In an editorial published in Paris the day after Robert Kennedy's assassination by Sirhan Sirhan, Le Monde wrote that this "criminal gesture by a Palestinian nationalist on this 5th of June 1968-anniversary of the Six-Day War-takes on a symbolic value. . . . Never have despair and hatred been so intense in a people who consider themselves deprived of their homeland."

This appraisal, which would today appear both just and commonplace, provoked an explosion of indignation at the time. Many readers, although not at all implicated in the Israeli-Arab conflict, wrote to the editors of the paper to protest the use of the word "Palestinian." Where was Palestine? Had it ever existed? A Paris Zionist weekly accused Le Monde of having resorted to expressions whose only objective was to "justify a murder." A number of editorials in the Israeli press, and the ambassador of the Jewish state in Paris in a letter to Le Monde, pointed out that "this Arab from Jerusalem" was not even a refugee, but only an "emigrant." In an unprecedented gesture, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time, Abba Eban, circulated an official statement about the "incident" in which he stated: "This editorial belongs to the most shocking literature of incitement. . . . There are attempts in certain quarters to praise the murder and the murderer, and to defend bloodshed as a means of expressing a political opinion. . . ." And yet the editorial in Le Monde had not only called the assassination a "criminal gesture" but had condemned the Palestinians' "thirst for revenge."

These reactions illustrate very well the sensitivity of a certain segment of public opinion less than seven years ago when confronted with the Palestinian question. The anger it generated was understandable: many people could not conceive that one could speak of the aspirations or nationalist feelings-justified or not-of a people that did not exist, unless one was inspired by dark ulterior motives of a political nature. Seven months before Robert Kennedy's assassination, the United Nations Security Council had unanimously adopted a resolution (No. 242, of November 22, 1967), recommending "a just settlement of the refugee problem" without specifying the national identity of the refugees.

Two years later, Mrs. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister, expressed a belief that was undoubtedly widespread in the Middle East (and which persists today, but to a lesser degree) when she maintained that the Palestinian people did not exist, and recalled with irony that formerly the Palestinians considered themselves "southern Syrians." Mrs. Meir was not breaking new ground. Theodor Herzl before her was convinced that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without a land" (the Jews).


The founder of political Zionism and the former Prime Minister of Israel were, of course, both wrong. At the beginning of this century, hundreds of thousands of Arabs lived in the territory which was to be entrusted to the British mandate in 1920 under the name of Palestine.1 Rooted in that country since before the Moslem conquest in the seventh century A.D., they pursued lucrative activities and often prospered. Like a number of other Arab peoples living under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, they aspired to emancipation. It is true that many of them hoped to become citizens of a great independent Arab state stretching all the way to Syria, and that the germ of specifically Palestinian nationalism did not develop until after World War I, thanks to their twofold struggle against the British occupiers and the Jewish settlers who were fleeing persecution in Europe. For example, it is significant that the newspaper Filastin (Palestine), which appeared until 1967, was founded in 1911. The case of Palestinian nationalism is not exceptional. As has happened in Africa recently and in Europe and South America in the past, arbitrarily drawn frontiers have contributed to the formation of new nations.

Palestinian nationalism, although strongly tinged with pan-Arabism, began to manifest itself at the end of the last century. In December 1920, the third convention of the representatives of Palestine took place in Damascus, condemned the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 (which had promised the Jews a "national home") and protested Jewish immigration into Palestine. On the same occasion, they declared themselves in favor of independence and of the creation of a government responsible to a parliament elected by universal suffrage. Ever since, united behind these principles, the Palestinians have ceaselessly fought-peacefully or violently-for the territorial integrity and national independence of their country. The sacrifices they have made prove not only the existence but also the virulence of Palestinian nationalism: during the armed uprising which lasted from 1936 to 1939-to give only one example-3,000 Palestinians were killed, 110 agitators were executed, and nearly 6,000 were interned. On the other side, the Jewish settlement mourned 329 dead and 867 wounded during the same period; the losses of the English forces in charge of the repression were 135 dead and 386 wounded.

Since its inception, the Zionist movement has been divided about the attitude it should adopt with regard to the indigenous population of Palestine. While the majority of its leaders deny the very existence of the Palestinians, some have courageously preached recognition of the national rights of the Palestinian people. These latter Zionists are not only recruited from the left wing of the movement. Marxists, humanists, or just realists, they try to favor a compromise between the two peoples fighting for possession of the same country.

