub, Jibril;Reagan Plan;Resolution 242;Sabra and Shatila;Sadat, Anwar al-;West Bank.

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)


The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is an umbrella political organization founded in 1964 to deal with the problems of the Palestinian Arab refugees. The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947) had divided the ex-British mandate territory of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab-Palestinian state, with the Greater Jerusalem area, including Bethlehem, placed under international administration. But the first Arab-Israeli war (19481949) led to a three-way partition of Palestine and the problem of the so-called occupied Palestinian territories. Egypt took the Gaza Strip, the kingdom of Transjordan (later Jordan) took the West Bank (of the River Jordan), and the rest of Palestine was incorporated into the newly formed State of Israel, prompting the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who were dispersed to refugee camps all over the Arab world. The PLO emerged from the angry despair of the homeless and impoverished Palestinian refugees and their desire to establish an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

The PLO is governed by a legislative body called the Palestinian National Council (PNC), which elects an executive committee to assume leadership of the organization between its sessions. The PNC meets every two years and passes resolutions by a simple majority with a two-thirds quorum. The first PNC, composed of 389 nominated representatives from Palestinian diaspora communities in Jordan, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Libya, and Algeria, met in East Jerusalem, Jordan, on May 29, 1964, and adopted the Palestinian National Covenant (Palestines constitutional charter). It established the PLO as the political voice of the Palestinian people and elected Ahmad Al-Shuqeiry (19081980) as the first chairman of the PLO Executive Committee.

Fatah, an Egyptian-backed guerrilla movement led by Yasser Arafat (19292004), joined the PLO in 1968. It was followed by other Palestinian guerrilla groups (fedayeen ) such as the pro-Syrian As Saiqa, the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), among others. The PLOs military wing, the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), began staging acts of guerrilla warfare against military and civilian targets inside Israel, as well as Jewish targets in third countries; the Israeli government has branded these acts terrorism. Arafat became PLO leader in 1969 and declared himself the only legitimate spokesman for the Palestinian people. For much of its history, the PLO regarded Israel as an illegitimate foreign presence in Palestine, because neither the local Palestinian Arabs nor any neighboring Arab country have ever agreed to the creation of a Jewish state in their midst. The PLO leadership has accused Israel of illegally occupying the Arab lands in Palestine, especially the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of June 1967. The PLO has also insisted on the right to return to their ancestral homes for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who were forced into exile in 1948.

The PLO was expelled from its guerrilla bases in Jordan after a bloody confrontation with the army of Jordanian King Hussein I (19351999) in September 1970 (which became known as Black September because as many as 3,400 Palestinians were killed in the conflict). The defeated PLO relocated most of its fighting force to refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. In 1974 the Arab League proclaimed the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, with Jordan and Egypt giving up their claims to the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. In the same year, Arafat called for a democratic, secular Palestinian state, and the United Nations recognized the PLO as the government-in-exile responsible for all Palestinian affairs, according it the status of a permanent observer to the UN. Since then, more than 100 non-Arab states have also extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO was granted full membership in the Arab League in 1976.

The PLO became embroiled in the first phase of the bloody Lebanese Civil War (19751977), but suffered defeat at the hands of the Syrian army, which in 1976 invaded Lebanon in support of the Christian-dominated government in Beirut. Arafat rejected the Camp David Accords of 1977 and accused Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat (19181981) of betraying the Palestinian people and all other Arab nations, but at the same time called for diplomacy to resolve the Palestinian problem. The PLO suffered another setback in 1982 when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon forced some 8,500 of its fighters to leave their stronghold in West Beirut and resettle in other Arab countries, such as Tunisia and Syria. In 1985 the Israeli air force bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunisia, inflicting significant losses of life, but missing Arafat. The PLO was caught by surprise by the first Palestinian intifada (19871993), and while it was trying to help and direct the anti-Israeli uprising from abroad, the local radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad challenged its leadership position within the occupied territories. The PLO also lost financial support from wealthy Arab Gulf states for backing Iraq during the First Gulf War (19901991).

