The current situation of the Palestinian people appears grim today. But it is revealing to compare it with the situation of 20 years ago, in the wake of the June War. For while many of the problems the Palestinians face today date back at least to that cataclysmic event, other problems were undreamed of in 1967. There have been a number of fundamental changes which enable us to place these two decades in proper perspective and to appraise both the achievements and the setbacks of the Palestinian national movement, headed by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Some basic problems today are essentially similar to those of 1967. Dominant elements of the Israeli establishment still reject the proposition that the Palestinians are a people who have the inalienable right of self-determination in their own homeland, and the right to return to it. The United States sustains and makes possible this rejection. Limited but significant in 1967, since then US aid to Israel has grown lavish and unstinting. Palestinian relations with the Arab regimes are at least as difficult and debilitating today as they were two decades ago.

The new problems are legion. Some stem from the 1967 occupation of the remainder of Palestine, and the expulsion of additional thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. Once Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, and thereby terminated their former Jordanian and Egyptian administrations, the fate of the people and the land became the responsibility of the Palestinians themselves. The 1974 Rabat Arab summit formally consecrated this new reality when it recognized the PLO as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Other new problems, particularly those with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, have been largely a function of the PLO's prominence and actions in the years after 1967. The PLO paid the price in inter-Arab terms before 1974 for its opposition to settlement efforts like the Rogers Plan based on Security Council Resolution 242, and its insistence on the total liberation of all of Palestine. After 1974, it came under fire for insisting on an independent Palestinian voice in the settlement process, and for being ready to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Structural Changes

These important political changes of the last two decades have been examined in detail elsewhere. [1] There have also been less obvious structural changes affecting the Palestinians over this period, and these comprise the focus of this article. Perhaps the most outstanding transformation is that now the term “Palestinian people” sounds normal and natural. Today only a lunatic fringe contests the existence of the Palestinian people. In 1967, the adjective Palestinian, if used at all, served primarily as a modifier for “refugees”. This was the context in which the Palestinians were best known. Golda Meir’s 1968 statement that “there are no Palestinians” set the tone for two decades of ideological war against the Palestinian people. Today the norm is very nearly diametrically opposite.

It is not only in daily usage and in the press that the Palestinians have established themselves. In the fields of diplomacy and international law, there now exist alternate views of the core of the problem and prescriptions for dealing with it than those consecrated in Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967. This document, which refers to the Palestinians only in terms of “a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee question,” reflects the balance of power in 1967. The United States and Israel keep trying to push the clock back to this point. Since then there have been several General Assembly resolutions, notably GA 3236, and decisions by multilateral bodies ranging from the European Community to the Islamic and Non-Aligned Conferences, all of which treat the Palestinians as a people with a legitimate right of national self-determination.

The evolution of Palestinian goals over the past two decades positively affected this shift in international attitudes. These goals changed from the 1969 proposition of a “secular democratic state” in all of Palestine, implying the dissolution of Israel, to the 1974 provisional program call for a “national authority” in any part of Palestine liberated, implying a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This is still the PLO’s agenda today. The two states with the most power to affect regional outcomes, the United States and Israel, stubbornly refuse to acknowledge such shifts. Thus they refuse to modify Resolution 242 to bring it into line with the international consensus. They refuse to consider a Palestinian state. But two decades ago they were able to muster widespread international support for their position. Today they are almost totally isolated in this regard.

A precondition for any achievements on the levels of international legality and world public opinion was that the Palestinians change the image of themselves as refugees. In the self-contained world of the American media, the Palestinians seem to have only exchanged the pitiful image of refugee for the sinister one of “terrorist.” Yet this testifies to an important achievement: wholesale mobilization of Palestinians and a radical change in the Palestinian self-view over the past two decades.

The only comparable change over this period, with the same fundamental implications for the nature of the conflict, has been that within Israel. There, profound and sustained questioning of some of the basic ideological tenets of the Zionist enterprise has grown in intensity, particularly since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. For the first time, individuals are refusing to serve in the occupied territories and in Lebanon. A revisionist scholarship has shattered some of the sanctified myths of Israeli history. Prominent Israelis persistently and publicly question the wisdom of holding on to the occupied territories.

