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Tracking the trends of the Palestinian cause since 1967: Looking back

June 6, 2017 3:07 P.M. (Updated: June 6, 2017 4:34 P.M.)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

This is the first part of a report, written by Al-Shabaka Executive Director Nadia Hijab and policy adviser Mouin Rabbani, which looks at the history of the Palestinian cause following the Six-Day War and the Naksa. The second part of this report will be published on Ma’an on Wednesday. The report can be read in full here.

The Palestinian cause today has in some respects reverted to where it stood before the 1967 War. It is worth retracing this trajectory to understand how we reached the current situation, and derive insights on where to go from here.

Looking back

On the eve of June 5, 1967, the Palestinians were dispersed between Israel, the Jordanian-ruled West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip administered by Egypt, and refugee communities in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond. Their aspirations for salvation and self-determination were pinned to Arab leaders’ pledges to “liberate Palestine” -- which then referred to those parts of Mandate Palestine that became Israel in 1948 -- and in particular to charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abd al-Nasser.

The Six-Day War, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, brought dramatic changes to the geography of the conflict. It also produced a sea change in the Palestinian body politic. In a sharp break with previous decades, Palestinians became the masters of their own destiny rather than spectators to regional and international decisions affecting their lives and determining their fate.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been established in 1964 under the aegis of the Arab League at its first summit meeting, was overtaken in 1968-69 by the Palestinian guerrilla groups that had been forming underground since the 1950s, with Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) at their head.

The Arab defeat in 1967 created a vacuum in which Palestinians were able to re-establish custodianship over the question of Palestine, transform the dispersed parts of the Palestinian population into a unified people and political actor, and place the Palestinian cause at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This, perhaps the PLO’s most important achievement, has sustained the spirit of the Palestinian quest for self-determination despite the myriad wounds inflicted by Israel and some Arab states -- and despite the self-inflicted wounds. The setbacks the PLO suffered were many, even as it succeeded in putting the Palestinian question high on the international agenda. It is worth reviewing the PLO’s successes and defeats in order to understand how the Palestinian national movement reached the place it is in today.

The first PLO victory also laid the seeds of a defeat. The 1968 battle of Karameh in the Jordan Valley, in which the guerrillas and the Jordanian Army pushed back a far superior Israeli expeditionary force, gained many Palestinian and Arab adherents to the movement, whether refugees, guerrillas, or businessmen from across the political spectrum.

At the same time, the implicit threat to the Hashemite monarchy was clear, and Palestinian relations with Jordan worsened until the PLO was expelled from Jordan during Black September in 1970. This effectively meant that the PLO no longer had a credible military option against Israel, assuming it ever had. Although the Palestinians would maintain an extensive military presence in Lebanon until 1982, it was a poor substitute for the longest Arab frontier with historic Palestine.

During the 1973 October War, Egypt and Syria achieved partial victories against Israel but also suffered severe setbacks, demonstrating that the Arab states also had only limited military options against Israel.

At the same time, the Palestinian national movement reached its international peak with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 1974, with the PLO by now recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That year, the PLO also began laying the groundwork for a two-state settlement when its parliament, the Palestine National Council, adopted a 10-point plan to establish a “national authority” on any part of Palestine that was liberated.

The process was of necessity painfully slow as it brought the majority of Palestinians to the recognition that an eventual Palestinian state would no longer be established on the totality of the former British Mandate. As of 1974, the acceptance of the reality of Israel as a state and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip was to gradually become the goal of the Palestinian national movement.

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which culminated in the 1979 Camp David Accords and Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, completed in April 1982, set the stage for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that same year.

Israel’s main goal was to drive the PLO out of the country and consolidate permanent occupation of the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT). With the most powerful Arab state removed from the conflict, the ability of the PLO to achieve a two-state settlement was severely circumscribed, and the Arab-Israeli conflict gradually metamorphosed into an Israeli-Palestinian one vastly more advantageous to Israel.

As the PLO tried to regroup in Tunisia and other Arab countries, one of the biggest challenges to Israel emerged within the OPT with the eruption of the First Intifada in December 1987, largely led by a home-grown leadership. This resurrected the option of successfully confronting Israel on the basis of nonviolent mass mobilization on a scale not seen since the late 1930s.

Nevertheless, the PLO proved incapable of capitalizing on the local and global success of the First Intifada. Ultimately, the exiled PLO leadership placed its own interests, chiefly its ambition for Western and particularly American endorsement, above the national rights of the Palestinian people as expressed in the 1988 Declaration of Independence adopted in Algiers.

These contradictions became unambiguous in 1992-93, when the Palestinian leadership had to make a choice between supporting the negotiating position of the Palestinian delegation in Washington, which insisted on a comprehensive moratorium on Israeli settlement activity as a precondition for transitional self-government arrangements, and covert negotiations with Israel that gave it much less but restored it to international relevance in the wake of the 1990-91 Kuwait conflict.

Pursuant to the 1993 Oslo Accords, the PLO recognized Israel and its “right to exist in peace and security” in the context of a document that failed to mention occupation, self-determination, statehood, or the right of return. Unsurprisingly the decades since have seen an exponential acceleration of Israeli settler-colonialism and the effective destruction of the autonomy arrangements specified in various Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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