VIII. Palestinian Defeat, Divisions And Survival

VIII. Palestinian Defeat, Divisions And Survival

The 18th Session of the Palestine National Council

Participants in the 18th Session of the Palestine National Council, held in Algiers in April 1987.

25 April 1987
The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) Collection

During the period 1982–87, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) lost its base in Lebanon as a result of Israel’s invasion of this country in 1982. This was followed by a scission within Fatah, dissensions among organizations within the PLO, and a strategic shift by PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat in the direction of a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a return to coordination with Egypt and Jordan. This policy did not lead to significant progress in the peace process, and Israel appeared in a strong position, both at the strategic regional level, and insofar as its settlement activity in the occupied territories was concerned. By 1987, the main Palestinian organizations (except those dependent on Syria) had reconciled, while the fire was smoldering under the ashes in the occupied territories, on the eve of the outbreak of the first intifada at the end of 1987.

The March 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty removed the strategic threat of the Egyptian army from Israel’s southern front, thus freeing the government of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to use the Israeli army to destroy the PLO’s estimated 15,000–18,000 fighters in Lebanon. Crippling the Palestinian quasi-state in Lebanon (with its political and military leadership, its bureaucratic organs, and its military formations) would not only rid Israel’s northern border of a hostile force, but would weaken the PLO influence internationally, regionally, and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, where Begin’s government was busy establishing Jewish settlements to maintain Israel’s hold on the areas.

A July 1981 Israeli-PLO cease-fire agreement engineered  by the American government had led to a brief period of peace along the Israeli-Lebanese border, but on 6 June 1982 the Israeli government used the attempted assassination in London of the Israeli ambassador by an anti-PLO Palestinian group as a pretext to launch an invasion of Lebanon. Originally claiming that Israel only wanted to advance 40 kilometers into Lebanon to clear a “security zone,” Sharon quickly ordered the Israeli army to advance toward the capital, Beirut. Ultimately, approximately 76,000 Israeli troops, and over 1,000 Israeli tanks, crossed into Lebanon. In addition to fierce fighting with PLO fighters and Lebanese militias allied with the PLO, the Israelis engaged in tank and air battles with Syrian forces that led to the loss of over eighty Syrian aircraft.

The Israelis quickly encircled West Beirut, site of the PLO’s headquarters, and laid siege to that part of the city throughout the summer, subjecting it to heavy and at times sustained bombardments from land, air, and sea. They made several attempts to enter West Beirut, but succeeded only in conquering open areas south of the city.  Eventually Arafat and the beleaguered PLO leadership agreed to evacuate under the terms of another American-brokered agreement that came into effect on 20 August 1982. Some 14,000 PLO fighters left the city under the protection of a multinational force consisting of French, Italian, and American soldiers, who also were supposed to guarantee the safety of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut. Arafat himself left by ship and eventually resettled in Tunis, where the PLO established its new headquarters.

Under the agreement, Israeli troops were not allowed to enter West Beirut. After the 14 September 1982 assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, however, Israeli forces entered West Beirut and encircled the refugee camp of Shatila and the Sabra neighborhood. They allowed Phalangists (members of the militia that Gemayel had headed) and other anti-PLO Lebanese fighters into the camp, who then murdered more than 3,000 Palestinian civilians. The UN condemned the massacre and an Israeli commission of inquiry determined that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the crime. Moreover, the massacre highlighted the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees in the absence of PLO forces.

As a result of the war, two peace plans emerged that were designed to offer a diplomatic path to negotiations on the Palestinian issue. The first was the Reagan Plan, announced on 1 September 1982 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It offered Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, which eventually would be associated politically with Jordan. One week later, the Arab League announced the Fez Initiative. It was similar to the 7 August 1981 Fahd Plan, issued by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, which had called for establishment of a Palestinian state and implied Arab recognition of Israel in return.