With U.S. support, Israel refused to negotiate with the PLO, insisting that it would only talk to Palestinian representatives from the occupied territories, which complicated and delayed the peace process. In reaction to the intifada, the PLO unilaterally declared an independent Arab state of Palestine at the nineteenth PNC session held in Algiers in 1988. Arafat expressed support for a UN Security Council resolution calling for a two-state settlement on the pre-1967 borders (which had been vetoed by the United States in January 1976), with Israel and Palestine living side by side, provided that East Jerusalem became the capital of the Palestinian state and Palestinian refugees were given the right to return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel. On September 13, 1993, after months of U.S.-brokered back-channel negotiations, Arafat signed an historic peace agreement with Israel in Oslo, Norway, even though such an accommodation was vehemently opposed by radicals within the PLOs own ranks and by irreconcilable Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The agreement, known as the Oslo Accords, involved mutual recognition, with security guarantees to and from Israel, and the gradual introduction of Palestinian self-government and autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank until a final peace settlement was signed. A year later, Arafat appointed a provisional government, the nineteen-member Palestinian Authority, to administer the areas of Palestinian self-rule. He was elected president of the Palestinian-controlled territories in 1996. The PLO convened a PNC session in Gaza in April 1996, which voted with 504 votes in favor and 54 against to recognize Israels right to exist.

Mahmoud Abbas (b. 1935), a moderate Fatah politician, was appointed Palestinian prime minister in 2003 in the midst of the second intifada (20002006). In the same year, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to new negotiations based on the U.S.-proposed roadmap to peace, although this failed to stop the daily violent attacks and reprisals. However, Abbas soon resigned after clashing with Arafat over control of the PLOs security forces. Following Arafats death in November 2004, Abbas succeeded him as PLO leader and was elected Palestinian Authority president in January 2005.

In an unexpected blow to Abbas, Hamas swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and formed a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority cabinet that promised to rid Palestinians of the rampant corruption, mismanagement of foreign aid, and endemic abuses of power under Fatahs rule. The result was an escalating conflict between President Abbas and Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (b. 1963) of Hamas over many issues, including Hamass retaliatory missile attacks on Israeli territory and Abbass plan to hold a referendum to force Hamas to recognize Israel. To end sporadic armed clashes between Hamas members and the Fatah-controlled security forces, a Hamas-led coalition government with the participation of several Fatah-supported ministers was formed in March 2007. But the Hamas-Fatah coalition collapsed in June 2007 when a military confrontation between the two rival groups led to Hamass victory and takeover of Gaza. Without the consent of the Hamasdominated Palestinian parliament, Abbas dissolved the coalition government and appointed an emergency cabinet led by pro-Fatah prime minister Salam Fayyad (b. 1952) on June 17, 2007, signaling a newly divided Palestine ruled by the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza and the American-backed Fatah in the West Bank.

SEE ALSO Arab-Israeli War of 1967; Arafat, Yasir; Intifada, The; Palestinian Authority; Palestinian Diaspora; Palestinians; Peace Process


Khalidi, Rashid. 2006. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Boston: Beacon.

Mussalam, Sami. 1988. The Palestine Liberation Organization: Its Function and Structure. Brattleboro, VT: Amana.

Nassar, Jamal R. 1991. The Palestine Liberation Organization: From Armed Struggle to the Declaration of Independence. New York: Praeger.

Reische, Diana L. 1991. Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. New York: F. Watts.

Sela, Avraham, and Moshe Maoz, eds. 1997. The PLO and Israel: From Armed Conflict to Political Solution, 19641994. New York: St. Martins Press.

Smith, Charles D. 1996. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: St. Martins Press.

