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International Socialism, April/May 1971


Ibrahim Ali



From Survey, International Socialism, No.47, April/May 1971, pp.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Palestinian movement, as it emerged following the June 1967 war, is dead. The high hopes and expectations which the revolutionary left placed in the guerilla movement in general and in the Democratic Popular Front in particular have been dashed. It is important for us to understand what is from any point of view a major setback.

The movement was not so much defeated militarily as politically, and we must grasp the framework set by the imperialist countries, the Arab regimes manoeuvres within this framework, and the organisational and political weaknesses of the guerilla leadership.

After the ceasefire in Jordan last September the guerillas had not lost militarily. They were still in possession of parts of Amman and most of North Jordan, from which they were only later evicted.

As far as the Arab regimes were concerned the guerillas were a pawn in their power political game. They had little sympathy with the declared aims of the guerillas, and their overwhelming concern has always been a political settlement with Israel which would restore to them the territories lost in the June war. The guerillas were to them merely a tool in the attempt to negotiate such a settlement. By mid-1970 with the revealing of the Rogers ‘peace’ plan for the Middle East (really a restatement of the November 1967 Security Council resolution, and in essence an agreement between the US and the USSR) it became necessary to show who was in charge: the September hijackings merely provided the pretext. Following the fighting in September there was a temporary lull when Israel withdrew from the peace talks, but when it became clear that she would be made to return to the Jarring negotiations the signal was given for the final liquidation of the guerillas.

This then has been the objective framework within which the guerillas have operated. It is now necessary to understand how they manoeuvred themselves into what was ultimately such a hopeless mess.

Firstly, the timing is of some significance. The high point of guerilla strength in Jordan was just after the fighting of last June. There was then the possibility of forcing a populist, patriotic government on Jordan – the commander of the Jordanian army, Haditha, was prepared to move units over onto the guerilla side, and even met with Arafat and Hawatmeh (leaders of Fateh and the Popular Democratic Front). El Fateh however refused to take this step, both for fear of an Israeli occupation of the East bank and because of Egyptian diplomatic pressure and their general reliance on funds from the Arab states. In this same period there was a possibility of a coup by the Popular Front supported by the Iraqi government against such a move. In the event, between June and September, Hussein got rid of numbers of pro-guerilla officers and prepared special Bedouin troops which were to be used in the September fighting.

Here we have to make distinctions and look at the guerilla groups separately. By far the largest is El Fateh. It has never been homogeneous, having a significant left wing among its rank and file, but its leadership have been united in making a double separation in their analysis of the situation facing the fedayeen. Firstly they have isolated the Palestinian problem from the problems of the Arab world as a whole, and secondly, where they have talked of socialism it has been radically separated from the national question, in a stages theory of development which required, in this phase, the unity of all classes. They were always explicit on these two points, demanding, for instance, freedom to operate in the Lebanon and Jordan on the Palestinian front, but never connecting it with the Arab masses on other questions. The only thing they demanded was solidarity on the Palestine question. They were openly and avowedly a bourgeois liberation movement.

This was carried through into the organisation itself, not only in its whole style of political manoeuvring, but also in its attempt to get pure Palestinian organisations set up in Jordan (where about 70% of the population is Palestinian), with separate Palestinian social institutions, trade-unionist and professional organisations. This emphasis, needless to say, antagonised the non-Palestinian Jordanians and made Hussein’s job of counter mobilisation much easier.

The Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and, to a limited extent the Popular Front understood this in their critiques of Fateh. The Democratic Front, in their May 1970 document Towards a Democratic Solution for the Palestinian Cause and elsewhere, showed signs of a genuine revolutionary analysis of the Middle East, with an awareness of the interlinking of the class struggle and the anti-imperialist struggle on the one hand, and the struggle against Zionism on the other.

The crucial question is what happened to them. In fact they didn’t live by the implications of their political analysis. They were dependent just as Fateh was, on the goodwill and material support of the Arab regimes. The Democratic Front were materially dependent on Syria, and the recent right-ward shift in the ruling Ba’ath Party there gave them their deathblow. The Popular Front were dependent too – most probably on Iraq – but what this meant was shown last September when the 15,000 Iraqi troops in Jordan failed to move in support of the guerillas. Only Syria intervened and that was for a mere 24 hours.

The infighting between the Democratic Front and the Popular Front explains, in part the former’s retreat. The left wing had triumphed politically, winning support for a broad Marxist analysis of the Middle East situation at the Popular Front conference in August 1968. But the right wing remained in control of the apparatus, and at the end of the year the left withdrew to form the Democratic Front. They were soon threatened with actual physical liquidation in the bitter sectarian atmosphere which followed. Several bloody clashes occurred and they were forced to turn to Fateh for protection. There is no simple connection between this and how the Democratic Front developed, but there was a political deterioration – for instance the simple class critique of the Arab regimes was toned down or even gave way to a semi-apologia. The line on Syria, Iraq and Egypt changed; they were now increasingly seen as ‘progressive’ states, on the same side as the fedayeen.

But in its early days the Democratic Front aroused great hopes. Numbers of Trotskyists and other revolutionaries were attracted back from Europe and joined the movement. Later many were to leave disillusioned or even to be expelled.