It is curious that David Ben-Gurion-who, when he came to power, did not exactly sympathize with the Arabs, to say the least-should have been one of the first partisans of the Palestinians' right to self-determination. The following are extracts from a lecture he gave in Berlin in 1931.2 "The right to self-determination is a universal principle. We have always and everywhere been among the most fervent defenders of this principle. We are entirely for the right to self-determination of all peoples, of all individuals, of all groups, and it follows that the Arab in Palestine has the right to self-determination. This right is not limited, and cannot be qualified by our own interests. . . . It is possible that the realization of the aspirations [of the Palestinian Arabs] will create serious difficulties for us but this is not a reason to deny their rights. . . ."

Despite the generosity of Ben-Gurion's stand, it was not entirely lacking in naïveté, feigned or not. Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders of the time claimed that they were convinced that the aspirations of the Palestinians were not irreconcilable with those of the Jewish people. However, the Zionists' objectives ran directly counter to those of their Arab adversaries, who were against the continuance of the British mandate and were seeking to found an independent Palestinian state. In addition, the Arabs opposed the mass immigration of Jews and refused to grant the descendants of the Hebrews any national rights whatsoever. These descendants constituted a minority until the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, and besides, the majority of its members were emigrants, principally from Russia, Poland, and Germany.

David Ben-Gurion, in this same address, vehemently rejected the thought of recourse to violence in order to make the Zionist dream come true: "In human history," he declared, "violence alone has never been victorious in the long run. We, less than anyone else, can rely on a policy of violence, even if we wanted to do so."3

However, in the face of the Arab rejection of any compromise, the Zionist movement was naturally led to practice a policy of faits accomplish, a policy which was to serve as the instrument first for the creation, and then for the expansion, of the state of Israel.

Between the two world wars, particularly after the advent of Nazism in Germany, immigration, the colonization of farm lands, the progressive Judaization of certain parts of Palestine, and the creation of a politico-military infrastructure by the Jewish Agency were accomplished against the Arabs' will and sometimes against the will of the occupying power, Great Britain. The objective was no longer only to create a "national home" in Palestine-in accordance with the terms of the Balfour Declaration-but to convert this territory into a Jewish state. The representatives of the American Zionist movement, meeting in New York in May 1942, adopted the "Biltmore Program," which forecast the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish commonwealth, with unlimited immigration and the creation of a Jewish army. These ambitions, which were founded once more on the denial of the Palestinian people's national rights, proved to be visionary. The 22nd Zionist congress, which met in December 1946, was more realistic and formulated a proposition which would win the votes of both the Western and Communist powers: Palestine would be divided into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab. The project was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 29, 1947.

The U.N.'s verdict-quite obviously influenced by the general compassion (or bad conscience) felt with respect to the Jews who survived Hitler's policy of genocide-caused indignation in the Arab world, where the "colonialist" nature of the U.N. decision, the "diktat" imposed on the Palestinian people, was denounced. The plan for the division of the country itself was considered a flagrant injustice: the Jews, who made up less than a third of the population and who owned only six percent of the land, were to be given 56 percent of the area.

The Palestinian national movement engaged in an unequal battle which was lost from the beginning. Rendered powerless on the eve of World War II after the failure of the 1936-39 rebellion, it was incapable of accurately evaluating the interrelated local and international forces, which clearly favored Jewish nationalism. Otherwise, the Palestinians would not have obstinately pursued an "all or nothing" policy, which had already brought them many disappointments and which would lead to successive defeats in the new phase of the struggle. The Palestinians, who were strictly dependent on the Arab states, turned to them to put a stop to the creation of the Zionist state. However, the Arab world-divided, torn by contradictory ambitions, and subject to the tutelage or the influence of the English or the French-did not have the means to overcome the U.N.'s decision. Militarily, too, the Arabs were incapable of dealing with the clandestine Jewish army, the Haganah, and with a population which, having escaped the concentration camp crematoriums, felt that it was fighting for its very survival.

The 1948 defeat, the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the annexation of the West Bank of the Jordan by the Hashemite Kingdom, and the attaching of the Gaza Strip to Egypt, marked the beginning of an eclipse for the Palestinian national movement which was to last for 20 years.

The leaders of the battles in the Holy Land before World War II were by then either discredited or too old to fight, and they disappeared one after the other from the political scene. The young Palestinians enrolled in political groups in friendly countries, preferably in parties with revolutionary or pan-Arab objectives, hoping by this means to liberate their homeland. Whether Communists, Nasserites, Baa'thists or members of the Moslem Brotherhood, the Palestinians continued to be inspired by narrowly nationalist feelings. The proof is that they deserted their respective parties to join the ranks of Al Fatah and other fedayeen organizations as soon as these were formed.


