During the decade from 1958 to 1968, a foundational development occurred in modern Palestinian history. It started as the notion of creating a Palestinian political entity emerged and took shape in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and as Palestinians on the grass root level organized themselves in groups and cells calling for armed struggle against Israel. By 1968, guerrilla organizations controlled the PLO and transformed it from a mere handmaiden of Arab regimes to an independent and mobilizing decision-maker.
In February 1958, Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). Many Palestinians felt that the time had come for the Palestinian people to organize their ranks and prepare for the battle for liberation, backed by the strength of the UAR. Some voices even called for the inclusion of Palestine in the UAR.
UAR President Gamal Abdel Nasser thus faced a challenge: he was, in principle, unable to reject the idea of including Palestine within the UAR, but at the same time he felt that this state in isolation from other Arab states and the Palestinians themselves was unable to carry the burden of the battle for liberation. Thus, in Cairo in March 1959 before the Council of Ministers of the Arab League, his government recommended “the reorganization of the Palestinian people and the establishment of its entity as a united people, its voice heard in the national [Arab] arena and on the international level, through representatives chosen by the Palestinian people.” The council approved this call to establish a Palestinian entity.
Meanwhile, in Fall 1959, the Iraqi head of state General Abd al-Karim Qasim, competing with Nasser for influence in the Arab world, proposed establishing a “Palestinian Republic” whose sovereignty would unfold first in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and then expand to include the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948. In March 1960, his government announced the formation of a “Palestinian Liberation Regiment.” While Arab officials sparred, Palestinians in the diaspora and in the West Bank and Gaza became increasingly aware of the need for Palestinians themselves to shoulder the burden of the battle for liberation. This manifested itself in the formation of a number of secret commando organizations (fedayeen), the most important of which was the Fatah movement.
The urgency for action was underscored by Israel’s preparations to divert the Jordan River and the revelation, in February 1959, that it was planning to secure the immigration of around three million additional Jews. By the end of 1963, Israel had begun its diversion of the Jordan River, leading to increased tension between Israel and the frontline Arab states and to conflict among Arab actors on the appropriate response. Syria had proposed dealing with Israel by force, but Nasser took a cautious stance, convinced that Egypt was not ready to engage in the “military adventure” of entering into war with Israel. On 23 December 1963, he invited the Arab heads of state to Cairo to discuss how to confront Israel’s project.
At the first Arab summit, held in Cairo between 13 and 17 January 1964, the participants condemned Israel’s “dangerous new aggression against Arab waters through diverting the Jordan River’s waters.” It took “the practical decisions necessary to guard against the Zionist danger, whether in the areas of defense or technology or with regard to organizing the Palestinian people and enabling it to play its role in the liberation of its homeland and its quest for self-determination.” The summit entrusted Ahmad al-Shuqairi, Palestine representative in the Council of the Arab League, with the task of communicating with “member states and the Palestinian people with the intention of establishing the proper bases for organizing the Palestinian people,” though it did not explicitly refer to the establishment of a Palestinian entity.
Shuqairi thus seemingly exceeded the powers delegated to him when he decided to convene a Palestinian National Congress (PNC) from which would emerge a Palestinian entity. This first congress was held in Jerusalem on 28 May 1964, under the sponsorship of King Hussein of Jordan, with nearly 400 appointed delegates attending. Most of these were selected by a preparatory committee that Shuqairi himself formed, while a small number of members of various Palestinian organizations, such as Fatah, the Ba‘th Party, and the Arab Nationalist Movement, attended in personal capacities. On the eve of the conference, Shuqairi had agreed to two conditions imposed by the Jordanian government: the congress would avoid addressing anything related to organizing or arming Palestinians in Jordan; and it would explicitly state that the Palestinian entity did not have as its goal sovereignty over the West Bank.
On 2 June 1964, the PNC announced the creation of the PLO and approved a National Charter and a Basic Law of the organization. Shuqairi was elected president of the PLO and entrusted to select twelve members for its executive committee.
The Palestine National Charter delimited the fundamental principles upon which the PLO was based. Stressing the organic bond between the national-Palestinian and the pan-Arab dimensions of the struggle for Palestine’s liberation, it affirmed that Palestine is “an Arab nation that is connected through the links of Arab nationalism to all other Arab countries.” Within the borders established under the British Mandate, Palestine is “an indivisible territorial unit.” Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine are “two complementary objectives, the realization of one preparing the ground for the other.” It declared the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, the partition of Palestine, and the creation of Israel null and void, and saw in Zionism “a movement that is colonial in its emergence, aggressive and expansionist in its aims, fanatically racist in its nature.” It called for the “restoration of Palestine to a condition of legitimacy” and to “enable its people to exercise national sovereignty and national freedom,” while asserting that the PLO, as “the representative of the movement of the Palestinian people in their struggle for the liberation of their homeland,” would not exercise “any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or the Gaza Strip or the al-Himma region [in the northern Jordan Valley, part of Syria since 1948].”
The positions of the organized Palestinian forces were generally negative toward the outcome of the PNC. Representatives criticized its style as top-down and “distant from the masses and democracy.” The same applied to the formation of the PLO, the subordination of its head to the pressures exerted by Arab governments, and its refusal to assert Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian land. However, the PLO did succeed—over Syrian and Saudi opposition—to achieve recognition at the second Arab summit, held in Alexandria on 5-11 September 1964. Recognition by the Arab regimes, Egypt at their head, may have been designed to undercut the independent Palestinian guerrilla organizations and organize the Palestinians within a framework subject to the Arab official system. The establishment of the PLO prompted Fatah in particular to accelerate the consolidation of its presence on the ground, by establishing its military wing, al-Asifa (the Storm), and launching its first military operations in January 1965.
The Arab defeat in the June 1967 war had a significant direct impact on Palestinian scene. The defeat brought about the realization that counting on the Arab regular armies was unrealistic and that the Arab governmental approach exemplified by the creation of a PLO of notables was unlikely to yield positive results. The Palestinian national struggle was liberated from the bonds of official Arab sponsorship. Shuqairi was forced to resign as president of the PLO. The phenomenon of guerrilla action became widespread, and new Palestinian organizations were formed. The fierce resistance demonstrated by the Palestinian fighters and the relatively heavy losses suffered by the Israeli army in the Battle of al-Karama in March 1968 significantly boosted the movement, leading to the enrollment of thousands of Palestinian (and Arab) volunteers and setting the stage for the transfer of PLO leadership into the hands of the guerrilla organizations, especially the most powerful among them, Fatah.
This was achieved at the fourth session of the PNC, held in Cairo from 10 to 17 July 1968. There a new Palestine National Charter was approved, devoted to Palestinian nationalist (rather than pan-Arab) ideas. The fifth PNC session, held in Cairo in early February 1969, further solidified this trend with the election of Fatah leader Yasir Arafat as chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, a position he was to hold until his death in 2004.
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