Palestinian Liberation Organization


1. Can the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
justifiably claim to be 'the sole, legitimate
representative of the Palestinian people.'?
The PLO was set up in 1964 by an Arab League decision in
response to growing signs of Palestinian unrest. The
Palestinians desired to reclaim the lands occupied by
Israel, which they felt belonged to them, as said in the
Bible. In 1964 the Arab states created the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO). While it was supposed to
represent the Palestinians, in reality it represented the
views of President Nasser of Egypt, who guided the
formation of the PLO. Its first leader made wild and
irresponsible threats to drive Israelis into the sea, and
had little support among Palestinians for he was seen as a
puppet of the Egyptians. In the 1960s Palestinian students
began to form their own organizations independent of
control by Arab governments (although the Syrians, Libyans,
and Iraqis continued to fund and control particular
groups). Yasser Arafat founded an independent
Palestinian-run party called Fatah. He is said to have the
backing, for most of the recent past, of about 80% of the
Palestinian people. The position of the Arab governments
was that a PLO under Arab League supervision would be the
best way of satisfying the demands made by an emerging
Palestinian national consciousness. Also, it was felt that
through such an organization Arab governments could control
Palestinian political activities.
Ten years after its founding, the PLO was raised to the
status of government. And in 1988, the PLO's status was to
be raised again, this time to a state in exile. After
several negotiations, Arafat became a Terrorist leader and
administrator of self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza
In the 1967 Six Day War, the Arab armies did very badly
against Israel, losing 67,000 square kilometres of land.
Palestinians came to believe that if they were ever to have
their land, they would have to do it themselves. After the
1967 war, the situation changed drastically. The resistance
activities of various guerrilla organizations, in
particular the Al-Fatah and the PFLP, gained the increasing
support of the Palestinians. With Arafat at the helm from
1969 and a resistance-oriented leadership, the PLO was more
effective and played a central role in mobilizing the
Palestinians and in expanding its basis of support both at
the local and international level. The PLO became an
umbrella organization for the various guerrilla groups.
This increase in support was made possible because of the
Al-Fatah's ability to access to the growing numbers of
volunteers from refugee camps which were freshly swollen
due to the 1967 war. Most of these refugees suffered the
frustration of having been displaced twice in a lifetime.
This generated, especially among the young, a mood of
defiance, as they were ready to question the credibility of
the idea of relying on Arab governments to liberate
Palestine. Furthermore, as a consequence of the war a large
proportion of the Palestinian community became
territorially united. This brought the possibility of
direct interaction between the various sections of the
Palestinian community that had previously remained isolated
from each other. On the other hand, the inability of the
PLO's conservative leadership to promote any effective
resistance operations culminated in the eventual transfer
of power to the armed-struggle orientated guerrilla
organizations. Thus initially, the PLO had a broad base of
support and represented the desires of the majority of the
Palestinian people.
The origins of the Al-Fatah can be traced back to the
mid-1950s to a group of Palestinians that had neither
relinquished their national identity nor their belief in
the necessity of liberating Palestine via Palestinian
means, rather than relying on other Arab states. Yet,
throughout the 1950s the attitude of the Palestinians
remained largely skeptical if not uncommitted to Al-Faith's
ideology. It was in the 1960s that the situation began to
change, enabling Al-Fatah to expand its organizational
structure and base. Under the leadership of Arafat,
Al-Fatah pursued an ideology which simply stresses the
nationalist struggle to liberate Palestine without dwelling
too deeply on any theoretical speculations about the nature
and form of the future Palestinian society. This tactic was
essential in gaining support against other movements, and
aided the rise of Al-Fatah to become the dominating faction
within the PLO.
Militarily, the PLO has a broad base of human resources for
recruitment, almost half a million. The PLO has established
across-the-board conscription for all the Palestinian men
between the ages of 18 and 30. As a result, the PLO is able
to maintain three military forces. It could be said then
that physically, it did indeed represent a cross-section of
the population. However, even if they were significant in
number, these lower-level members were not politically
potent, and did not have their voices heard. Arafat
continued on his policies, tending to brush aside differing
opinions, leaving many disenchanted with his autocratic
Even before the PLO was declared a state in 1988, it
functioned much like one. This was reflected in much of the
powers it possessed. The PLO has been able to exert what
amounts to sovereign powers over the Palestinian people in
war situations. The PLO represented the Palestinians in
wars with Jordan and Lebanon, and during various incursions
into Israel.
The PLO also exercises extradition powers, as on many
occasions Arab governments have turned over to the PLO
Palestinians charged with criminal activities. They were
tried and sentenced by the PLO judicial system. In these
ways, it was supposed to represent the people.
But various problems within the PLO undermined its
legitimacy as the sole representative of the Palestinian
people. Arafat's ascendancy to power on the Palestinian
issue had naturally provoked rivals to try the same tack in
their own interest. As a result, maintenance of his
supremacy within the PLO became Arafat's full time
preoccupation. Far from laying the basis for secular or
democratic institutions that one day might serve as a
nation, Arafat recruited Sumni Muslims like himself into a
body known as Fatah, loyal to him on confessional lines.
