For many years, for many people, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict consisted primarily of the struggle between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, a struggle waged mainly outside of Palestine. The uprising in the Occupied Territories has firmly fixed the attention of the world on events within Palestine’s frontiers. While the Palestinians inside insist that they have no representative other than the PLO, that they are one with the PLO, they have also shown that they, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, are fully capable of leading the struggle against the occupation. This marks a new development in the dynamic of relations between Palestinians in the diaspora and those inside the Occupied Territories.

Since 1948, the leadership of the Palestinian national movement has been located outside of Palestine. Initially this was a function of the repressive nature of the Jordanian and Egyptian administrations of the West Bank and Gaza, and the somewhat more hospitable atmosphere of Cairo, Kuwait, Beirut and Damascus. After 1967, Israel simply took over the Jordanian secret police files and used them, generally against the same West Bank individuals, ensuring that the leadership of the Palestinian national movement would remain in exile. Israel’s subsequent expulsion of well over 1,200 prominent Palestinians, from religious figures and educators to union and student leaders and political activists, enormously hindered the development of an indigenous West Bank/Gaza Strip leadership, although many attempts to create one were made.

The uprising now shows that by expelling many traditional leaders, and by intimidating others, Israel created the conditions for a secret, underground, loose but apparently unified leadership structure to arise. By and large, these new leaders are graduates of Israel’s prison system — a major training ground for Palestinian revolutionary cadres. They are, as well, members and cadres in the major Palestinian political organizations. They mean it when they say that the PLO represents them.

They differ in several respects from both the traditional leaders in the Occupied Territories, whom they have now eclipsed, and the leadership of the PLO in exile. Firstly, they are much younger, and it is here that we are probably seeing the beginning of a changing of the guard which will sooner or later affect the rest of the Palestinian national movement. The shadowy Unified Leadership of the Uprising comprises people whose formative experiences postdate 1967, or even 1982. This makes them very different from the mayors, union leaders, journalists and other former spokesmen for the Occupied Territories, as well as from the leadership of the PLO outside. We are witnessing a change in outlook and mentality of considerable proportions.

Another difference has been the utterly clandestine way in which this new leadership has operated. Unlike the PLO, which has functioned as a state in all but name for the better part of two decades, the Unified Leadership has a perceptible presence only in its communiqués. Furthermore, its members seem to be interchangeable: the arrest of one person leads to immediate replacement by another representative of the group he or she represents. Operating by a rule of consensus, this leadership has nevertheless apparently managed to avoid paralyzing differences. This is helped by the fact that only the four main PLO groups — Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Communists — have a presence in the Occupied Territories. They, and in some localities representatives of the Muslim forces, are the only ones represented in the leadership. They are free of the nuisance of the small, alphabet-soup PLO groups which represent no one but the intelligence services of one or another Arab regime. This is a luxury the PLO living in the diaspora is not afforded.

Abu Jihad, Abu Sharif

Where does all this leave the PLO? Although the leadership outside Palestine was as surprised as everyone else by the outbreak of the uprising, it is deeply involved simply by virtue of the fact that its major constituent groups comprise the backbone of the popular movement. Moreover, it has supported the uprising materially and in other ways.

But Israel made too much of this when it sent commandos to Tunis to murder Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), a founding member of Fatah and the man responsible for PLO links with the Occupied Territories. The murder of Abu Jihad will probably have a limited impact on events in the Occupied Territories (the day after his death witnessed the highest casualty toll to date of the entire uprising). It will have a greater impact on the overall politics of the PLO, for Abu Jihad concerned himself with many matters other than the Occupied Territories. He played an instrumental role in the PLO’s relations with a number of Arab countries, including Jordan, Syria, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, and he was a key figure in the negotiations which ended the PLO split in early 1987. Moreover, Abu Jihad was Yasser Arafat’s most valued ally within Fatah and the PLO, notably in terms of political initiatives vis-à-vis Israel and the United States. His death removes the person closest to Arafat within the core leadership group, and increases the prominence of Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), who has often differed with Arafat regarding aspects of his diplomacy.

This new balance of forces was illustrated in the wake of the Algiers Arab summit. The PLO had succeeded in some measure in obtaining what it wanted at this emergency summit, called specifically to deal with the uprising. A strong communiqué supported the PLO as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and stressed that no peaceful settlement was possible in the region without the Palestinians achieving their legitimate national rights. Such declarations may seem routine, but at the Amman summit only a few months earlier these same kings and presidents called these principles into question. The PLO considered it vital to have them once again put on record. In the midst of this intense and generally successful diplomacy, Bassam Abu Sharif, Arafat’s press adviser, distributed a statement labeled “PLO View: Prospects of a Palestinian-Israeli Settlement” as part of an information packet handed out to foreign journalists. Abu Sharif had intended the document to appear in the Washington Post at the time of the Gorbachev-Reagan summit in late May, but the Post declined to publish it. The carefully crafted document mainly restated the PLO position for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, as codified in the last two sessions of the Palestine National Council (PNC). But it stressed what the PLO accepts rather than what it opposes. The major departure was to allow for UN-supervised elections in the territories to chose Palestinian representatives for negotiations.

The boycott in the US press was fairly complete: Only the progressive Chicago-based weekly In These Times published it in full. The New York Times reported its existence only a week later, in a story that headlined the opposition of Syrian-based Palestinian factions, and printed excerpts (with crucial omissions) on its op-ed page. A group of 15 leading American Jewish personalities praised it; a State Department spokesperson called it “constructive” but “not authoritative.” In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir dismissed it as “nothing new.” He was right, in his rejectionist way.

Inside the West Bank and Gaza, where many activists have been pressing the PLO to come out with a clear, unambiguous two-state formula, reaction was favorable. Faisal Husseini, whom the Israelis have charged with being the top Fatah person in the West Bank, wholeheartedly endorsed the statement, and no leading figure or group has come out against it.

Leaders of the Popular Front and the Democratic Front outside Palestine were critical of Abu Sharif’s call for elections as undermining the PLO’s claim to be sole legitimate representative. They also objected to their exclusion from the process of drafting and publicizing the statement, charging that it violated PNC understandings on collective responsibility. Abu Iyad, always sensitive to the impact of the PLO’s diplomatic initiatives on relations with Syria and on the internal balance between PLO groups, also claimed that it had gone beyond the PLO consensus. Farouq Qaddoumi said it represented Abu Sharif’s “private view” and “reflected the democracy of the organization.” Another Fatah Central Committee member, Khalid al-Hasan (Abu Sa‘id) countered with a statement which in some ways amplified the conciliatory tone of Abu Sharif.

Syria’s Game

The smaller, more extreme, and incidentally more Syrian-controlled groups, such as the PFLP-General Command, the Popular Struggle Front and the Fatah rebels of Abu Musa, condemned Abu Sharif s statement outright, saying that it reflected the “deviationist” policy of Arafat himself. No sooner had the Algiers summit ended than Abu Musa’s forces attacked the Beirut refugee camps held by the mainstream Fatah forces, the PFLP and the Democratic Front. Backed by Syria, which provided them with the ammunition and the artillery positions to bombard the camps, the Fatah rebels eventually overran Shatila on June 27 and turned their guns on Burj al-Barajna. More than 150 Palestinians were killed and nearly 600 wounded by the murderous shelling.

The bloodletting in their Beirut camps, at a time when the uprising continued with little letup, showed the paradox facing the Palestinian national movement in the twenty-second year of the occupation. To some extent the Beirut slaughter stemmed from Syria’s concern about the political balance in Lebanon as that country approaches presidential elections in September. The PLO’s de facto alliance with Hizballah and other anti-Syrian elements had earlier been a factor in the defeat of the Syrian-backed Amal militia for control of Beirut’s southern slums.

But PLO leaders are convinced that the major ingredient is Syria’s determination to wield decisive influence over PLO decision-making. Damascus wants to hold the “Palestinian card” to deliver to Washington itself. The uprising has raised the prospects for an international peace conference in which the PLO would be present. Abu Sharif’s statement, which had Arafat’s backing, was a clear effort to open negotiations with Washington, if not with Israel. Damascus fears an international settlement that would deal with the West Bank and Gaza but not the Golan. The Asad regime negotiates with Washington or even Israel whenever it sees some advantage, but has exploited Palestinian factionalism to prevent the PLO from doing the same.

The uprising had forced Damascus to ease up in its campaign against the PLO, allowing Abu Jihad to be buried in Damascus and even recognizing Arafat’s leadership through meetings between him and Asad in Damascus and at the Algiers Arab summit, but differences remained. Crucial was the Syrian demand that the PLO halt its approaches to Israeli peace forces (not to mention rumored meetings between PLO and Likud representatives) as one of its conditions for a complete reconciliation. It was just these sensitive issues which Abu Sharif s statement raised by calling for direct talks with Israel.

The PLO has had to face the challenge presented by the uprising, while simultaneously navigating the shark-infested waters of inter-Arab politics. Now it must respond as well to King Hussain’s renunciation of responsibility for the West Bank. It now appears that a special session of the PNC will convene in the coming weeks. This PNC will have to make weighty and possibly momentous decisions. These may include a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, the proclamation of a Palestinian government-in-exile and/or a request for a nascent Palestinian state to be placed under United Nations trusteeship. What the PLO must do is hit the ball which King Hussein has adroitly put into its court squarely into the court of Israel and the US, the perennial obstructors of a just settlement.

After 21 years of occupation, the uprising has provided the Palestinian national movement with a new impetus, and has invigorated the structures leading the struggle inside Palestine. But in the diaspora no such change has been possible. The uprising has yet to break up the frozen constellation of forces in the Arab world, although King Hussein’s recent moves may presage the beginning of change in this direction. However daunting the odds against the population under occupation and their new clandestine leadership may be, in some ways their situation is at least clearer and less complex than that facing their brethren in the diaspora, and the PLO which leads them.

How to cite this article:

Rashid Khalidi "The PLO and the Uprising," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

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