The eclipse of the Palestinian movement contributed to a false image held by public opinion in Israel and the world: the Palestinians no longer appeared as a people entitled to a homeland but only as "Arabs" in the process of being integrated into the countries that had welcomed them. Examples given were Jordan, which had granted them citizenship; Kuwait, which employed tens of thousands of Palestinian workers and technicians in its oil fields; Saudi Arabia and the emirates of the Persian Gulf, where many Palestinians held responsible positions in the administration or had become respected members of the business community and the professions. These examples allowed public opinion to condemn other Arab countries-notably Egypt, Syria and Lebanon-which refused to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were subsisting in camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. For political reasons, the Arab world, it was said again and again, did not want to break up the refugee camps. The argument was not entirely false. Certain Arab regimes undeniably exploited the Palestinian conflict to further their own ends, notably to divert their own peoples' attention from internal problems that the regimes could not and did not wish to resolve.

Nevertheless, other considerably more important reasons-national, economic, or social-stood in the way of the complete integration of the Palestinians. The underdevelopment of certain Arab countries, the population explosion in others (above all in Egypt), unemployment in most, have prevented the absorption of the Palestinians. Lebanon has its own problem: if it granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (most of whom are Moslems), it would seriously endanger the delicate, painstakingly maintained balance between the Christian and Moslem communities in the country.

Above all, the factor of their nationality-the importance of which has been clearly underestimated in recent years-remains the principal obstacle to the "dispersion" of the Palestinians. Their assimilation has encountered a double resistance: their own and that of the Arab peoples who have offered them hospitality. One would have come to the same impasse if one had tried to transplant the Algerians to neighboring Tunisia, or the Moroccans into Egypt. At best, the Palestinians are everywhere considered emigrés, stateless persons, with whom it is possible to sympathize, but most often as one sympathizes with intruders. They are educated, industrious, and resourceful-all qualities which minorities develop naturally in unfriendly surroundings-and they are therefore envied, feared, looked on with suspicion, or scorned by their Arab "brothers" who sometimes nickname them "the Jews of the Middle East." Even the Palestinians who have successfully integrated are progressively pushed aside or feel threatened with exclusion from societies in the process of development, which thrust up strictly indigenous middle and working classes and intellectual elites. And it is neither by chance nor the result of clever propaganda (as some people believe) that the Palestinians of the diaspora, as the Zionists have done for centuries, cry out "Nahnu a'aydun" ("We shall return!"). Their will to find a "national home" and to found a state has continued to assert itself since their dispersion in 1948.

Until 1967 few Israelis were interested in or conscious of the existence of the new forces which would revive the Palestinian national movement and give it a vigor and dimension without precedent in the history of the conflict. Although they were attentive to the slightest development in the Middle East, the official authorities of the Jewish state, its research institutes, and its universities persistently failed to distinguish the Palestinians from the Arabs. It is true that a handful of orientalists had taken up the study of the problem, but most of their work was related only to secondary aspects: to the refugee problem or terrorism.4

At the time, they seemed to be right. The fedayeen who engaged in attacks on Israel in the early 1950s were more or less remote-controlled by the Arab intelligence services-Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian particularly. The disenchantment brought about by the 1948 disaster had not, it seemed, shaken the Palestinians' pan-Arab feelings. Moreover, Nasser's revolution in 1952 had rekindled the hope that the Arab world-now rid of "corrupt regimes tied to imperialism"-would finally unite to liberate Palestine.


This, at least, was the picture seen from the outside. Yet the reality was rather different, at least for the avant-garde among Palestinian youth. A number of founders of Al Fatah, whom we have interviewed at length about this phase of their history, have said that they progressively came to the conclusion that the Palestinian people could count only on themselves to realize their aspirations. Nasser very soon disappointed them. During his first years in power, the leader of the Egyptian revolution showed little interest in the Palestinian problem. Until the Israeli raid on Gaza in February 1955-which shook him profoundly-he was principally preoccupied with purely internal questions: the destruction of the monarchy and the feudal class it had fostered, agrarian reform, the expulsion of the British from the canal zone, and the fight for power. The fedayeen, armed and trained by Egyptian officers, felt that they were instruments in the service of Nasser's politics. The latter did in fact put an end to their activities at the beginning of 1957, after the installation of a U.N. force along the lines established by the truce. For a decade Nasser's police had to be severely repressive in the Gaza Strip to prevent the Palestinians from organizing themselves into an autonomous group or from taking up arms.

In Gaza were developed the main lines of the ideology taken up first by Al Fatah and later by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasir Arafat. Arafat, like many of his comrades, was much impressed by the guerrilla war launched against France by the Algerian nationalists in 1954. These Palestinians aspired to found a movement analogous to the FLN, entirely autonomous but benefiting nonetheless from the support of the Arab countries. Their pan-Arabism has changed radically: they maintain that Arab unity can only be achieved through the liberation of Palestine, not the other way around. They feel that the Palestinian national movement should no longer be towed along by the Arab countries but should become the motor, the catalyst, of the revolution in all the "fraternal" countries. In a conversation he had in 1969 with the author of this article, Abou Ayad (nom de guerre of Salah Khallaf, the second in command of Al Fatah) illustrated this thesis with the following allegory: "A peasant shakes a tree on which there are 14 oranges; he tries to get one of them to fall down, but instead the 13 others, which are already rotten, drop at his feet." The peasant, explained Abou Ayad, is the Palestinian people; the orange he wanted to have but which was not yet ripe is the state of Israel. The other 13 oranges which fell down first are the members of the Arab League.

