Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Palestine Liberation Organization was created to voice the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Summary of Event

A Jewish nation was established on May 14, 1948, in accordance with a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, which partitioned Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, the latter of which has yet to be fully realized. The individuals who founded the new state were of various political persuasions but most basically may be termed Zionists. Zionism is both a doctrine and a movement that aims at reuniting Jews into their own state to end centuries of dispersal and persecution. This movement is based on biblical promises and texts but more immediately found support in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal mass murder of European Jewry. Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;Palestinians [kw]Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization (May 28, 1964) [kw]Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian (May 28, 1964) [kw]Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian Refugees Form the (May 28, 1964) Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;Palestinians [g]Middle East;May 28, 1964: Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization[08060] [g]Palestine;May 28, 1964: Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization[08060] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 28, 1964: Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization[08060] [c]Independence movements;May 28, 1964: Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization[08060] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 28, 1964: Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization[08060] Arafat, Yasir Habash, George Hussein I Nasser, Gamal Abdel [p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;Arab nationalism Shukairy, Ahmed

As soon as it was created, the new state of Israel found itself at war with Arab nations. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] Israel;Arab-Israeli War of 1948[Arab Israeli War of 1948] resulted in Israeli victory and tragedy for the Palestinian Arabs. The war forced massive numbers of Palestinians to flee their homes. Moreover, at the end of war, Israel annexed some of the Arab areas originally set up for Palestinians by U.N. Resolution 181, Resolution 181, U.N. Palestine, partition of Israel;Palestinian partition commonly known as the “partition plan,” while other parts of the Palestinian state were occupied by neighboring Arab states. This left those Palestinians who remained in the areas as citizens of the new Israeli state, albeit citizens forced to carry passes, obey curfews, or endure house arrest for political dissidence. Other Palestinians found themselves at the mercy of the neighboring Arab states. Furthermore, the Israeli government promoted a policy of Jewish settlement within the territory that originally had been set aside for Palestinians. This settlement was often facilitated by forceful confiscation of Arab land.

The result was that by 1950, according to U.N. estimates, about one million Palestinians had become refugees. Although debate surrounds the question as to whether Israel consciously displaced the population of the 369 Arab towns and villages emptied during the 1948 war, it is significant that this was the predominant perception among the Palestinian population. In fact, the belief that Israel systematically seized Arab land and forced Palestinians from their homes was to be a major source of Palestinian nationalism, although it seems clear that some Palestinians did abandon their homes in hopes of avoiding a conflict many were confident the invading Arab armies would win, an eventuality that never materialized. This belief was strengthened by the Israeli law of “abandoned property,” which made possible the legal seizure of Arab land belonging to those who had fled, even if temporarily.

The 1956 Suez Canal crisis resulted in another defeat for Arab armies. The Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Suez Canal area were overrun, this time at the hands of not only Israel but also the United Kingdom and France. The involvement of Israel with France and Britain, both traditional colonial powers in the region, further sharpened the Arab belief that the Jewish state was a pawn of Western imperialist powers. During the conflict, Palestinian student activists in Cairo formed a commando battalion that fought on the side of Egypt. While of little military significance, this direct involvement of Palestinians in armed conflict against Israel foreshadowed the growing emphasis on armed struggle.

The rapid changes that took place in the Middle East in the 1940’s and 1950’s included not only the birth of Israel but also the rise of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and growing pan-Arab Nationalism;Arabs sentiments. In addition, this period saw increasing efforts of Palestinians to regain the land they had lost with the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War that had followed. As early as 1951, Yasir Arafat began organizing Palestinian students in Cairo and recruited several fellow students who agreed with his Palestine-first beliefs.

Despite the popularity of autonomous organizations among many Palestinians, the 1950’s was a period of frustration for most activists. The Arab nations were often willing to pay lip service to the plight of the Palestinians but equally quick to expel or imprison Palestinian militants who became troublesome, even as they occupied and claimed areas originally slated for the Palestinian state. The formation of Fatah Fatah in 1959 offered an organization committed to the Palestinian cause first and “Arab unity” second.

Fatah was based on five points of unity: a common goal of a liberated Palestine, the need for armed struggle to achieve liberation, Palestinian self-organization and reliance, cooperation with friendly Arab forces, and cooperation with friendly international forces. The new organization faced difficult times, since the predominant mood within the Arab world in the early 1960’s was support for pan-Arabism, sponsored by Nasser. This was true even within the Palestinian movement, as witnessed by the stance of Arab Nationalist Movement Arab Nationalist Movement leader George Habash. In addition, the harsh effects of Palestinian dispersal and the ever-present threat of repression by the Arab states caused many to doubt Fatah’s ability to effect its goals.

Although Fatah envisioned that the establishment of some type of Palestinian organization would be the result of the grassroots work of the Palestinians themselves, events were to go in quite a different direction. At the first Arab summit, held in Cairo in January, 1964, President Nasser of Egypt, King Hussein I of Jordan, and other Arab leaders discussed Israeli plans for diverting large amounts of water. This would allow further massive settlement of Jewish immigrants on what had once been Palestinian land. Faced with what seemed to them to be increased expansion by an Israel they had failed to defeat militarily, attendees of the summit decided to back the “liberation of Palestine” and sponsor a Palestinian organization to achieve this goal.

