The mutiny that broke out in May has shaken Fatah with the most serious crisis of its existence. This crisis not only threatens to split the main organization of the Palestinian resistance (with 80 percent of its members), but also calls into question the very existence of the PLO.

The first sign of the crisis appeared on January 27, 1983, during closed-door meetings in Aden of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah—a body intermediate between the Central Committee and the General Assembly. That day, Col. Sa‘id Abu Musa intervened in the debate with a serious indictment of the policies and behavior of Yasser Arafat and his friends, though he did not mention Arafat directly by name. His speech was not made public, but it was not long before the text circulated privately. It surprised many who heard it without especially disturbing anyone, for Col. Abu Musa’s loyalty and sense of discipline were above suspicion.

Abu Musa is mainly respected for his military abilities. A graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain, he was a colonel in the Jordanian army before joining the fedayin in September 1970, during their combat with the troops of King Hussein. He later fought valiantly during the civil war in Lebanon in 1975-1976, and above all during the summer of 1982: He led the defense of west Beirut against the assault of the Israeli forces.

People called him “apolitical,” in a somewhat condescending way, because he did not understand that concessions and compromise were not necessarily the same as treason. They also said that his “revolutionary romanticism” led him to reject the “transitional program” adopted in June 1974 by the Palestine National Council. For the first time in the history of the movement, the PNC then allowed for a Palestinian “national authority” (a state) to be established alongside of Israel, and not in place of it. Abu Musa, the disciplined military man, nonetheless bowed to the decision of the majority.

His speech of January 27 surprised many people by the clarity of its argument and the precise nature of its criticisms. Most members of the Revolutionary Council did not begin to imagine what was going on: that this man, who combined the posts of second-in-command of forces in Lebanon and commander of the Yarmouk brigade, was already a member of an important clandestine group of top military officers and leaders of Fateh who were preparing an open rebellion. The indictment contained in Col. Abu Musa’s speech had these main elements:

  • The Fez Plan adopted by the Arab heads of state in September 1982 should have been rejected by the PLO. Its seventh point, in particular, signified clearly the end of the state of war, the opening of negotiations, and the de jure recognition of the “Zionist entity.” (Ironically, Israel, the United States and other powers declared this point to be “ambiguous” at the very least.) One concession leads to another, added Col. Abu Musa, and this one could serve as a pretext for Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq to go still further than the Palestinians along the “road to capitulation.”
  • The Reagan Plan, announced on September 1, 1982, should be condemned out of hand and in its totality. Abu Musa thus replied to Yasser Arafat and Farouk Qaddoumi, who had found “positive elements/aspects” in the American project.
  • The dialogue between King Hussein and Yasser Arafat to refine a common strategy should be stopped immediately. Any eventual accord could only be worked out on the basis of the Reagan Plan and on the backs of the Palestinians, whose right to self-determination and a state is denied by the White House. “Our negotiators must have no illusions of being more shrewd than the Jordanian sovereign, for the problem is not posed in terms of competency but in terms of the balance of forces,” Abu Musa declared, adding that “we face an international plot in which the United States and Israel are involved as well as virtually all the reactionary Arab countries, allies of imperialism.”
  • The discreet dialogue with Egypt violates numerous resolutions of the governing bodies of Fatah and the PLO, which called for sanctions against the country that concluded a separate peace with Israel. Such a dialogue is dangerous because it breaks the isolation of the Sadat-Mubarak regime and creates new openings for it in the Arab world.
  • Official contacts with “Zionist organizations,” called “democratic and peace forces in Israel” for this purpose, “are shocking.” They deprive the PLO of any credibility in the eyes of the large number of states in the UN General Assembly who defined Zionism as an imperialist and “racist” ideology.
  • Armed struggle against the Zionist occupiers—the “raison d’etre of Fatah”—has been, in practice, abandoned. Not only has it been agreed that Palestinian fighters would be withdrawn from Lebanon after the conclusion of an agreement with the government of Beirut, but the majority of the fedayin have already been dispersed in nine Arab countries, thousands of kilometers from the theater of operations.


Coalition of Colonels

Col. Abu Musa burst out against the “strategic retreats that are virtuously characterized as tactics,” and in any case are contrary to the letter and the spirit of the PLO charter. He added: If it is a matter of accomodating to “politics as the art of the possible,” then “the Palestinians don’t need the PLO to accommodate themselves to occupation!”