While waiting for the Arab revolution to clear the way for the "liberation" of Palestine, the "historical leaders" of Al Fatah, from their first clandestine meetings, contemplated preaching the reunification of their country into a "democratic state in which Moslems, Christians, and Jews would live on an equal footing." We have no formal proof that this "strategic objective," formulated publicly for the first time in 1968, had been discussed by the founders of Al Fatah ten years earlier. However, some of those founders have assured us that the idea came to them in the autumn of 1956, during the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops. Despite the pitiless repression exercised by General Dayan's army, these young and ardently nationalistic Palestinians saw a good deal of the Jewish soldiers born in Palestine or Middle Eastern countries. Both sides had an Arab background and they spent entire nights discussing their respective aspirations, sharing the same sense of humor, and sometimes singing old songs together which they had learned in their childhood. Certain leaders of Al Fatah told us: "We realized then that the Palestinians and the Jews of Middle Eastern origin-who constitute the majority in Israel-had many things in common and could coexist very well in a single state which would be free of both Zionism and Arab chauvinism."

It is possible that the idea of Jews and Palestinians living together was indeed born in Gaza in 1956. But it is more than doubtful that Al Fatah had, particularly at the beginning, an ideology or a coherent program. Its founders, then its most militant members, came from very varied political backgrounds (particularly members of the Moslem Brotherhood, Baa'thists or Nasserites), lived in different countries, and observed strict rules of secrecy which forbade them to publish any political documents whatsoever at the time. Fleeing police persecution in countries bordering on Israel-above all Egypt and Jordan-from 1957 onwards the majority of Al Fatah's "founding fathers" (Yasir Arafat among them) found refuge and profitable employment in the countries bordering the Persian Gulf-notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi-whose embryonic security services scarcely bothered them.

These countries, which are both underdeveloped and rich in oil, have many high officials and businessmen (sometimes multimillionaires) of Palestinian origin. The future leaders of the resistance therefore had at their disposal funds, highly placed friends, and the relative freedom of movement which they could not claim in the near eastern Arab countries. They established their center in Kuwait, where Arafat was a public works contractor, and they began to scatter their political cells throughout the Arab world.

In 1958, Al Fatah (which had just been formally founded)5 began publishing in Beirut the magazine Filastinuna (Our Palestine) in which it began to spread simple ideas anonymously: the Palestinian national movement must be strictly independent of the Arab states; it should prepare itself for a guerrilla war of long duration like that of the Algerians and the Vietnamese, with the active support of the Arab peoples and of the national liberation movements in the countries of the Third World. To achieve this twofold objective, the editors of Filastinuna maintained that the principle of nonintervention must govern the relations between the Palestinian nationalists and the various Arab regimes (a principle which was, however, rarely applied to the letter in subsequent years).

Al Fatah went through a difficult phase beginning in 1958 when the union of Egypt and Syria turned Nasser into the champion of a monolithic pan-Arabism. Yasir Arafat and his friends avoided a head-on collision with Nasserism in order not to be called "separatists" or "regionalists," which were the supreme insults at the time. They patiently pursued the organizational tasks they had assigned themselves. Secretly and often anonymously they established cells made up of militants, particularly in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Two events which succeeded each other gave the Palestinian organization a fresh impetus: the breakdown of the union between Syria and Egypt in 1961, which marked the beginning of the decline of Nasserism; and the victorious ending of the armed struggle in Algeria, which gained its independence in 1962.

The leaders of Al Fatah then decided to move from the political and organizational phase to that of guerrilla warfare. They set up a purely military satellite organization, Al Assifa, whose mission was to harass the Zionist state with attacks and sabotage. Their objective was threefold: to create a climate of insecurity in Israel; to maintain the tension between the Jewish state and its neighbors, which would then be more likely to tolerate fedayeen infiltration; and, finally, to bring about a war between Israel and the Arab countries.6

Arms were bought on the black market with the help of the millionaires of the Palestinian diaspora, and stored in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Ex-fedayeen from the 1950s and veteran officers who had served in various Arab armies were carefully recruited to train the future guerrillas in the deepest secrecy.