Another consequence of the Lebanon war was strong dissension within the Palestinian national movement. A major rebellion broke out within Fatah that weakened Arafat’s influence within his own organization. In May 1983, Sa‘id Muragha (Abu Musa), a high-level Fatah military officer who had organized the defense of Beirut during the war, publicly criticized Arafat for his political positions, including his rapprochement with Jordan, his readiness to consider the Reagan Plan as a basis for negotiations, and his mismanagement of the affairs inside Fatah, such as promoting several undeserving Fatah officers. Soon, with support from Syria, fighters loyal to Abu Musa took over Fatah arms depots, and the rebellion within Fatah spread to include other Palestinian groups hostile to Arafat, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmad Jibril. Fighting then broke out between Arafat loyalists and Abu Musa’s fighters, who were referred to popularly as Fatah Uprising (Fatah al-Intifada). Abu Musa’s rebels managed to push the Arafat loyalists out of most of Lebanon despite the fact that Arafat himself traveled to Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, to rally his loyal Fatah fighters. Some 4,000 Arafat loyalists eventually accepted a Saudi-brokered deal by which they were evacuated on Greek ships flying the UN flag in December 1983.

Beyond the Abu Musa secession, tense polarization emerged within the PLO. On one side, pro-Syrian organizations (PFLP-GC, Saiqa, Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, Fatah al-Intifada) called for Arafat’s destitution, and even to form an alternative PLO. On the other side, a grouping (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Palestine Liberation Front, Palestinian Communist Party) emerged that opposed Arafat’s leadership and Palestinian-Jordanian coordination but was not willing to abandon the PLO or work directly under Syrian sponsorship. In March 1984, it constituted the Democratic Alliance and started a dialogue with Fatah leadership. The pro-Syrian coalition formed the National Alliance in July 1984, criticizing the dialogue conducted by the Democratic Alliance with Fatah.

In the meantime, and against the background of PLO political-military losses in the Lebanese arena, the mounting tensions with Syria, and internal dissensions (that erupted as the “war of the camps” in Lebanon between 1985 and 1987), Arafat attempted to preserve the PLO diplomatic status and its role in efforts related to settling the Palestine question. As soon as he withdrew from Tripoli at the end of December 1983, he traveled to Cairo and met with Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, thus ending Palestinian official boycott of Egypt since Anwar al-Sadat’s trip to Israel in November 1977. He also resumed attempts to coordinate with Jordan on the terms that would allow negotiations with Israel. The Arafat-Hussein rapprochement opened the way for convening the 17th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Amman in November 1984, although both the Democratic Alliance and the National Alliance boycotted the meeting. Following this, in February 1985, Arafat reached an agreement with Hussein (“Palestinian-Jordanian Joint Action Agreement”) that included creating a joint Palestinian-Jordanian negotiating delegation for any future Arab-Israeli peace talks as well as the principle of establishing a confederation between Jordan and a Palestinian state.

The Jordanian-Palestinian agreement left a number of ambiguous points, mainly by not explicitly referring to Resolution 242, as Jordan had requested. The fact is that the approach to the resolution remained a sticking point that prevented any progress in the negotiation process, not only in terms of Palestinian-Jordanian relations, but mainly relative to a possible PLO-US dialogue. While the PLO demanded complementing the resolution with a provision recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, the United States wanted an unconditional Palestinian acceptance of the resolution as a necessary (though not sufficient) step toward opening such dialogue, and without any US commitment concerning the PLO participation in the negotiation process.  This impasse led to the failure of Jordanian-Palestinian talks at the beginning of 1986 and then to the Jordanian decision to terminate the talks. The end of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian action opened the way for the reconciliation between Fatah and the organizations not affiliated with Syria in September 1986 and then to the convening of the 18th session of the PNC in Algiers in April 1987.

Israel adamantly rejected giving the PLO any role in the negotiations over the future of the West Bank and Gaza, a point made clear when the Israeli air force bombed Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis in October 1985. Israel’s colonizing activities in the occupied territories brought the additional message to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that occupation would continue. The uprising that broke out in December 1987 showed that the situation could not be so easily contained.   

Selected Bibliography: 

al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. Sabra and Shatila: September 1982. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

Hussein bin Talal. “The Jordanian-Palestinian Peace Initiative: Mutual Recognition and Territory for Peace.Journal of Palestine Studies 14, no.4 (Summer 1985): 11–22.

Khalidi, Rashid. Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking during the 1982 War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000.

Schiff, Ze’ev, and Ehud Ya’ari. Israel’s Lebanon War. New York: Touchstone, 1985.