No Longer Refugees

The changes among the Palestinians have been more far-reaching, however. They have been going on for longer, and they are rooted in a remarkable set of socioeconomic transformations.

One reason the Palestinians have ceased to see themselves as refugees is that in a technical sense most of them no longer are. Today less than one in five Palestinians lives in a refugee camp, as against over half in the years from 1948 to 1967. A large majority of Palestinians still fall into the existential category of exiles, best explored by Edward Said’s After the Last Sky. This applies to about two thirds of the 4-5 million Palestinians: those in exile from their homeland and those in a sort of “internal exile” from their homes and villages, living in camps and towns within their native land. This demographic shift over the past two decades, whereby most Palestinians have ceased to live in refugee camps, has gone largely unnoticed. According to 1986 UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) figures, of the 800,000 Palestinians still living in camps, nearly half are in the occupied territories and the rest in surrounding Arab countries. Many other Palestinians still receive UNRWA benefits, such as education, but they live outside the camps, in cities, suburbs, towns and villages.

This shift is a function of many things. The oil-induced regional economic prosperity of the past two decades enabled many Palestinians, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, to move out of the camps. It is also a function of a powerful drive for upward mobility, linked to a thirst for education, which has turned the Palestinians, along with the Lebanese, into the most literate and highly educated of Arab peoples. This in turn has enabled them to play a key role in the vast migration of skilled labor which has transformed the Arab world in recent years.

These transformations go back in time further than 1967. They are rooted in developments of earlier years, such as the expansion of education in Mandatory Palestine. By 1946, 45 percent of the Palestinian Arab school age population was in school. The spread of universal compulsory education after 1949, thanks in large measure to the free schooling provided by UNRWA, led to near universal literacy among Palestinians by the 1980s.

Another subtle process has helped to extend and expand these changes. This is what might be described as the melting pot effect. It, too, dates back before 1967, but intensified over the past two decades. Palestinians from the different countries of the diaspora (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Kuwait and the Gulf) and from the different zones of occupation (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Galilee and other Arab areas occupied in 1948), each with its highly disparate conditions, have been meeting, working, studying and intermarrying in places a great distance from their homeland. These include the workplaces in the labor-importing states of the Gulf and North Africa, the educational centers of Europe, North America, Cairo and (before 1982) Beirut, the scattered political, administrative, cultural, financial and military institutions of the PLO and its constituent groups, and the many private Palestinian institutions which have grown up over the past two decades.

As a result, many traditional barriers between regions and villages and between city and countryside have broken down. Newer distinctions, relating to the the different regimes under which Palestinians have lived since 1948, have eroded as well. Jerusalem or Hebron or Gaza accents still retain their distinctness, and class differences have shifted and perhaps even grown. Yet processes which were in a certain sense organic, uncontrolled and unintended have forged something of a unified political culture. Palestinians in the diaspora were drawn to one another by their shared experiences; the troubles they faced in their sometimes hostile new environments further reinforced the bonds between them.

Constructing Nationalism

These processes were already underway in the 1950s and 1960s. The oil boom of the 1970s accelerated them with the greater mobility it introduced into the whole region. This made it possible for the Palestinian guerrilla groups which took over the PLO in 1968 to reconstruct the edifice of Palestinian nationalism swiftly and successfully over the past two decades.

Day-to-day developments have perhaps obscured another set of underlying changes since 1967 relating to the form and content of Palestinian nationalism. Unlike the socioeconomic and demographic transformations, these changes were very much subjectively determined and were, by and large, the result of active organizing and mobilizing by Palestinian leaders and groups. We can best appreciate them by comparing the current situation of the Palestinians on the ideological level with that of 20 years ago.

