The Palestinians and the PLO

Jordan Table of Contents

Palestinians have been a complicating factor in the Jordanian political process since the annexation of the West Bank in 1950. Transjordanians tended to fear that the numerically preponderant Palestinians could emerge as a dominant force if competitive politics were permitted to resume. For years many Palestinians openly opposed Hussein's monarchical absolutism and demanded equality and proportional participation in the political process. Their frustrations under Hussein's rule, at least through the 1960s and early 1970s, provided a fertile ground for their empathy and support for the PLO. Since 1971, when the PLO guerrilla forces were crushed and driven out of Jordan, Palestinians generally have been politically dormant. Given the authorities' effective discouragement of political expression critical of the regime, it was difficult in 1989 to ascertain what the political aspirations or preferences of the Palestinians in Jordan might be.

The Palestinian equation became further complicated after October 1974 as external pressures were brought to bear on Jordan. The catalyst was the unanimous decision of the Arab states meeting in Rabat to recognize the PLO as the sole authorized representative of the Palestinian people. Strongly prodded by Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states, Hussein was obliged to assent to the Rabat decision although he still claimed the West Bank as Jordanian territory until 1988. This development has portended uncertain implications for Jordan's domestic politics and its relationship with the West Bank.

Following the Rabat Summit, Hussein and PLO leader Yasir Arafat met to reconcile relations, strained since the 1970-71 civil war. Their discussions resulted in the decision in early 1975 for Jordan and the PLO to cease mutual recriminations. Hussein rejected, however, a PLO demand that it be permitted to reestablish its military and political presence in the East Bank. After 1974 there was a noticeable resurgence of Palestinian empathy for and identification with the PLO in many parts of the world. This sentiment was nowhere more evident than in the West Bank. There, in the municipal elections that Israel permitted to be held in April 1976, candidates supporting the PLO defeated most of the candidates identified with Hussein. The outcome was a reversal of the municipal elections held in 1972, when pro-Hussein candidates handily won over pro-PLO candidates.

The process of reconciliation also was complicated by the linkage of the Jordanian-PLO equation to the broader configuration of Middle East problems. In March 1977, Hussein and Arafat met in Cairo as part of the Egyptian-Syrian efforts to prepare for an upcoming Geneva peace conference on the Middle East. The two leaders addressed, inter alia, the question of future relations between Jordan and a proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank. Their discussions focused on whether the PLO should be represented as an independent delegation at the conference in Geneva or as part of Jordan's delegation. The latter course was preferred by Hussein.

The Hussein-Arafat contact became more frequent in the wake of Egyptian president Anwar as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 and his signing of the United States-mediated Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Nevertheless, Arafat and other PLO leaders were suspicious of Hussein's ultimate intentions vis--vis the Camp David Accords. Although Jordan had no part in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, it was directly linked to the process for settling the future of the West Bank. The first agreement, called "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East," stipulated that Egypt and Israel would negotiate with Jordan and Palestinian representatives for a transitional self-governing authority to administer the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a noncontiguous Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean Sea that also was occupied by Israel. Jordan declared it was neither legally nor morally obligated to this agreement and refused to participate in the negotiations, which consequently made no progress. Hussein's decision to maintain a dialogue with the United States, however, fueled the fears of some Palestinians that the monarch tacitly supported the Camp David Accords and was seeking ways to preclude the PLO from gaining control of the West Bank.

The expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of that country brought the contradictory Jordanian and PLO objectives into open conflict. Initially, relations improved because Hussein agreed to accept a small contingent of expelled fighters and to permit the reopening of PLO political offices for the first time since the 1970-71 civil war. In several face-to-face meetings held between September 1982 and April 1983, Hussein and Arafat discussed Jordan's role in future negotiations over the fate of the West Bank. Because neither the United States nor Israel was willing to talk with the PLO at this time, Hussein tried to obtain Arafat's endorsement for Jordan to serve as spokesman for the Palestinians. More extreme Palestinian guerrilla leaders--often called "rejectionists" because they rejected any compromises that would circumscribe their goal of an independent Palestinian state that included all of pre-1948 Palestine-- distrusted Hussein and would not be assuaged by Arafat's reassurances. Without a broad-based consensus within the PLO, Arafat apparently felt he could not agree to a common negotiating strategy with Hussein. Consequently, Hussein broke off the talks in April 1983; for the remainder of the year, Jordan's relations with the PLO were strained.

