The ideological divide in the Palestinian Resistance Movement - Mohammed Ja'far

A critical assessment of the two mainstream currents inside the Palestinian Resistance Movement.

Submitted by Ed on January 16, 2013

The ideological divide in the Palestinian Resistance Movement

Mohammed Ja'far

Following the October war and the Lebanese civil war, the Arab region has entered a new phase in its post-world war history. Economically the Arab oil-producing countries are undergoing un­precedented capitalist boom conditions reflected in a massive growth of imports from the West, a significant increase in the size of the Arab middle classes, and consequently a relative strengthening of the social base of the Arab bourgeoisies. Politically the organisations of the Palestinian Resistance Movement, which played a vanguard role in Arab politics over the last decade, have suffered a series of defeats beginning with the September 1970 massacre in Jordan and culminating in the Lebanese civil war.

This article takes as its point of departure the profound crisis of political perspectives in the Palestinian arena among the left as a reflection of the changed objective situation in comparison in par­ticular with the 1967-70 period. We will concentrate on a critical assessment of the two mainstream currents inside the Palestinian Resistance Movement.

The PLO majority line

The first current represents the line of the majority leadership of the PLO and the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian National Council (PNC – Palestinian parliament in exile) as affirmed in its June 1974 Congress and more recently in March 1977. What are the basic elements of this line?

1. That the political and military relationship of forces between the Arab regimes and the zionist state have significantly changed since the October war and the Arab oil embargo in favour of the Arab regimes. This change, according to the PLO, leaves open the possibility of a withdrawal of Israel from territories it has been occupying since 1967. The question of 'Who is to rule' over these territories, in particular the West Bank, is therefore posed.

2. That the PLO should place itself in a position to take advantage of the new situation created by the Arab regimes. This necessitates its integration into mainstream bourgeois Arab diplomacy in the hope of wringing further concessions from Israel. Thus the Rabat October 1974 Arab Summit Conference recognised the PLO as 'the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people', only four months after the PNC affirmed the PLO's adjusted analysis of the post-­October 1973 political situation. The bourgeois Arab regimes had bestowed upon the PLO a new legitimacy by opting for it over Hussein in this crucial summit conference.

3. That the strategic implication of the new situation entails a shift from direct confrontation with the zionist state – armed struggle – to a policy of assurances and diplomatic manoeuvering with those Arab regimes capable of applying pressure for an Israeli withdrawal. Thus began Arafat's world tours, culminating in his dramatic appearance at the UN with an offer to pick up the olive branch of peace and put down his gun.

The central problem with this line is its analysis of the changed objective situation. The October war did not primarily signal a shift in the military and political relationship of forces with zionism. The Arab armies were definitely defeated on the battlefield even though this time it took much longer than six days. The discernible relative improvement in their fighting ability in 1973, as compared to 1967, was to be significant in the medium term in relation to the class struggle inside the Arab countries and not in relation to Israel. The Arab ruling classes came out of the October war more stable than when they had gone into it, even though today in purely military terms the zionist ruling class is stronger and better equipped than ever before.

But if there has not been over the last four years a very significant shift to the advantage of the Arab regimes from the point of view of their relations with Israel, there has, on the other hand, been a decisive shift in their relations with the Palestinian Resistance Movement.

Between the 1970 civil war in Jordan and the Lebanese civil war, the Palestinian Resistance has been squeezed out of Jordan into Syria and Lebanon; out of Syria into Lebanon; and finally out of the whole of Lebanon into a miserable enclave in the south. The bulk of the guerrilla forces are caught in a sandwich today, with the Syrian army at their rear and the Phalangist militia and Israeli army at their front.

Indirectly, of course, the new line of the PLO in the aftermath of the October war is itself a confirmation of the modified relationship of forces inside the Arab countries. Following the devastating destruction of the bourgeois Arab armies in 1967, the social base of the present leadership of the PLO was established amidst the political vacuum created by the war. The organisations of the Palestinian Resistance became movements of refugees for the liberation of their homeland in the face of the proven bankruptcy of the Arab regimes on the battlefield with zionism. The civil war in Jordan in 1970, but far more importantly the October 1973 war, changed the political context dramatically. The Arab regimes had regained the initiative and had succeeded in fact in inflicting more damage in military terms on the zionist entity in one month than the guerrilla forces had in six years.