What the role of this new organization was to be was at first unclear. It was, after all, the creation of a diverse coalition of mainly conservative Arab states and developed under the particular influence of pan-Arabist Egypt. Clearly, it was not meant to be independent of Arab government supervision, as many Palestinians such as Arafat desired. In addition, most pan-Arab groups continued to be wary of any suggestion of Palestinian separatism or any hint of decreased enthusiasm for the cause of Arab unity.

All the same, the concept of an all-embracing Palestinian organization had the official blessing of the leaders of the Arab world, including premier pan-Arabist Nasser. Thus, opposition to the formation of such an organization was restrained in most quarters. On the other hand, within the Palestinian diaspora there was considerable apprehension that the new organization would be little more than a paper structure attached to Egypt’s foreign office.

Ahmed Shukairy, a Palestinian veteran of numerous Arab foreign services, was the person who was to guide the birth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). An accomplished and tireless speaker, Shukairy was to trek throughout the Palestinian diaspora in preparation for the May, 1964, founding convention of the PLO. Despite reservations, both political and personal, about Shukairy and his mission, Fatah chose to cooperate with the newly proposed organization.

Meeting in the Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem of King Hussein, 422 delegates from the Palestinian refugee communities throughout the world ratified two basic texts sponsored by Shukairy and the interim leadership. These documents were the Palestine National Charter and the Basic Law of the PLO. The charter has often been termed the Palestinian “declaration of independence,” while the Basic Law could be considered a PLO constitution. Both of these documents were to be altered significantly by the fourth convention of the Palestinian National Council, meeting in Cairo in July, 1968. From its shaky origins, the PLO became a major factor in the Middle East equation in the years to come.


In the decades after the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, the PLO established itself, in its own words, as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people.” In spite of various political splits and struggles, the PLO clearly established a framework with which most Palestinians could identify. This question of emotional identity was important for the average Palestinian, since Palestinians no longer had a homeland with which to identify.

Moreover, a large number of Palestinians lived under Israeli control, where their self-identity was hardly encouraged by the occupational forces. Even those Palestinians who lived in the Arab world found themselves deprived of their identity. Jordan, for example, was home to an estimated one million or more Palestinians, yet the government in Jordan made no distinction between them and other citizens; those Palestinians traveling abroad were listed in their passports as Jordanian.

In this situation, the PLO became vital not only as a real political force but also as both symbol and prompter of Palestinian national pride and self-awareness. After 1948, Palestinians became dispersed throughout the world. They worked and lived in various communities cut off from one another and lacking common cultural or political institutions. Into this vacuum the PLO injected a concrete framework for political action and cultural identification.

In a sense, what defined a Jordanian, or other citizen of Palestinian origins, as a Palestinian was “belonging” to the PLO. Thus, no matter what nation’s passport Palestinians may hold, they may still view themselves as part of another nation, albeit a nation without a homeland. Without an organization such as the PLO, there would have been a very real danger that Palestinian culture and identity would have been lost in the decades of exile and repression.

The PLO made a number of specific contributions to the Palestinian nationalist movement. Despite the wishes of Israel, many Arab governments, and the United States, the PLO prevented the plight of the Palestinian people from being forgotten. In a world seemingly overloaded with human tragedy, this was no small accomplishment. It can be argued that if no PLO had been established, the average world citizen might have remained ignorant of the existence of the Palestinian people.

The PLO, by speaking with a single voice, was able to take a geographically dispersed, politically divided group of people and present a relatively unified strategy and program. In time, however, it became clear that the PLO was itself composed of many divided constituencies. Moreover, the PLO was often at odds with its Arab hosts, being evicted from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan at different periods of its history. Still, if it were not for the PLO, there is every reason to think that the various Palestinian nationalist factions would have wasted far more energy in political infighting. Palestine Liberation Organization Nationalism;Palestinians Israel;displacement of Palestinians Palestinian diaspora Refugees;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">Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. An excellent survey of the PLO, with emphasis on the development of its largest component, Fatah. Written by a journalist who was based in Beirut from 1976 to 1981. Includes reference notes and bibliography but no index.
  • 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. Includes many relevant maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gresh, Alain, and Dominique Vidal. A to Z of the Middle East. London: Zed Books, 1990. An invaluable reference source not only for the Middle East in general but also for the Palestinian movement in particular, with entries on “Israeli Arabs,” “Palestinians,” “Palestinian Dissidence,” “Palestine Liberation Organization,” and “Partition Plan.” Contains index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karsh, Efraim, ed. Israel’s Transition from Community to State. Vol. 1 in Israel: The First Hundred Years. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2000. A study of Zionism, Arab nationalism, and the struggle to transform the Jewish community in Israel into an Israeli state. Bibliographic references and index.
  • 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. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter, ed. The Israel-Arab Reader. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984. A comprehensive collection of documents relating to the formation of Israel and to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musallam, Sami. The Palestine Liberation Organization: Its Function and Structure. Brattleboro, Vt.: Amana Books, 1988. Frankly partisan, this volume was written by the director of the office of Yasir Arafat. An excellent source for the official structures and positions of the PLO. Reference notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

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

    xlink:type="simple">Shafir, Gershon. Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. This stimulating work argues that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had its origins in the struggle over land and labor during the closing years of the Ottoman Empire. Reference notes, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, David. The Palestinian/Israeli Conflict: A Select Bibliography. Chicago: Chicago Public Library, 1989. An excellent, concise survey of the existing literature on the subject in English.

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

Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons

Israel Brings Water to the Negev

Paul VI Visits the Holy Land

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

Categories: History