Because many Palestine Arabs are stateless under inter national law, their importance has frequently been overlooked in the numerous parleys and in the skein of complex international negotiations over the Middle East crisis. The Palestine dispute, as it is euphemistically labeled in the United Nations, has appeared on the annual agenda of the U. N. General Assembly for over twenty years, generally under the guise of assistance to refugees. Neither the principal antagonists nor the major powers officially acknowledge existence of the Palestinians as a nation-party to the dispute.

In a recent interview Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir emphasized that there is no such thing as either a Palestinian nation or people. Palestine Arabs are considered by the Government of Israel as little different from those of the surrounding Arab states. When queried about creation of a new Arab Palestine on the West Bank, Prime Minister Meir pointed out that it would be too small; only if it were part of Jordan or Israel could the area remain viable. Furthermore, she emphasized, there is no representative body speaking for the so-called Palestinians. Had the Arabs who fled in 1948 not urged Jordan's King Hussein into the June 1967 war the Hashemite Kingdom might well have become the successor state to Palestine. Israel's experience with the already existing fourteen Arab states discourages it from supporting the creation of still another. Furthermore, to treat the Palestinians as a political entity would be inconsistent with Israel's internal and external policies. At present the Israeli Government considers its principal antagonists to be the Arab states of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and, to a greater extent, the United Arab Republic. The major goal of Israel's Arab policy is to reach agreement with the U.A.R., whose President Nasser is considered the chief obstacle to peace. The Israelis believe that only after he has been convinced of the need to come to terms with Israel will other Arab nations follow suit.

The reluctance of Israel and the major powers to recognize the Palestinians only inflames the latters' already deep hostility toward the West. Their situation is not unlike that of other self-identified national groups in the Middle East which sought international recognition during this century- such as the Armenians, the Jews and the Kurds.

The national identity of the Palestine Arabs has gone through a cycle of: discovery in the 1920s, political failure in the 1930s, near abandonment in the 1940s, disillusionment in the 1950s and '60s, and rebirth, rediscovery and new expectations since 1967.


Prior to establishment of the British Mandate at the end of World War I, there was no distinctive Palestinian people, nor political entity. The land and its inhabitants were considered backwater regions of the less developed Ottoman Syrian provinces. Only after establishment of the British Mandate in 1920, and the rise of Jewish nationalism in the country, did a distinctive Palestinian Arab consciousness emerge in response to the challenge of these two forms of European intrusion. In that era Palestinian Arab nationalism, led by a coalition of Muslim landed gentry and upper- middle-class Christian Arab families, resembled nationalist movements then emerging elsewhere in the Arab East. Some 80 percent of its constituency was a politically unsophisticated rural peasantry. There was little if any ideology, and that little was devoid of social content. Major emphasis was on elimination of foreign control and influence-in the case of Palestine, British controls and European Jewish influences. The Palestinian Arab national effort culminated in the abortive rebellion between 1936 and 1939; it failed because of massive use of British armed force and lack of internal cohesion among nationalist leaders. Nevertheless, heroes of this rebellion are still eulogized by the new nationalist organizations; their military failures and inability to form a cohesive political movement are overlooked.

The major revision of Great Britain's policies in Palestine, embodied in the 1939 White Paper, was a great victory for Palestine-Arab nationalism since it made an independent Arab state seem inevitable. Nevertheless, most of the country's Arab leaders slipped into lethargy and paralysis of action which was to last nearly thirty years. By the end of World War II, Jewish nationalism in Palestine was much more dynamic, well organized and politically effective. Both within the country and abroad, Zionists and their supporters surpassed the Palestine-Arab nationalists in militant political activity, finally voiding the White Paper and achieving their goal of statehood. The disjointed and inchoate Palestine-Arab nationalist movement reached its nadir in 1947-48 with defeat and exodus of the Arab population from Jewish-held areas.

