The Dilemma of the PLO

by Helena Cobban
published in MER119

In a ground-floor apartment this July, near a sprawling refugee camp in northern Lebanon, a new PLO poster was taped roughly to the wall. It made a pointed political statement, at a time when Yasser Arafat’s leadership had been openly challenged from within the military wing of his own Fatah movement. The poster was a large reproduction, printed in Arabic on a vellum-looking background, of the “Military Communique Number One” issued on December 31, 1964, to mark the start of Fatah’s armed operations against Israel. Throughout most of 1964, the Central Committee of Fatah’s far-flung political network had been almost evenly split on whether the time was ripe to start the “armed struggle” to which it was committed. Arafat had argued forcefully in favor of starting it, and had eventually lined up a consensus of support. Now, 19 years later, his propagandists are referring back to “Military Communiqué Number One” to remind the Fatah military who was responsible for getting them on the road in the first place.

Over the years after 1964, the military wing of Fatah—which itself forms the backbone of the whole PLO coalition—grew in absolute terms and in relation to the movement’s somewhat older political apparatus. But the emergence over the past few months of the rebellion within the military has now thrown into sharp focus for the veteran Fatah leaders the question of whether they should consider the undeniable weight of the military as the ballast of their movement, or a dead weight holding it back from attaining its political goals.

The roots of the rebellion which had simmered inside the Fatah military since the end of 1982 are closely related to what was achieved and lost at the military level in the 1982-1983 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon. The PLO and their allies in the Joint Forces lost the whole of south Lebanon pretty disastrously in June 1982, despite the heroic resistance of fighting groups in many of the south’s refugee camps. The Joint Forces’ subsequent effective defense of Beirut stood out in stark contrast to this preceding performance. For more than two months, all the weapons technology that the Israelis used did not enable them to enter the Lebanese capital. Some have argued that the Israelis did not really try to get into Beirut, out of some humanitarian instinct; but the death and destruction the Israelis did indisputably wreak in Beirut with their vacuum bombs, cluster shells, food and water blockade, and so on, surely gives the lie to this argument. What seemed to constrain the Israeli high command was fear of the losses their own side would suffer in attempting to enter the city.

Israeli military might did destroy the PLO’s infrastructure in south Lebanon. What the Israelis could not achieve on their own in Beirut was accomplished by a combination of Israeli military pressure, American diplomacy and Lebanese Forces terror. The climactic events of August and September 1982 effectively dismantled the PLO infrastructure in Beirut, and sealed the whole eastern part of the Israeli army’s front lines in Lebanon against any contact with PLO units.

By the end of September 1982, then, the Western multinational force and the Lebanese army were protecting the Israelis’ flank in Beirut, while the Lebanese Forces were sealing it in the mountains. Over in the Bekaa, the Syrians completed the sealing of Israel’s military frontier in Lebanon. One important thread running through the stormy relations between Syria and the PLO leadership from mid-1982 onwards was precisely the Syrians’ attempt to exert ever more control over PLO forces in the Bekaa. In August 1983, the Israeli army’s withdrawal from the Shouf presented the Syrians with an intriguing new opportunity to redress the balance in Lebanon. It is not clear how many of the Palestinians who played a brief role in the Shouf battles were Fatah loyalists, and how many more were with the rebels. What is clear is that the Syrians took advantage of the Shouf ceasefire to clear out the loyalists not only from the Shouf but also from the Shatoura and Baalbek regions. Arafat’s forces ended up boxed even tighter than before into their tiny north Lebanese enclave.

Armed Struggle, State Power

At the purely military level of fighting forces on the ground, the developments of 1982-1983 brought the PLO to the end of the stage it had begun in 1968, of fielding regular forces in the countries directly abutting Israel. In the aftermath of the Israelis’ stunning military victory of 1967, Yasser Arafat himself had crossed back into the West Bank in an attempt to kindle the flames of armed revolt there. For a few months, the armed resistance there had shown some signs of life. But by early 1968, a combination of conditions—including both the harshness of the Israeli countermeasures and the relative quiescence of the West Bank population—had led to the defeat of the rebellion. Arafat and his lieutenants fled across the Jordan River to regroup in the Hashemite Kingdom. (The largely unconnected armed resistance movement which continued in more densely populated Gaza was not snuffed out until Ariel Sharon bulldozed his way through the Gaza refugee camps in 1971.)

From their bases in Jordan and Lebanon, the PLO guerrillas were still able to mount cross-border raids of limited scope against Israeli installations. In a series of offensives between September 1970 and July 1971, King Hussein destroyed the entire guerrilla infrastructure in his kingdom. Lebanon remained as the only place where the guerrillas could maintain military bases free from the government control which limited such efforts in Egypt, Syria or Jordan.