The role of the Palestinian organisations during October 1973 was completely marginal. A confusing situation was created, in which organisations whose sole and only reason for existence was the liberation of Palestine had achieved on this particular front less than normal bourgeois armies whose reason for existence was defence of the interests of their respective ruling classes. The crisis of political perspectives inside the Palestinian Resistance deepened as these facts gradually sunk in.

The political response of the PLO leadership to the new situation was in no way a departure from their original starting point – the liberation of Palestine. This 'goal' of the PLO was simply made more concrete in the light of altered circumstances. It was first of all broken up into stages, beginning with the establishment of a 'national authority' on the West Bank, which would later extend to the whole of Palestine. Secondly, it was made more 'realistic' by gradually in­serting it into the machinery of bourgeois Arab diplomacy on the basis of the analysis previously sketched out.

In the course of this evolution of the PLO, its class character as an organisation began very clearly to emerge from the shadows. No longer was the PLO special because of what distinguished it from the Arab regimes as in the 1967-70 period, when the PLO fought an armed struggle against zionism in face of the proven bankruptcy of the Arab armies. Rather, the post-October 1973 period was charac­terised by the PLO's movement towards making its notion of what the 'liberation of Palestine' meant more in line with what the Arab regimes themselves had in mind. The question, from the point of view of the Arab regimes, was whether or not their interests were best served by the addition of a junior partner to the League of Arab States in the form of a bourgeois state on the West Bank, ruled by some sort of coalition between the PLO bureaucracy and the West Bank Palestinian bourgeoisie. The bourgeois programmatic content of the formula 'secular democratic Palestine' and the bourgeois character of the PLO as an umbrella Palestinian organisation became inescapably clear.

The rejectionist currents

The second ideological current in the Palestinian Resistance has emerged as a partial, purely negative, reaction to this evolution of the PLO. After October 1973, it came to be known as the 'Rejectionists', even though in the course of the Lebanese civil war any organisational rubric which may have embraced the rejectionist organisations completely fell apart. Today, organisations like Habash's Popular Front and Ahmad Jebril's Popular Front – General Command, which used to constitute the hard core of the rejectionists, are moving closer to the realism of the PLO majority leadership. On the other hand, new currents – bypassing the traditional Palestinian leaders, whose social base was established in the 1967-70 period – have begun to emerge from the base of some Palestinian organisations like Fatah and the Popular Front – General Command. Such currents have developed spontaneously and more or less independently of each other.

If one abstracts from the motivations of the numerous opportunists and stooges of viciously anti-communist regimes like Iraq and Libya amongst the rejectionists, then it is possible to define a set of ideas which characterise some of the basic positions of genuine Palestinian Rejectionists, who are trying to search for answers to the obvious impasse of the Arab/Palestinian left. These are:

1. The emphasis on the so-called 'betrayal of the PLO leadership' in its adoption of the strategy of diplomacy and abandonment of armed struggle. The imperialist peaceful road, or the revolutionary armed road – this is how the great political divide is posed inside the Palestinian Resistance.

2. Support for the ultimate programmatic aims of the PLO as expressed in the Palestinian National Charter, and the call for the establishment through armed struggle of a democratic state in Palestine. Most rejectionists still do not differentiate themselves from the PLO on the basis of its class character, or on the basis of the type of society and future state it wants to establish in Palestine. Rather, they draw the line on the question of how more or less the same democratic state, whether in the whole or part of Palestine, is to come into being.

A democratic intermediate stage of the revolution to liberate Palestine is usually introduced in this context as a theoretical justification for abstention from class politics. The example of the Vietnamese revolution is also sometimes presented as a democratic revolution led by a 'front' (the NLF), in which the revolutionary party (the Vietnamese Communist Party – the VCP), developed a hegemonic position in the course of the revolution. In this version of the history of the Vietnamese Revolution we can see how the ex­perience of the Palestinian Resistance has been extrapolated to explain the victory of the VCP. The notion that the VCP emerged out of front-type organisations, which in turn were leading a purely democratic revolution, is of course contrary to historical fact and simply reflects the absence of a revolutionary party in the Palestinian arena, despite the plethora of front organisations of all types (the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, the Arab Liberation Front, and the PLO itself which is a front of all organisations). The VCP was the only mass party in Vietnam, long before it set up its 'front' for purely ideological reasons which had more to do with the VCP's conceptions of the character of the revolution it was leading than it had with its actual character.