The Palestinians have never been more at one, in terms of their self-view, than they are today. True, there exist persistent physical divisions, disparate conditions in the different countries of residence and zones of occupation. And severe political differences which sundered the PLO after the 1982 war still persist. Yet there exists today a strong sense of mutual interdependence and of loyalty to a unified set of symbols and concepts which was lacking in 1967.

At the time of the June war, Palestinian patriotism existed on a wide scale. Indeed, this powerful current had already frightened the Arab regimes into setting up the PLO in 1964 as a means of preempting, channeling and ultimately controlling the radical force of Palestinian irredentism. But this patriotic current existed mainly underground and it was deeply divided. Many Palestinians were still involved in the transnational movements which had engaged them in the wake of the catastrophe of 1948. They were active in the Baath, Communist, and Syrian Social Nationalist parties, in the Arab Nationalist Movement and other Nasserist bodies, in the Muslim Brothers, the Islamic Liberation Party and other Islamic groupings, and in other radical, anti-regime formations. All these groups had held out to the Palestinians the promise of revolutionizing the rotten Arab structure which had contributed to the defeat of 1948.

In 1967, although Palestinian patriotism was undoubtedly the motivating force of most Palestinian political activists, only a minority of them were involved in Palestinian nationalist organizations. The success of Fatah even before 1967, a success out of all proportion to its numbers or real strength, indicated that this was already changing.

But it was well after 1967 that the major changes took place, among people who had been powerless, divided and disorganized for decades, who had been badly led by an autocratic and traditional elite. They had to be convinced that they could affect their situation, that they could take their future into their hands, and that they could not depend on Nasser or the Arab armies or some other external savior. They had to develop an entirely new image of themselves more dynamic than that of refugee.


The first step on the long road to a new self-image was the establishment of a measure of self-rule for the Palestinian camp populations of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan after 1967. This process was reversed in Jordan in 1970-1971 as a result of Black September, and was severely limited in Syria following the November 1970 rise to power of Hafiz al-Asad, but it continued in Lebanon. There the issue of the autonomy of the camps continues to be at the core of the ongoing conflict involving the Palestinians. The effects of this autonomy, even after it was ended or limited, lingered on elsewhere, providing Palestinians for the first time in decades with a sometimes vicarious sense of empowerment and autonomy. Even Palestinians living at a distance from Lebanon were deeply moved as they saw the Palestinian flag, Palestinian fighters and Palestinian institutions resisting overwhelming odds in Lebanon.

Taking up arms against the Israeli occupation gave a further impetus to these same processes of empowerment and autonomy. From the perspective of over 20 years, the strategy of armed struggle had far more impact on the Palestinians themselves than on its intended target, Israel, where the impact has been at best mixed. At an early stage, immediately after 1967, armed struggle seemed to turn the Palestinians nearly overnight into the vanguard of the Arab struggle against Israel. It helped restore a sense of dignity to a people whose self-respect had been demolished by their expulsion by Israel and subsequent suppression by the Arab regimes. This change often bred a certain arrogance, for which Palestinians were to pay dearly in Jordan and then in Lebanon. Nevertheless, a vital and positive transformation occurred.

It is possible to exaggerate the impact of the gun, the symbol of the resistance, and the empowerment which it seems to represent. Important though it was (and still is in the Hobbesian universe of Lebanon), the gun is probably less important today, symbolically and actually, than it has been in the two decades just past. Under occupation, the priority has become steadfastness. This has meant building organizations and institutions as a means of enabling people to remain on the land and in their villages, towns and cities. Various forms of resistance, ranging from passive and non-violent to demonstrations and armed, attacks, are all still crucial weapons in the Palestinian arsenal against the military occupation, the settler vigilantes and their daily routine of violence and brutality. Unlike the practice of resistance in 1967-1970, armed attacks today form part of an extensive range of tactics against occupation.

In practice Palestinians can and do carry weapons freely only in Lebanon, in spite of the fearsome restraints on them even there. Elsewhere this is not possible. It is primarily political organizing and mobilizing, building of cultural bonds, maintaining social and health care institutions and tireless diplomatic maneuvering between the various Arab regimes which enable Palestinians in exile to expand their autonomy and strengthen the bonds between them and those under occupation.