Unity itself was a mere appearance, a show for the sake of
recovering honour. Far from uniting behind the Palestinian
cause as words might indicate, every Arab state in practice
discriminated against Palestinians living in its midst and
had differing slants upon the PLO. This was due to its
nature as an umbrella organization, the PLO comprises a
number of resistance organizations. These organizations
entered the PLO as groups retaining their ideological and
organizational identity. Consequently, PLO institutions are
structured to reflect proportional representation of each
organization in addition to the few independent members.
This has turned PLO politics into coalition politics.
The flux of events between 1967 and 1982 offered
Palestinians several chances to demonstrate en masse in
favour of the PLO, if they had been so inclined. But they
refrained, not due to fatalism or cowardice, but because
they may be willing to pay lip service to Arafat, not much
more than that.
Whether Palestinians outside the Occupied Territories would
in fact accept the legitimacy of the PLO as their
representative was put to test in Jordan in 1970. Jordanian
frontiers were the result of British map-making, which left
half of the country's inhabitants Palestinian by origin.
The rapid financing and arming by Arab power holders of
Arafat's mercenaries offered these Palestinians in Jordan a
chance to repudiate King Hussein and declare themselves
nationalists for the new cause. Unexpectantly, Arafat's
power challenge threatened to replace King Hussein with a
PLO state in Jordan. After 18 months, while tensions were
running high, the PFLP hijacked international airliners,
three of which were brought at gunpoint to Jordan. Taking
advantage of this anarchic jockeying between rival
Palestinian groups, King Hussein ordered his army to
subjugate the whole movement. Palestinians in Jordan and on
the West Bank gave evidence of their real feelings by
denouncing the PLO and PFLP activists to the authorities
and occasionally even helping to round them up.
David Pryce-Jones observed that "wherever they live, they
observe for themselves that the PLO is a means to
enrichment and aggrandizement for the unscrupulous few, but
death and destruction for everyone else". Everywhere
Palestinians have little alternative but to cling to this
identity, as they continue to seek what freedom they can
from power holders of different identity. In Syria, any
Palestinian who attempted to form some independent grouping
would be seen as a dangerous conspirator and summarily
disposed of. This left many with no choice but to remain
Fatah itself was split by power struggles initiated by a
growing number of young Fatah activists who were trying to
gain positions of power in local society, in the process
challenging the older generation of Fatah leaders. They
felt entitled to positions in the structures Arafat was
trying to create. The newest generation of people not only
refuse to be cajoled or coerced, but also have acquired
political organizing and networking skills in
neighbourhoods, refugee camps, Israeli jails, and above
all, in the political bodies created during the Intifada
The problem of factionalism has plagued the PLO from its
formation. However, instead of adopting a policy of
inclusion to accommodate the general goals of the people,
he excluded not only the opposition but also the local
Palestinians who had acted as his proxies before his
return. He had promised he would be the leader of all
Palestinians, but acted only like the President of his
trusted lieutenants. Instead of speaking of tolerance and
political pluralism, he spoke of respect for his authority.
On top of this, Arafat's leadership was questioned. Arafat
was criticized for filling his posts with loyalists whose
professional qualifications are below average and whose
reputations are tarnished. Other appointments brought more
and more Palestinians to the conclusion that Arafat was
mired in the past, and that he would continue to follow the
policy plans he had formed long ago.
The Chairman's primacy within the PLO had been seriously
compromised as a result of the secret negotiations that had
led to the September 13, 1993 agreement with the Rabin
government. The relationship with the masses that the
charismatic Arafat had enjoyed was diminished by the
concessions he made to Israel.
In modern day politics, he still remains a symbol of
Palestinian nationalism, as does the PLO. But he faces much
opposition. On the left various socialist groups think
Arafat is too close to business and banking interests and
too willing to negotiate with Israel or cooperate with
America. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
is one of these. It is led by George Habash, a Christian
doctor. It opposes any negotiations. On the right some
Islamic groups feel the PLO is too willing to cooperate
with socialists and is too willing to negotiate with
Israel. They feel there should be a united Palestine where
Jews could live but which would not be governed by Jews.
The largest of these groups is called HAMAS, the Islamic
Resistance Movement. Several Palestinian radicals have
their own military organizations. Abu Nidal is one of
these. He is bitterly and violently opposed to the PLO for
what he sees as its moderate positions. He has carried out
airplane bombings and attacks on civilians and has tried to
assassinate Arafat. He opposes any negotiation with Israel.
He is probably funded by Iraq.
In the latest turn of events, Yasser Arafat has decided to
scrap the anti-Israeli section of the PLO charter calling
for its destruction. Some have said that this is due to
Israeli pressure in the peace process, which demanded the
change before new talks and settlements. Shimon Peres has
called it the "most important ideological change of the
century", but it is sure to upset the Islamic
fundamentalists, and those in the PLO who desire a
completely pro-PLO solution. While there is so much
contention and opposition to PLO decisions, the PLO cannot
be called the sole representative of the Palestinian
people, although it has a large following.
1. David Pryce-Jones: The Closed Circle: An Interpretation
of the Arabs
Harper Perennial, New York, 1991
2. Peter Calrocovessi: World Politics since 1945 (5th Ed)
Longman Group, New York, 1987
3. Kamal Kirisai: The PLO and World Politics
Frances Pinter, London, 1986
Mr Kwok's notes


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