National Sections of the L5I:

Palestinian Nationalism and the PLO

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Whilst the PLO has recently been usurped by Hamas as the vanguard organisation of Palestinian militants which holds the leadership of the national liberation struggle, the PLO historically was always the dominant party. This historical article from 1988 explains how the bourgeois nationalist politics of the PLO and Fateh were a dead end for the Palestinians, and led to their fall from grace in January 2006.

The soil from which a specifically Palestinian nationalism could grow existed in the mandate period among the intelligentsia within the merchant (mainly Christian) Arab population .

It developed a highly westernised outlook with their newspapers and periodicals playing a leading role in the campaign to resist Zionism and in the developing of a Palestinian and Arab national consciousness.

Among the key external factors in developing this was the British imperialists refusal to grant Palestine's inhabitants self-determination or self government and the separation in 1918 of Palestine from Syria (French Mandate) and from Transjordan (a British puppet monarchy).

Trade routes were disrupted as a result and the economy decisively reoriented by the Mandate government. Cash crops for export came to dominate the most fertile areas-the coastal plain. Citrus fruit exports; largely to Britain, increased enormously

No less important was the effect of the Zionist colonisation. By 1935 Jewish organisations and individuals owned 12% of the total arable land. Given the impoverished minifundia of the Arab population, burdened with debt and unable to afford irrigation, machinery, fertiliser to increase productivity the Arab peasantry's land hunger became ever more intense.

These external pressures allied to the destruction of pre-capitalist social relations created the basis for the birth of a national consciousness amongst the Arab Palestinian population. Until the unmasking of pan-Arabist movements such as Nasserism, however, a specifically Palestinian nationalism was muted.

Today, the Palestine Liberation Organisation has become the umbrella organisation including all the major forces in struggle against Zionism for Palestinian national self-determination. As an alliance of mass political, cultural and military organisations it has become the centre for national resistance, performing the role of a surrogate state throughout the Palestinian diaspora.

It has armed forces, a parliament and a 'government' but it is sovereign in no definite territorial area: and in the last analysis it depends on the support or toleration of the other Arab states. Set up by Nasser and the Arab regimes in 1964, the 'official' PLO under Ahmad Shiqueiry was unable even to establish its hegemony over the Palestinian masses and remained a pliant tool of the neighbouring bourgeois Arab states.

In fact Shiqueiry was rapidly outflanked by the growth of Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Movement), which gained in popularity after launching its first guerilla strike on Israel in 1965, eventually taking control of the PLO in 1969.

Fatah was founded with financial backing from the exiled Palestinian bourgeoisie. It reversed the previous strategic schema-first pan-Arab liberation, then Palestinian freedom. Given the manifest failure of Egypt and Syria in 1967 and given the successful guerrilla struggles of the 1960s-the FLN in Algeria, the NLF in Vietnam, the July 26th Movement in Cuba, Fatah proposed a similar struggle to destabilise and internally disrupt the Zionist state. Attacks were to be launched from the neighbouring states-Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Revolutionary communists (Trotskyists) are opposed to a strategy of guerrilla warfare for the following reasons. Our strategy is the mobilisation of the urban and rural masses under the leadership of the working class.

To withdraw from production, from the towns and cities and even from the most densely populated agricultural districts the most fearless fighters, to concentrate their activity soley on military combat training is to deprive an oppressed people and exploited classes of their cadres for direct mass action.

It denudes and weakens economic and political struggle in favour of military action which by and large is episodic and desultory. thus while the PLO factions set up armed militias based on the camps for twenty years or more they neglected the organisation and mobilisation of the Palestinians within the Zionist state. The result is to create an elite of trained fighters not a vanguard of mass struggle.

In fact the PLO and Fatah were never able to develop guerrilla warfare on a mass scale or penetrate the Zionist state except on daring but always suicidal missions. The one victory Fatah won, in 1968 was fought on Jordanian soil (Karameh) where they repulsed an attack by Israeli raiding forces against a refugee camp.

Moreover since the guerrilla groups depend for their finance and their base of operations on bourgeois Arab regimes both conservative and 'radical' it has repeatedly been restricted, disciplined and indeed expelled and disarmed by these regimes. In addition it has been pressured into their repeated attempts at diplomatic solutions. Fatah with the closest links to its Saudi and Gulf backers has repeatedly proved amenable to these projects.

The limitations of this bourgeois nationalist strategy were tragically revealed in Jordan 1970. The strength of the PLO having extended beyond the Palestinian camps into the very institutions of the Jordanian state, ferocious attacks were launched against the PLO resistance by the Hashemite regime.

Despite a general strike and widespread calls for the overthrow of the monarchy, Fatah's policy of 'non-interference' and express support for the Jordanian-Palestinian bourgeoisie of the Kingdom caused them to attempt the demobilisation of the Palestinian and Jordanian masses in the face of Hussein's assault.

The resultant massacre of 2-3,000 Palestinian fighters (Black September) must be seen as a direct result of this strategy of dependence and alliance on the Arab regimes.

One organisation within the PLO which, at least in words, rejects the principle of non-interference is the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Founded by former leaders of the Arab National Movement, most prominent among them being George Habash, the PFLP evolved quickly in the direction of Stalinism.