The Impact of Lebanon

The exception of Lebanon deserves attention. For what goes on in Lebanon has an impact far beyond its effect on the 400,000 or more Palestinians living there. Lebanon is significant in the broader arena of Palestinian politics because the core of the modern Palestinian national movement was based there for 12 of the last 20 years. The names Sabra and Shatila, like Tall al-Za‘tar before it, have acquired a powerful resonance in the Palestinian political vocabulary.

No leadership which aspires to direct the fortunes of the Palestinian people can afford to ignore what happens to the Palestinians in Lebanon. The covers, editorials, and lead articles of the three main Palestinian weeklies, Filastin al-Thawra, al-Hadaf and al-Hurriyya, as well as others like al-Yawm al-Sabi‘ or al-Bayadir al-Siyasi, over much of the past eight months, exhibit an overwhelming preoccupation with the situation in the campsin Lebanon. The families and relatives of so many of the leaders, cadres, office workers, bureaucrats and combatants who make up the PLO still live in Lebanon, in the camps and districts which are daily in those headlines.

The significance of this fact can be gauged from the rapid demise of the political challenge posed by the Damascus-based factions of the PLO over the past two years. This demise occurred in spite of the simultaneous collapse of Yasser Arafat’s “Jordanian option.” For most Palestinians, the alignment of these factions with Syria is hard to reconcile with the fact that Syrian allies and proxies have waged a barbaric siege of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Even the barrenness of the PLO leadership’s diplomatic approach since 1982 has not increased the popularity among Palestinians of their rivals based in Damascus. The “war of the camps” of 1985-1987 has overshadowed the bitter wrangling over the “Jordanian option,” the 1985 Amman accord, and the “Syrian option” chosen by some groups. In the end, this forced both sides towards a united stance in spite of their political differences. This was symbolized by the name given to the 18th Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers in April 1987: “Session of the Steadfastness of the Camps and the Masses of the Occupied Territories.”

Lebanon’s significance for the entire Palestinian political arena is evident from the boost that the PLO’s defense of the camps over the winter of 1986-1987 gave to Palestinian nationalism in the occupied territories. This period has witnessed intense agitation in the West Bank and Gaza in solidarity with the Palestinians in the camps of Lebanon. Similarly, the steadfastness of Sabra, Shatila, Rashidiyya, and the Sidon camps has improved marginally the PLO’s situation in the Arab world. It seems to have had an impact on the successful negotiations this spring between the PLO and the Kuwaiti government on conditions of residence for Palestinians in Kuwait. The United Arab Emirates recently agreed to host the headquarters of the Palestine National Fund, and PLO relations with Tunisia, Libya and Algeria have shown marked improvement of late.

Lebanon is the last “front,” aside from the occupied territories, in the hot war with Israel. Since 1982, the fighters on that front have been primarily Lebanese. Their main aim has been to eliminate the Israeli occupation zone (the so-called security zone). This resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil, which has been remarkably successful so far, is probably no more than a tactical ally of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. The most active elements of the Lebanese resistance, such as Hizballah, are committed at least rhetorically to the liberation of all of Palestine, not just the West Bank and Gaza which have been the focus of the PLO’s provisional program since 1974. The PLO’s “pragmatism” over the past 13 years may separate it from Hizballah and its patron, Iran, who for now are aligned with the Palestinians against Amal and against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

How this entire issue is resolved will have important consequences for Lebanon and the region as well as for the Palestinians. In Lebanese terms, it will have an impact on the struggle for supremacy within the Shi‘i community, and thus on Lebanon’s future orientation. On the regional level, it will help to determine the place, timing and nature of the next Arab-Israeli war, and many of the sparring actions of Syria and Israel. On the Palestinian level, it will strongly influence not only the nature and course of the PLO’s leadership, but also the place of armed struggle within the Palestinian national movement.