It is a mistake to distinguish Palestinian rejectionists from the PLO leadership on the question of whether one is for the liberation of all or part of Palestine. This issue first appeared immediately after the October war. But following the civil war in Lebanon, the main dividing line is clearly how one achieves what are on the surface at least the same programmatic aims. In this sense almost all Palestinian rejectionists do not draw a class line between themselves and the PLO leadership.

3. As a consequence of the above, rejectionists tend to be either un­clear or at worst support the idea that 'the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians wherever they are, as long as it continues armed struggle which is the only way to liberate all of Palestine as is represented in the Palestinian National Charter'.1

Critique of the rejectionist line

What are the limitations of this line?

1. While correctly counterposing the revolutionary strategy of armed struggle to the rightist strategy of peaceful diplomatic manoeuvering with the Arab ruling classes, it incorrectly elevates a means towards an end – armed struggle – into an end in itself.

This is how, for example, the same GUPS-UK political resolution which has been quoted before expresses itself:

'It is true that now we [ie the Palestinian Movement] are in a weaker position than in any previous period. The Syrian army has entered our fortresses, and the retreats are weakening us and tearing apart our ranks. However, as we sprung forth in 1965 in a much worse situation and insisted on struggle, so now we shall insist on continuing our armed people's struggle. As long as our arms are between our hands we shall not drop them. We shall direct them at the breasts of our enemies, and if the cities have been occupied we shall transform every inch into a living hell and every neighbourhood and every refugee camp into a fortress of perseverance.'2

The ability to wage armed struggle is of course an important test that every revolutionary organisation will have to pass on the Palestinian arena at one stage or another. However, it is no panacea for the whole range of political and strategic questions that are posed in this complex part of the Arab world. Should Palestinian\Arab revo­lutionaries be intervening in the Occupied Territories, for example, in the same way as in the refugee camps, or amongst the very large Palestinian population living outside the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait?

The principal weakness of the Palestinian Resistance Movement is that since 1967 it has to a large extent consciously restricted itself both programmatically and organisationally to only one numerically small and economically marginal layer of the Arab population – the Palestinian refugees especially inside the camps. It is true that this layer of the Arab masses are the most directly and brutally oppressed victims of zionist colonisation. For this reason they have nothing to lose by joining Palestinian organisations immediately as full time guerrilla fighters dedicated to an armed struggle against zionism. In so doing, they have since 1967 enormously stimulated the political awakening of the rest of the Arab masses. Hundreds of thousands of young Arabs were radicalised by the rise of the Resistance Movement in the 1967-70 period. But the leadership of that movement of armed refugees chose 'not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Arab regimes'. It chose only to recruit professional guerrilla fighters and wage exclusively an armed struggle against zionism from outside the borders of the zionist state. Even the traditional left wing of the Resistance – the PFLP and the DPFLP – despite a lot of verbal demagogy, fell in line with the mainstream Palestinian leadership and its tendency to 'Palestinianise' all questions facing the Arab masses in the countries around Israel. The character of the revolutionary struggle against zionism was theorised to be 'Palestinian', in contrast to Arab – the dominant conception in the 1948-67 period. In all of these developments the Palestinian leadership was consciously choosing to restrict its field of action to what is socially an in­significant – although politically very advanced – layer of the Arab masses. This is reflected not only in the policy of 'non-interference' but also in the demand that every Arab worker and peasant in order to struggle against zionism must immediately abandon his work, family, and social milieu, to pick up the gun.

2. The second problem with this line is that it does not break with the programmatic basis of the Resistance Movement as this is expressed in the call for an independent democratic Palestinian state whether in the whole or part of Palestine.

