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International Socialism, Autumn 1986


Phil Marshall

Palestinian nationalism and the Arab revolution


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 33, Autumn 1986, pp. 34–58.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For over 60 years the Palestinians have been victims of forces which set out to dominate their country. Britain, the Zionist movement and its supporters and the Arab states have all set out to use Palestine – and the Palestinians – to advance their interests in the region. There have been two major waves of Palestinian resistance: the first, which culminated in the ‘revolt’ of 1936, was crushed by the British; the second, which began in the early 1960s, launched the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The PLO was the movement that put the question of Palestine back into world politics. In its heyday in the late 1960s it could mobilise hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and tens of thousands of guerrillas. It was a genuinely radicalising force in the Middle East, winning mass support in the Arab states for its stand against Israel and Zionism’s imperialist backers. In the West, socialists viewed the PLO, like the Vietnamese National Liberation Front or Algeria’s FLN, as an important part of the movement against imperialism.

Now the PLO is in tatters. Its guerrilla army has been dispersed, its political organisation split. Having fought its way to the centre of the political stage in the Middle East, the PLO has been marginalised. Its leadership has taken the organisation into fruitless politicking with the Arab states and the superpowers – from having been among the most subversive forces in the region, the PLO is now associated with some of its most reactionary elements.

For some Palestinians, the decline of the movement can be attributed to its inability to continue an unequal military confrontation with Israel. It is true that massive US support for Israel has given the Zionist state a huge military advantage over the Palestinians and over all its Arab neighbours. But the PLO’s main problems have not been military ones; its biggest difficulties have been the result of the political strategy with which the organisation has conducted the struggle and which, despite repeated bloody lessons, its leadership insists on pursuing.

Socialists oppose the politics of Zionism and the state of Israel. We support the Palestinians and all forms of resistance against Zionism. [1] At the same time we recognise that the politics of Palestinian nationalism have failed, that the principles upon which it has been based have not expressed the interests of the mass of Palestinians. But there is an alternative to the PLO’s nationalist strategy which does express Palestinian interests – an alternative based upon the potential of the working class to bring revolutionary change in the Arab countries. In order to understand why, for over 30 years, the leaders of the PLO have rejected this strategy, it is necessary to look at the origins and development of the national movement.

The refugees

During the 1930s the first wave of opposition to colonial rule and Zionist settlement was destroyed by British repression and the bankruptcy of the nationalist movement’s leadership. [2] When a new nationalism emerged in the 1950s it appeared under very different conditions – those of the Palestinian dispersion, or diaspora, which had resulted from the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Of a total of approximately 1,300,000 Palestinian Arabs, almost a million were driven from their homes by Zionist militias, most fleeing to the neighbouring Arab countries – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. By the early 1950s there were some 1.4 million Palestinians, of whom almost a million were displaced persons.

Arab Palestine had been a highly-structured society and its classes coped very differently with the experience of expulsion. [3]

The landowners had mixed fortunes. Israel paid no compensation for the huge areas of land that had been seized and many families lost all their property, though most had some transferable assets and few ended up in the camps. Landowners from the West Bank, annexed by Jordan in 1948, retained their land, and many profited from the effects of the expulsion, benefiting from the drop in labour costs which resulted from the influx of dispossessed and from the eagerness of those with capital to invest in property. [4]

The bourgeoisie was insulated from the worst effects of the expulsion. Palestinian merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs had been among the most advanced of the Arab bourgeoisie, with well-established links to neighbouring countries. They were quick to transfer moveable assets and many left their homes for nearby Arab capitals before the final Zionist offensives were under way. So great was the volume of bank transfers to Jordan, for example, that the money supply there virtually doubled. [5] Many Palestinian bourgeois were soon in business in the Arab countries, helped by a successful effort to retrieve capital frozen in banks seized by the Zionists.

Pre-1948 society had produced a layer of professionals which was less well insulated from the effects of the expulsion. Among this new petit bourgeoisie were many who ended up in the camps, but most soon found employment in the ‘host’ countries or were able to move to other states where their skills were in demand. Skilled manual workers, too, found their way out of the camps, often to the Gulf countries, where for a while they were employed in the oil industry.

Labourers and peasants – for the 80 per cent of registered refugees described by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as ‘former peasants, unskilled workers and their dependants’, there was little prospect of relief from life in the camps. The rulers of the neighbouring Arab countries viewed this army of poor – almost 700,000 people – as unwelcome visitors. The presence of large numbers of impoverished and embittered Palestinians was seen as a dangerous destabilising factor and the camp dwellers were treated accordingly.

There was formal and informal discrimination against these Palestinians from the beginning. In Syria, Palestinians were granted equal rights with Syrian citizens, though in practice it was difficult for the poor to find employment and wages and conditions were always worse than for Syrians. In Jordan, where the flood of refugees had created a huge pool of unemployed, Palestinians with education or technical skills were recruited to government service, but the poor remained without jobs or income except for UNRWA handouts. In Lebanon discrimination was formalised: Palestinians were excluded from all state employment and in practice from most private employment. [6]

The camp populations also suffered political repression. In Lebanon the camps were patrolled by the notorious Deuxième Bureau, while in Jordan the police and the army kept the camps under close surveillance and ruthlessly put down demonstrations of discontent. [7] The effect of the expulsion was to exaggerate class differences among the Palestinians. Those with capital or with skills to sell were able to escape the camps and sidestep the worst discrimination. The bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie were rapidly absorbed into the Arab economies. Meanwhile the majority, the poor, faced unemployment, repression and an apparently hopeless future.

