Coming nearly a quarter-century after the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and two decades after Palestinian guerrilla factions assumed control of that organization, the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988 seemed in some ways a natural outcome of the PLO’s evolution and in other ways a radical break, affirming for the first time an acceptance of Palestine’s partition. It coincided with the PLO’s growing legitimacy in the international sphere and its increased alienation in the Arab world.
The October 1973 war, and the sense of relative military balance that it produced, gave rise to the illusion that a comprehensive political settlement could be reached based on the principle of Israel’s withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967. This placed the West Bank and Gaza Strip prominently on the PLO’s agenda. The consensus among the Palestinian factions was that the West Bank should not revert to Jordanian sovereignty. This position was based on the desire expressed by a significant portion of the population of these occupied territories that the PLO should take responsibility for the fate of any lands from which Israel might withdraw. Meeting in Cairo in June 1974, the twelfth session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) adopted (after much heated debate) the “Interim Political Program” (or the "Ten-Point Program") This provided for the establishment of “the independent combatant national authority for the people” over Palestinian lands from which the occupation was dislodged, stressing that any liberatory step was “an episode [one of a series] leading to the realization of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s strategy of establishing a democratic Palestinian state.” However, from this time it seemed clear that the PLO was moving toward adopting the call for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And, indeed, this was the call adopted by the thirteenth session of the PNC, held in Cairo in March 1977.
On the basis of this shift in position, the PLO was able to achieve a number of political gains. At the seventh Arab Summit, Rabat, in October 1974, the PLO was recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and support was expressed for the right of the Palestinian people to return to their homeland, their right of self-determination, and the right to “establish an independent national authority led by the Palestine Liberation Organization.” That same month, two United Nations resolutions were passed, one reaffirming the Palestinians’ “right to self-determination” and their “right to national independence and sovereignty,” and the other granting the PLO observer status at the UN.
Yet as the PLO prepared itself to participate in efforts to reach a political settlement, such a settlement remained a distant mirage, especially after Egypt embarked in 1975 on the path of reaching a separate compromise with Israel, culminating in the Camp David Accords of September 1978. With its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel further succeeded in uprooting the PLO, depriving it of the “safe” base that had afforded it a certain freedom of political action, and essentially taking from the PLO the “armed struggle” card that it had used to secure its role as a key player in the conflict.
After May 1983, the PLO experienced a crisis of internal division (compounded by its dispersal in several Arab countries and the new realities created by the signing of the Camp David Accords) from which it did not emerge until the eighteenth PNC session, held in Algiers in 1987. This session brought cohesion to its ranks and contributed to establishing the conditions for the outbreak of the popular uprising, or intifada, in the West Bank and Gaza in December 1987, ending what one scholar has called the stage of the “wandering Palestinian.”
Indeed, this uprising finally relocated the center of gravity of the Palestinian national struggle from outside Palestine to the occupied territories. It also left a significant impact on Palestinian political thought and its development, as the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising focused on two goals: freedom and independence. Through the resistance activities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the imagined borders of a Palestinian state emerged on the basis of the Green Line that separates the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 from the Palestinian lands of 1948. The intifada also returned the Palestinian issue to the top of list of Arab concerns and prompted the Jordanian government to issue its decision, on 31 July 1988, to decouple the legal and administrative ties between the East and West Banks of the Jordan River. Further, the uprising, popular and peaceful in nature, stirred a wide-ranging wave of sympathy with the Palestinian people, reactivated international efforts to find a political settlement to the conflict, and strengthened the forces for peace inside Israel.
The PLO leadership thus felt, particularly in light of the international climate of détente generated by the Soviet policy of perestroika, that the conditions were ripe to put forward a peaceful political initiative. At the conclusion of the nineteenth PNC session, held in Algiers in mid-November 1988, a Declaration of Independence was issued, declaring “the State of Palestine in our land of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital.” This state “shall be an Arab State and shall be an integral part of the Arab nation, of its heritage and civilization and of its present endeavor to achieve the goals of liberation, development, democracy, and unity.” It was to be a state “for Palestinians, wherever they may be, therein to develop their national and cultural identity and therein to enjoy full equality of rights. Their religious and political beliefs and human dignity shall therein be safeguarded.”
The Declaration of Independence also affirmed, for the first time since its inception, the PLO’s acceptance of the international decision to partition Palestine: “Despite the historical injustice done to the Palestinian Arab people in its displacement and in being deprived of the right to self-determination following the adoption of General Assembly resolution 181 of 1947, which partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish State, that resolution nevertheless continues to attach conditions of international legitimacy that guarantee the Palestinian Arab people the right to sovereignty and national independence.” In spite of opposition from some PLO factions, the political communiqué issued at the PNC session announced the PLO’s acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for convening an international peace conference, in which the PLO would participate on an equal footing with other parties. The PLO also restated, after confirming “the right of peoples to resist foreign occupation,” its rejection of “terrorism in all of its forms, including state terrorism.”
In doing so, the PLO acceded to the US administration’s conditions for dialogue, considering that since the two resolutions dealt with existing states, and since Palestine has now become a “State,” it would be in a position to negotiate Israeli withdrawal from the State territory on the basis of the two resolutions. The Reagan administration thus decided, on 14 December 1988, to give the State Department a mandate “to enter into substantive dialogue with PLO representatives.” The Palestinian “peace initiative,” however, was met by Israeli intransigence, and on 20 June 1990 the administration of President George H. W. Bush announced that it was suspending US-Palestine dialogue. At the same time, the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza was suffering from exhaustion and division, especially after the emergence of Islamists who refused to recognize the PLO’s political program or its status as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Under these circumstances, the PLO leadership embraced the political initiative put forward by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, which was premised on the linkage of all conflicts in the Middle East.
After the Gulf War, which ended in the defeat of the Iraqi army and its withdrawal from Kuwait, the PLO found itself under siege—political and financial, Arab and international. Under intense pressure, it had little choice but to accept US terms to participate in an international peace conference convened by the US administration in October 1991. This conference in concert with secret negotiations between PLO representatives and the Israeli government led to the September 1993 Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles (DOP). This did not bring into being the independent Palestinian state declared in 1988, however; instead, the conflict between the parties merely intensified, as Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories expanded and the living conditions of their Palestinian inhabitants deteriorated.
Khalidi, Rashid. “The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council.” Journal of Palestine Studies 19, no.2 (Winter 1990): 29–42.
Said, Edward W. “From Intifada to Independence.” Middle East Report 158 (May–June 1989): 12–16.
Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies and Oxford University Press, 1997.