It is only natural that if one restricts one's activities to the refugee Arab population, then programmatically this entails confining oneself to a return of these refugees to the lands they have been expelled from – ie a return to a democratic Palestine. In so doing the Palestinian Movement is becoming a victim to the very idea it is fighting against when it rejects the UN Resolution 242 for example. It is indirectly confirming the view so dearly held by the zionists: that the whole problem is one of displaced refugees, and not one embracing all the exploited classes of the Arab region.

But the problem is much deeper than this. A 'secular democratic Palestine' is not an empty vessel that can be filled with just about anything. It is a very specific project: to create a bourgeois state in a not very clearly defined corner of the Arab world. In the post-October 1973 situation, the PLO\Arafat leadership has quite correctly drawn the conclusion that this project, no matter how difficult to realise, is only possible by entering the Arab bourgeoisie's negotiating machinery. Between 1967 and 1970, in the wake of the devastating destruction of the Arab armies, the Palestinian organisations distinguished themselves from the Arab ruling classes by launching a genuinely independent armed struggle against zionism. It is on the basis of this struggle that they won the allegiance of the Palestinian refugees in the camps, and acted objectively as a vanguard for the revolutionary process in the whole Arab world. Today, the same project of yesterday – the realisation of a democratic state in Palestine – is only possible by adaptation to the new situation which we have previously defined as a shift in the relationship of forces in the Arab region to the advantage of the Arab regimes. The PLO\ Arafat line is therefore consistent with its point of depar­ture – its intention to liberate Palestine or a part of it, and set up its own state as one more addition to the League of Arab States.

The rejectionist Palestinians, on the other hand, appear to be counterposing a different strategy – armed struggle – to arrive at the same end: an independent Palestinian state, but in the context of changed political circumstances. That is why they appear to be out of tune with reality, utopian, and are continually and effectively criticised by the PLO for being inconsistent and adventurous.

In fact of course, in immediate practical political terms, there is a world of difference between those who orient themselves in what they say and do to the PLO\Arafat project with all that it entails, and those whose every instinct 'rejects' such a project. This difference is of the utmost importance in relation to the concrete problems of the class struggle, and more particularly in understanding the political character of the currents forming today at the base of the Resistance Movement. But at the same time the nature of what is being rejected must be clearly articulated. If it is only the particular strategy of the PLO, then Palestinian revolutionaries must address themselves to the objective fact that in the current situation such a strategy – or some variation on it – is the only possible way that a Palestinian ministate will come into being.

Within the framework of the same strategic project of the PLO, it is only natural that a number of seemingly conflicting tactical manoeuveres can ensue. For example: following Carter's famous statement about the need for a Palestinian 'homeland' of some un­defined character, the PLO leadership threw all its remaining eggs into the imperialist basket, going so far as to hint in the summer of 1977 at reconsidering its position on UN Resolution 242. However, coinciding with Secretary of State Vance's tour in the Middle East, the American position began to harden in the direction of the joint administration of the West Bank by Jordan and Israel. The Arab regimes, especially Egypt and possibly Syria, showed themselves amenable to the new idea. The PLO's alarm at being left out sent Arafat scuttling off to Moscow and the word was put out that the PLO would opt for a 'get tough' line with the US as was shown in August in the much publicised central committee rejection of Resolution 242 in very sharp terms.

Did the PLO's basic intentions and programmatic 'goal' change in any way as a result of these developments? We do not think so. The PLO simply became aware that the road to a Palestinian ministate was more tortuous than even it had realised, and consequently some tactical modifications were necessary including a 'sharp' rejection of Resolution 242, despite previous hints that the PLO was reconsidering its longstanding rejection of this resolution.

The example above shows that although the entry of the PLO into the negotiating machinery of the Arab regimes, zionism and im­perialism is the only possible way a bourgeois ministate will come into being on the West Bank, nevertheless by no means is this a likely development, given the current relationship of forces.3 Our main point is that in the current situation, to counterpose armed struggle alone, to peaceful diplomacy, as a means of achieving an independent Palestinian state is inevitably going to lead to the complete marginalisation and destruction of the left wing of the Resistance Movement.

