Eqbal Ahmad, a close observer of the Palestinian resistance movement since 1968, has made many visits to the region and conferred with Palestinian leaders. His involvement developed out of his speaking and writing on behalf of the national liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam. Ahmad, who is from Pakistan, now lives in New York City and is a fellow of the Transnational Institute based in Amsterdam. Jim Paul and Joe Stork spoke with him in New York in October 1983.

Does the rebellion in Fatah offer any fresh possibilities in the PLO?

No. There is likely to be a change for the worse. The Abu Musa crowd strikes me as bereft of ideas and vision, and essentially bereft of organization because it lives there at the sufferance of Syria. This group has some genuine grievances against the PLO leadership, but has now become the cannon fodder of a government that has not served the Palestinians well.

I fear that some accomplishments of the old leadership would be undone by its new challengers. Under Fatah, and Arafat particularly, the PLO established for the Palestinians their right to self-representation. The PLO put the Palestinian question on the international agenda. In the diaspora and in the occupied territories, Palestinian cultural, economic and political institutions have developed. With all this, the Palestinians have acquired a solid collective identity. These are not small gains.

What do these people have to offer the people of the occupied territories? One good thing that the PLO leadership had done, which this group of people is likely to undo: They may bring violence to the West Bank and Gaza. It will give the Israelis the excuses they are looking for to make life even more unbearable for the beleaguered Palestinians under occupation, to drive maximum numbers out of the occupied territories. And Syria will encourage it. Syria is itching to make a deal, an Israeli-Syrian condominium in a divided Lebanon, the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, and settlement of the Palestinian question with Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza. West Bank and Gaza cannot cease to be a major issue until half a million Arabs are moved out. If they move out to Jordan, Asad can also bring Hussein down and create a Palestinian state there.

Has Arafat responded adequately to all of this?

I saw Arafat last December. I said to him that the greatest risk lay in doing nothing. He should have made a tactical move on the Reagan plan. He should have started mending his fences faster than he has been able to do with Husni Mubarak of Egypt. But as time passed his options have narrowed. Once the rebellion occurred, he had one more chance. In June, Asad made the rather stupid move of expelling Arafat. A lot of support consolidated around him, and he should have struck then, decisively. As soon as he left Syria, he should have called an emergency meeting of the full PNC. The occasion demanded more than a perfunctory expression of support from a divided Executive Committee. He should have opened up a major debate, engaged in self-criticism like Castro in 1969 or Mao after the disaster of Kwangtze, and offered his resignation. If the majority didn’t accept his resignation, he should have asked them for a clear-cut program, a mandate which would link Palestinian strategic objectives with a realistic tactical outlook.

One of the principal complaints of the rebels has been the lack of democracy within the PLO.

There has been no lack of democracy in the PLO, if you compare it with any other revolutionary organization in the world. For somebody who has seen something of revolutionary organizations, it has been quite shocking how much autonomy and freedom from discipline these people have enjoyed.

But is freedom from discipline democracy?

In the sense that it produces a more decentralized organization. Also, the PNC has met fairly frequently, 16 times. The FLN met only one time during the Algerian war, in 1956. The second meeting was in Tripoli, 1962, on the eve of independence. In between, all the decisions concerning the Algerian revolution were made by a group of five or six leaders. The cadres obeyed and fought and died—one of every ten Algerians died—by the decisions taken by a group of no more than ten people at any one time. In Vietnam, with 30 years of revolution, there have been no more than six congresses of the Lao Dang Party. Sixteen times the PNC has met. They have discussed, they have talked, they have shouted, they have behaved like a liberal parliament. What has been lacking there is discipline and revolutionary politics, not democracy. Democracy was one of the good things the PLO has had.

What the rebels mean is that certain strings are attached to Arafat, concerning things such as recognition of the state of Israel. The fact that Arafat is not following the most strict interpretation of what’s laid down in the PNC, this is what they consider to be the lack of democracy.