Until termination of the Mandate in 1948, both Arab and Jewish residents of the country were identified as British subjects, although they did not hold British citizenship. When Israel was established, its Jewish and some of its Arab inhabitants became citizens of the new state. More than one million Palestine Arabs were left in an international limbo, with no recognized citizenship status, Within the next decade, Palestinians who remained in the Hashemite Kingdom and in those parts of Palestine annexed to it acquired Jordanian citizenship; a small number of Christian Palestinians qualified for Lebanese citizenship, and the others-some 700,000-have remained stateless persons until today. Syria, while refusing citizenship to Palestine refugees, granted them most, but not all, citizenship rights. Lebanon was reluctant to offer citizenship to the large number of Muslim Palestine refugees it harbored for fear they would destroy the delicate balance between the country's Christians and Muslims. Egypt, already one of the world's most overpopulated nations, kept most of the Palestinians under its jurisdiction penned up in the tiny Gaza enclave, which was governed as though it were still a separate country rather than part of the U. A. R.

During the next two decades "Palestinian Arab" became synonymous with "Palestine refugee" in international consciousness. Even in Arab countries and among the Palestinians themselves there was little distinction, and annual debates over the refugees at the United Nations and the activities of UNRWA further blurred any clear difference. The most visible evidence of Palestinian existence was the network of refugee camps where tensions between the inhabitants and natives of host countries forcefully delineated the occupants from other Arabs.

Jordan needed its Palestinians as a population base for the new Hashemite Kingdom, but all the other Arab states encouraged the displaced Arabs to retain their national identity. This was not difficult since few were socially accepted in the host countries and many non-Palestinian Arabs regarded the outsiders as a disruptive and troublesome element. Palestinians therefore maintained their old social structure and family ties, formed their own political groups, intermarried with each other and continued to regard themselves as a distinctive national group. Recognition of this identity was further encouraged by the United Nations through the network of relief, social and particularly educational services provided to Palestine refugees through UNRWA. In the UNRWA schools, where refugee children were educated by Palestinian teachers, a new generation of ardent Palestine patriots was raised. The most zealous proponent of militant activism against the "intruder state" of Israel was this new generation of U.N.-educated youth.

Various Arab governments attempted to exploit the distinctive character of the Palestine Arab community before 1967. Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt encouraged and gave sustenance to Palestine Arab nationalist groups of one type or another. Usually these groups were instruments of national policy of various Arab governments, which provided them with political and material support, including arms for so-called commando organizations which supposedly operated independently. Inter-Arab efforts to give political respectability and national élan to the Palestinian movement resulted in formal recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the 1964 summit meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo, While Ahmed Shukairy, recognized by the conference as leader of the PLO, led it through a maze of verbal pyrotechnics, up to 1967 it had failed to gain real political autonomy or to galvanize strong popular support. In effect, it remained an instrument of inter-Arab policy man?uvres.

After the 1967 fiasco, Palestinians were disillusioned with nearly all the established leadership, organizations and governments ; Shukairy and the old-line leadership associated with him were discredited. Wherever there were large concentrations of Palestinians, diverse new groups emerged, led by a younger generation unfettered by the political and social commitments of its elders. The new leadership reflected the transformation of the Palestine Arab community that had occurred during the "lost" generation. Living in or near to urban areas, most Palestinians had lost their peasant skills and outlook, acquiring many of the views and sophistications of town and city. Several hundred thousand were employed in urban trade, commerce, industry and ancillary occupations. More than one hundred thousand had developed skills in the Arabian oil states. In two decades, approximately 50,000 Palestinians attended universities, nearly equaling the number of young professionals trained by Israel during this period. The new generation of Palestinians had all the attributes of a displaced minority group, including great aspirations for upward mobility, political restiveness, and a core of revolutionary-minded young men who aspired to "reëstablish the homeland."

Several dozen new Palestinian organizations were created within two years of the 1967 defeat. By far their greatest emphasis was on military or paramilitary activity aimed at Israel. Disillusioned with failures of conventional tactics against Israel and with Arab government fiascos, most of the new groups drew inspiration from guerrilla techniques and activities modeled on those of Algeria, North Viet Nam and Latin American revolutionaries. The objective was no longer that of Arab governments such as the U.A.R. or Jordan-to achieve Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories and to circumscribe and delimit its frontiers-but to obliterate completely the Jewish state.

In the ebb and flow of inter-Arab politics since 1967, the new Palestinian groups have merged, subdivided, reunited and again fragmented, finally organizing themselves into three or four principal political-military organizations: the Palestine Liberation Organization; Fatah; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and Saiqa. While there are political differences and diversities in the type of commando or terrorist activity each advocates, personality clashes rather than ideology often account for the variety of organizations. They differ generally from the pre-1967 groups in their asserted independence from Arab governments, in the growing number of young intellectuals and professionals they have enlisted in their ranks, and in the extent of support they have received from Arabs generally and from Palestinians in particular. While most of the organizations indirectly draw subsidies from Arab governments, including Kuwait and Libya, they have also succeeded in rallying substantial private contributions from wealthy Palestinians and other zealous supporters throughout the Arab world.