Violent factional feuding engulfed the PLO beginning in May 1983, inducing the moderate elements (who generally coalesced around Arafat) to revive contacts with Hussein. By this time, Jordan had decided to assert its influence in the West Bank more aggressively, albeit within the limits tolerated by the Israeli occupation authorities. The National Assembly, dissolved following the Rabat decision in 1974, was recalled in January 1984 and deputies were appointed to fill vacant West Bank seats in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Hussein seemed to welcome the rapprochement with the moderate faction of the PLO and gave his blessing to the holding of a Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Amman in November 1984. The PNC meeting was an historic event that was broadcast on Jordanian television and picked up by viewers in the West Bank. The meeting strengthened Arafat's authority as leader of the PLO and enabled him to negotiate with Hussein without fear of the inevitable recriminations from extremist factions who had boycotted the Amman meeting.

Hussein and Arafat continued to cooperate after the PNC meeting, both leaders speaking of the need for Jordan and a Palestinian state to maintain a special relationship. In February 1985, they announced a joint Jordanian-Palestinian agreement on a peace framework. This agreement called for the convening of an international peace conference whose participants would include the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although the PLO would represent Palestinians, its PLO delegates would not attend the conference separately but rather as part of a joint Jordanian- Palestinian contingent. The agreement stipulated that the Palestinian people would have the right to exercise national self- determination within the context of a proposed confederated state of Jordanians and Palestinians.

Following his agreement with Arafat, Hussein pursued two policies simultaneously. While trying to serve as a spokesman for the Palestinians in talks with the United States, and eventually even with Israeli politicians, Hussein also tried to persuade Arafat to make a public declaration of PLO support for UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, both of which implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. Arafat, who still felt he had to be wary of the influence of the more extreme factions in the PLO, was unwilling to be pushed as far toward moderation as Hussein had hoped. The extremist guerrilla groups criticized Arafat for the agreement, claiming that it would deny Palestinians the right to establish a sovereign state within the pre-1948 boundaries of Palestine. Some of the extremists demonstrated their potential for undermining any possible compromise solutions by carrying out sensational terrorist acts in September and October of 1985. The international response to these incidents, especially the Israeli aerial bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunisia, increased Arafat's reluctance to make the political concessions that Hussein believed were required to obtain United States support for an international conference.

Hussein's disappointment in Arafat contributed to an erosion of their political relationship. In February 1986, Hussein announced that he was terminating the year-old Jordan-PLO agreement. Tensions with the PLO were exacerbated in May by the student demonstrations at Yarmuk University in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. In July Hussein ordered the offices of Arafat's Al Fatah organization closed following criticisms of the harsh manner in which Jordanian security forces had put down the Yarmuk demonstrations.

During 1986 both Hussein and Arafat intensified their competition for influence in the West Bank. The king appeared to have the upper hand in this contest because Jordan's banking system controlled the disbursement of pan-Arab funds earmarked for West Bank (and also Gaza Strip) development projects. However, the Palestinian uprising, the intifadah, which began in December 1987, exposed the fragility of Hussein's influence in the occupied territories. It became obvious during the first half of 1988 that, compared with the PLO, pro-Hashimite sympathizers had little support. Hussein decided that political circumstances required a bold move that would preserve Jordan's interests. Thus, in July he renounced all claims to sovereignty over the West Bank. By doing so, Hussein apparently hoped to enhance the Jordanian position in a post-intifadah era. If the PLO succeeded in consolidating its influence in the occupied territories and in winning international support for its claim to rule the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then Hussein's abdication of responsibility would stand Jordan in good stead. It would enable Jordan to forge political and economic links with a new state, which, because of its small area and lack of natural resources, would be dependent in various ways on its only neighbor to the east. If the PLO failed to deliver on the political aspirations being expressed by the intifadah, then Hussein would be ready to offer Jordan's services as negotiator in terminating the Israeli occupation.