When the first national Palestinian congress (a sort of parliament) met in Jerusalem in May 1964 and founded the Palestine Liberation Organization, Al Fatah considered itself directly threatened. This congress of notables had been convoked at the instigation of the Arab League, with the obvious goal of channeling the energies of the Palestinians away from the uncontrolled activists. It was clear that the PLO was destined to become Nasser's docile instrument, because its president, Ahmed Shukeiry, an old hand at politics and an opportunist, put himself at the disposal of the leader of the Egyptian revolution after having long been in the service of Ibn Saud, the ultra-conservative king of Saudi Arabia.

Although its military preparations were far from complete, Al Fatah decided to take action during the second half of 1964. To become the sole outlet for Palestinian nationalism, Al Fatah had to overtake the PLO as quickly as possible. An attack on the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) was planned for December 26. But technical difficulties caused the cancellation of the project at the last minute. It was not until January 1, 1965, that Al Assifa launched and set its name to its first military operation in Israeli territory. The commando group lost one of its members at the border where he was felled by the Jordanian security service. The first casualty of the Palestinian resistance movement was thus killed by an Arab bullet.

By giving this incident a great deal of publicity, Al Fatah managed to achieve two political objectives: the Hashemite regime was presented as Israel's "accomplice," and the passivity of the PLO, the "creature" of the Arab League, was made manifest, demonstrating the need for an autonomous Palestinian movement.

At that time the leaders of Al Fatah were counting on a delay of five years before promoting an armed conflict between Israel and its neighbors. They had, however, underestimated the momentum of the mechanism they had set in motion. The Hebrew army responded to the fedayeen attacks with reprisal raids against Jordan and Syria as well as with threats to the Damascus regime; Nasser replied with a theatrical mobilization of his army and by closing the Gulf of Aqaba. War broke out in June 1967, two and a half years before the date anticipated by Al Fatah.

The rout of the Arab armies inaugurated what its participants regarded as the golden age of the Palestinian resistance, which appeared from then on to be the only force capable of continuing the fight. Al Fatah resumed its raids in October 1967. Large groups of Palestinians enrolled under the banner of Arafat's organization. The crowds were such that the recruitment offices were obliged to turn away prospective guerrillas.

Fedayeen organizations proliferated, often at the prompting of different Arab countries anxious not to allow Al Fatah to monopolize the resistance. The Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) was founded in December 1967 with Damascus' and Cairo's benediction. In 1968 Syria supported the creation of Saiqa (Lightning). The following year, Iraq installed the Arab Liberation Front (FLA) on the Palestinian scene. In March 1970, the Communist parties of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq-not wishing to leave the road clear for the Syrian and Iraqi Baa'thists and the Nasserites-formed "the partisan forces," a fedayeen organization which, following Moscow, curiously enough, favors a peaceful solution of the Palestinian problem, on the basis of the Security Council's Resolution No. 242. During 1969 one could count a total of 15 Palestinian groups of various sizes, the majority of which were financed and armed by one or several Arab countries.

In the meantime, Al Fatah did not let itself be swept away by this wave of rivals. In February 1969, it even managed to secure effective control of the PLO, to "fill the empty shell left by Shukeiry," in the words of Shefiq al-Hout, director of the fedayeen "headquarters" in Beirut. It is true that Nasser, for realistic reasons as well as from self-interest, had helped Yasir Arafat hoist himself to the top of the PLO. The Egyptian leader thought he could manipulate the Al Fatah chief more easily once he was draped in the mantle of "respectability." In any case, the Egyptian leader risked little, since the majority of Arafat's partisans were concentrated not in Egypt but in Jordan, their principal base of operations. If necessary, they were in a position to exert military pressure on Israel to the greatest advantage of the Egyptians. At its apogee in 1970, the PLO numbered between 30,000 and 50,000 men trained for guerrilla warfare.7

In the meantime, the fedayeen had created in the midst of the Hashemite Kingdom a sort of "state within a state," which had become intolerable to King Hussein after he had accepted the "Rogers Plan" for a peaceful settlement in July 1970. The showdown he staged in September 1970 resulted in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians.


The Palestinian resistance, now vanquished, began to go into a decline. Liquidated in Jordan, controlled in Syria, its movements restricted in Lebanon, and abandoned by Egypt (after the death of Nasser in September 1970), it was conspicuous by its absence in the territories occupied by Israel. In the autumn of 1972, Abou Ayad, the second in command of Al Fatah, declared that the resistance was threatened "by total collapse."

The repression exercised by Israel, although less brutal than that undertaken in Jordan, was nevertheless just as effective. Between the Six-Day War and December 31, 1971, the Israeli authorities imprisoned or sentenced to long prison terms more than 5,000 Palestinians, dynamited-by way of reprisal-thousands of Arab dwellings, deported hundreds of activists, and inflicted collective penalties (in economic terms and police regulations) on a number of centers on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Jerusalem.

Yet repression cannot alone explain the paralysis of the resistance. Much more fundamental reasons contributed to its decline, some of which deserve to be cited:

(1) The divisions within the PLO, whose facade of unity was an illusion, brought about organizational anarchy, contradictions and political inconsistencies, and demagogic exaggerations by the various rival organizations which often reflected the power struggle among the Arab countries.

(2) The cult of force, which had led the fedayeen to proclaim in their "national pact" adopted in July 1968 the principle that "armed combat is the only road to the liberation of Palestine." Having invested all their energies in conducting the armed combat, the leaders of the resistance had not been able to develop among the mass of their followers durable political organizations which would have survived military defeats and the physical elimination of the guerrillas. They had furthermore neglected to employ the various forms of political action which in most cases might have been more profitable than their recourse to force.

(3) The "all or nothing" policy encouraged by the "strategic goal" of destroying the Zionist state in order to replace it with a "reunited and democratic Palestine." This utopian "strategic goal" had become a sort of "sacred cow" which was often worshipped without too much faith, but which maintained the facade of unanimity of the resistance. On the other hand, it was partly responsible for antagonizing a number of Arab states, which favored a compromise, for excluding diplomatic moves from the resistance and even for alienating a number of Palestinians (particularly those confronted with the harsh reality of the occupation) who refused to confuse the desirable with the possible and to sacrifice themselves on the altar of an inaccessible paradise.

Politically and militarily impotent, the Palestinian activists resorted much more often to the only weapon left to them-blind terrorism, whose horrors contributed to increasing their isolation on the international scene.


The October 1973 war changed the situation significantly by giving the Palestinian national movement a powerful new impetus. Although the Arabs in the occupied territories have had neither the time, nor the means, to take up guerrilla warfare again, their passive resistance has turned out to be just as formidable. On orders from the Palestinian National Front (a clandestine movement inspired by the Jordanian Communist Party, which since August 1973 has been regrouping the fedayeen organizations, various political groups, the unions, professional associations, and many "notables"), tens of thousands of workers (Palestinians from the occupied territories or citizens of Israel) refrained from going to work for the duration of the war and even longer. This paralyzed many Israeli businesses. "An Arab worker in an Israeli factory is the equivalent of an extra Jewish soldier at the front," proclaimed one of the slogans of the Palestinian National Front, as an affiliate of the PLO.

Paradoxically, Arafat's organization, whose military role in the October war had been entirely marginal, emerged strengthened from the conflict, much to the astonishment of the Israeli authorities. Despite deportations, arrests, and the dynamiting of Arab houses, the Moslem council of Jerusalem as well as representatives of the public authorities and a majority of mayors and other notables (a number of whom were considered partisans of King Hussein) have one after the other informed the Israeli government that henceforth they consider the PLO "the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." Another sign of Arafat's rise was that at his orders, channeled through the Palestine Liberation Front, 39,000 Palestinians (of the 43,000 registered) boycotted the municipal elections in Jerusalem in 1973.

At the end of 1972, in the course of an inquiry we undertook regarding the Palestinians in the occupied territories, in Lebanon, in Syria, and in Jordan, we recorded many criticisms and complaints about the PLO. We noticed, however, that the prestige of Mr. Arafat's organization remained intact. "Despite everything," we were told by the majority of those we questioned, "the fedayeen have restored our dignity, our pride in being Palestinians."

Meeting in Algiers in November 1973, one month after the Yom Kippur War, the Arab heads of state designated the PLO as "the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," but decided not to publish their decision in order not to embarrass King Hussein. The resolution-which was officially confirmed by the Arab "summit conference" in Rabat in October 1974-seemed astonishing at first sight. How was it possible that King Hussein's friends and allies-like King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the Emir of Kuwait, and King Hassan II of Morocco-would sacrifice the Hashemite sovereign for the sake of Arafat?

In our opinion, the decision by the Arab heads of state was dictated by at least three political considerations:

(1) King Hussein's passivity during the October war finally succeeded in discrediting him in the eyes of the Palestinians. The Arab heads of state considered him no longer capable of negotiating in Geneva a settlement believable enough to be lasting.

(2) Any peace treaty with Israel would necessarily contain concessions which might jeopardize the position of those consenting to them. The Arab heads of state do not want to assume this heavy responsibility without the guarantee-indispensable in their opinion-of the Palestinians who are the most interested party. And since the fedayeen organizations cannot be suspected of being sympathetic toward the Jewish state, why not bring them along to the negotiating table and get them to participate in the general settlement which will be concluded one of these days?

(3) The Arab heads of state knew even before the October war that certain PLO leaders were prepared to contemplate a compromise.