The reliability of commando communiqués is highly questionable, but their political effect throughout the Arab East is becoming increasingly obvious. Within the last two years they have created a new identity for the Palestinians. "Refugee" is no longer synonymous with "Palestine Arab." Increasingly, "Palestinian" is identified with the commando warrior rather than with the downtrodden displaced person. This is evident among Arab students, intellectuals, professionals and the man in the street, from Casablanca to Kuwait While much commando activity is exaggerated if not entirely fictitious, there is sufficient substance to their achievements to have created a commando mystique. Posters on university campuses and in government offices and shopping centers; the daily radio bulletins and pronouncements by commando leaders; and the Arabic press-all have created in Arab consciousness the image of a new Palestinian who, unlike the traditional and now aging military leadership, is young, vigorous, intelligent, self-sacrificing, intensely patriotic and single-mindedly dedicated to reëstablishment of Arab Palestine, This image pervades even the thinking of commando critics such as Lebanese and Jordanian officials, who recognize that fedayeen terrorism in Israel serves only to weaken their own stability.

Not only Israel but several Arab governments are targets of commando activities. Some leaders of the organizations aim to overthrow any politician who might interfere with their guerrilla strategy against Israel; others have set their sights on total revolution of Arab political life. Among the former are leaders of Fatah and PLO who can coöperate with conservative monarchs or with radical socialists. Within the past year these two less revolutionary-minded groups have been involved in machinations behind the scenes to topple the ruling establishments of Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Libya, In Jordan and Lebanon, commando leaders have sought, with some success, to gain control of strategically located territories for training recruits, or for striking across the Israeli border. The commandos are reported to have taken over fourteen of the fifteen refugee camps in Lebanon and to have free access to most camps in Jordan. This has led to a de facto partition in which King Hussein's government has been forced to acquiesce. Because of the wide support enjoyed by the commandos among Jordan's largely Palestine Arab population, the Hashemite Kingdom has found it impossible to repress them and on occasion it even coöperates in providing covering fire for their movements across the frontier. Consequently Jordan has become the recipient of nearly daily artillery and air strikes, which have leveled towns, disrupted agricultural life in the river valley and threatened both political and economic stability.

In Lebanon, where Palestinians are a small minority but have considerable support among the population, the commandos threaten to end the country's relative isolation from direct military confrontation with Israel. Since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 the Lebanese-Israeli border has been more or less free of the military clashes that have periodically erupted between Israel and Syria, Jordan and Egypt. While willing to permit the organizations free movement, fund raising and propaganda activity within its borders, the Lebanese Government has been reluctant to countenance establishment of guerrilla enclaves. The dilemma has torn the government apart, divided the population into pro and anti commandos, and led to threats of both Syrian and Israeli intervention on behalf of or against the Palestinians. But now the commandos are asserting themselves in all areas they deem vital-including the Lebanese frontier. They recognize no right of withdrawal from confrontation with Israel, insisting that every Arab and Arab state has an obligation to join the "War of Liberation."

Members of even the "conservative" organizations were involved in an aborted coup in Saudi Arabia this fall resulting in arrest and imprisonment of several score high-ranking Saudi army officers. In Libya, where hundreds of Palestinians have found niches as teachers, physicians and professionals, they played a role in the successful overthrow of the monarchy. The new Libyan Republic's first civilian Prime Minister is a Haifa native whose family left when clashes between Jews and Arabs made life in Palestine difficult He has asserted his and his government's full support for liberation of his former homeland.

Public approval of the commandos has become so widespread that Egypt's President Nasser has been placed in the ambiguous position of offering them his blessings at the same time that he calls for implementation of the U.N. November 1967 resolution. More recently, the Soviet Union has also withdrawn its disapproval of the commandos as a reactionary and disruptive element. Now they have been awarded Soviet accolades as fighters for independence of the people of Palestine.