The PLO accepted Hussein's challenge. Arafat met with the king during the late summer and early fall to discuss strategy. Among the practical measures agreed to was a scheme for the PLO to assume responsibility for payment of the salaries of West Bank and Gaza Strip municipal employees through Jordanian financial institutions. Subsequently, at an historic PNC meeting in Algiers in November 1988 at which all major factions were represented, the PNC declared the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be the independent state of Palestine. The PNC also renounced the use of terrorism, accepted UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (both of which recognized the existence of Israel), and declared its willingness to negotiate the end of the occupation. Jordan was one of the first nations to recognize the new state and announced its readiness to discuss how the two countries could maintain a special relationship.

In 1989 the PLO remained essentially an umbrella organization of numerous civilian and military groups. It was originally founded in 1964 as a political organization to represent the interests of Palestinians. The various Palestinian guerrilla groups were formed independently of the PLO, and they initially were critical of the PLO's objectives and policies. In 1968-69, however, most of the guerrilla groups joined the PLO, and their leaders assumed dominant roles in the organization. Although the PLO has greatly expanded its various service functions in the cultural, diplomatic, economic, educational, health, humanitarian, political, social, and welfare fields since 1969, for most Western observers these functions have been overshadowed by the military and terrorist activities associated with the guerrilla groups.

The PLO guerrilla groups recruited most of their fighters from the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Although some of these camps were established as early as 1948 and all have long since been transformed into permanent villages or urban neighborhoods, high levels of poverty and unemployment remain dominant characteristics. Many young men raised in these camps found the guerrillas' idealization of Palestinian nationalism and politico-military organization appealing alternatives to the despair fostered by routine idleness and lack of opportunity. Joining one of the guerrilla groups enabled such men to assert their identity and channel their energies. Although the various guerrilla organizations differed in temperament, ideology, and tactics, they all shared the objective of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

The oldest, largest, and best equipped of the PLO guerrilla groups was Al Fatah--the Palestine National Liberation Movement as the group was officially known. Arafat (also called Abu Ammar) has led Al Fatah since its formation in 1957. Since 1969, Arafat has also been chairman of the PNC's fifteen-member Executive Committee- -and hence the dominant figure of the PLO leadership. For more than thirty years, Al Fatah has been a coalition of moderate, conservative, and radical nationalists who accepted the tactical necessity of cooperating with Arab governments, including those they regarded as reactionary, to help achieve their goals. Predominantly Muslim in membership, Al Fatah generally has eschewed commitment to radical ideologies such as Islamic revolution or Marxism and refrained from interference in the internal affairs of Arab states.

The progressive moderation of Al Fatah's goals after 1973 led to major splits within the organization. The original objective to liberate all of pre-1948 Palestine was replaced in 1974 with the aim of establishing a transitional state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sabri Khalil al Banna, known by his code name of Abu Nidal, vehemently opposed this change. Abu Nidal and a small group of his supporters defected from Al Fatah and formed the Al Fatah Revolutionary Council. A more serious split occurred in 1983 when Said Musa Muragha (also known as Abu Musa) organized Al Fatah fighters in Lebanon who feared Arafat's reconciliation with Egypt would lead eventually to recognition of Israel. The supporters of Arafat and Abu Musa fought each other for control of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon during 1983 and 1984, with heavy casualties on both sides. The anti-Arafat forces received support from Syria that helped them expel Arafat loyalists from camps in areas occupied by the Syrian army. Abu Musa and the Al Fatah dissidents eventually formed a new group called Al Fatah Uprising.

From a tactical and ideological standpoint, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was the principal counterpoint to Al Fatah. George Habash and Ahmad Jibril founded the PFLP after the June 1967 War. The PFLP was a consciously Marxist-Leninist organization. It defined as enemies not just Israel and Zionism, but also imperialism and the Arab regimes that cooperated with the United States, the country it proclaimed to be the main imperialist power. It called such Arab regimes reactionary, advocated their overthrow, and the establishment of progressive, democratic, and secular governments in all Arab states, including Palestine. Habash and the other PFLP leaders soon were divided, however, on the issue of whether armed struggle or political considerations should take precedence in achieving their objectives. Jibril broke with Habash in 1968 and formed a rival organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC), which placed primary emphasis on armed struggle. The following year Nayif Hawatmah, who was an East Bank Jordanian, also split from the PFLP and organized the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Hawatmah's DFLP tended to stress exploring political options before resorting to armed struggle.