The Palestinian Fabric

Irrespective of how this controversy works itself out, for Palestinians it will do so in a much different context than existed 20 years ago. It will be resolved in forums like the PNC and the influential General Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists (which this February in Algiers held its first general conference since 1982, bringing together all the important Palestinian factions). It will be debated in the Palestinian press, under occupation and in the diaspora, in PLO-run media, and the columns in Gulf papers written by Palestinians. It will be exposed in literary magazines published in Paris, Jerusalem and elsewhere. And it will be discussed in research institutes, scholarly societies and professional organizations formed by Palestinians both under occupation and outside.

All these forums enable political debate to engage the entire Palestinian people. They can address the same themes, ideas and problems in spite of dispersion or occupation. Thus newspapers under occupation, student groups in Kuwaiti universities, Palestinian-American bodies in the United States and refugees in camps have all been debating the same issues and have been moved by the same crises. Such a thing could not have happened on anything like the same scale or with the same universality 20 years ago.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon five years ago was intended above all else to disrupt permanently this web tying the Palestinians together as a people. The process of extending and strengthening these linkages has suffered only a slight interruption as a result of that invasion. The break in the continuity of PLO institutions as a result of the defeat and expulsion of 1982 was accentuated by the subsequent split in the movement. But now it is clear this was no more than a pause. In spite of their manifold failings, their bureaucratic inefficiency and their corruption, these institutions survived and still provide services to Palestinians throughout the region, supporting the steadfastness of those in the camps in Lebanon and those living under occupation, and playing a sometimes vital coordinating role.

Against the Future

Against these achievements of the past two decades, most of them growing naturally out of the socioeconomic and demographic transformation of the Palestinian people, what have been the major failures? In which direction will the Palestinian national movement head in the future?

The clearest failure resides in the fact that no part of Palestine has yet been liberated in spite of more than two decades of efforts and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives. Moreover, the Palestinian national movement has become deeply embroiled in distracting conflicts with parties other than Israel, from Lebanese factions to Arab regimes. It is hard to see precisely how these could have been avoided, given Israeli intransigence and Arab disarray. But one factor surely was the relative immaturity of the modern Palestinian national movement, particularly during its Jordanian and Lebanese phases.

A less obvious but perhaps more avoidable failure has been the PLO’s inability to decide on the basic strategy for changing the unfavorable balance of forces it confronts. Is this to be done by diplomatic maneuvering, by waiting or working for another war or a change in the Arab environment, or by attempting to affect the situation within Israel and the occupied territories? All of these have at different times seemed to be possible avenues to liberation. Which, if any, should be the primary vehicle to achieve Palestinian objectives?

While diplomacy is always necessary and sometimes vital, by itself it cannot change an unfavorable balance of forces. Yet the PLO leadership relied exclusively on this after the 1982 war when, from a relatively weak position, it entered into the now defunct understanding with Jordan. And much as the Palestinians (and many others) may devoutly wish for a change in the Arab world, their ability to accelerate such a change is limited at best. Even the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which in the 1960s preached Arab revolution as the means of liberating Palestine, seems grudgingly reconciled to the durability of the Arab status quo. This, at least, seems to be one message of George Habash’s recent tour of several Gulf states, whose rulers generally treated him as an honored guest. This leaves the situation in Israel and the occupied territories, where more can and should surely be done by the Palestinians themselves. It is vital to develop practical means of cooperating with anti-occupation forces in Israel, and ways to take advantage of the potential energies of the West Bank and Gaza work force inside Israel. Young Palestinians in the occupied territories need not just money but productive jobs if they are to remain in their homeland.

The processes of linking up dispersed segments of the Palestinian people, and of strengthening those under occupation, will continue irrespective of who leads the Palestinian movement and what strategy they adopt. That strategy will be determined mainly by two unpredictable factors. The first is a takeover of the leadership by a new generation, once it is in place and can offer a new approach.