Rossen Vassilev

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

views updated May 11 2018


the institutional structure of the palestinian national movement and the political representative of about nine million palestinians.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; Arabic, Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyya ) was created at the Arab summit in January 1964 to contain and channel Palestinian nationalism and prevent Palestinian guerrilla groups from taking independent actions to liberate Palestine, from which Palestinians had fled or had been expelled by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in 1948. The Palestine National Council (PNC), the PLO's parliament, convened with 422 members in Jerusalem in May 1964 and elected a fifteen-member Executive Committee, which chose as its chairman a lawyer, Ahmad Shuqayri. The PNC adopted a national covenant or charter (al-mithaq al-watani), which was revised in 1968, calling for the elimination of Israel and the restoration of Palestine to the Palestinians.

When Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in 1967 and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both Arab and Palestinian leaders were discredited. Shuqayri was replaced by another lawyer, Yahya Hammuda. The guerrilla groups, the most significant of which was Al-Fatah, expeditiously moved to fill the political vacuum by increasing their attacks on Israel. On 21 March 1968, Israel massively retaliated at Karama, Jordan. The guerrillas' stiff resistance resulted in the deaths of at least 21 Israelis, about 100 Palestinians, and 40 Jordanian soldiers who aided the Palestinians. The guerrillas embellished their own accomplishment, inflated Israel's casualties, and gave little credit to the Jordanians. Karama became a symbol of struggle against Israel, which many had considered invincible. AlFatah gained thousands of recruits, Arab admiration, and financial support, primarily from the Gulf Arab states. More important, the guerrilla groups won control over the PLO. They amended the national charter in July 1968 to underscore the rejection of Arab interference in Palestinian affairs, the total liberation of Palestine by Palestinians through armed struggle, and establishment of a democratic secular state of Arabs and Jews.

Groups within the PLO

The battle at Karama propelled Yasir Arafat, head of al-Fatah, into the leadership position. An engineer educated at Cairo University, he was elected at the fourth PNC (February 1969) to replace Hammuda as chair of the Executive Committee. The PLO was transformed from an Arab-controlled organization to an umbrella of disparate military and political groups. Although these groups had a common goal, the liberation of Palestine, they differed considerably on ideology and tactics. The dominant group was al-Fatah, established in Kuwait by Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), and Arafat (Abu Ammar), who became its spokesperson. It owed its broad appeal to Arafat's charismatic personality and to its pragmatic politics, which eschewed ideology for action toward a simple national goal: the liberation of Palestine. Al-Fatah's chief rival in the PLO was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), headed by George Habash, a Christian physician educated at the American University of Beirut. The PFLP is a Marxist group dedicated to the overthrow of conservative Arab governments. Its contempt for the government of Jordan led it to challenge Jordan's sovereignty, triggering the 19701971 civil war that resulted in the PLO's defeat and its relocation to Lebanon. An offshoot to the left of the PFLP that espouses Marxism-Leninism is the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), led by a Jordanian Christian, Nayif Hawatma. Another offshoot is the Popular Front for the Liberation of PalestineGeneral Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmad Jibril. Others include al-Saʿiqa, controlled by Syria, and the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), controlled by Iraq.

The influence of these groups has been disproportional to their numbers, but some see them as a necessary alternative to the centrist al-Fatah. They have stimulated political debates. They have charged that the lack of a coherent ideology within al-Fatah has led to an absence of vision regarding politics and society in the diaspora and the future state of Palestine; that many of its functionaries are inept and corrupt bureaucrats tolerated by Arafat; that the PLO drifts from crisis to crisis; that Arafat manipulates Palestinian institutions such as the PNC and the Executive Council and has autocratic powers that undermine Palestinian democracy; and that Arafat flirts with almost any nationJordan, Egypt, the United Stateswithout a clear policy.