The PFLP, PFLP-GC, and DFLP held attitudes toward reactionary Arab regimes that precluded cooperation with Hussein, whose government they regarded as a prime candidate for revolutionary overthrow. Their openly professed ideology and maintenance of armed bases within Jordan's Palestinian refugee camps were major factors in precipitating the 1970 conflict between the guerrillas and the Jordanian army. After the guerrillas were suppressed, Habash, Hawatmah, and Jibril remained hostile and unforgiving toward Hussein. When Arafat began the process of reconciliation with Hussein in 1973, they opposed any PLO ties or even dialogue with Jordan and publicly called for Hussein's overthrow. Habash and Jibril were the principal organizers in 1974 of the rejectionist front of guerrilla groups, which refused to accept the PLO decision to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The rejectionists were those groups that rejected any negotiations or compromises with Israel and insisted on using armed struggle to liberate all of historic Palestine. In 1983 Jibril supported Abu Musa and the Al Fatah dissidents, joining with them to form the National Alliance, which opposed any diplomatic initiatives or cooperation with Hussein.

In addition to Al Fatah and the Marxist groups, several smaller guerrilla organizations were active in 1989. The most important of these were As Saiqa, the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), the Popular Struggle Front (PSF), and the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF). As Saiqa was formed in 1968 in Damascus and has continued to be politically and financially dependent upon Syria. Palestinians who lived outside of Syria generally perceived As Saiqa as a tool of the Syrian government. As Saiqa's counterpart was the ALF, formed in Baghdad in 1969. In the 1970s, the ALF supported the rejectionist front, as did Iraq. In the 1980s, however, the ALF aligned itself with Arafat's Al Fatah, a position consistent with that of Iraq. The PSF has consistently advocated armed struggle since it was founded in 1967. Prior to 1980, the PSF was supported by Iraq, but since 1980 Syria has been its principal backer. The PLF was formed in 1977 as a result of a split within the PFLP-GC. Originally part of the rejectionist front, since 1983 it has been one of the groups trying to effect a reconciliation between Arafat and Abu Musa.

The PLO's organizational equivalent to a parliament was the Palestine National Council (PNC), in 1989 based in Algiers. The PNC's 301 deputies represented the Palestinian diaspora. Included among them were representatives of the Palestinian parties (the political wings of the various guerrilla groups); the six guerrilla groups which accept the policies of the PLO (Al Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, ALF, PLF, and the Palestine Communist Party); student and educational groups; youth and women's groups; professional associations; labor unions; and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. In addition, the Palestinian communities in various Arab and non- Arab countries were represented.

The PNC was supposed to meet once a year, but political complications often forced the postponement of annual gatherings. The factional strife that plagued the PLO following the sixteenth PNC conclave in February 1983 prevented convening a full session for four years. Although a PNC meeting was held in Amman in November 1984, its legitimacy was questioned because several of the guerrilla leaders, including Habash of the PFLP and Hawatmah of the DFLP, refused to attend. The eighteenth PNC, which met in Algiers in April 1987, represented the first effort to heal the rift in the PLO and achieve a consensus on policy. Although the PFLP-GC, As Saiqa, the PSF, and the Abu Musa faction did not participate, the PFLP, DFLP, and the Palestine Communist Party--the three guerrilla groups that, like Al Fatah, had a reputation for independence of Arab governments--did attend and agreed to accept PNC decisions. Abu Nidal also attended the eighteenth PNC. However, the other leaders voted not to grant his group representation on the PNC because they believed his reputation as a notorious terrorist would tarnish the PLO's image at a time when the organization was seeking diplomatic support for an international peace conference.