The most wide-ranging goals have been stated by the small but influential and hyper-activist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Led by a zealous Christian Palestinian, George Habash, the PFLP emerged from the militant Arab Nationalist Movement, an organization of intellectuals whose goals were considered so revolutionary that it was banned in most Arab nations after its creation several years before the 1967 débâcle. Although it now concentrates its activities on the Palestine issue, its goals encompass the Arab world. The PFLP is splintered into Marxist and more Marxist factions. The most zealous would, with the aid of the Chinese Communists or any other equally revolutionary group, strive now for total revolution throughout the Arab world using any tactic necessary to bring down the political and social structure of all "corrupt" Arab states.

Attacks by the Front on commercial aircraft and civilian centers within Israel and abroad are an embarrassment to less zealous compatriots and to Arab governments. It was a PFLP attack on an Israeli commercial airliner that precipitated the raid on the Beirut airport last year, followed by dissolution of the Lebanese Government and continued internal political crisis. Since the Israeli Government holds accountable Arab countries from which such attacks are planned or undertaken, PFLP tactics threaten continued political crisis in the Arab world. At parleys between the Lebanese Government and various commando leaders conducted last summer in Beirut, the Front openly stated its aim to bring down the country's "reactionary" communal political system.


It is increasingly evident that instead of being a tool of Arab governmental policies, the new Palestine organizations are striving to reverse the pattern of control and to exercise strong influence on those governments which at one time controlled Palestinian destinies. The commandos have in effect become an instrument of pressure for more militant action by governments such as Lebanon, Jordan and the U.A.R. The support that commandos have rallied among university students and other leaders of Arab opinion has undermined the few voices of moderation existing prior to 1967.

The commando mystique clearly extends to Arab citizens of Israel and those in the occupied territories. A survey conducted in 1968 by Hebrew University sociologists indicated that Arab defeat in the Six Day War increased respect for the state among Israeli Arab schoolchildren but also greatly intensified feelings of hatred toward Israel, deepened Arab consciousness and made more determined than ever before the resolve to wage still another war against the Jewish state. With each passing month of Israeli occupation, the number of young Arab Israeli supporters of the commando movement grows. During the first half of 1969, the number of youths who were apprehended for supporting commando activities was nearly one hundred. While small in relation to the Arab population of Israel, the number exceeds the total of Israeli Arabs arrested for such activities since the state was established twenty years ago.

One of the most serious aspects of this phenomenon is that it threatens to undermine relationships laboriously built up since 1949 between the Government of Israel and its Arab minority. Though not ideal, relations had slowly become tolerable. Israeli Arabs had come to be recognized as citizens and many had voluntarily, even willingly, accepted this status. During the past twenty years Israel's universities have graduated several hundred Arabs. While many have been dissatisfied with their minority position, a considerable number found a place in Israeli society. Arabs worked in lower- and middle-level government posts and a few rose to become police officers. However, with increased commando activity, there is growing apprehension among both Israeli Arabs and Jews about the future of amicable relationships between the communities. After every incident the arrest of scores of Arabs and destruction of suspected terrorist homes by Israeli security authorities embitter feelings in both communities. Those who for twenty years strove to liberalize Israel's policies toward its Arab minority find themselves increasingly isolated; this is reflected in the recent election results, which increased by a substantial percentage the number of Knesset members favoring a hard line toward the Arabs.

So far, commando military escapades along the frontiers and terrorist activities within Israel have failed to disrupt life or to have a serious impact on its ever increasing military capacity. The border fighting has claimed 80 percent of the more than 2,000 casualties sustained by Israel since the 1967 War (nearly 500 of them fatal); 10 percent were inside the occupied areas and 10 percent in pre-1967 Israel. This fall Defense Minister Moshe Dayan noted that casualty figures had increased from an average of 50 a month in the year after the war to an average of 157 in the third postwar year. While the casualty rate from Arab confrontations is still less than the number suffered in automobile accidents in Israel, it has an obvious impact on public attitudes and further explains the turn toward militancy evident in the 1969 elections.

Indirectly the economy has been affected by the labor shortages caused by the large number of men under arms and by the need for reservists to serve up to age 55. Nevertheless, the economy is booming again, though foreign currency reserves are falling to a dangerously low level and the military budget eats up to 21 percent of Israel's GNP-three times more than in most modern nations.