Though it argued for the resistance itself to seize power in Jordan in 1970, given the political leadership of the movement this could only be taken as a call for the establishment of a democratic bourgeois regime.

Indeed the PFLP is totally committed to the Stalinist 'stages' theory which limits the immediate goal of the national struggle to the realisation of democratic demands.

No established tendency in the Palestinian movement was fighting in 1970 for a revolution in Jordan which would have required councils of workers peasant and soldier delegates to take power. Thus a decisive opportunity was missed in striking a real blow at imperialism and its local agents.

Despite inclusion in its programme of the need for a 'revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party', the PFLP has not adopted a strategy of organising the Palestinian workers for mass struggle against Zionism. Indeed it sank, after Black September, into a despairing petit bourgeois strategy of individual terror, initiating a wave of hi-jackings and hostage seizures.

Whilst unconditionally defending from state repression those militants who adopt such methods Trotskyists reject and fight against the adoption of these forms of struggle because they are completely ineffective for promoting the victory of the national liberation struggle and because they condemn the masses to the role of passive by-stander rather than the instrument of their own liberation.

The failure of the PLO's strategy to yield results, together with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 war, spurred the growth within the PLO of support for the formation of a Palestinian state on the newly occupied territories; such a 'mini-state' was to exist alongside the Zionist state itself.

Between 1967 and 1973 the PDFLP (Popular Democratic Front For the Liberation of Palestine, later known simply as DFLP) which was a split from the PFLP and led by Naif Hawatmeh argued for the Wesy Bank to become a liberated zone, free of Israeli troops and no longer under Jordanian tutelage.

Under the impact of the defeat in the 1973 war the idea was transformed by Fatah into the idea of a 'mini-state'. Despite the opposition of the DFLP to Fatah's increasing reliance on the Arab regimes, the mini-state policy has led directly to manouevres with 'democratic' imperialism, the Arab bourgeoisie, the United Nations and the USSR- all in an attempt to persuade the Zionists to grant limted autonomy to the West Bank and Gaza.

All consistent advocates of self-determination for the Palestinians must reject this slogan as a reactionary dead end for the struggle for national liberation. A quasi-Bantustan, economically and militarily dominated by Israel, is an attractive prospect for those powers seeking to 'stabilise' the situation in the region by diverting and undermining the prospects for any sustained anti-imperialist revolt.

Support for this within the PLO stems to a large extent from layers keen to appropriate the power and the material benefits of office. For the Palestinian masses such a solution would be a betrayal of their just aspiration to return to their homeland as free and equal citizens of a non-confessional and democratic state.

To date only the Palestinian Communist Party have taken the line of compromise and retreat to its logical conclusion and recognise the state of Israel's right to exist.

Opposition to the 'mini-state' has been led by a 'Rejection Front' of Palestinian organisations, most prominent among them being the PFLP. Yet this attitude remains only slightly more progressive than the position of Fatah and the DFLP. All Palestinian organisations (except for the Islamic Jihad) whether 'realist' or 'rejectionist' support the PLO's central slogan of a 'Democratic Secular State' in Palestine. Our objection to this slogan does not lie principly in its ambiguity (allowing several interpretations including that of a 'mini-state') nor in its clearly progressive aspect in prescribing no confessional basis for a future state in Palestine.

Our objection lies in the absence of any indication of which class in Palestinian society is capable of overthrowing Zionism and which class must predominate in the future state.

When all the ideological trappings of religious and national mythology are stripped away, every state remains an instrument of coercion in the hands of a particular class in order to defend its particular property relations. The question of the class character of the Palestinian republic cannot be left wrapped in deceitful phrases.

It is only the proletariat backed by the peasantry and sections of the urban petit-bourgeoisie which has the power to smash the Zionist state. In that process it must ensure that there is no return to the domination of the imperialists over the economy, its banking and agricultural sectors.

The demand for a democratic secular state remains at the level of ideology utterly utopian and in practical terms would lead to a capitalist Palestine. Such a state would find itself from the first day in the vice-like grip of imperialism just as every Arab state does today.

Whilst the PLO will be an important arena from which militants and cadres of a future revolutionary party of the Palestinian workers will be assembled, it is nevertheless a 'popular front' of varied class forces wedded to bourgeois nationalist ideology dominated by the agents of the Palestinian and Arab bourgeoisies. It must be supplanted, politically and organisationally, if the Palestinian revolution is to move forward to final victory.

Because of the failure of the PLO to advance the cause of self-determination Palestinian nationalism is increasingly being challenged for hegemony of the masses within the West Bank and Gaza by Islamic fundementalism.

This movement finds its inspiration from the Iranian revolution which brought down the Shah. In the refugee camps of Gaza, as in Lebanon, the spread of Islamic influence depends as much on the provision of funds and other supplies, as on the liberatory vision that the fundementalists are able to conjure up.

In realitry, Islamic fundementalism has a reactionary ideology, which embraces anti-semitism. The goal of an Islamic Republic for the Palestinians would spell disaster for the Jews as it would for the mass of Palestinians.

While it is possible and necessary to struggle alongside these militants against Israeli repression in the Occupied Territories, a real consistent struggle for democratic rights for the Palestinians involves sharp criticism of the denial of such rights contained within the goals of fundementalism and a fight to defend and extend such rights even against Islamic militants.