The 1987 PNC meeting adopted several significant resolutions pertaining to the PLO's conflict with Israel. It voted to endorse an international peace conference on the basis of UN General Assembly resolutions that recognized the PLO and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination; it called for PLO participation in such a conference as a full partner, and not as part of a Jordanian delegation; it abrogated the PLO-Jordan accord of 1985, but also advocated maintaining "special" ties between Jordanians and Palestinians; and it authorized the PLO to develop relations with groups in Israel that supported Palestinian self- determination. These decisions were a prelude to the even more significant resolutions that were passed at the historic nineteenth PNC meeting in Algiers in November 1988.

Between PNC congresses, the Palestine Central Committee (PCC), created in 1973, set policies and carried out specific programs and actions undertaken by the PLO's cabinet, the fifteen-member Executive Committee. The PCC's actual function, however, was limited to a consultative role; its sixty members, appointed by the PNC based on the recommendation of the Executive Committee, included representatives from the Executive Committee and the major guerrilla groups. The PNC's speaker or chairman presided over PCC meetings. The legislative and executive functions of these top PLO bodies were in accordance with the principles and policies contained in three key documents: the Palestinian National Charter; the Fifteen-Point Political Program; and the National Unity Program.

Although the PNC was officially described as the highest policymaking body and supreme organ of the PLO, the real center of power was the fifteen-member Executive Committee. The committee's members were elected by and collectively responsible to the PNC. The manner of their election ensured representation of the major guerrilla and political groups on the committee. Arafat was re- elected chairman of the Executive Committee in 1988, a position he has held since 1969. Al Fatah had three seats on the committee; in addition, Arafat generally obtained the support of the seven "independents," the committee members who were not affiliated with any of the guerrilla groups.

The administration of the PLO was grouped under nine main functions that were carried out in different countries depending on local Palestinian needs. These were supported by funds collected and distributed by the PLO's treasury and financial arm, the Palestine National Fund. The fund obtained its revenues from payments made by Arab governments in accordance with agreements made at the summit level (i.e., the Baghdad Summit of 1978); from voluntary contributions by Palestinians; from the 3 to 6 percent income tax levied by some Arab states on the salaries of resident Palestinian workers; and from loans and grants by Arab as well as non-Arab countries. Iraq and Syria provided financial aid directly to particular guerrilla groups despite persistent efforts by the PLO to terminate this practice and to centralize fund-raising and fund-distributing procedures.

In 1989 the PLO maintained "diplomatic" missions in more than 120 countries that recognized it as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Although the PLO had not proclaimed a government-in-exile for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, more than twenty-five countries recognized it as the de jure government of the independent state of Palestine, declared at the 1988 PNC meeting in Algiers. The PLO has maintained a mission at UN headquarters in New York since being granted observer status in 1974. The PLO also operated numerous "information offices" in the major cities of the world. In 1988 the United States government ordered the closure of PLO's information office in Washington.

The PLO's nearest equivalent to a Red Cross Society was called the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS). The PRCS supported hospitals and clinics for Palestinians in Arab countries as well as in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the PRCS operated ten major hospitals and eleven clinics in that country. These facilities provided a broad- range of medical services to Palestinian refugees at no cost or for nominal fees. The hospitals and clinics were severely damaged during the occupation of south Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. Since 1983, the periodic fighting in Lebanon has seriously impeded the PRCS's efforts to reconstruct medical centers and provide health services.

The PLO also sponsored numerous educational and cultural projects and operated an economic enterprise called the Palestine Martyrs' Works Society, better known by its Arab acronym SAMED, which ran small factories. SAMED's workshops produced such items as blankets, tents, uniforms, civilian clothes, shoes, handicrafts, furniture, and toys. SAMED was originally established in 1970 to provide vocational training for the children of Palestinian men and women killed in service to the Palestinian national cause. After 1976 SAMED decided to accept any Palestinian needing employment if work were available. Most SAMED workshops were in the refugee camps in northern Lebanon and thus were not affected by the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 1982. SAMED workshops and activities were disrupted, however, during the 1983-84 fighting between Arafat loyalists and dissidents in Palestinian camps in northern Lebanon.

The military function of the PLO was under the supreme command of the chairman of the Executive Committee. The PLO's regular military arm was called the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA). Its units were stationed in various Arab countries where they coordinated their activities with those of Arab armies. The coordination was centrally handled by the Palestinian Armed Struggle Command, which also was responsible for law and order among Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress