The future of the PLO

Thomas Hopkins July 26 1982

The future of the PLO

Thomas Hopkins July 26 1982

The future of the PLO


Thomas Hopkins

In a television war, it was a stunning image. A cocky Yasser Arafat, eyes puffy with fatigue, strolled among the Israeli-encircled ruins of his Palestine Liberation Organization stronghold in West Beirut. For the benefit of television crews he held up a small dark-eyed Palestinian girl. “It is our duty,” he told the world solemnly, “to defend our babies.” It was deftly done, an act that spoke of responsibility, designed to speed the evolution of the PLO from terrorists to freedom fighters in Western eyes.

In the sixth week of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, even as the jittery weeklong ceasefire held and stalemate was the scent in the hot summer air, this small victory hinted at deep changes in the region and suggested that things may never be the same again. As the immediate problem of negotiations over the fate of 6,000 PLO fighters became mired in problems of detail and destination, the PLO could gloat that for once the eyes of the world were focused on it. And the eyes were increasingly sympathetic.

Indeed, last week it became clear that although Israeli tanks have crushed the PLO militarily, Palestinians may ultimately emerge as the diplomatic

winners of this latest conflict. A new relationship was already forming between the United States and the PLO. U.S. special envoy Philip Habib was negotiating directly with the PLO in everything but fact, and new Secretary of State George Shultz specified at his confirmation hearings that the needs of the Palestinians were a “central reality” to the region. There appeared to be a dawning recognition that no solution was possible in the Middle East without the direct participation of the PLO.

By week’s end, U.S.-led negotiations were still stalled by persistent Syrian rejections of suggestions that it provide asylum for PLO fighters. However, Palestinian and Lebanese negotiators in Beirut indicated the Syrian position may be flexible and suggested there may be a breakthrough when U.S. President Ronald Reagan confers with Syrian and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers in Washington this week, a meeting well-nigh unthinkable a year ago.

In what seems to have become a diplomatic blunder by Israel, the invasion will likely result in increased calls for the United States to open wider talks on Palestinian self-determination—talks that would include the PLO. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher last week confirmed that King Hussein of Jordan and President

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had asked himz to put pressure on the United States to^ open talks with the PLO. “It is now nec-^ essary to give the Palestinians a sign off hope,” he said. 5

Hope is a commodity the region’s 4.5o million Palestinian civilians have had“ in short supply. An ill-starred people, stateless for 34 years, used, then abandoned by Arab allies and scattered throughout the Arab world, the Palestinians are nourished by visions of hatred and land—hatred for Israel and dreams of reclaiming land lost to Jewish guns in 1948 and 1967. It is a compelling passion, and for the past 18 years it has found its most effective voice in the PLO. At first the Palestinian cause found expression in brutal'terrorism; lately it has begun to be heard in the backroom murmurs of moderation.

Events in Lebanon appear to have reinforced the change. This has been a war unlike the others. The massiveness of the Israeli win and the ineffectuality of the Arab response may have permanently altered the power relationships of the region. Israel’s first aggressive war. it has damaged that country’s image. By destroying the PLO’s military capability, it has freed the organization to explore diplomacy.

As well, despite the superiority of the encircling Israelis, the PLO within Bei-

rut emerged in the world’s eyes as a united, efficient force. Indeed, throughout the final days of the PLO presence in Lebanon its infrastructure continued to function, demonstrating the resiliency of the Palestinians. WAFA, the PLO news service, continued to Telex combinations of news and propaganda to hotels where correspondents were staying and to news agencies abroad. While the rest of Beirut was cut off, PLO phones continued to work. When the Israelis severed water lines to West Beirut, Palestinian teams were seen digging new wells in the Bourj el Barajneh suburb as shells thudded nearby.

It is a toughness that has characterized the Palestinians since the days when they were called the Philistines, during the 12th to 10th centuries BC,and ruled the lands around modern Israel for 300 years. They were defeated militarily about 1000 BC by the Jewish warrior King David, who went on to form the first state of Israel. The state thrived until the Jews in turn were ousted by the Babylonians in 586 BC, beginning the Jewish Diaspora. The region labored under waves of conquerors until the 20th century, when a worldwide Zionist lobby for a Jewish homeland resulted in the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British Parliament, one of the key steps on the road to the creation of Israel in 1948.

Throughout the changes, the Palestinian majority refused to recognize the increasing power of the Jewish minority. The result was an ill-conceived war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states in 1948 that ended with the Palestinians having none of the land in partitioned Palestine that they had been promised. Nearly one million Palestinians, sometimes encouraged by Israeli terrorists, fled to surrounding Arab countries during the 1948 fighting.