PLO diversity resulted in the groups working at cross-purposes or in costly blunders. For example, the Arab-controlled Saʿiqa and ALF emphasized Arab unity while others insisted on Palestinian self-reliance. Al-Fatah denounced airplane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 by PFLP and PFLP-GC as counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. While al-Fatah sought Arab support and generally avoided Arab problems, the leftist groups involved the PLO in the civil war in Jordan and contributed to PLO involvement in Lebanon's civil war and in the Gulf crisis. Disagreements have led groups to secede from the PLO or to leave it temporarily. These could have brought violent conflict and disunity had it not been for the dominance of al-Fatah and Arafat's mass appeal and political skills. He often appeased or reflected diverse currents and articulated vague and, at times, contradictory positionswhich, while damaging his credibility abroad and creating diplomatic immobility, enabled him to maintain the coalition. His leadership allowed the PLO to develop political, military, and socioeconomic institutions in Lebanon until 1982.


Foremost among these institutions was the PNC, the PLO parliament, whose membership varied. It represented virtually all ideological tendencies and groups, including the commando organizations and their political branches, ten unionsthose, for example, of workers, women, teachers, students, writers, and engineersand Palestinian communities. It developed a large and complex infrastructure for the estimated 360,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. Its well-trained armed forces numbered about 16,000. Its social and economic institutions served almost half a million Palestinians and poor Lebanese. The Palestine Martyrs Works Society (SAMED) operated businesses and light industry grossing $40 million annually. The Red Crescent Society supervised sixty clinics and eleven hospitals, and the Department of Social Welfare provided financial assistance for the blind, day-care centers, the wounded, and families of "martyrs." By the early 1980s the PLO had gone from an umbrella of guerrilla groups to the institutional embodiment of Palestinian nationalism and a state within a state.

The political and economic institutions enhanced the PLO's prestige and legitimacy. The Arab League recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the Rabat conference (October 1974). A month later, the United Nations invited Arafat to address the General Assembly and awarded the PLO observer status. In 1976 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians voted out pro-Jordan mayors, replacing them with supporters of the PLO. By 1982, over 100 countries had recognized the PLO.


Despite such success, however, the PLO suffered major setbacks. After its expulsion from Jordan, it established a state within a state in Lebanon, thereby undermining Lebanon's sovereignty, incurring Israel's retaliation, and embroiling it in Lebanon's civil war after 1975. In March 1979, at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat signed a separate peace agreement with Israel that excluded PLO participation and provided for a limited Palestinian autonomy instead of full self-determination. With Egypt neutralized, Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to destroy the PLO but succeeded only in forcing the PLO to move to Tunis; stripped of PLO protection, between 800 and 1,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were massacred in September by the Israel-allied Pha-lange. The 1982 Reagan peace plan, based on the Camp David autonomy proposal, once again excluded PLO participation. The following year, dissension within al-Fatah caused a revolt by Saʿid Musa Muragha (Abu Musa), with the help of Syria, which had long sought to control the PLO. When Arafat attempted to reestablish PLO power in Lebanon in 1983, Syria unleashed the forces of Abu Musa, who drove him out of Lebanon again. Israel attempted to undermine the PLO leadership by bombing its headquarters in Tunis in October 1985 but failed to kill Arafat.

Moderation and Diplomacy

Unable to strike at Israel, the PLO relied primarily on diplomacy to achieve a compromise settlement. At the twelfth PNC in 1974 and the thirteenth in 1977, the PLO had moderated its goal of liberating all of Palestine to one of establishing a state in the West Bank and Gaza; it supported the 1982 Fahad Plan that implicitly accepted a two-state solution. Empowered by the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began against Israel's occupation in December 1987, Arafat in November 1988 led an enlarged PNC that included the DFLP to endorse the establishment of an independent Palestine state. It also endorsed the 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181. In December 1988, Arafat declared the PLO's acceptance of Israel's right to exist, recognition of Security Council Resolution 242, and the renunciation of terrorism. The United States promptly opened a dialogue with the PLO. Israel and its supporters, however, refused to acknowledge the change.

