The Difference the PLO Made
April 1975. University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland. A friend and I sat at a literature table in front of the Student Union building. It was lunchtime and we were putting in our hours talking with people about the issues of the day. University cutbacks were the primary topic of conversation, but some folks who stopped by seemed more interested in the unfolding final scene of the US war in Southeast Asia. The final offensive of the national liberation forces was underway in Vietnam. Lon Nol’s regime had just fallen. The forces of US imperialism were on the run. Things were heating up in Lebanon between leftist forces supported by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and various Maronites eventually identified with the right wing Phalangist militia. The literature on our table covered most of these issues. Nonetheless, we were still somewhat surprised when four guys walked up to the table, begin taking our pamphlets in support of the PLO and tearing them up. My cohort asked them what the hell they were doing. The biggest guy (who I actually remembered from high school) told him to shut the fuck up. My friend took that as a challenge and the next thing I knew the table was turned over and we were defending ourselves from physical attack. Fortunately, a few students that were hanging out came to our defense and the attackers left. After asking around, we discovered that the men who had confronted us were members of the local Jewish Defense League (JDL), a right-wing racist organization under the leadership of Rabbi Meir Kahane. They were also University of Maryland students. I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback at their angry actions. As the semester wore down, these men or other JDL members would stand near our literature table, looking menacing and keeping some interested passersby from engaging us.
In 1975, the PLO was the dominant force in Palestinian politics. It was a secular organization composed of nationalists, Marxists and others determined to bring about Palestinian statehood. Just like there were a variety of political trends in the organization, there were Christians, Muslims and atheists. Although the PLO had been in existence since 1964, its true rise to power began in 1967 after the Israeli defeat of the Arab nations in the June war. Today, it is a shell of its former self, weakened by the rise of Hamas, the death of its leader Yasser Arafat, and the failure of its diplomatic pursuit of statehood. Palestine is in straits all too close to those in which it found itself during the PLO’s heyday. Under constant Israeli economic and military onslaught, the Palestinian people still in what remains of the former Palestine are mostly poor, and almost completely subject to the whims of the Israeli government and its armed forces. This is not an accident. Indeed, as Paul Thomas Chamberlain’s new history of the PLO, titled The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order, makes quite clear, Tel Aviv is determined to never give the Palestinians a nation of their own. The continued intransigence of Israel combined with an increasing stubbornness on the part of Washington to a just settlement has insured both the longevity and the nature of the conflict.
Chamberlain begins his book by defining a few of his terms. Because the PLO is historically identified with the word “terrorism,” Chamberlain discusses the baggage associated with the term and explains his usage as being de-politicized. He also explains his position on the conflict between Israel and Palestine: he believes Israel has the right to exist and the Palestinians deserve a sovereign state on the lands of the West Bank and Gaza. By focusing his book solely on the military heyday of the PLO (1967-1975), Chamberlain avoids a discussion of later liberation groups such as Hamas. This focus also serves to deepen his exploration of the meaning of the PLO in the time period examined.
Placing the PLO directly in the context of the numerous struggles for national liberation occurring around the globe in the 1960s and 1970s, Chamberlain details the support the PLO and its fighters received from those movements. The PLO’s alliances with many of these groups is also considered and explained. By providing this context, it becomes clear that the success of the PLO was in large part related to the time of its appearance in history. Without the revolutionary wave sweeping the world during the period, it seems unlikely that the PLO would have had the success it did. The same could probably be true for most of the PLO’s revolutionary allies. Conversely, the military strength of Washington and Tel Aviv prevented much of the potential of that movement.
The PLO did not speak with a single voice. Although Fatah was the largest group within the organization and Arafat was Fatah’s leader, smaller factions acted within the context of the PLO while simultaneously angering other elements. These factions included the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its offshoots, along with Black September (formed in the wake of the PLO’s defeat by the Jordanian military). Perhaps the best known of these factions was Black September, whose spectacular terror attacks during the Munich 1972 Olympics and at the Lod Airport sealed its infamy. The Global Offensive chronicles the attacks, the battles and the differences within the PLO. In a similar vein, the text also details the differences in opinion over policy within the United States government. It also makes a point of discussing the minimizing of those differences once the Nixon-Kissinger team took over matters of war and state in Washington, DC. Chamberlain pulls no punches when he argues that Washington’s decision to support Israel right or wrong beginning with these two men provided Tel Aviv with the only outside rationale it needed to continue its murderous and expansionist policies against the Palestinian people.
As I write this review, Kemal Meshal of Hamas is once again calling for the PLO and Hamas to join forces. Ever since the rise of Hamas over the last twenty years and the subsequent weakening of the PLO, these calls have become infrequent. In part, this is due to differences in the PLO charter and that of Hamas; other reasons for the dual existence include the role of religion in the struggle and the nature of the Palestinian state. It is difficult to state whether Hamas’ renewed desire to join the PLO stems from a belief that it is currently in a powerful position vis-à-vis Fatah or if the opposite is true. The only thing that is certain is that Israeli and US intransigence is worse than ever.
Paul Thomas Chamberlain’s book remembers a time when the world was in a popular left-oriented revolt against the forces of imperialism and colonialism. He places the PLO’s global offensive squarely in that time. While relating the group’s history, he tells the story of a resistance up against a pair of indomitable foes, determined to do whatever it took to prevent the PLO’s survival. This book provides a history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with an emphasis on objectivity and clarity. It is not pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. While reading it, it becomes clear that the solution to the conflict lies in a real nation for the Palestinian people. Of course, this will probably not happen until the United States and Israel act in a manner that encourages such a solution. The story between these two covers is a narrative not only useful but essential to understanding the sphinx that is the Palestinian struggle.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.