Israel moved quickly to ensure that the Palestinians would not return. Between 1948 and 1953, Jewish settlers created 370 new settlements in the new Israel, 350 of them on land owned by Palestinians. Laws were passed that stated that once land was owned by Jews it could never revert to non-Jewish ownership. No compensation was ever paid. The result was a Palestinian Diaspora.

Of the world’s current population of some 4.5 million Palestinians, only 500,000 live in Israel. The rest are scattered throughout the Arab world, with major concentrations in Jordan (one million), the occupied West Bank and Gaza (1.2 million) and Lebanon (600,000). In 1950 the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) was created to care for

the vast tent cities of displaced Palestinians. Today, almost two million Palestinians remain classified as refugees, and a third of those live in one of 61 UNRWA camps scattered throughout the Middle East.

Life is not easy for mostof them, butfor the 500,000 refugees who fled to Lebanon after the 1948 and 1967 wars and the bloody ouster of the PLO from Jordan in 1970, the future is particularly bleak. Always a massive alien presence among the three million Lebanese, they have stayed unassimilated throughout their residency. This is partly by choice and partly due to a resolution, aimed at keeping their plight in the world’s eye, adopted at an Arab summit meeting that prohibited any Palestinian from becoming a citizen of a host Arab country.

The stateless camps in Lebanon suffered terribly in the recent Israeli invasion. In the devastated regions of the country, more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees are again homeless as a result of the fighting. Most now live in tents and the rubble of houses. It was only two weeks ago that UN caravans of food were allowed to cross the Israeli border into Lebanon after a two-week delay.

As well, Palestinians fear that whatever the shape of the future Lebanese government, many Lebanese will blame them for the ruinous 1975-’76 civil war in that country. These fears have foundation.

Some members of the Lebanese Christian Phalange party are al-

ready contemplating the mass expulsion of all Palestinians who came to Lebanon after 1948.

Still, for the vast majority of Palestinians, the outcome of the Beirut standoff will not materially affect their lives. More typical of the Palestinian experience is that of 30-year-old journalist Hassan Abdel Jawad who lives with his family in the Dheiseh refugee camp, three kilometres west of Bethlehem on the Israeli occupied West Bank. It is one of 20 camps on the West Bank and, with a population of 6,000, of average size. The camp, set up after the 1948 war, is made up of families from 43 villages that were once in what is now Israel. It includes a mosque, two clothing stores, 20 food stores, a café and rows of concrete houses. UNRWA runs two primary schools and a clinic. Says an UNRWA spokesman: “It’s not obligatory to go to school, but they are clamoring to get in because they realize education is the only way to get what they want.” The result is that Palestinians have one of the highest education levels in the Arab world and increasingly

manage the bureaucracies and technocracies created by Gulf petro-dollars. Education is also a way to get out. Hassan comes from a family of nine children. Seven have left the camp and are scattered throughout the Middle East.

Dheiseh is known as an “active” camp. The sense of grievance against the Israelis runs deep. In the past year there have been more than 30 demonstrations. Israeli authorities have responded by building seven new concrete walls around the camp to stop Palestinian children from throwing rocks at passing Israeli vehicles. They have also sealed all but one entrance to the camp, in order to more closely control who goes in and out. Hassan, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, says that all of his brothers have spent time in Israeli jails. “It’s like university for them,” he says. The camps are nominally run by Israelisanctioned Village Leagues, but Palestinian members are universally viewed as Israeli stooges, and most require army protection.

The Begin government’s plan for

“limited autonomy” for

Palestinians on the West Bank is regarded with derision. What glues the camps together is a desire to return to lost land. Most Palestinian families look to the PLO as the only way, finally, to get home. The PLO emerged from the confusion and rivalry of Palestinian exile society in 1964. Until then, the Palestinians had been a leadtrless mass of refugees, exploited by the host

countries as cheap labor and under the care of UNRWA. Always a more potent political weapon than a military one against Israel, the PLO became dominated by the Fatah (the Conquest) faction of Yasser Arafat after it beat back an Israeli incursion into Jordan at AÍ Karamah in March, 1968. The same year, Arafat was named chairman of the group.

But the organization as it is known today was finally welded together by a major campaign of international terrorism designed to attract attention to the Palestinian cause. The result was a shaky coalition of at least eight rival factions, each with separate ideology, funding and leadership. Fatah, led by Arafat, a 52-year-old former civil engineer, has no ideology other than the nationalist dream of the retaking of Palestine. The largest share of Fatah funds comes from the Gulf states, mainly from Saudi Arabia. The nextbest-known faction is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Young Palestinians training for combat: diplomatic Palestine (PFLP), led by Marxist

George Habash. Formed in 1967 and backed largely by Syria, it is perhaps best known for the spectacular hijackings in September, 1970, of five airliners, three of which were forced to land in the open desert near Zarqa, Jordan, and were blown up. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) is perhaps the most leftist and is backed by Libya. The Iraqi-backed movements are the Arab Liberation Front and the Palestinian Liberation Front. The Syrian-backed and -controlled faction is Saiqa.

