On 2 June 1964, the Palestinian National Congress (PNC)—a meeting of Palestinian delegates called together by Ahmad al-Shuqairi in his capacity as Palestine’s representative in the Council of the Arab League—announced the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at the same time approving the Palestine National Charter. The new organization was widely seen as a handmaiden of the Arab regimes, and few would have predicted that in the decades that followed it would become a vibrant and representative Palestinian political organization. In uniting an astoundingly wide range of Palestinians—including leaders and cadres of guerrilla organizations, intellectuals, workers, refugees, businessmen in the diaspora, and Palestinians in the occupied territories—the PLO for some time managed to serve as an umbrella organization that could legitimately lay claim to being the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Always subject to immense external pressure and riven by internal tensions, the mere survival of the PLO was often in question; ironically, the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 seems to have done the most to marginalize the PLO.
When the PLO was created, it was criticized for its unrepresentative character. The Arab defeat suffered in the June 1967 war signified to many the failure of the Arab regular armies and the failure of the PLO itself. Guerrilla action became widespread, and new Palestinian organizations were formed. Shuqairi was forced to resign as president of the PLO, setting the stage for the transfer of its leadership into the hands of the guerrilla organizations: Fatah (the most powerful of the armed groups), Saiqa, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front. This was officially achieved at the fourth session of the PNC, held in Cairo in July 1968, where a new Palestine National Charter was approved, devoted to Palestinian nationalist (rather than pan-Arab) ideas. It affirmed that the PLO was the “representative framework” for the Palestinian armed revolutionary forces and was “responsible for the Palestinian Arab people’s movement in its struggle to recover its homeland, liberate it, return to it, and exercise the right of self-determination in it.”
In October 1968, Fatah raised the slogan of a single democratic state in Palestine that would guarantee the equal rights of all its citizens, “regardless of religion or language.” The fifth PNC session, held in Cairo in early February 1969, adopted this program, and it elected Yasir Arafat as chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, a position he held until his death in 2004.
Between the summer of 197O and the summer of 1971, the PLO faced its first major crisis. Its presence in Jordan as a state within a state led to military and political confrontations with the government, and in September 1970 the Jordanian authorities succeeded in ending the “dual authority” and eliminating the Palestinian armed presence. Guerrilla organizations were forced to move their headquarters to Lebanon and expand their presence in the country, drawing legitimacy from the Cairo Agreement that had been reached between the Lebanese army and Arafat in Cairo in November 1969.
After the outbreak of the 1973 war, which among other things gave rise to the illusion that a political settlement could completely reverse the disastrous results of the June 1967 war, the PLO factions unanimously rejected the return of the West Bank to Jordanian sovereignty. This position reflected the view held by many in the occupied territories, expressed through the Palestinian National Front formed in August 1973, that it wanted the PLO to bear responsibility for lands from which Israel might withdraw. After heated debate, the twelfth session of the PNC, held in Cairo in June 1974, approved the PLO’s Ten-Point Program, which provided for the establishment of an “independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated.” It seemed clear that the PLO was moving toward adopting the program of a Palestinian state in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, alongside Israel. Indeed, this was the program that was approved three years later at the thirteenth PNC session, held in Cairo in March 1977.
With this shift in positions, the PLO achieved a number of important political gains in the international and Arab arenas. In November 1974, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty in Palestine (Resolution 3236); recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and granted it observer status at the UN (Resolution 3237); and was the forum for a dramatic appearance from Arafat. The seventh Arab Summit, Rabat, held in October 1974, stressed the right of the Palestinian people to return to their homeland and exercise self-determination, “by establishing an independent national authority, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization in its role as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
By the late 1970s, factors had also combined to transform the structure of the PLO. On a political level, Egypt had broken with the other Arab states and arrived at a separate political settlement with Israel, culminating in the September 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, putting the PLO on the political defensive. Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975, the PLO factions’ involvement in the conflict, and (after 1978) Israel’s establishment of a buffer zone in Southern Lebanon had put the PLO on the defensive militarily. Yet the structural shift would not have been possible without the influx of significant financial resources, especially after the Arab Summit, Baghdad, held in November 1978 which pledged an estimated $300 million dollars in annual aid to the PLO to cope with these political and military obstacles and to support residents of the occupied Palestinian territories. The PLO began to transition, on the military level, from a guerrilla organization into an organization with a regular army, fighting what was essentially a war of static positions, relying on heavy weapons such as artillery and rockets. On a social level, the PLO turned into a bureaucratic “governmental” apparatus, with those in charge of it enjoying a number of privileges (material and otherwise) and an institution for employment and social welfare putting to work tens of thousands of unemployed Palestinians—each drawing a monthly salary—and supporting thousands of families in different social arenas.