From 1968 onwards, the Israelis themselves kept up unrelenting pressure on the guerrillas and their sympathizers in Lebanon. In 1968, the Lebanese government concluded the first accord with the PLO which formally regulated the guerrillas’ presence in Lebanon. Three years later, the PLO reached the first of its informal understandings with the Lebanese government that no cross-border raids would be mounted against Israel from Lebanon. From then on, the PLO military presence in Lebanon became directed primarily toward protecting the range of Palestinian social and political institutions which grew up under its aegis in Lebanon. Palestinians continued to mount raids against Israel from Lebanon after 1972, particularly members of the PLO “opposition.” In 1978, and again in 1981, Arafat’s Fatah leadership within the PLO proved strong enough to force all the other Palestinians to observe an internationally sponsored ceasefire with Israel in south Lebanon.

Throughout the 1970s, the PLO forces in Lebanon developed a posture which was riven with contradictions. In the main (apart from the Palestinian Liberation Army units), their ideology was that of guerrilla formations; but in contravention of every canon of guerrilla warfare they found themselves defending fixed positions on the ground. Spurred by memories of the high casualties the refugee camp populations had suffered in Jordan and then in south Lebanon and in the eastern suburbs of Beirut, they acquired increasingly heavy armaments.

These armaments, and the strength of the PLO institutions in Lebanon which they were protecting, were sufficient to give credence to Lebanese accusations that the PLO was maintaining a “state within a state” in Lebanon. But they were never anywhere near sufficient to be able to confront the Israeli army in a pitched regular-army encounter.

Waiting for Geneva

Palestinian activists and leaders have always denied the accusations of the Lebanese Phalangists, that they sought permanent resettlement in Lebanon. The Palestinians reiterated that their aim was solely to return to Palestine. But how did the PLO leaders see their socioeconomic and military strength in Lebanon being translated, in practice, into a return to Palestine?

From 1974 onwards, the PLO majority, led by Arafat’s Fatah movement, was committed to seeking a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine: As a first step toward the eventual “liberation” of all of historic Palestine, the PLO would settle for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in those Palestinian regions occupied in 1967—the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO leaders sought to achieve this through participation in a Geneva peace conference for a comprehensive settlement of all aspects of the Middle East problem.

With the PLO committed to a peaceful settlement, the role of its military forces became problematic. From 1974 onwards, there was a definite though never fully articulated feeling by PLO leaders themselves that the entire PLO infrastructure being maintained and expanded in Lebanon could be more or less transplanted wholesale from Lebanon to form the basis of the administration of the new Palestinian state. Within this perspective, the military presence in Lebanon had a threefold task: to defend the non-military parts of the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon; to serve as the embryo of the future state’s armed forces; and to stand in reserve, ready to redress the political balance should the Geneva negotiations fail.

The negotiations did fail. The Geneva conference, which held a first meeting in December 1973 without PLO participation, never reconvened. Instead of progress towards the comprehensive solution, the Arab world saw Henry Kissinger’s successive bilateral approaches pull the rug out from under the chances of any future Geneva meeting. Between them, Egypt and Syria had bargained away most of the strengths on the ground which the Arab side still possessed immediately after the war.

For the first ten months of 1977, the new Carter administration was apparently working hard to reconvene the Geneva conference, and maintained indirect contacts with the Fatah/PLO leadership to explore possible alternative formulae for PLO participation. In November 1977, Egypt’s President Sadat cut through all the web of discussions about Geneva, and launched his unilateral initiative toward Israel. During the “peace process” which ensued, there were intermittent references to seeking PLO endorsement of negotiations for the West Bank and Gaza, though the Palestinian part of the 1978 Camp David accords never addressed the question of the Palestinian exile community. Their return to historic Palestine with their institutions intact now seemed only a remote possibility. But the autonomy negotiations never came close to starting, and the PLO leaders were never called on to assess the strength of the negotiating “card” which they considered their posture in Lebanon represented. Meanwhile, from 1976 onwards, the Israelis launched a series of direct interventions inside the Lebanese body politic to whittle down the PLO’s strength there. They gave direct help to the Lebanese Phalangist militias. They augmented their policy of indiscriminate bombardment of south Lebanon with a new “good fence” policy designed to win over the southerners against the PLO. Along with many Arab regimes, Israel certainly profited from, when it did not instigate, the multiple schisms which splintered the once solid front of the PLO’s Lebanese allies. In June 1982, when the Israeli army did finally make the massive move into Lebanon which had been expected for many, many months, it easily encircled most PLO installations in south Lebanon, and persuaded the Lebanese residents of West Beirut to urge the PLO fighters to evacuate the city. The negotiating card which most PLO leaders had tended in Lebanon for a decade had crumbled to nothing in their hands.