Outside the coalition and a major threat to Arafat and his relatively moderate leadership is Damascus-based Abu Nidal and his Black June guerrillas. Nidal, a renegade Palestinian sentenced to death in absentia by the PLO, is widely believed to be behind a number of attacks on PLO targets, including Arafat, as well as attacks on Jewish targets in Europe. By blaming Arafat and the PLO for the murders, he hopes to discredit the moderate line. The tactic has been effective. The attempted murder of Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov, now widely blamed on Nidal, was used by Israel as the trigger for the Lebanon invasion.

For better or worse, the final fate of the Palestinians is linked to that of Arafat and the PLO. There is no new Palestinian leader waiting in the wings. His already strong hold on Palestinian loyalty appears to have strengthened in the wake of the invasion. The future

beyond Beirut, however, remains unclear. Militarily, the Lebanon defeat ends the misguided Arafat strategy of constructing a Palestinian armed statewithin-a-state. Arafat had already lost once in that game. After the arming of refugee camps in Jordan in 1970 led to an arrogant attempt to overthrow King Hussein, the PLO lost an estimated 70 per cent of its military might and was pushed out to Lebanon. That debacle came to be known as Black September.

In Lebanon Arafat again attempted to establish a quasi-state, and his armed forces figured largely as both cause and participant in Lebanon’s bloody 1975-’76 civil war. After Lebanon, the likelihood of a new PLO armed base, a ticking time bomb in the host country’s front yard, is remote. Fighters now in Lebanon will likely be parcelled out to the countries of their major sponsors, perhaps after an initial evacuation en masse to Syria.

Despite the recent moderate tone of the PLO leadership, fear persists that terrorism will always be a well-used weapon. There are questions about Arafat’s ability to control more radical factions. If the splinter groups are dispersed away from Arafat’s umbrella, observers see an increase in the use of terrorism in isolated incidents. Still, most agree it will not be as a major tool of policy by the PLO.

Indeed, the future strength of the PLO seems to lie in diplomacy. Key to that diplomatic offensive in the eyes of many

is Arafat himself. Dashing about Beirut in a battered Peugeot, with a carefully grown stubble of beard, Arafat is the pudgy middle-class magician who has kept the fractious PLO together for 14 years. Viewed as a terrorist in Israel, he is increasingly viewed by the rest of the world as a statesman. Certainly the PLO without Arafat seems unthinkable. It will be his underrated skills as a diplomat that will be crucial for the Palestinians in the next few weeks.

As Arafat played for time and concessions last week in Beirut, the Palestinian propaganda machine churned out communiqués underlining the PLO’s claim of diplomatic strength. They pointed out that more countries in the world accord the 18-year§ old guerrilla movement diploimatic recognition than recog| nize Israel.

I Officially the PLO has not departed from its stated purpose, $ written shortly before it came existence in 1964: the deblunder struction of the state of Israel.

Again in 1980, at its congress,

Fatah, which represents 70 per cent of the PLO membership, renewed its vow to “liquidate the Zionist entity politically, militarily, culturally and ideologically.” In recent months, however, in the battle for world opinion, the moderate views of the PLO leadership appear to be in the ascendant. In 1981 Arafat was reported privately to be in favor of an eight-point Middle East plan put forward by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd—then deputy prime minister. The plan, a delicate reworking of UN Resolution 242 passed following the Six Day War in 1967, calls for the Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to pre1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While allowing militant members to focus on rearming and reorganization after last summer’s two-week mini-war with Israel, Arafat embarked on a wellorchestrated campaign that laid the groundwork for the evolution of the PLO from guerrilla organization to political movement. First, he rounded up wider Western support, making trips to countries such as Japan, Greece and India. Meanwhile, he quietly pushed behind the scenes with others who appeared interested, such as the European Community, and increased links with such unexpected parties as the Vatican.

Even as the negotiations in West Beirut were expanding from the simple PLO evacuation to demands for a new start in negotiations toward a permanent solution to the Palestinian question, ob-

servers were watching with fascination to see when Arafat would play his one major trump card: the recognition of Israel. Although there are clear indications that he and the moderates of the PLO have made the decision privately, public recognition has been jealously held back in an effort to have the gesture generate maximum political impact. Through it, Arafat hopes to gain formal U.S. recognition of the PLO. As negotiations increasingly head toward a PLO-U.S. dialogue, with Israel fuming on the sidelines, Arafat hopes that recognition will force the U.S. government to start negotiations over Palestinian sovereignty that go beyond the vague autonomy prescriptions of the Camp David accords.