Israel's failure to reciprocate largely convinced Arafat to support Saddam Hussein in the 19901991 Gulf Crisis. This was a blunder that resulted in loss of financial support from the Gulf states. Without the support of the Soviet Union, short on funds, and fearing irrelevance, the PLO accepted the U.S. peace initiative that led to the 1991 Madrid peace conference between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians. However, twenty-two months and ten rounds of negotiations proved fruitless. The PLO regarded the framework for the talks as unfair and did not consider middle-level U.S. officials, especially those associated with pro-Israel lobbies, as "honest brokers." Norway established a secret channel in Oslo through which the PLO and Israel agreed to recognize each other. On 13 September 1993, at the White House, they signed a Declaration of Principles for a five-year Palestinian limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, starting with the Gaza Strip and the town of Jericho, followed by elections for an interim council, Israel's withdrawal from other parts of the West Bank, and transfer of power. Unresolved final status issuesJerusalem, Jewish settlements, refugees of 1948, and borderswere deferred.

Toward Establishing a State

In May 1994, the IDF withdrew from Jericho and most of the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian police and a civil administration took over. Arafat moved to Jericho in June. Despite a decline in support for the peace process due to the violence and the slow pace of the negotiations, the PLO and Israel reached a number of agreements regarding the interim period, especially Oslo II, signed on 28 September 1995, which set the stage for Israel's further withdrawal from of the West Bank and the establishment of Palestinian Authority (PA) control over this area. The PLO held two PNC meetings in April 1996 and December 1998 to rescind articles in the National Charter that called for the destruction of Israel; the latter vote took place in the presence of U.S. president Bill Clinton. Clinton invited PLO chair Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to Camp David to negotiate final status issues of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The negotiations took place in July 2000, but failed and were followed by the second Palestinian uprising (Aqsa Intifada) against Israeli occupation. Even though the PLO resumed the negotiations with Israel, especially at Taba in January 2001, the negotiators ran out of time when Clinton left office in January and Prime Minister Ehud Barak was replaced by Ariel Sharon in February 2001. Sharon refused to resume negotiations with the PLO until the Palestinians stopped their violence. He reoccupied Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, where the IDF attacked Arafat's headquarters and placed Arafat under virtual house arrest.

Arafat and many of the leading members of the PLO are also leaders in the PA. Arafat is both the chair of the PLO and the president of the PA. Mahmud Abbas, who was Arafat's deputy in the PLO, became the first prime minister of the PA in 2003. Ahmad Qurai, deputy director of the PLO's department of economic affairs, became the second prime minister of the PA in 2003 and 2004. The PLO still has a primary role: to negotiate with Israel over the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Yet, with the establishment of the PA, the PLO was increasingly eclipsed by an elected Legislative Council and the many "state" institutions. If a state is established, the organization is likely to decline further, because its goal of establishing a state would have been fulfilled, and its institutions would be replaced by state institutions.

see also abbas, mahmud; arafat, yasir; fatah, al-; gaza strip; habash, george; palestinian authority; qurai, ahmad sulayman; ramallah; west bank.


Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Gresh, Alain. The PLO, the Struggle Within: Towards an Independent Palestinian State. London: Zed, 1986.

Lesch, Ann M. "Palestine Liberation Organization." In Oxford Companion of Politics of the World, edited by Joel Krieger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Miller, Aaron David. The PLO and the Politics of Survival. New York: Praeger, 1983.

Nassar, Jamal R. The Palestine Liberation Organization: From Armed Struggle to the Declaration of Independence. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Rubin, Barry. Revolution until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 19491993. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

philip mattar

Palestine Liberation Organization

views updated Jun 08 2018

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Organization of Palestinian parties and groups, widely recognized as the main representative of the Palestinian people. Founded in 1964, with the aim of dissolving the state of Israel and establishing a Palestinian state to enable Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral land, many of its component guerrilla groups engaged in political violence against Israel. In the 1970s, these guerrilla activities escalated into acts of international terrorism. Dominated by the al-Fatah group led by Yasir Arafat, in 1974 the United Nations and the Arab League recognized the PLO as a government-in-exile. In the early 1990s, PLO representatives conducted secret negotiations with Israel, culminating in the Israeli-Palestinian Accord (1993). See also Gaza Strip; Palestine; West Bank

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