Resistance and the Gordian Knot: The June 1967 War and the Birth of the True PLO
Just this week, exactly forty-five years since the War of 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, Prof. Mark LeVine of UC Irvine stated in an op-ed for Al Jazeera that “once Israel gained control over the West Bank…and began the post-1967 settlement enterprise, the present imbroglio became inevitable” (Levine). This quote attests to the War of 1967’s singular importance in setting the tone for what was to develop into the bitterly violent struggle between Israel and the Palestinian people from the late-sixties to today. The events of 1948, widely known in Arabic as al-Nakbah, or “the disaster,” in which the land of Palestine was divided into two separate states in accordance with United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947, can be considered the first act in the brutal symphony that is the modern Arab-Israeli conflict. Al-Nakbah is perhaps more valuable as a sort of mythological, apocalyptic event branded into the spiritual consciousness of the Palestinian people—much like Shoa, or the Holocaust, for the Jewish people. The results of 1948, however, have limited value in explaining the complex logistics of today’s “Gordian knot” of attrition, having been eclipsed by the far more problematic question of the 1967 Israeli territorial expansion. The radical evolution of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) after the war illuminates the central importance of 1967 in shifting the conflict from one in which the Palestinian people were essentially pawns in a wider geopolitical quarrel to one truly driven by Palestinians as active agent of their own national fate.
After the 1948 War, the Palestinians were used as an instrument employed by Arab states, namely Egypt and Jordan, in wider rivalries between the various stakeholders in the question of Palestinian statehood. This was the golden era of pan-Arabism, championed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and as the Middle East was swept up by the hopes and progressive spirit of the anti-colonialist movement, Palestinians, and their leaders, willingly sacrificed any momentum towards statehood in the name of this compelling ideological movement, acknowledging that the mass exodus of Palestinians after the 1948 War had decimated the demographic unity of their people, scattering them in refugee camps from Lebanon to Jordan. Therefore, in order to receive vital military and political support for their struggle against Israel, national aspirations took a back seat to allegiances to their various host states. According to Palestinian scholar Husam Mohamad, Palestinians that were welcomed into the pan-Arab movement “became conditioned by new realities that proved to be hazardous” to the coherence of the Palestinian national movement (Mohamad p. 510). For example, those Palestinians who remained in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank included prominent families such as the Nashashibis, many of which directed their influence towards pro-Jordanian interests in the West Bank, and even occupied high-level positions in the Hashemite regime (Mohamad p. 52). This, and similar cases, have been interpreted by some as compelling symbols of pan-Arabic unity. The fact remains that this led to a lack of attention to the central quandary—Palestinian statelessness and their oppressive conditions—giving convenient credence to the Israeli government’s claim that Palestinians could simply be assimilated into the societies and political structures of surrounding Arab states, prodded from their lands with sacred impunity (ie. Meir, Shindler 152).
While political disunity threatened the political structure of the Palestinian people, discord in the realm of the national identity itself was limited, a point stressed widely by Palestinian and Israeli scholars. Among Palestinians everywhere, but perhaps especially among those who remained under Israeli control within the Green Line established after the 1948 War, this identity was maintained in the face of policies that attempted to marginalize their Palestinian character. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed several laws in the early 1950’s, namely the Law of Return for the Jews and the Law of Citizenship, which attempted to institutionally marginalize non-Jewish citizens economically and politically (Mohamad p. 54). These policies, aimed to rupture the identity of the Palestinian national movement, functioned to incubate the Palestinian national character, further enriching the soil in which the energetic message that later groups such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine would later take root. The pan-Arab identity reflected in the political allegiances of many elite Palestinians to Egyptian Nasserism and Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athism after 1948 by no means compromised Palestinian national consciousness, an identity that had survived multiple waves of external pressure since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The circumstances surrounding the birth of the PLO, and its feudal political arrangement, illuminate the limitations of this dual-consciousness in addressing Palestinian statehood. In 1964, fifteen years after al-Nakbah, the Arab League Summit convened the various Arab states in Cairo, and it was here that the PLO was officially established, its charter drafted, and Ahmad al-Shuqayri, a former assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, chosen as its first chairman. Mark Tessler, in A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, asserts, “The Arab summit’s primary purpose in creating the PLO was not to give expression to the Palestinian desires for self-determination. It was rather to co-opt and restrain the Palestinian resistance movement, in order to prevent existing guerilla organizations from drawing the Arab states into a war with Israel,” a war that they were not prepared for, as 1967 would prove (Tessler p. 373-374). The summit also sought to organize Palestinian commando units to defend Syria and Jordan’s water resources in the Sea of Galilee, potentially compromised by Israeli plans of diversion for their own agricultural interests. Again, one could argue that al-Shuqayri’s willingness to serve the interests of Arab League was merely a sign of dedication to pan-Arab unity. Arab manipulation of the PLO and its corresponding subjugation of guerilla commandoes for issues largely unrelated to the Palestinian struggle discredits attempts to see this as simple Arab benevolence. Finally, the Palestinian Liberation Organization Draft Constitution, conceived at the summit, omits mention of Palestinian statehood, further evidence towards Tessler’s statement that the Arab League desired the restraint of the movement rather than its acceleration (Mahler p. 120-122).