In the months preceding the war, observers had noticed signs of mellowing. Kamal Nasser, while he was the official spokesman of the PLO, told us in November 1972 that "the resistance is ready to consider an invitation to participate in an international conference like the one in Geneva which, in 1954, had led to the settlement of the conflict in Indochina."8

President Sadat therefore was not risking a great deal when he declared in a speech on October 16, 1973, at the height of the war, that he would undertake to "convince our brothers in combat. . . . the representatives of the Palestinian people" to participate in the peace conference he proposed should convene. One can assume that he had already sounded out Arafat and his friends in this regard and obtained their agreement.

At the end of October 1973, during off-the-record discussions with the principal PLO organizations-Al Fatah, Saiqa, and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine headed by Nayef Hawatmeh-we learned that they had already decided to participate in the Geneva conference under certain conditions.

A high official of Al Fatah told us in this regard: "We have undertaken a careful analysis of the regional and international situation in the light of which we have come to the conclusion that it is imperative, in the overriding interest of the Palestinian people, to accept a compromise. . . . We will neither be the first nor the last to accept the often cruel verdict of history. We are not going to be more revolutionary or more uncompromising than the Germans, the Vietnamese and the Koreans, who, like it or not, have allowed the division of their respective countries. Moreover, peace with Israel could reopen the way to gradual evolution leading to the reunification of Palestine which would become one day the homeland of both Jews and Arabs."9

This is undoubtedly what Yasir Arafat had in mind when he declared before the U.N. General Assembly on November 13-a year later-that he "dreamt"10 of a reunified Jewish-Arab Palestine. One may regret that he was not as explicit as he had been on June 5, 1974, when he said before the Palestinian National Council (the "parliament" of the resistance) that he was ready, if necessary, to participate in the Geneva conference, in other words, to negotiate a compromise with Israel.

However, Arafat's intransigence is understandable. He did not want to lay himself open to recriminations from those fedayeen organizations which are hostile to him and which reject even the principle of negotiation. To be sure, the PFLP headed by George Habash, the PFLP General Command, led by Ahmad Jibril, and the Arab Liberation Front do not represent more than ten percent of the total strength of the fedayeen. But the influence of these three small groups united in the front lines of those refusing to negotiate could spread rapidly to the rank and file of the other organizations if Arafat were forced to lay down his cards prematurely, i.e., even before the PLO is admitted to the Geneva conference. And as it turned out, while Arafat was giving his speech at the United Nations, the Israeli government was reiterating its determination not to engage in a dialogue with a "gang of murderers" (PLO) and even less to hand over to them the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip.

One can also understand why Israel would prefer to negotiate with King Hussein whose inclination to be conciliatory is well known. The Israeli leaders know that the conditions demanded by the PLO would be draconian. To judge by what PLO officials have told us privately, by the official declarations and by the documents published in recent months-particularly the "transitional program" adopted by the Palestinian National Congress on June 8, 1974-it is certain that Arafat would make the following demands:

(1) The Palestinians would go to Geneva only if they were invited as representatives of a people having "legitimate national rights" and not as spokesmen for "refugees," which is the term used in the Security Council's Resolution No. 242.

(2) The Geneva negotiations would have to consider the implementation of all the U.N. resolutions, including those of 1947 relating to the division of Palestine, and 1948 concerning the refugees' right to choose either repatriation in Israel or fair compensation, as well as, of course, the resolutions passed on November 22, 1974.

(3) If these demands, which are considered minimal, are not satisfied, the Palestinian representatives would refuse to make peace with the Jewish state. In any case, the PLO would not formally renounce its "strategic goal," that is to say, the establishment of a Jewish-Arab Palestine.11

At first glance, such demands would make an Israeli-Palestinian accord impossible and would justify Israel's refusal to engage in talks. However, one should not underestimate the momentum toward peace that all negotiations bring about. The fact that they sent a delegation to Geneva would mean de facto that the PLO recognized the state of Israel; it would be the first time in half a century that the representatives of the two peoples would attempt together to find an overall solution to their conflict. Better still, they would be subject to the friendly pressures of their respective allies to lead them to conclude a compromise agreement. Already a number of Arab states (particularly Egypt) as well as the Soviet Union have played a significant role in softening the stand taken by Arafat and his friends. The PLO will not indefinitely be able to oppose those who supply them with political, financial, and military support, for without that support the PLO could not exist for long.


At this writing, in mid-November 1974, Israel seems to have no choice but to negotiate sooner or later with the PLO which, for better or for worse, has been recognized as having representative status by the great majority of U.N. members, including King Hussein's Jordan. Refusing to talk would leave no outlet except a war that might well end in a political catastrophe for Israel, considering the worldwide economic, financial and diplomatic power at the disposal of the Arabs. To attempt a dialogue with the PLO, on the other hand, would test the goodwill and the capacity for compromise of the moderate wing of the fedayeen "headquarters." In this regard it is significant that neither the PLO nor the Arab states have defined the "legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people." In a sense, this lack of precision is reassuring since it does not limit future negotiators' freedom of maneuver.