Shifting Weight

Once the prospect of Geneva itself proved a chimera, the Lebanon card was virtually worthless. The cost of maintaining it mounted so long as popular Lebanese support for the PLO presence was eroding. The PLO’s infrastructure in Lebanon was not, after a certain point, the major card in its leaders’ hands. That distinction must be reserved for the strong base of popular support the PLO leadership was able to build up in the occupied territories themselves throughout the 1970s. The Palestinian national movement which has evolved since the disaster of 1948 is hampered by having its two legs in different camps: one inside historic Palestine, the other outside it, separately shackled by the suspicion, chronic impotence and vindictiveness of the Arab regimes and by Israel’s refusal to coexist with Palestinian nationalism.

Even many years before the losses suffered in Lebanon in 1982, some Fatah leaders had been arguing that maintaining the PLO’s military presence at its existing high level there was pointless and ultimately provocative. The future of the Palestinian movement, these persons argued, lay far more in the indigenous movement of those 1.8 million Palestinians still resident in historic Palestine, a slim numerical majority of the Palestinian people. Given the indifference with which most Arab regimes, and apparently most Arab peoples, viewed the events of 1982, any strategy relying on the Palestinian exiles’ ability to galvanize the Arab world into action by then looked extremely flawed.

It seems increasingly certain that the specific weight of the Palestinian national movement has now shifted from the leg outside historic Palestine towards the leg inside it. What then becomes of the role of the 45 to 50 percent of the Palestinian people now exiled from their homeland, and of the military formations they have worked hard to establish? The challenge for the PLO leadership in the years ahead will be far more how to transform the PLO’s exiled political and military apparatus into an effective support to the indigenous resistance movement inside the occupied territories, rather than to find a new base in which to regroup the exile movement’s still weighty military apparatus.

The Rebels’ Dead End

The rebellion declared against Arafat’s leadership of the PLO in late 1982 by Nimr Salih, Sa‘id Musa and other leaders of the Fatah military should therefore be viewed in this context of the obsolescent role of the Palestinian exiles’ military movement. The Fatah leadership system has proved remarkably stable at its highest levels since the movement’s foundation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. All 15 members elected to Fatah’s Central Committee by its Fourth General Congress in summer 1980 had been working closely together in Fatah’s topmost echelons since well before the movement launched its armed struggle against Israel in 1965. (Salih was the first Central Committee member since 1964 to declare open opposition to the rest of the committee.) The Central Committee’s responsibility has traditionally been collegial, though throughout the 1970s, Arafat’s role as PLO chairman gave him increasing prominence and personal power within Fatah as well.

The central issue for Palestinian nationalists in the wake of Beirut is not a question of personalities, but of policies. The mix of military and political policies pursued by the PLO leadership to date has won wide Palestinian and international support for the concept of Palestinian nationalism (as opposed to Arab nationalism) which the Fatah leadership defined for new generations of Palestinians. But it has proved notably unsuccessful so far in winning for the Palestinians, through either political or military means, any of their national rights.

The folk ideology of the diaspora wing of the Palestinian movement has often been permeated with a millennialist approach, comparing Israel with the crusader kingdoms. There remains a weighty Palestinian constituency, on the ground in historic Palestine, which seeks a solution to its daily oppression far sooner than the crusader’s 200-year sway. This constituency pressed hard at the sixteenth session of the Palestine National Council in February 1983 for a policy which would at least explore the possibilities of President Reagan’s Mideast peace plan, but by April it was clear that Fatah’s Central Committee was unable to come to an agreement with King Hussein on how this should be undertaken. This left the exile wing of the PLO more vulnerable to Syrian pressure, and the still resident Palestinians exposed to new pressures from both Jordanians and Israelis.

Any Palestinian leadership which hopes to keep the national movement together will have to find a way of reconciling the interests of the two wings of the Palestinian movement in a way which reflects their real prospects of achieving national goals in the years ahead. None of the present front-line Arab regimes can be expected to help. The rebellion against Arafat has been diverted into a Syrian-imposed dead end. The Palestinian cause lives on, in the largely silent daily struggle waged by the Palestinian people to live in their homeland, and in their stubborn insistence that the PLO is their sole legitimate representative. The trust that the people of the occupied territories have placed in the PLO leadership is more significant than the criticisms raised by the few thousand military rebels. It is the main strength for the future of the whole national movement.

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