It became clear four months later that the second-in-command of PLO military operations actually spoke in the name of a politically diverse coalition of colonels, most of whom came out of the Jordanian army. Some were from the right; others, like Abu Khalid al-‘Umla, were from the extreme left, claiming a Marxism-Leninism more “pure” than that of the Soviet Union. This latter figure, who prefers to remain in the background, is known as the ideologue and real leader of the rebellion. Beginning in 1974, he set up within Fatah a clandestine “fraction” allied to the Rejection Front and other maximalists of the Palestinian movement. The Fatah leadership was not unaware of this grouping, but left it alone in the name of the pluralism characteristic of Yasser Arafat’s organization. Above all, they did not consider it a threat to the established order.

In January, the rebels were not able to rally to their cause even a minority bloc in the Palestine National Council, which was to meet a month after the session of the Revolutionary Council. Col. Abu Musa tried in vain to have an extraordinary congress of Fatah called prior to the PNC. Yasser Arafat thought he had been able to “gently” silence the voice of the rebel colonels. The meeting of the PNC on February 14 gave Arafat the possibility of regrouping the main PLO organizations and tendencies around a platform which emphasized “unity” but was full of ambiguity. Anything that might have divided the “legislators” was kept well hidden. There was no analytic report on the dramatic phase that had just taken place. Nor was any criticism or self-criticism concerning the defeat suffered in Lebanon submitted for the consideration of the assembly. The reason was clear: The battle of Beirut was presented as a “great victory” won against Israel and imperialism. The “doves”—ike ‘Isam Sartawi, assassinated in Portugal shortly afterwards, Shafiq al-Hout, the PLO representative in Beirut, and the Communist, Sulayman Najjab—hoped that “a clear new strategy” would be defined to “save the Palestinian people from genocide.” But they were listened to distractedly or prevented from speaking altogether. The “hawks” were submerged by an avalanche of militant rhetoric. Farouq Qaddoumi, one of those closest to Yasser Arafat, took up some of the criticisms formulated by Col. Abu Musa and his friends, though he did not mention their names. Such was the price to be paid to reach the indispensable consensus. Everyone wanted the consensus, it should be said: not only Yasser Arafat but also his most radical adversaries such as Popular Front leader George Habash, and Democratic Front leader Nayif Hawatma. During this session of the PNC, a new concept was developed—la‘am, a composite Arabic word that means “no-yes.” It was said in the corridors of the conference that all doors should be neither closed nor opened, but rather simply left ajar.

The final resolutions of the conference were replete with carefully measured phrases and subtle double meanings. As one humorist put it, they were conceived to allow nine different interpretations, including Yasser Arafat’s, though only he would put his into practice. The Reagan Plan was not “rejected,” but only deemed “not a valid basis for a just and lasting solution.” For good measure, the Brezhnev Plan was also mentioned, a plan which anticipated the reciprocal recognition of Israel and the future Palestinian state. The framework for dialogue with Egypt would remain operational, but only if Cairo would “take its distance” from the Camp David accords (without necessarily denouncing them). Contacts would not be broken with Jewish “democratic and progressive forces,” the PLO Executive Committee being charged with making the distinction between Zionists and anti-Zionists. Negotiations with King Hussein would be carried through to create a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, in partial conformity to the Reagan Plan. But they would be respectful of two “immutable principles”: the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign state, and the PLO as sole and legitimate representative.

Yasser Arafat thought he had won the game. He had a free hand to conduct a wide-ranging diplomacy, adapted to the international balance of forces and unforeseen circumstances. However, he neglected to take into account three new factors which narrowed the wide margin of maneuver he had enjoyed before the Lebanon war:

  • The Palestinians, now decimated, hunted down and terrorized in Lebanon, dispossessed by Israel of their land in the occupied territories and plunged into disarray everywhere else, expected something more from the PNC. What they got was artfully blurred texts beyond their comprehension, even if they admitted the necessity of ambiguity to preserve the unity of the PLO.
  • The exclusion from the Fatah Executive Committee in January of Abu Salih, who represented the concerns of the left within the organization, and later the dismissal from their posts of the “angry colonels,” didn’t leave the rebels any choice other than speaking and acting outside of the organizational structures.
  • The collapse of the Palestinian “state” within Lebanon removed Yasser Arafat from the levers of power which he had often used in the past to impose organizational discipline. The PLO chief had not realized that his operational troops in the Bekaa Valley were henceforth at the mercy of Syrian good will, and that he had to substitute persuasion for force in dealing with them.


