Maher Al-Sharif, Al-Shuyu‘iyun wa Qadaya al-Nidal al-Watani al-Rahin [The Communists and Issues in the Current National Struggle] (Damascus: Center for Socialist Research and Study in the Arab World, 1988).

The role of the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP) is one of the most important and least understood aspects of the intifada. When a member of the PCP Political Bureau was elected to a seat on the PLO Executive Committee at the 18th Palestine National Council (PNC) in April 1987, many interpreted it as a sign of Moscow’s role in the process of reuniting the Palestinian factions. But that is an insufficient explanation for the double “cultural revolution” this opening represents.

From the very beginning the PCP has supported the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside the state of Israel — strictly in accordance with the line of the international communist movement in support of the November 1947 United Nations partition plan. Moreover, the PCP has never been part of the consensus on armed struggle that served as the basis for revitalizing the PLO after 1967. For the first time, a purely political organization has joined the PLO Executive Committee on equal terms with the fada’in movements. Anyone familiar with the history of the PLO will appreciate the significance of this turning point. By overlooking or encompassing this double deviation, the PNC was recognizing the position the communists have earned in the national struggle.

The present situation is all the more remarkable when considered in the context of the Arab communist movement as a whole, which is experiencing its most serious crisis since the end of World War II. Never have the Arab communist parties been as fragmented or their influence so minimal as now. The Palestinian exception clearly merits a book. Maher al-Sharif, the author of several works on communism in pre-1948 Palestine and himself a member of the PCP, has written a study that fills the gap, although it concentrates primarily on the history of ideas as distinct from the political history. His stated purpose is to present the various positions of the party on the essential questions of the Palestinian struggle.

The PCP has its roots in the National Liberation League (NLL), which was born of the 1943 split in the Palestinian communist movement. [1] The NLL suffered the consequences of the 1948 Arab defeat more severely than any other nationalist force because of its support for the November 1947 UN partition plan. After the war there were three separate Palestinian Arab communist organizations. Part of the NLL fused with the new Israeli Communist Party, while the remaining members formed the Jordanian Communist Party (JCP) in the spring of 1951. The third group, the Palestinian Communist Party of Gaza (PCPG), was organized in the area under Egyptian control.

The question of the unity of Palestinian Communists remained dormant until the June 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of all of mandatory Palestine. From 1967 until 1973, differences between the fada’in organizations and the JCP as the main Palestinian communist organization centered on the political solution and the correct approach to liquidating “the consequences of the Israeli aggression of June 1967.” Key questions included whether or not to accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242; the role of armed struggle; the role of the Soviet Union; and the value of the alliance with ‘Abd al-Nasir, etc. [2]

In terms of supporters and cadres, the JCP’s field of influence consisted of the population on the West Bank of the Jordan River, while the Palestinian resistance recruited primarily in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and among Palestinians in the wider diaspora. For those on the West Bank, the implementation of Resolution 242 would mean the end of the occupation, but for those on the outside it offered no real change. Armed struggle was a mobilizing myth for the refugees, an opportunity to finally engage in action; but for the inhabitants of the West Bank, fada’in operations conducted from Jordan meant reprisals, arrests and collective punishment. This divergence was one of the reasons why the JCP took the positions it did, not against the principle of armed struggle but against its application inside the occupied territories. This stance also helped to preserve the underground communist organization in the West Bank when all the internal fada’in organizations were dismantled between 1967 and 1971. But the cost of JCP reticence toward fada’in action was its extremely weak influence among Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and the diaspora.

The rapprochement between the JCP and the PLO began after 1973, as the PLO evolved toward the search for a political solution and the JCP toward support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Acting through the Palestine National Front (created in the West Bank and Gaza in August 1973) the JCP pressed for the resolution in favor of a national authority on any part of liberated Palestine at the 12th Palestine National Council (PNC) in 1974. Similarly it pressed for the resolution in favor of an independent state at the 13th PNC in 1977. As early as February 1976 the JCP had unsuccessfully called on the PLO (which it recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people) to relinquish the idea of a state in all of historic Palestine.

Those political developments, along with the increasingly effective role that Palestinians on the inside were playing in the national struggle and the rapprochement between Moscow and Arafat, produced a different climate for Palestinian Communists. Several party members joined the PNC as independents. The Palestine National Front reflected the unity of action between the various PLO component groups and the Communists, a unity that was consolidated by the victory of pro-PLO candidates in the West Bank municipal elections of April 1976.

At the same time, there was growing uneasiness within Fatah circles in Beirut concerning the increasingly important place of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in PLO strategy, particularly after the 1978 Camp David agreements and subsequent attempts to implement the Sadat-Begin autonomy plan. The fada’in organizations, including Fatah, had all grown up outside the occupied territories, and political culture on the outside was not the same as on the inside. While Palestinians inside and outside accepted the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” there was still mistrust around the question of armed struggle and the liberation of all Palestine given the discrepancy in political conditions. Fatah had always feared the creation of an alternative leadership in the occupied territories, particularly since that was what the Israelis wanted. Consequently, Fatah never established a unified command inside the territories. Another reason for Fatah’s growing discomfort was the fact that the balance of forces within the PNC did not accurately reflect the political reality in the territories. While the Communist Party was not the dominant force, it had grown steadily since 1974. It established a legal weekly newspaper, Al-Tali‘a, in 1978. It controlled numerous mass organizations, including trade unions, women’s committees and volunteer work brigades. The leadership and most of the cadres were living on the inside, which increased their effectiveness. Evidently Fatah could not afford to ignore this development so it adopted a policy of “containment” of communist influence. After Arafat’s reconciliation with King Hussain in late 1978, Fatah began to improve its relations with West Bank elements close to the Hashemites. The Palestine National Front denounced these relations in an October 1979 memorandum to the PLO Executive Committee, to no avail. In the end the PNF collapsed, abandoned by the external leadership.

The union issue also played an important role in the deterioration of relations between Fatah and the Communists. The General Federation of Labor Unions represented 35,000 West Bank workers in 1980. The Communists were the most powerful force within the federation and held the most important posts, but unions close to Fatah engineered a split in August 1981. Today every major current in the PLO has its own labor organization and the strength of the labor movement has diminished considerably.

The arduous process of reconstituting a Palestinian communist party started after 1973, with Arab and international recognition of the right of the Palestinians to a state. It involved the JCP in a lengthy internal debate which Maher al-Sharif describes in detail, although he tends to soften the most polemical aspects. The upshot of the debate was that the JCP created the Palestinian Communist Organization in the West Bank (PCOWB) in 1975. This allowed West Bank Communists a measure of autonomy while keeping the party leadership in Amman. In 1980 the JCP created a Palestinian Communist Organization in Lebanon made up of JCP members living there.

Why is it that six years after they first began to militate in favor of establishing of an independent Palestinian state, West Bank Palestinian Communists had not yet abandoned the JCP and created the PCP? We now know that the majority of the JCP leadership was opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian Communist Party. It is difficult to understand why, unless it had to do with the fact that the new party would deprive the JCP of the bulk of its supporters. A terrific debate brought the party to the very brink of a split, but eventually a common decision was reached. In 1980 the PCOWB extended its activity to Gaza, and in the same year it took over the Central Committee of the JCP, at which point it demanded the creation of an independent Palestinian Communist Party. The opposition accepted the idea on condition that the new party be led by the same central committee and political bureau as the JCP. The PCOWB refused and called for a general congress, knowing that it represented the vast majority of party members. The JCP leadership finally acquiesced in late December 1981 and adopted a resolution in favor of the “creation of an independent Communist Party.” Less than two months later, in February 1982, the new Palestinian Communist Party was established. In early 1983 the PCP absorbed the Communist Party in the Gaza Strip.

The departure of the PLO from Beirut following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 cut the leadership off from the last concentration of Palestinians that had provided most of the fighters and many of the cadres. This seriously weakened the capacity of Palestinians on the outside to lead the national struggle. The 1983 revolt of the Fatah dissidents and the broad split in the PLO merely reflected this disarray. The very idea of armed struggle was now in question, because for the first time since the 1967 war the PLO had no direct access to the borders of the “Zionist enemy.”

The Palestinian Communist Party analyzed the new situation in a memorandum to the 16th PNC (held in Algiers in February 1983) as follows:

Since the departure of the resistance from Beirut, the center of gravity of the Palestinian national struggle has shifted to the occupied territories; the West Bank and Gaza have become the principal battleground and as such they occupy a special and significant place in the current struggle and in future decisions.

The PCP concluded that the Palestine National Front should be revived as the “sole central leadership of the national struggle in the occupied territories.”

The intifada confirms this analysis: the center of gravity of the Palestinian resistance has definitely shifted to the occupied territories. In the view of PCP cadres, the uprising also vindicates their position on the inadequacy of armed struggle. As one West Bank youth expressed it, “We’ve accomplished more in six months of the uprising than the PLO has in 20 years of armed struggle.” This is a brash statement, but it reflects a popular attitude the PCP has been able to capitalize on. The party has strengthened its position in the West Bank and made phenomenal progress in Gaza.

Thanks to its long experience with mass movements, the PCP more than any other organization knew how to mobilize and work with the popular committees that have sprung up in every village and neighborhood. While participating on equal terms with other organizations in the Unified Leadership of the Uprising, the Communists have maintained their freedom of action. They have not hesitated to criticize the external leadership when it modified some of the communiques issued by the internal leadership. They have been more successful than any other Communist Party in the Arab world in that (so far at least) they have managed to circumvent the two shoals that all the others have run up against: dissipation in large popular fronts and the resultant loss of party identity, and the sectarianism that isolates them from the people.

The PLO now faces a completely new situation. The political and organizational crisis that began with its exit from Beirut drags on, but the uprising has brought new energy and gained greater influence for the PLO. At the same time, the uprising is raising complex questions within the leadership regarding the conduct of the national struggle, and in particular the role of Palestinians on the inside and their place in the institutional structures of the PLO. Because of the PCP’s role and influence in the occupied territories, the party has become a necessary partner in the resolution of the crisis. This new study by Maher al-Sharif elucidates the political and ideological concepts behind this surprising success.


Translated by Diane Belle James



[1] The NLL represented the Arab branch of the Palestinian communist movement, while the Jewish branch was represented by the Palestine Communist Party. On this period see Joel Beinin, “The Palestine Communist Party 1919-1948,” MERIP Reports #55 (March 1977).
[2] For more details on the political history of the post-1948 communist movement in Palestine, see Alain Gresh, Communistes et nationalistes au Proche-Orient: le eas palestinien depuis 1948 (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, Communisme, No. 5), 1983.

How to cite this article:

Alain Gresh "Palestinian Communists and the Intifada," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

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