The internal organisation of the Democratic Front also helps to explain this degeneration. Its leadership had never been elected but had simply emerged in the faction fight within the Popular Front. Secretaries of the cells were appointed from above, and at the Conference held between June and September last year delegates consisted of these secretaries and one other from each cell chosen by the secretaries. At the beginning, especially, the younger members had agitated for a democratic structure. Hawatmeh, one of the best elements, found himself increasingly isolated in the Politburo – and at one time was prevented from acting as a spokesman for a while after he had called the Russian bureaucracy a class. But even his role is dubious – for example, his negotiations with Arafat and Haditha mentioned above.

Underlying this whole development, however, was the market situation of the groups – the need to compete with one another, to capture the headlines. Theoretical clarity on the need to look forward to a prolonged struggle, with the slow development of roots among the masses (Jordanian, Lebanese and so on as well as Palestinian) in the teeth of cruel repression from the Arab regimes, was obscured by the .financial and other support available from finding a modus vivendi with these same regimes.

Already before the split, there had been the planting of a bomb in the cafeteria at the Hebrew University because of the need for publicity. Accusations by Fateh that the left was just a band of talkers and intellectuals exerted a pressure which conflicted with the political needs of the situation – and it was the politics which were increasingly sacrificed. The Popular Front also had to compete with the ‘mass’ organisation Fateh, and the September hijackings were in this sense a desperate attempt to stem the ebbing tide.

In the political capitulation since September the Popular Front seem generally to have been the most militant of the groups. Agreement after agreement was signed between the guerillas and the Arab regimes, leading to the evacuation of of occupied territory and culminating in the agreement to disarm the militia – the 90,000 or so volunteers under arms in the towns and the refugee camps. At leadership level only the Popular Front opposed this. Fateh, faced with reluctance of the militia of all organisations to accept this disarming, turned the whole operation into a bloody internecine struggle against the Popular Front and the militants. The Democratic Front leadership, be it noted, accepted this disarming of the militia when it came to the crunch (though it is said that they were internally split on the issue). Those fedayeen still under arms are generally isolated in the countryside and their positions are surrounded by Jordanian army units. It is in this period too that there have been numbers of expulsions from the Democratic Front – for Trotskyism and other heresies.

The position today, then, is bleak. Russia seems determined on peace at any price. The US too want peace, but don’t yet seem too keen to really turn the screws on Israel. After all, if the Israelis are able to keep parts of the occupied territories (and in Israel the areas of Jerusalem, the Golan heights, Sharm el Sheik and the Gaza Strip are not presently regarded as negotiable) then it is no skin off Nixon’s nose. A settlement is a probability: the guerilla leaders have more or less agreed that in the event of a settlement they will do nothing to oppose it, and indeed only Israeli obstinacy is likely to reopen splits among the Arab regimes and prevent a peace treaty.

The logic of Fateh’s position and its class interest have led it to a more or less complete subordination to Hussein at the moment. It might well end up trying to convert Jordan as a whole info a Palestinian state (an aim dear to the subordinate Palestinian section of the Jordanian ruling class, and probably congenial to the US) in place of the British supported Hashemite royal rule.

Fateh’s present position is shown graphically by their editorial statement in Fateh (5.1.71), commenting on a Jordanian cabinet communique which rejected the idea of an independent Palestinian state on the West bank, (what Hussein wants is the restoration of the West bank to a united Jordan still under his rule):

‘It is a positive thing that the cabinet communique states that the Cairo and Amman agreements form turning points upon which we must work in the united march towards our common aim ... and we agree with the government that the project of a Palestinian state on the West bank is a blow to the concept of the sacred unity in every Arab soul, and that the government will not only be content with rejecting this plan but will do all that is possible in thwarting its application as it considers this is a conspiracy. We support what came out in this communique because of our belief in common Arab co-operation.

‘The revolution (i.e. Fateh) considers the positions adopted in the Cabinet communique to be positive ones and therefore on this basis accepts the communique in its totality as a positive one ...’

The Democratic Front has produced a lengthy analysis of the September events (dated 1st November 1970) which is generally of high quality but its conclusions as to what is to be done (the last two pages of a 37-page document) contrast sadly with its political analysis. The most hopeful interpretation which can be put .on them is that they are a call for a new beginning.

The Popular Front claim now to be Marxist and to accept the Democratic Front analysis of the September events in broad outline, though this is hotly disputed by the Democratic Front. It does seem clear however that only the Popular Front has any roots among the Palestinian masses on the West bank, and (possibly) among the seething populace of the Gaza Strip. Its own analysis of the situation seems superficial and there seems no grounds for optimism here.

The magnitude of the defeat suffered is enormous and may be gauged from the fact that for the first time since 1947 a majority of Palestinians probably favour a separate Palestinian state (partly as an alternative to the repressive monarchial rule of Hussein) in place of a return to their homeland. But equally clearly no political solution of this kind will solve the problem as it affects the Palestinian masses.

It is clear that a new movement will have to be built from scratch. Individuals and groups from the Popular Front and Democratic Front as well as left-wingers in Fateh will obviously be an important element in any new formation. But it will have to be formed on a clear revolutionary perspective, independent of the Arab regimes, seeing the Palestinian struggle as intimately bound up with the developments of revolutionary movements in the Arab countries and linking its fate to them. Prospects for such developments in the Arab countries are good; and the recent emergence of a Black Power type movement among the Oriental Jews in Israel itself augurs well. But there is little sign yet that the Palestinian groups appreciate the full import of the recent disaster. It may take time for the Palestinian revolutionary movement to begin the long haul towards recovery.

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