The stagnation of Palestinian nationalism leading up to the War of 1967 illustrates the limitations imposed on the movement by pan-Arabism, the practical difficulties of coordinating due to the dispersion of the Palestinian people, and the manipulation of moderate elements within the movement by the Arab League. The pre-1967 conflict, therefore, only marginally involved the Palestinian people and their desire for statehood, playing out more as a struggle between domestically fragile Arab states and an increasingly entrenched and highly efficient Israel. This entire paradigm of understanding the conflict decays after the June, 1967 War along with the credibility of pan-Arabism and the military capacities of individual Arab States. In the midst of this widespread geopolitical earthquake, “the PLO belief system and structure were radicalized” and in this process “the Palestinian movement reemerged as a significant, independent political and military force in the region” (Mohamad p. 3, 1).
As the promise of Nasserism and pan-Arabism faded due to Israel’s humiliating defeat of belligerent Arab states in the June 1967 War, so did these ideologies wane in influence on the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The failures of both United Nations Resolution 242, containing the “land for peace” formula, and the Khartoum Resolution, containing the famous “three no’s”—no peace, no recognition, no negotiation with Israel—in identifying Palestinian statelessness as the central force in the continuation of the conflict led to a confirmation of the assertion of more virile resistance organizations, Yasir Arafat’s al-Fatah foremost, that it was up to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians alone, to confront their condition of statelessness through Guevarist armed struggle.
Amidst a backdrop of crippling Arab divisions and international misrepresentations of the conflict’s essence—US President Lyndon Johnson, for example, failed to mention Palestinian statehood in his speech on the path to peace in the Middle East in June of 1967—radical Palestinian guerilla organizations, namely al-Fatah, led by Yasir Arafat, began to consolidate their power, fueling and in turn being fueled by the sort of grass-roots resistance efforts employed by earlier Palestinian revolutionary heroes such as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (Tessler p. 407). Their efforts were focused on three main fronts. First, Fatah established a growing presence in the occupied territories, where Palestinians were in dire need of both ideological salvation and practical social services. Fatah organized healthcare through the Red Crescent Society (founded by Yasir Arafat’s brother), education through the General Union of Palestinian Students, women’s rights through the General Union of Palestinian Women, and similar organizations for workers, artists, and so on. Second of all, Fatah, along with other independent Palestinian groups, visited Arab capitals in a successful search for financial support. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Arafat convinced the King to levy a “liberation tax” in support of the guerilla movement, cultivating 50 to 60 million riyals a year towards the resistance movement (Tessler p. 424). And finally, Fatah moved to consolidate its power within the PLO, which was at this point still functionally subservient to other Arab states. The group organized the many guerilla organizations, from George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to the Syrian-backed al-Saiqa, to denounce current PLO head Shuqayri, who they feared would soon adopt Egypt and Jordan’s increasingly Western-influenced line towards a political resolution of the territorial conflict at the expense of Palestinian statehood.
This monumental third front by Fatah culminated in the birth of the true PLO at the fifth Palestinian National Congress of 1969, in which they gained the majority of seats and Arafat named head of the organizations. This is the “true” birth of the organization because the PLO was now comprehensively representative of the Palestinian people, allowing it to engage the heart of the struggle—the liberation of Palestine and the self-determination of a Palestinian state through resistance and armed struggle. Appropriately, the final obstacle preventing total unity of Palestinian resistance organizations resulted from the meddling of Arab states, as the reticence of the two central Marxist factions, the hyperactive PFLP and Nayef Hawatmeh’s Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) towards participating in this new PLO resulted from intense rivalries between their respective benefactors, Iraq and Syria, though the PFLP finally agreed to participate by the seventh Congress. This supports the fact that post-1967, the involvement of outside Arab states in the PLO beyond supply of basic resources, namely arms, was a severe obstacle to the achievement of Palestinian organizational unity. Nonetheless, Fatah was able to mobilize and coordinate the many resistance factions under the umbrella of the PLO, in the process giving hope to the Palestinian people and their struggle for rights, voice, and statehood.
Though Fatah and the new PLO gave much-needed hope to both those living under Israeli occupation as well as those struggling in refugee camps around the Middle East, an immense moral crisis also arose as a result of the void left by the violent downfall of the pan-Arab movement—a sort of coming-of-age fear of the uncertainties of the future. Palestinian poetry following the June War of 1967 elucidates this shift in social consciousness away from the comfort and security of the support structure provided by the Arab states and towards the deep sense of existential dread based on the hardships for attainment of independent Palestinian statehood that lay ahead. One such poem, Khalil Tuma’s “Songs of the Last Nights,” ends with such a sense of eschatological foreboding: “Though he won’t accept alms / He would stare at the bodies of young people / At their arms and at their legs / And through the running tears / In front of him appear columns of fire” (Adwan p. 219). Despite this deep cultural trembling, or perhaps as a result of it, the efforts of the Palestinian people to establish a dignified, free, and secure existence for coming generations were galvanized. In this sense, the War of 1967 awakened the Palestinians’ deepest national convictions and identities, embodied by the PLO, enabling them to confront these “columns of fire” on their own terms, through their own energies, consecrated in their own blood—just as would any independent nation.
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Tessler, M. A. (2009). A history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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Shindler, C. (January 01, 1999). The PLO in the world order. Terrorism and Political Violence, 11, 3, 151-160.
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LeVine, M. (2012, October 25). Non-Jewish majority: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Al Jazeera English. Retrieved October 25, 2012, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/