Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, the membership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, represented a pan-Arab support base aiming to bolster the Palestinian struggle against the state of Israel and the West.

Summary of Event

In 1969, Yasir Arafat replaced Ahmed Shukairy as the chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He led the organization until his death in November, 2004. During his long tenure, Arafat facilitated the rise of the Palestinian nationalist movement, which was organized in a struggle to expel the Jews from Israel and return the land to Palestinians. To advance his cause he gradually established control over the military and political wings of the PLO and was set on a zero-sum course of violence against Israelis. He was determined to retake the land of Palestine from an Israeli state he considered intrusive and divisive for Palestinians and Arabs. To accomplish this he sought to garner pan-Arab support for the Palestinian cause, gain international appreciation for the Palestinian nationalist struggle, and ignite Palestinian nationalism and unite Palestinians militarily under the broad umbrella of the PLO. Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Arabs Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;Palestinians Pan-Arabism[PanArabism] Nationalism;Palestinians [kw]Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (Dec. 11, 1969) [kw]Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Arafat Becomes (Dec. 11, 1969) [kw]Palestine Liberation Organization, Arafat Becomes Chair of the (Dec. 11, 1969) Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Arabs Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;Palestinians Pan-Arabism[PanArabism] Nationalism;Palestinians [g]Middle East;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] [g]Palestine;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] [c]Terrorism;Dec. 11, 1969: Arafat Becomes Chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization[10610] Arafat, Yasir Habash, George Rabin, Yitzhak Jibril, Ahmed

Established in 1964, the PLO drew its membership from nationalist and leftist movements in the Middle East. Counted among its first members were individuals such as George Habash, founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Ahmad Jibril, founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command; and Arafat, who cofounded the secular political party Fatah, established within the PLO. Founded as a result of the Palestinian struggle, Fatah drew members from recruitment drives in Palestine as well as throughout the Middle East; like Fatah, individuals from other groups making up the PLO also came from across the region. Essentially, the PLO membership represented the pan-Arab support base that Arafat sought to construct.

Arafat’s anti-Israel sentiments were influenced by, among other things, a theory that Israel was created not as a real country but as a satellite spy state, fabricated to prolong the control of the United States and its Western counterparts over the Middle East by fostering disunity among Arab states within the region. To advance his strategy Arafat used the PLO to foment fear in Israel, using violence to drive out the Israeli civilian population and to deter further immigration so Israel would weaken and collapse from within.

The history of PLO violence toward Israel has been two-pronged: that perpetrated before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (the Six-Day War) and that perpetrated after the radicalization of the PLO’s policy against Israel. Of interest to this study is the era after 1967, when Arafat took control of the PLO. After Israel’s victory against the Arabs in the Six-Day War, Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] the PLO revised its strategy, realizing that if it were to break down the Israeli state it could not do so through conventional warfare. It realized that it would have to escalate its level of unconventional warfare toward the civilian population in the form of terrorism.

The PLO, from its inception, represented the voice of the Palestinian people; however, Palestine is not a sovereign nation, and the PLO’s membership comprises a multiregional mix. The PLO has no state of its own from which to create a base. Consequently, it operates as a so-called country within a country and is based in locations within countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Similarly, to reinforce Arafat’s anti-Western sentiments, the PLO had also struck at Western influences in the Arab world such as King Hussein I of Jordan. PLO tactics against the West have included air piracy, ground-to-air rockets, and numerous assassination attempts.

Significance

The radicalization of the PLO led to some fundamental setbacks for the organization. For example, in the 1970’s, Hussein expelled the group from Jordan after a second failed assassination attempt on his life. Having carefully established itself as an autonomous entity with its own system of laws and regulations, the PLO had to uproot and find a new home, this time in Lebanon.

Similarly, on those occasions following PLO strikes on Israel that originated in an Arab state, that Arab state would be faced with a retaliatory strike from Israel against the PLO, a situation that created unending tensions between the PLO militants and the “host” country. The PLO was expelled from Lebanon in 1982 by an invading Israeli force that took advantage of the lack of strong central state apparatus in Lebanon to enter the country and force out the Palestinians. After its expulsion from Lebanon, the PLO was strictly controlled by host countries throughout the region. These controls on the PLO saw the end of Arafat’s dream for pan-Arabism.

Even in the face of significant failures, Arafat succeeded in igniting Palestinian nationalism. Furthermore, his status as the leader of the Palestinian people was acknowledged in a 1974 Arab conference, which also gave the PLO international recognition. Over time the name “Yasir Arafat” and the term “PLO” came to be regarded as representative of Palestine and Palestinians. This belied a time when “Palestine” and “Palestinian” had no significance, and a time when the Palestinian people were scattered in refugee camps across the region.

However, there were serious contradictions represented by Arafat’s image: First, his control of the PLO did not lead to Palestine’s liberation. Instead, the PLO (and Arafat) was maligned as a terrorist group that disregarded all else but the cause. Second, the PLO’s actions did not weaken Israel from within; instead, they have taught Israel to advance its own brutal policy of retribution and retaliation against the Palestinian population. Short of achieving peace, the only recourse exercised by either side has been violence.

Notwithstanding Arafat’s role as chair of an organization that used terror tactics, some schools of thought question whether his role was as straightforward as it first appears. Even though he headed an organization that committed acts of terrorism, there are questions regarding whether he played the role of the moderate among a group of radical men like Habash and Jibril and, needing their support, was unwilling to disassociate his image from their actions.

Though pan-Arabism was not realized, in part because Arab countries were unwilling to provoke a military response from Israel, Arafat’s image does not suffer from this failure. Similarly, Arafat, though he promoted Arab nationalism and unity within the region, also clung to the idea of a Palestinian identity, an ideal he would do anything to achieve, including jeopardizing the security of other Arab countries that had hosted the PLO. Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Arabs Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;Palestinians Pan-Arabism[PanArabism] Nationalism;Palestinians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Yonah. Palestinian Secular Terrorism. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2003. Provides profiles of Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, and Dawoud El-Alami. The Palestine-Israeli Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2003. A survey work ideal for those new to the topic of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Written in part by a Palestinian national and a rabbi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Mitch. Understanding the Holy Land: Answering Questions About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. New York: Viking Press, 2005. An introductory overview of the conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, placed in the context of Middle East politics. Discusses the formation of the PLO and Israel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Joseph L. The Birth of Israel, 1945-1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Details the events that led to the founding of Israel and features a study of the many contenders fighting for leadership of this new state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. A thorough political history of the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its attempts to create a Palestinian state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two People. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pappe provides a tour in time and traces the story of the Middle East, outlining the rise of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robins, Philip. A History of Jordan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Provides an overview of Jordan’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, examining the impact of Jordan’s relationship with the various parties.

Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis

Israel Is Created as a Homeland for Jews

United Nations Creates an Agency to Aid Palestinian Refugees

Jordan Annexes the West Bank

Israel Enacts the Law of Return

United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization

Fatah Launches Its First Terrorist Strike on Israel

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

United Nations Security Council Adopts Resolution 242

Habash Founds the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

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