There is also fear among civil libertarians that security restrictions in the Arab community could lead to increasingly restrictive measures against all dissidents, including Jews. While the vast majority of Israelis support their government's internal and external Arab policies, the small critical minority feels that it may be threatened if commando activities lead to expanded interference by security authorities in Israel's internal life.


In recent months some commando intellectuals have become aware of the importance of winning over potential Jewish dissidents within Israel as well as gaining support in the West. Policy-planning groups in the high command of PLO, now recognized as the representative body of most commando organizations with the exception of the PFLP, have opened discussions about long-range plans in the occupied territories. However, they have failed to come forward with a program that would elicit support or even interest among any substantial number of Israelis or their supporters. At best their political goals are vague and ill-defined.

The commandos state categorically that they seek to destroy the government and state of Israel, its Zionist institutions and its exclusive Jewish character; they brook no compromise based on the pre-1967 borders or even the 1947 U. N, partition resolution. Some leaders have indicated that Palestine would become an Arab state; others have been more ambiguous. None has publically recognized the possibility of coexistence between Arab and Hebrew nationalism, both of which have the identical attributes of a linguistic base, a rich cultural and historical heritage and deeply instilled popular consciousness, and both of which derive from a major religio-national ethos.

Hebrew broadcasts of the commando organizations directed to Israel are listened to with derision rather than fear or hope of discovering any serious political intent The recently announced objective of converting Palestine into a democratic secular state in which all Jews, Muslims and Christians will live in equity is not believed because of the long years in which the people as well as the state of Israel were threatened. The organizations have yet to define clearly the kind of government they propose, the status of minority groups, whether or not the country is to be an Arab state, or what is to become of its Hebrew-speaking residents who retain an attachment to their language and cultural, social and political institutions. The tragedy in this situation-and the root of conflict-is that each group denies the other the right of such identity and strives to assert exclusive control over the area that each believes to be the essential heartland of its national life.

The Palestine Arab nationalist movement represented in the varied groups that have been created since 1967 is still run through with many of the difficulties and shortcomings that have characterized modern Arab politics. The mystique and slogans full of emotional overtones tend to vitiate clear- cut, well-defined policy goals. The tendency to rely on exaggerated battle communiqués, while fortifying their image and mystique, undermines political credibility among those whom the commandos seek most to influence- the Jews of Israel, as well as influential outsiders. Above all there is lack of cohesive leadership. While the Fatah commando and PLO leader, Yasir Arafat, is the most visible and most colorful personality, he still lacks the charisma that Egypt's President Nasser so successfully capitalized on to become the pre-1967 leader of Arab nationalism. During the past two years there have been several instances in which members of one commando group have sought to undermine competing organizations, Yet despite these shortcomings the Palestine movement and the new organizations have become a factor of significance which cannot be ignored in any settlement of the Middle East crisis.

As the more militant groups strike out with increasing frequency at targets such as American oil companies, they threaten to sever the supply of oil to the West The Front and other commando organizations have threatened to extend their attacks against other Western "imperialist" targets in the Middle East, but if they do so they will merely weaken further the already tenuous relations between the United States and the few remaining friendly Arab governments in the region.

Some Palestinians have demanded that they be represented in the deliberations convened to deal with the crisis. This presents an international dilemma. Although some Third World nations are moving toward recognition of a Palestine entity, so far even the U.A.R. has dragged its feet on clarification of long-range policy toward Palestine. Jordan hesitates, since recognition of the Palestine entity would give approval to partition of the Hashemite Kingdom. Neither the United States nor Great Britain can sanction territorial fragmentation of one of their chief Arab allies in the area.

Yet it would be in the interest of all parties concerned if the Palestinians had a recognized voice in negotiations. There are a number of issues in the dispute that are of only indirect concern to the non- Palestinian Arab states, but must sooner or later result in direct contacts between Israelis and Palestine Arabs. These include the return or compensation for Palestine Arab property now held by Israel; the future of Jerusalem, which is not only a Jewish but a Palestinian Arab city; and the status of several hundred thousand stateless persons who left Israeli-held territory in 1948 and 1967. While Israel wants to negotiate with states as far removed from these issues as the U.A.R. or Syria, negotiations would be much more likely to succeed if they were carried on between those whose vital interests are most involved. As for the United States, it will find American interests and American friendships in the area becoming increasingly endangered if steps are not taken soon to reach an accord with what is now the most disruptive element in Middle East politics-the Arabs of Palestine.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now