The entire organization—leaders and cadre—specialized in the exercise of ambiguity. If you give your leaders ambiguous charges, they are going to exercise their right to interpretation. Arafat exercised this right very cautiously. The PNC passed a resolution, “We shall accept a state on any part.” Large numbers of people outside of the PLO, supporters of the PLO, interpreted it that way and urged Arafat to translate it into a clear-cut negotiating position. Personally, I argued on several occasions, including once at a lecture in Beirut, that the PLO has been entrapped in a rejectionist posture to its enemy’s benefit, that it should tactically pass the burden of rejectionism to its adversaries, that rejectionism is historically and theoretically alien to the revolutionary tradition. Two of the leaders of the Abu Musa group were present. No one challenged my position on either political or theoretical grounds.

The decision not to have a debate seemed quite broadly based.

The Palestinian liberation movement had kept its unity, until now, by avoiding confrontation on basic issues: conditions for recognition of Israel or non-recognition; relationships with the Arab governments; the negotiating position vis-à-vis the United States and vis-à-vis Israel; the actual strategy of struggle inside the West Bank and Gaza; and how to approach Israeli civil society. There is a second problem: In the absence of a consistent and functioning ideology, the movement derived its morale and sense of momentum from constant triumphalism, from claiming progress where there has been only a certain amount of motion, confusing small gains with major victories. The Lebanon war required a major debate: not merely why the defeat occurred, because I don’t think Lebanon was such a disaster for the PLO. It has been turned into one by the failure to exploit opportunities opened up by Lebanon. What the PLO actually lost in Lebanon was a set of illusions; now it is fighting over rehabilitating those illusions.

Didn’t Lebanon provide a certain autonomy vis-à-vis Arab governments?

In the south of Lebanon, the PLO as a military force was not capable of withstanding an attack of either Israel or Syria. Syria conveniently let the PLO occupy this buffer between itself and Israel. The PLO survived in Lebanon to the extent that the Syrians agreed to give them that autonomy and the Israelis “tolerated” it. Only some commonality of interests with Syria could give the PLO a semblance of real autonomy. Some PLO cadres and leaders, but not Arafat, believed such a commonality of interests between Syria and the PLO had developed after 1978.

To what extent was the 1975-1976 period a turning point, where the PLO decided to use southern Lebanon as a lever for gaining American pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories? This might explain the tendency to subordinate the interests of their Lebanese allies to the main goal of building up this Palestinian establishment.

This strikes me as a rather generous, though cynical, explanation of the PLO’s failure to build an alliance with the Lebanese. What happened was much more spontaneous. They didn’t have the discipline to restrain themselves, to share this power fully with their Lebanese counterpart, the foresight to know that they ought to put the Lebanese in charge of south Lebanon and keep themselves invisible, highly mobile, hard to pin down, difficult to destroy.

Was there any debate in the movement over this course?

Just the contrary. Things settled into place. Exercise of local power became its own raison d’etre. Supposing the PLO chose to make a bargaining chip out of the south of Lebanon: place its forces there, appoint commanders, bring in heavy arms, build the bases there. You would expect the PLO to announce an unambiguous program which would constitute the basis for negotiating with the Americans, the Israelis, the Jordanians. Instead, it implied a two-state solution, implied a de facto recognition of Israel, but dodged any opportunity to clarify its position. Thus, the PLO could not obtain American recognition, could not stop Sadat from going to Camp David, could not stop the Israelis from speeding the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. All the PLO’s major losses have occurred after it had built its emplacements in Lebanon. The Camp David accord, which I think is the biggest single disaster the Arabs have faced in a long time, occurred while the PLO was sitting in Lebanon. No, the decision to dig in in the south of Lebanon was not part of a strategy, but rather reflected an absence of strategic thinking.

What could they have done to prevent Camp David?