For its part, Washington shows increas* ing signs of willingness to accommodate the PLO. It has been faithful to its pledge to Israel that the PLO would not be recognized until Arafat acknowledges the right of Israel to exist. But the resignation of a staunch friend of Israel, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and persistent rumors out of Washington about President Reagan’s displeasure with the Begin government’s Lebanon strategy fuel worries in Israel.

Diplomatic pessimists see little that is

positive coming out of -

the Palestinian defeat in Lebanon and the scattering of the PLO. They cite recent opinion polls in Israel that indicate between 85 and 93 per cent of Israelis support the Begin government. With Syria, Iraq and Egypt neutralized as military threats and Begin’s apparent single-minded intention to make the West Bank part of Israel, there appears to be little reason for Israel to compromise with the PLO, still less to accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza linked by an international transport corridor as privately proposed by some PLO moderates. The absorption last week by the Begin government’s coalition of a fringe party that advocates the immediate annexation of the West Bank did little to stir optimism.

Schemes mentioned by Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, among others, that would see Palestinians settled in a state on the east bank of the Jordan River in the Kingdom of Jordan have been derided by both the Palestinians and King Hussein. As well, the

vague provisions of the Camp David accords, which call for a five-year period of “autonomy” for the West Bank and Gaza, appear to be doomed by Israeli arrests of mayors and Palestinian hostility.

Others see the dislocations of the Lebanese conflict as the best opportunity for a lasting Palestinian solution since the UN partition of 1947, which offered the Palestinians a state alongside Israel. With their military capabilities blunted and an Iranian jihad brewing in the east, the Arab world is seen to be much more willing to reach an accommodation with Israel and the Palestinians than ever before. With the dangerous armed sting of the PLO taken away,

both the Arab world and the United States may find the organization more palatable as a negotiating partner. And with no armed state-within-a-state, the PLO will be more disposed to compromise. Certainly diplomatic pressure on Israel has intensified. Says Yehoshafat Harkab of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University: “Israel hoped international pressure for more concessions on Palestinian autonomy would be reduced, but it is now likely to come under increased pressure.” But finally it may be the almost accidental new link forged between the PLO and the only state that can influence Israel—the United

States—that may be of most assistance in producing a breakthrough.

In the end, the Lebanon invasion may have been a strategic mistake for Israel. Each day that the bargaining continues appears to bring the PLO closer to the Americans. And each day seems to find world opinion increasingly set against the Begin government’s apparent West Bank annexation policy.

But even as a diplomatic victory seemed to be floating within his grasp last week, Yasser Arafat, like a bazaar haggler who does not know when to settle on a final price, continued to refuse to play his recognition card. Instead he demanded “political compensation” from Washington in the form of recognition of the PLO in return for co-operation in the evacuation of Beirut. Arafat’s chief political adviser, Han al Hassan, told reporters last week that the PLO would show greater flexibility and would “rethink” many positions if the United States agreed to talk to the PLO directly. Still, as diplomats warned Arafat that Israeli patience would not hold forever, he chose to flirt with the possibility of creating 6,000 Palestinian martyrs, which would do little for the cause of the ordinary Palestinian.

By week’s end the talks over the fate of the PLO in Beirut were mired in stalemate, principally because no Arab country was willing to accept the evacuated PLO fighters. Only Egypt had offered to take in the PLO leadership, an option that was unacceptable to Arafat as a result of Camp David. Persistent rumors that Saudi Arabia is pressuring Syrian President Hafez Assad to accept the PLO force in exchange for large sums of cash suggest a way out of the immediate impasse. Nevertheless, both ministers are also expected to urge the United States to move beyond the immediate problem of the evacuation of Beirut and into discussions of a broadbased Middle East peace package. It is a view that is likely to get a sympathetic hearing.

Sitting outside the four-room house he built for himself in the Dheisheh refugee camp, Hassan Abdel Jawad considers the war in Lebanon. “The Palestinians didn’t fight in the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973. This war now is the first war for the Palestinians with Israel . . . the most important war.” It may become that, even if the Palestinians lose. The Lebanese tragedy may herald a new bloodless offensive in the search for a solution to the only real issue in the Middle East: the search for a Palestinian home.

With files from Terry Brodie in Tel Aviv, Michael Posner in Washington and Robin Wright in Beirut.