Another major turning point came in June 1982, when Israeli forces launched a major offensive in Lebanon. After nearly three months of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, the Israeli managed to dislodge the PLO’s military presence in Lebanon. With the eviction of its troops, the PLO lost the “safe base” that had provided it with freedom of political action. Further, it lost the option of “armed struggle,” which the PLO had used to establish its role as a key party to the conflict and a potential partner in a political settlement. Its leadership dispersed and its ranks divided, Fatah itself suffered an outbreak of internal political discord and military confrontation. At the same time, Palestinian refugees were further marginalized within the Lebanese political and social arenas. Stripped of protection, they became targets, illustrated most savagely during the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, but also during the “War of the camps” in 1985 between the Palestinian organizations and the Lebanese Shi‘i Amal movement. In May 1987 the Lebanese parliament abolished the 1969 Cairo Agreement.
Attempts by the PLO leadership during this period to establish closer ties with Jordan and Egypt did not succeed in lifting the organization from its weakened state. Preoccupied by the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab states paid little attention to the Palestinian issue at the Arab Summit, Amman, 1987. The PLO was rescued, however, by the Palestinian uprising (intifada) in December 1987. The intifada had the effect of permanently moving the Palestinian national struggle’s center of gravity from the Palestinian Diaspora to historic Palestine itself. It also revived the political role of the PLO, especially after the Jordanian government decided, on 31 July 1988, to de-link the legal and administrative relationship between the East and West Banks of the Jordan River. The nineteenth session of the PNC, held in Algiers in November 1988, produced a Declaration of Independence, which included the PLO’s acceptance of Palestine’s partition and of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for holding an international peace conference. However, even as the intifada restored the PLO from its political marginalization, it also gave rise to major internal challenges, most prominently the emergence of an Islamist competition that refused to recognize the PLO’s political program or its claim to sole representation of the Palestinian people.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the PLO leadership faced a dire political dilemma. While the Palestinian “peace initiative” had reached a dead end, particularly after the US administration had cut off the dialogue that it had begun with the PLO, the intifada, having failed to achieve a state of mass civil disobedience, also seemed unable to realize new political gains for the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, waves of new Jewish immigrants arrived in Israel from the Soviet republics. Given these difficult circumstances, the PLO leadership embraced a political initiative put forward by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, which sought to link all the conflicts in the Middle East, essentially predicating a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the Iraqi army’s defeat and withdrawal from Kuwait, the PLO was subject to a political and financial embargo, both international and within the Arab world. From this position of weakness, it had little choice but to accept American conditions for participating in an international peace conference in Madrid in 1991. The PLO then entered into secret negotiations with the Israeli government in Oslo, resulting, in September 1993, in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, known as the Oslo accords, and the exchange of letters of mutual recognition between the PLO and the Israeli government.
The establishment of the Palestinian Authority, however, further weakened the PLO and marginalized its role as a political umbrella organization for the Palestinians. The issue of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was separated from the issue of the refugees’ right of return, and the divide deepened between the three main communities of Palestinians—those in the diaspora, those in the territories occupied in 1967, and those inside the areas of historic Palestine that became Israel in 1948. Indeed, many Palestinians in the diaspora no longer see the PLO as serving a meaningful function or representing their interests.
Over the half-century of its existence, the PLO has undergone a number of transitions, from a largely symbolic group beholden to other Arab regimes to the most dynamic representative of Palestinian aspirations, from a revolutionary political and fighting force to a bureaucratic apparatus, from the most relevant Palestinian political body on the international scene to a marginalized and largely hollow structure, its key functions rendered redundant by the Palestinian Authority or sclerotic through disuse. Periodic calls are made for its revitalization, but such an enormous task has not taken place yet. However, the monumental achievement of the PLO, its legacy and impact on the modern history of the Palestinian people, cannot be overestimated.
Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Hamid, Rashid. “What Is the PLO?” Journal of Palestine Studies 4, no.4 (Summer 1975): 90–109.
Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Taylor, Alan R. “The PLO in Inter-Arab Politics.” Journal of Palestine Studies 11, no.2 (Winter 1982): 70–81.