“Cooking the Pebbles”

Underestimating the virulence of anti-American sentiments among Palestinians on all sides, Yasser Arafat secretly negotiated a protocol with King Hussein that mentioned only the Reagan Plan as “one of the projects” for a solution. His supreme error was not to insist that the PLO participate, as such, in the eventual negotiations. This was not a matter of “treason”—as the rebels would have it—but a tactical expedient. The Palestinian leader had turned to it in the past, not without success, in gaining time. According to those close to him (and contrary to what he was saying in public), Yasser Arafat thought that the PLO had been defeated in Lebanon. As a result, it would have to play ball with the United States and the conservative Arab states while awaiting a more favorable conjuncture. Such also, according to Arafat, was the state of mind of King Hussein. Hussein was concerned that the degeneration of the Palestinian problem and his own passivity would open the way for another Israeli military adventure, especially one directed at his own kingdom. The Jordanian monarch didn’t have any illusions about President Reagan’s desire or ability to achieve a solution, according to Arafat. To illustrate his remarks, Arafat added, using a popular Arab expression: “King Hussein and I are aware that we are in the middle of cooking the pebbles.”

The PLO chairman didn’t convince any other Palestinian leader that his calculations were correct. After stormy debates held behind closed doors in Kuwait at the end of March 1983, all his comrades, members of the Fatah Executive Committee and representatives of the principal organizations of the fedayin in the PLO Executive Committee, refused to ratify the protocol agreement that he had concluded several days before in Amman. The hour had sounded for Syria and Libya. Hostile to the strategy and tactics as well as the behavior of Yasser Arafat, they now sought to bring him to heel.

The two countries, with scarcely veiled hopes of gaining hegemony over the Palestinian movement, had deep and long-standing disputes to settle. Col. Qaddafi, in spite of the “personal friendship” he pretends to have for Yasser Arafat, had tried many times to impose his maximalist views on the Fatah leadership. But all the pressure he used in recent years—including shutting off the petrodollar faucet—remained without result. The same was true of the warnings and threats proffered by President Asad. Even at the peak of his power in Lebanon, Asad was not able to win control over the PLO chief. The enmity between the two men goes back to February 1966. Then the future Syrian head of state, at the time minister of defense, had Yasser Arafat, a clandestine Fatah militant, arrested for a crime he did not commit.

The conduct and initiatives of the PLO chairman in recent months exasperated President Asad, who refused even to see him or to answer his telephone calls. The unkind remarks of Yasser Arafat about the “capitulation” of the Syrian army at the start of the Lebanon war, his decision to travel via Athens rather than via Damascus when he left besieged Beirut, the choice of Tunis as the headquarters of the PLO and of Algiers for the meeting of the PNC only completed the rupture between the two. When the Syrian authorities confiscated Soviet arms shipments destined for Fatah, Yasser Arafat took still more initiatives which were resented in the Baathist republic as “provocations,” particularly efforts at rapprochement with Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, countries with which Syria is in conflict. That helps to understand the unnatural collusion between the Fatah bitter-enders and the government in Damascus, which is itself in favor of a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict. One must recall that President Asad adhered to resolutions 242 and 338 of the UN Security Council, before participating in the ephemeral Geneva peace conference, all the while negotiating, under American auspices, the partial withdrawal of Israel from the Golan.

The “maximalist” colonels chose to ignore these facts in establishing their secret contact with Damascus shortly after their evacuation from Beirut and from south Lebanon in August 1982. At first they thought the evacuation was a “shameful capitulation.” Later they saw it as more “treason” of Yasser Arafat, whom they held responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres because he had accepted the American guarantees on the security of Palestinian civilians after the departure of the fedayin. The rebels were ready to go into action beginning in November, waiting only for the “green light” from Damascus (and perhaps also from Tripoli), as well as a convenient pretext. This pretext was furnished by Yasser Arafat himself, who at the end of April unwisely named officers loyal to himself to key posts in the Bekaa.

This set the mechanism of the sedition in motion. At the beginning of May, President Asad “let himself be convinced” to give an audience to Yasser Arafat, surrounded by the main leaders of the resistance, with the aim of a “reconciliation.” The Damascus press published a front-page photo of the encounter and characterized it as “cordial” and “positive.” In fact, all the conflicts and disputes between the Baathist republic and the fedayin organization were put off “to be examined” by joint commissions. Three days later, the rebellion broke out in the Bekaa and widened, thanks to the help of the Syrian troops stationed there.