Although the Israeli leaders no longer dispute the existence of a Palestinian people,12 they remain firmly opposed to the creation of an independent state which would be inserted between Israel and Jordan. Indeed they fear that the new entity-made up of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip-might become a hot bed of irredentism and the "spirit of revanche" of the Palestinians, particularly since it would not be economically viable.

Several studies on the subject, notably in Israel, have nevertheless come to less pessimistic conclusions. The West Bank of the Jordan is a particularly fertile territory where agriculture has traditionally flourished. There are small and medium-sized industries there. The future Palestinian state could profit from large investments by the oil-rich Arab countries which would permit it to develop rapidly and to absorb a not unimportant number of the refugees, particularly those now in Syria and Lebanon. The Palestinian diaspora is rich in intellectual elites: it has more than 50,000 members with university degrees, many of whom could contribute to the economic development and the well-being of the Palestinian people.

It is certainly unquestionable that a state stretching along both banks of the Jordan-where 75 percent of the Palestinians already live-would constitute a more stable economic and political entity and one therefore less tempted by irredentism. The leaders of the PLO must wish as strongly, if not more so than the Israeli officials, to transform the Jordanian kingdom as it was before the 1967 war into a Palestinian state, but their ambition cannot be realized as long as the Hashemite monarchy exists in Amman.

All the same, geopolitical imperatives will end by asserting themselves even if Egypt does not succeed in reconciling King Hussein and Arafat. If a "mini-state" were to be created on the West Bank of the Jordan and in the Gaza Strip, it would probably eventually establish close links, perhaps of a federal kind, with Hashemite Jordan. We have even heard certain fedayeen officials speak of a confederation encompassing these two Arab countries as well as Israel. For them, this would be a first step toward the democratic Jewish-Arab Palestine for which they are praying.

A utopian project? Certainly, given the present state of affairs. But everything would become possible the day Israelis and Palestinians consent, whether they like it or not, to recognize one another's "legitimate national rights" whose nature and scope they would work out before studying the question of mutual cooperation indispensable to the flowering of the two peoples.


1 The name Palestina (derived from Palashat, "the territory of the ancient Philistines"), appears for the first time in Herodotus' writings in the fifth century B.C. A thousand years later, the Roman and Byzantine governors divided Palestine into three administrative provinces, a system preserved by the conquering Arabs in the seventh century.

2 Text reproduced in Cahiers Bernard Lazare (Paris), December 1972-January 1973 issue.

3 Such statements notwithstanding, Ben-Gurion's enemies have often accused him of chauvinism by pointing out, among other things, the fact that he never bothered to learn Arabic, although, after his emigration to Palestine in 1906, he applied himself successively to the study of Turkish, English, Greek and, so it seems, Sanskrit. When Israel was born, he opposed those who wanted to establish the borders of the new state once and for all, in the hope of extending its territory later on. During his long rise to power, when he was not led to repress them severely, he showed little interest in the Palestinian Arabs who had become Israeli citizens.

4 The Center for Research on Palestinian Arabs was established in Israel only after the Six-Day War. It has been integrated into the Truman Institute, situated on Mount Scopus.

5 Fatah, meaning conquest in Arabic, is made up of the initials, in reverse order, of the name of the organization known as the "Palestine Liberation Movement."

6 This information as well as the details to follow were supplied to us by Abou Youssef (nom de guerre of Mohamed Naggar), one of the principal founders of Al Fatah, who was assassinated together with two other Palestinian leaders by an Israeli commando group in Beirut on April 10, 1973.

7 Cf. Hisham Sharabi, "Palestine Guerrillas: Their Credibility and Effectiveness" (a series of supplementary papers for Strategic and International Studies), Georgetown University, 1970.

8 Kamal Nasser was one of the three Palestinian notables killed by an Israeli commando group in Beirut in April 1973.

9 Cf. Le Monde, November 6, 1973.

10 The choice of this word is significant in itself. A politician is not forbidden to "dream" of an ideal solution, realizable or not in a distant future, if in practice he is capable of confronting the problem with enough realism to reach a compromise.

11 Nevertheless, in the case of a settlement, the leaders could undertake not to resort to force to attain their objective. Political combat would thus replace armed combat. This was told us by Mr. Hawatmeh, the leader of the Democratic Front, whose influence reaches far beyond the confines of his organization.

12 The Labor Party adopted a 14-point electoral platform on November 28, 1973, in which it explicitly recognized the existence of a Palestinian people.

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  • Eric Rouleau is the chief Middle East correspondent and editorialist of Le Monde in Paris.
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