It’s hard to prevent friends from betraying you. They could have used a great many tactical ploys, and organized a major campaign in Egypt and outside. Camp David had been in the making since the Sinai and Golan agreements of 1974-1975. When the final steps were taken, the PLO remained trapped in a rejectionist posture and denied itself even the role of a spoiler. For example, when Anwar al-Sadat started his negotiations with the Israelis following Camp David, he informed the PLO to send a delegation about 24 hours before the actual meeting took place. The PLO did not send anybody. They should have sent two relatively unknown Palestinians to sit at the table. Yes, to negotiate with Israel. If you don’t negotiate with the enemy, with whom do you negotiate? The Israelis would have walked out, or Sadat would have to show his people that he was surrendering his commitments. Through their tactical inflexibility, the PLO took Sadat off the hook. This I argued with the Palestinian delegation in New York at that time, led by Farouq Qaddoumi: By merely adopting such a position they would create havoc in everybody’s ranks. The Palestinian responded that it was an interesting idea, but nothing happened.

The period following Camp David has been qualitatively different: increased settlements and land expropriation. The same is true of water. Two other key elements to communal life—leadership and culture—are under severe assault. From arrests, expulsion and intimidation of local leaders to closing schools and publications, the Israelis have gone at the sustaining elements of Palestinian life very systematically, with attention to detail. There is no Palestinian/Arab strategy that even remotely compares.

What might such a strategy consist of?

One must define priorities first, then a program to achieve them, and an organization complex and disciplined enough to carry them out. In the Palestinian-Zionist confrontation the most decisive question has been who controls the land. The Zionists started from scratch, gradually wresting the land and implanting themselves organizationally. Second, you must out-administer the enemy before you can outfight him. This is a political, not a military undertaking, and is the essence of revolutionary struggle. Third, the demographic factor is crucial. Had the large majority of Palestinians not been driven out in 1948 from what became Israel, the balance of forces in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation would be quite different today. The PLO must mobilize its best resources to stop Palestinian emigration from, and Zionist immigration, particularly Russian Jewish immigration, into Palestine-Israel. Fourth, mobilization of international support and moral isolation of the enemy is fundamental to psychologically and materially weakening the enemy. This involves addressing not so much the governments but the civil societies in the adversary’s strongholds, in this case the Israeli and American public. Fifth, one must secure one’s own flanks, which for the Palestinians have been the Arab states, a rather sorry lot. Sixth, and last, comes military organization.

Given the extremely detailed and attentive ways in which the Israelis have disrupted any kind of Palestinian political activity, aren’t we raising matters that these people are simply unable to address?

The PLO has not given central attention to protecting the elements of life in the West Bank and Gaza. It expended much more energy on Lebanon, on organizing its military forces, and on building a large bureaucracy spread out throughout the world which relates primarily to state power and not to civil societies.

Suppose the PLO had built a program and organization translating the premises of revolutionary theory to the Palestinian case. Lebanon would have been avoided. It was the only liberation movement which fought a war of position, while the incumbent fought a war of movement, both militarily and politically. The PLO should have concentrated on developing the most militant tactics of nonviolent struggle in the West Bank and Gaza rather than large but indefensible military emplacements in Lebanon or Jordan. Or take the diplomatic posture. What is it, apart from Syria, that prevents the PLO from creatively bouncing the ball back to Reagan’s court—King Hussein being the ball? The Reagan plan was the first time that the Israelis adopted a posture of rejectionism.

What about the 1950s, when the US proposed security guarantees for Israel in exchange for peace, or the US-Soviet communique in 1977?

Then the Israelis would kill an initiative without engaging in open acts of rejectionism. They would drag their feet, find faults in a proposal, blame the Arabs for not doing this or that. The Israelis in effect rejected [UN Security Council Resolution] 242 from the start. They have violated every precept of it. But they did it without a formal rejection.

In this instance, Arafat could announce that he has given Hussein permission to negotiate on the basis of the Reagan plan, provided three things happen: 1) the Israelis pull out of Lebanon; 2) the Israelis commit themselves to freeze all settlement activities; and 3) the US spells out more clearly its conception of a Palestinian homeland in the Reagan plan. You take these elements from the Reagan plan and say: these are our conditions. If they are fulfilled, we will be willing to let Hussein talk. This would sharpen tension between the US and Israel; it would further isolate Israel at the international level; and it would sharpen divisions inside Israel and the Jewish community here. The PLO was unable to take that step, despite the fact that it entailed some tactical gains and, as far as I can see, no strategic losses. Yes, it might have divided the PLO, but the split occurred anyway. In the occupied territories, I think it would have produced a different, healthier dynamic. I don’t believe the PLO has considered fully that the battle for the liberation of Palestine will be won or lost in the West Bank and Gaza.

Has the experience of the PLO in mobilizing the West Bank and Gaza for armed struggle affected its outlook?

I don’t think they seriously tried to organize those populations around armed struggle. This would have been a grave mistake. The basic premise of armed struggle is that the relationship of the armed guerrilla to the population is that of fish to water. What do you do with an incumbent that is waiting to drain the water? The Israelis have no interest in subjugating the Palestinian population and every interest in eliminating it. The price the local population was paying was expulsion. The PLO was reduced to carrying on armed struggle through commando raids. By 1975, that too proved to be very difficult. What is striking is that, having learned that lesson from 1967-1975, the PLO did not pause to say: this doesn’t work. The fixation with the idea of armed struggle as the only revolutionary form is largely responsible for many of the PLO’s problems. This, along with meeting the material needs of the Palestinian masses in the camps, fostered the development of the PLO as a quasi-state. They had everyday contact with the Palestinians of the disapora, not with those of the West Bank and Gaza. Hence, what should have been their primary concern remained a secondary one.

What would be an alternative strategy?

Highly organized, militant, non-violent struggle in the West Bank and Gaza. The roads should be clogged with people lying down, offices blocked with hunger strikers. In 1968-1969, I argued that large marches should be organized into the West Bank and Gaza. Return home. When old men or women die in refugee camps, they wish to be buried in their ancestral villages. Funeral processions should move across the frontiers into Israel. The symbols of exodus must be reversed. A liberation movement seeks to expose the basic contradictions of the adversarial society. Israel seeks legitimacy as the haven of a long-persecuted people, but it is founded on and still expands at another people’s cost. There is a schizophrenic character to Israel’s political and cultural life which every Israeli knows at some level. This tension must be forced into the open. Such systematic and persistent political agitation from outside and inside will also solidify the morale and organization of the people under occupation and the Israeli peace forces.

Since 1973, there’s been a definite shift, retaining all the invocations of armed struggle but emphasizing a diplomatic solution. It hasn’t been accompanied by this kind of mobilization. I doubt if it’s just because these ideas have never occurred to PLO leaders.

The Palestinian left, like the rest of the left in the Middle East, has its political mind completely rooted in the past. Revolutionary warfare involves the transference of the methods of guerrilla warfare in the military domain into the political and diplomatic domain: surprising the enemy, showing a high degree of mobility, not only militarily but politically. You ambush the enemy politically, administratively, and diplomatically, not merely militarily. The left expressed itself almost entirely in military terms. To them, a revolution was an imitation of Mao and Giap and Ho Chi Minh, as these great revolutionaries were interpreted by the Western media and insurgency experts. When the left is small, at least it can give the center its edge. The Democratic Popular Front did that when it first announced the democratic and secular program.

Every revolutionary struggle aims to isolate the incumbent morally—not only in the eyes of your own people, but in the eyes of the incumbent’s constituency and the world at large. The Palestinian left’s rhetoric isolated itself rather than the enemy. The one time that Israel began to suffer from its own contradictions was the Lebanon war. The contradictions of Israeli society emerged out of Israel’s aggression against the PLO. Zionist ideology has been extremely successful in mobilizing the collective fear of the Jewish people. Any successful Palestinian strategy must calm the collective fears of this people. The rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership did just the opposite. The strategy you use should be one that constantly faces them with their own contradictions.

Has the Palestinian left not thought in these terms?

The Palestinian left did not study seriously the principles of revolutionary warfare, and then apply those principles to the specific, objective conditions of the Palestinian people and its enemy, Israel. Also, the Palestinians have been subject to the influence of Arab radical nationalist ideology. Like radical nationalism elsewhere, this is a product of the post-colonial state. As a popular cause in an ideologically declining movement, the Palestinians were the most easily available instrument of legitimation for the regimes whose legitimacy was coming into question.

We’re taking about a failure of the Arab left, not just the Palestinian left. This became the most visible armed struggle in history. In 1969, I asked at the annual convention of the Organization of Arab Students in the US if any of them could name the secretary-general of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. This was at the height of the Vietnam war, the Tet offensive. Then I asked who could identify Ramadan Abban. Nobody in that audience of educated Arabs could identify Ramadan Abban. (He was the political commissar who gave to the Algerian FLN its organizational structure.) Then I said, the reason you do not know is that their names have rarely appeared in newspapers, and their photographs never until now. The Palestinian revolution is not yet a year old, and twice Arafat has already appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Abu ‘Ammar is a major personality; you want to put him out there for publicity? Fine. But everybody knows every member of your central committee: their photographs are published, along with their names and their noms de guerre. From the beginning, this organization broke the one basic principle of revolutionary warfare—anonymity. With it comes visible, quasi-state structures. Clandestinity yields a certain kind of flexibility and absence of hierarchy. If you’re not visible, you can’t be very bureaucratic. Conditions of clandestinity force a constant reexamination of premises, constant questioning of the degree of safety that the environment provides you. You cannot take anything for granted. The PLO was the first guerrilla organization that denied itself the imperatives and dynamics of clandestinity.

Other liberation movements seem to have had centers of gravity more to the left, more revolutionary in the classical sense, than the Palestinian movement.

The Vietnamese and the Chinese movements, of course, were leftist. But the Algerian leftist leadership was wiped out by 1958. They took the largest number of casualties; and following the deaths of Abban and Larbi Ben M’hidi, the left had no major supporter in the revolution. The most successful leader of the Algerian revolution, one who in many ways set the style of the revolution, was Belkasem Krim, and he was indistinguishable ideologically from Yasser Arafat. He carried out some of the greatest guerrilla victories ever recorded in history. Krim will be rated with Giap of Vietnam, and possibly Chen of China, as one of the three greatest strategists of armed struggle in the twentieth century. Or take the Cypriot movement, which was right-wing. Grivas was absolutely competent as a guerrilla leader—diplomatically smart, politically astute, strategically and tactically fine. He fought a damn good battle against the British. Take a third example—the Zionists themselves. They too were damn good. Principles of revolutionary warfare developed historically from the left, but there is no direct relationship between strategic and tactical efficiency and political astuteness on the one hand and being leftist.

You have mentioned Algeria. Do you see the battle of Algiers and the battle of Beirut as similar turning points?

I take it the battle of Algiers represented a certain turning point in the history of that struggle. Yes, in two respects. In the battle of Algiers the Algerians violated some basic principles of revolutionary warfare. Take only one example that you would remember from the movie, The Battle of Algiers, they should never have called the general strike. In armed struggles, the majority of the civilian population covertly supports the revolution and overtly remains neutral. To the extent that the civilian population becomes identified as supporting the guerrilla, they become targets of collective punishment. To avoid that, and thus to maintain the invisibility of the revolutionary structure, guerrillas try not to make their civilian support visible except in the base areas. And base areas became an outdated concept, following the deployment of helicopters, first in Algeria and then in Vietnam. By calling the general strike, the Algerians provided the French a framework within which massive torture could be used to glean out FLN cadres and also to cow the population as a whole.

The battle of Algiers meant several things. The leadership had to move out to Tunis. From 1958 onwards, this gave the Algerian revolution its most harmful character—a leadership in exile, cut off from the grass roots in the countryside and in Algiers. That was the beginning of a conventional formation in Algeria, the bureaucratization of the Algerian revolution. But the Algerian revolution became undefeatable after the battle of Algiers for a different reason: the French did so much killing, were so brutal, that they completely lost their moral standing in Algerian eyes.

What about in French eyes?

Yes, also with the French masses. But we have so far assumed that the colonial system had no legitimacy in the colonies. It’s a wrong assumption. Most colonial systems were more legitimate at their zenith than the present post-colonial states in the Arab and Muslim countries. The British at their zenith were more legitimate than Pakistan’s Gen. Zia ul Haq today. They had connected themselves to certain old social classes, and industrialization had not yet taken its full toll.

Beirut has for the first time produced a large Israeli constituency which recognizes Palestinian rights and wants peace. The same is true of Jews in the diaspora. It has definitely created a more serious climate of moral isolation for Israel than before. For what it may be worth, it gave the PLO a chance to start all over again. In that sense, the war in Lebanon was more comparable to the rout of Mao Tse-Tung in Kwangtze than to the FLN losses in the battle of Algiers.

What is the best the Palestinian leadership can make of their situation?

The immediate issues right now are the cohesion of the leadership and the PLO’s reorganization. All progressive Palestinians and their friends should expressly and visibly criticize the Syrian-supported splinters, and urge a PNC meeting. Only from such a meeting can a new direction emerge democratically and validly. Second, for the first time since 1968, the PLO’s guerrilla attacks on the Israeli armed forces can serve a viable purpose. These attacks should be limited to Lebanon, where the Israelis are in a vulnerable position militarily and politically. Unlike the West Bank, in Lebanon Israel is subject to the logic of protracted war. This will require much political preparation in Lebanon. Third, ways must be found to mount public pressures on Egypt to renounce the Camp David accords, on the grounds that Israel’s settlement policies have made it a scrap of paper.

But these are details. I believe the major move of the PLO should be to get rid of its programmatic ambiguity. Whatever conditions they want to attach—just get rid of the fraud about recognition. It is a fraud that helped only the Israelis and Americans. I don’t believe the Palestinians in the diaspora—in Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf, and the Western world—are committed to a rejectionist posture. It is still attractive only because no alternative is offered satisfying to a dispossessed people. Those in the West Bank and Gaza, I think, are very keen to have the yoke of Israeli occupation lifted. They want their land, they want their children at home, in schools. The constituency in Israel, to the extent that it’s a PLO constituency, will accept a two-state solution. It is likely that a two-state program shall not produce two states, especially if the Palestinians and Arabs adopt a position that is tactically flexible and strategically consistent, because the Israelis are intransigent. But if a two-state line is systematically pursued by the Arabs and does not yield an independent Palestinian state, then it will yield a binational state out of Palestine, an outcome which shall prove historically favorable to the Palestinians.

Under this pressure, the Israeli government will find itself pushed to annex the West Bank and Gaza. Let them. The difference between annexation and non-annexation is completely formal. The most important thing would be to prevent an unorganized, spontaneous Palestinian uprising of which the Israelis can take good advantage. That would be the only thing to worry about. Israeli politics will split much more severely; its contradictions within, and with the US, will sharpen if annexation comes under those circumstances.

There is no trump card. The card that Abu ‘Ammar has talked about as the last card is a joker. Since 1977, in every meeting with Arafat and with others, I have said very bluntly, this is one thing that you’ve got to do. Harden your conditions, if you wish, but say those four words: “We shall recognize Israel.” And give your conditions.

Do you really think that the Palestinians in Lebanon will support this?

Yes. Over the last four years, as the PLO has consistently edged towards a two-state solution, there haven’t been any demonstrations. The objections have been only on the leadership level. Syria has objected, but not the people of Palestine. Yes, they want to know what they are getting out of recognition—it’s a function of the political leadership to convince people that what is being done is the right course. The present line has been created by rhetoric. I don’t think the cadres are at all a stumbling block. The stumbling blocks are the pluralism of the PLO and the machinations of Arab states. Arafat knows that some groups will oppose recognition. Syria, Iraq and Libya will support these groups. Israel will reject it anyway. Arafat will be murdered by one of the opposing groups, or by Israeli agents, and then he will be remembered as a traitor. This has been the nightmare of Yasser Arafat.

How to cite this article:

Eqbal Ahmad "Yasser Arafat’s Nightmare," Middle East Report 119 (November/December 1983).
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