This will depend on a second unpredictable factor: the disappearance of the Arab circumstances from which the current leaders emerged and to which they are most adept at responding. This change would have to be on the order of the previous earthquakes which revised the Palestinian and Arab political maps in modern times. The disaster of 1948 shattered the traditional Palestinian leadership finally and irrevocably, and pushed the old Arab ruling classes down the slope to their overthrow. The defeat of 1967 crippled and delegitimized the radical Arab nationalist regimes and vindicated Palestinian nationalism. These two events allowed the current generation of Palestinian leaders to dominate Palestinian politics. Any major change in the Arab world, even if not quite so dramatic as 1948 and 1967, would probably stimulate important shifts in Palestinian politics.

Part of any new generation which does emerge will probably come from occupied Palestine, where new forms of organization are already appearing. It will thus be more sensitive to potential allies within Israeli society, and to the vulnerabilities and strengths of a foe it knows at first hand. We can expect it to bemore subtle in its approach and strategy. It will be unlike the current leadership, which is located entirely in exile and knows its enemy primarily from being the target of Israeli bombing raids and assassination squads. Israel does have the capacity to retard this process by continuing to expel prominent Palestinian figures in the occupied territories. Clearly it is trying to ensure that the entire leadership of the Palestinian national movement will remain in exile. And some of the key political, organizational and diplomatic tasks necessary for management of this movement will need to be done by leaders in exile. Nevertheless, the growing weight within the national movement of Palestinians under occupation is inexorable, and has the potential for introducing qualitative changes into Palestinian politics.

There remain grave short-term problems for the current generation of leaders and their immediate successors. These include the prickly task of coordinating the sometimes disparate agendas of different segments of the Palestinian people, under occupation and in the diaspora, in the camps and in the cities, from the working class, the middle class and the big bourgeoisie. Another is changing the grossly unfavorable balance of forces and ensuring that the Palestinians are not dealt out of any new round of settlement talks. Most critically, it needs to impart a new sense of direction to a movement which has suffered from drift for many years. These are basic but daunting tasks.

Twenty years after 1967, it is clear that processes which have already transformed the Palestinians will have an even greater impact in the future. In 1949, Palestinian society comprised mainly poor, illiterate, rural refugees. Today the Palestinians display a much more complex and advanced social, economic, demographic and educational profile. Such political advances as have occurred have been the fruit of the efforts of a now-graying generation of Palestinian leaders. Their prime is surely past, but their contributions over this period, in the face of what were always daunting odds, should not be forgotten after they have been superseded by the new generation.

Even now that new generation stands in the wings. The leaders here are in the ranks of the militias in the camps of Lebanon, 25-year old veterans with 15 years of combat experience. The commander of the forces in Sabra and Shatila camps, for instance, killed by a shell in January 1987, was a lieutenant colonel in his late twenties. Other leaders will come from the young intellectuals and white-collar workers in Kuwait and the Gulf who have never seen their homeland, or from the student bodies of the universities of the West Bank who have known Israeli occupation for their entire lives.

Whatever this new Palestinian generation does with the national movement they will inherit in the 1990s, they will build on foundations laid in large part during the past two cruel decades. These include a dynamic, productive, educated population with a strong sense of peoplehood, and a set of structures, flawed but flexible, and still intact in spite of the efforts of a formidable array of enemies to destroy them. Their task in the coming decades will be to complete the project of liberation which their elders have left unfinished.


[1] See Rashid Khalidi, “Palestinian Politics After the Exodus from Beirut,” in Robert Freedman, ed., The Middle East After Camp David (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986); “Policymaking in the Palestinian Polity,” in Harold Saunders, ed., New Directions in Foreign Relations: The United States in a Changing Middle East (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, forthcoming); and “The PLO as Representative of the Palestinian People,” in R. Norton and M. Greenberg, eds., The International Relations of the PLO (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming). On the political background in Lebanon for these changes, see Rashid Khalidi, Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), ch. 1.

How to cite this article:

Rashid Khalidi "The Palestinians Twenty Years After," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

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