3. This brings us to the third and most acute political obstacle to the emergence of a revolutionary organisation amongst the scattered Palestinian left. The idea that 'the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people', whether it continues armed struggle or not, paralyses the organisational activity and independence of the revolutionary currents emerging at the base of the Palestinian organisations. It renders them unable to give organisational ex­pression to their opposition and will inevitably transform them, despite themselves, into a left pressure group on the bourgeois leadership of the PLO. The process of assimilation of the lessons of the experience of the last ten years, will remain confined to individuals and little grouplets. In this sense a tradition of left-wing Palestinian nationalism going back to the days of the PFLP and the DPFLP in the 1967-70 period, will be continued. But what makes it even worse this time is that support of the PLO's 'legitimacy' to lead the 'Palestinian' revolution is taking place in the context of a politically complete degeneration of the PLO into a pressure group for a Palestinian state, and the inescapable conclusion today that from the point of view of programme, strategy and concrete tactics, the PLO expresses the future hopes and aspirations of a Palestinian bourgeoisie whether already existing (in the West Bank) or yet to be created (out of the bureaucratic apparatus of the PLO). It is impossible to separate out the notion of the 'legitimacy' of the PLO and hence its 'right' to speak in the name of all classes of Palestinian Arabs, from the bourgeois character of this organisation. It is true that in the eyes of the Arab masses the PLO acquired its legitimacy from its presence in the forefront of the battle against zionism in the 1967-1970 period. In and of itself this tells us nothing about its class character. However, the acknowledgement by the Arab ruling classes in the Rabat summit conference of 1974 that the PLO is the 'sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians' is different. Here the act of making a partial concession to the PLO leadership, at the expense of King Hussein of Jordan, constitutes on the one hand a recognition of the PLO's real mass base amongst the Palestinians. But on the other hand, the Arab regimes, only one year removed from their 'victory' over zionism, were affirming that at least in principle (ie at the programmatic level) the PLO as an organisation did not come into conflict with the class basis of these regimes' own 'legitimacy' in the region. This judgement by the Arab regimes on the suitability of the PLO as a temporary junior partner in the diplomatic machinations going on in the region indisputably confirms the bourgeois character of the organisation of the PLO.

The inability of large numbers of genuine Palestinian rejectionists to break organisationally with the PLO and what it actually stands for is nothing else than the organisational expression of political positions that have not yet matured beyond left Palestinian nationalism. Programmatically, there has not yet occurred a differentiation amongst significant currents of Palestinian rejectionists on the question of the nature of the state and society to which the revolution is dedicated. Palestino-centrism is reflected in the almost obsessive concern with armed struggle and the innovation of a purely Palestinian revolution structured primarily around the liberation of Palestine from the outside. The day to day concerns of the masses of Arab and even Palestinian workers and peasants in the various Arab countries are still not the concern of any sizeable current in the Palestinian vanguard. From a certain point of view it can be concluded that Palestinian rejectionists only come into conflict with the PLO on the very partial question of whether or not armed struggle against zionism is on the order of the day. At the same time they appear to accept more or less the PLO's analysis of the existing situation and even the final goal to which the PLO is still dedicated. It is in this sense therefore that they consider the PLO is a 'legitimate representative' of the Palestinian people.

In summary: the depth of the crisis of the Palestinian Resistance is such that nothing short of a complete overhaul of all traditional formulas and slogans is necessary as a first step towards achieving that understanding of the objective situation which is a prerequisite to the building of genuinely new revolutionary organisations in the region. Partial criticism of the PLO leadership for its supposed 'betrayals' only lends credence to the PLO as an organisation and to its project for the creation of a bourgeois Palestinian state. The 'right' of the PLO to speak in the name of all classes of Palestinians is therefore strengthened. It is long past the time when revolutionaries, through their activity, need to create the basis of a new theoretical divide, based on the reality of class politics in the region.

September 1977

  • 1See point 5 of the Political Resolution adopted by GUPS-UK at its January 1977 Conference.
  • 2See introduction to January 1977 Political Resolution of GUPS-UK.
  • 3See on this matter the excellent article by Jon Rothschild 'Peace Is Not At Hand' in Imprecor, 12 May 1977 issue.