Yasser Arafat was once more the victim of the duplicity of most Arab states. As during the war in Lebanon, they chose to behave like broken-hearted but passive witnesses to the drama. A number of them hoped—along with the United States and Israel—that the PLO would be broken or at least neutralized. Others, more favorably disposed, tried to be mediators but, fearful of the anger of President Asad, didn’t exert any pressure.

The USSR started off by manifesting solidarity with Yasser Arafat, whom it called the “symbol of the resistance,” but the Soviets quickly retreated as soon as the Syrian head of state expressed his disapproval. Between the PLO and Syria, Moscow chose Syria because of the strategic role Damascus plays in the Israeli-Arab conflict. From then on, the Soviets were content to give advice to the two parties, asking them not to engage in a “marginal conflict” when Israel and “American imperialism” were preparing further major battles.

President Asad appeared to hesitate on the path to follow. Various factors must have influenced him not to burn all his bridges. The manifestations of support in favor of Yasser Arafat among Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the diaspora as well as the major fedayin organizations—the Popular Front of George Habash and the Democratic Front of Nayif Hawatma—showed clearly that beyond the legitimate reproaches that one could have towards the chairman of the PLO, Palestinian opinion considered the defense of the unity of the organization of the fedayin as a crucial and priority objective.

—Translated by Jim Paul

Postscript: At the beginning of August, a ceasefire between the rival PLO forces in the Bekaa broke down. Fighting continued throughout the month, until it was interrupted and overshadowed by the battles between the Lebanese army and the Druze militia forces in the Shouf mountains.

On September 17, Yasser Arafat returned to Tripoli and Lebanon for the first time since he was expelled from Damascus in late June. He struck a triumphant pose, asking rhetorically at a large rally of his supporters, “Where is Begin? Where is Sharon? Where is Haig? Where is the Palestinian revolution?” On September 23, Syria ordered Fatah loyalists out of Ta’alabaya, near the Beirut-Damascus highway, one of the last Arafat positions in the Bekaa. This was the first sizable and direct armed intervention by Syrian troops in the Fatah dispute. While this move seemed to be in response to Arafat’s return to Tripoli, it was probably also related to negotiations between Damascus and Washington which led to a ceasefire in the Lebanese fighting on September 26. Syria also pulled back the forces of Abu Musa at this juncture. The Arafat fighters were force-marched by the Syrian troops to a vulnerable position near Hermel, where the Syrians encircled them for several days. They finally reached Tripoli on September 30; it seems likely that the Syrians allowed them to make their escape from Hermel.

In the following days, Syria began to tighten its military noose around Tripoli and the two camps just to the north, Baddawi and Nahr al-Barid. Washington hinted some satisfaction with these developments, apparently on the assumption that Israel would modify its demands on the Lebanese government to the extent that Syria could bring the PLO under its control. At the end of the first week of October, Arafat said he expected a Syrian military siege of his remaining positions and issued a “call for a resumption of the dialogue with Jordan at all levels.” On October 12, Fatah rebel forces staged an armed takeover of the Damascus offices of the Arafat loyalists. Observers saw this as a “message” to the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, which had maintained public positions of critical support for Arafat. Abu Iyad, in Kuwait, predicted that Syria would try to replace Arafat with Khalid al-Fahum, the head of the Palestine National Council and currently resident in Damascus. On October 16, a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee in Kuwait declared its full support for Arafat.

From mid-September to the beginning of November, amid skirmishes and maneuvers, Arafat consolidated his forces’ control of Tripoli, with the assistance of the local Islamic Unity Movement. On November 3, Syrian-backed Palestinian forces launched heavy artillery attacks on the Palestinian refugee camps of Baddawi and Nahr al-Barid. After several days, Nahr al-Barid fell to the attackers. According to Arafat and Abu Jihad in Tripoli, the forces ranged against them included one and a half Syrian divisions and six battalions of the Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Army, as well as the forces of Abu Musa and the Popular Front-General Command (the latter reportedly supplied with new tanks from Libya). An uneasy ceasefire brokered by the Gulf foreign ministers was declared on November 9, but varying degrees of sporadic and intense shelling and fighting broke out over the following week. On the morning of November 15, the Fatah rebels opened a new offensive and took much of Baddawi camp the next day. At a press conference in his Tripoli headquarters, on November 17, Arafat declared that “the camp has fallen to the rebels but we will continue to fight to the end…. We have no other choice.” The rebels, for their part, issued a new call for Arafat’s surrender. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated at least 350 dead and 800 wounded in these battles, most of these civilian.

Joe Stork

How to cite this article:

Eric Rouleau "The Mutiny Against Arafat," Middle East Report 119 (November/December 1983).

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