The new bourgeoisie

For the next 20 years the economic development of the Arab world encouraged a process of migration by Palestinians from the host countries – a ‘second diaspora’. By 1970 almost 200,000 Palestinians were living in the Gulf states and Libya; by 1980 this figure had reached 554,000, with the largest concentrations in Kuwait (278,000) and Saudi Arabia (127,000). Of a total Palestinian population estimated, by 1980, to number 4.5 million, 12.6 per cent were living in the Gulf and North Africa. [8]

Almost without exception this migrant population was bourgeois and petit bourgeois in character. For a few years in the early 1950s skilled workers and some labourers found employment in the Gulf states. By 1953 there were 3,000 Palestinians employed by the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia, while large numbers worked in the oilfields, construction and transport in Kuwait and Qatar. In 1953 and 1954 Palestinians led major strikes against Aramco, demanding union recognition and improvements in wages and conditions. Following the disputes 250 leading militants were deported from Saudi Arabia and activists faced repression in neighbouring countries. [9] A ban was then imposed on the entry of Palestinian workers to the Gulf states and by the late 1950s only those Palestinians with capital or professional qualifications were admitted. It was not until well into the 1970s that Palestinian workers were again admitted, though under strict controls.

The Palestinian communities that developed in the Gulf states from the late 1940s consisted mainly of businessmen who moved in to exploit the rapid growth of the oil-fed economies, and the professionals, technicians and administrators who served the Gulf regimes. The sophistication of the Palestinian bourgeoisie placed it in a prominent position in countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where genuine national bourgeois classes, as opposed to networks of trading families, did not begin to emerge until the 1970s. Palestinians were particularly active in trade, construction and finance and many became extremely wealthy as the oil boom began in the 1960s.

By the 1960s a new layer of Palestinian capitalists had emerged in the Arab countries. In Kuwait the Al Hani company played a major role in the construction boom; in Jordan the Arab Bank (founded in the 1930s – a survivor of the 1948 events) had grown to become one of the leading Arab financial institutions; in Lebanon Palestinians were prominent in the national airline, Middle East Airlines, the huge Contracting and Trading Company (CAT) and the Arabia Insurance Company. [10] There were hundreds of smaller companies.

At the same time the layer of professionals expanded rapidly. Educated Palestinians found a niche in the countries of the Gulf, which were just emerging from the period of colonial rule and sought a new cadre to run their expanding economies. So fully were they integrated into the Gulf states that for many years they operated whole ministries in Saudi Arabia while in Kuwait it was estimated that by 1982 25 per cent of all government employees were Palestinians. [11]

The effect of the second diaspora had been to further emphasise Palestinian class differences. In the 20 years following the expulsion the bourgeoisie had re-organised and extended pre-1948 capital, while sections of the petit bourgeoisie had participated successfully in the general growth of Arab capitalism. For these sections of Palestinian society – perhaps 15 per cent of the whole Palestinian population – there was the possibility of integration into the regional economy – of employment education, travel and sometimes considerable wealth. While they were seldom granted citizenship of an Arab state and lacked the political power to which some had been accustomed in pre-1948 Palestine, they nevertheless enjoyed a lifestyle which was far beyond the reach of most of their fellow Palestinians.

For the majority of the Palestinian poor there were no escape routes. Permanent employment was difficult; education a privilege; travel almost impossible. While the Zionist movement had not discriminated between the Palestinians when it drove them from their country, Arab society did. The Palestinian bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie shared much with the Arab ruling classes; the Palestinian poor, in contrast, shared the fate of their victims – the Arab workers and peasants. A huge gulf had opened up between the Palestinian bourgeoisie and the masses of the camps. The bourgeoisie was fully integrated into Arab capitalism and closely aligned with the local ruling groups, differing from them in only one major respect: it did not enjoy control over property in its own territory and did not direct its own national political apparatus. It did not operate within the framework created by all rising capitalist classes. In short, it lacked a state of its own.

Al Fatah

When a Palestinian mass movement re-emerged in the 1960s its leadership was not concerned with what had become the major feature of Palestinian life in the years since the expulsion – the huge difference between the wealthy minority and the masses of the camps. The main current of the new movement, Al Fatah, emphasised the common interests of the Palestinians, whom it saw as a national group seeking ‘liberation’ – the return of the homeland. Fatah’s message was simple: that all Palestinians should join in the struggle to regain their rights and that all efforts should be directed against the common enemy, Zionism. Palestinians should thus sink their class differences in a united movement.

The movement’s main task, said Fatah, was to launch ‘mass revolutionary violence’ against Israel. But in doing so it should avoid any threat to the Arab regimes in those countries where Palestinians were active. In accordance with this ‘principle of non-interference’ it called on Palestinians not only to sink class differences among fellow Palestinians, but also their differences with the Arab rulers. Fatah wanted a national movement capable of securing a liberated Palestine which could then be reintegrated into the Arab world. It wanted a movement which would win for the Palestinians a conventional national state in which it would direct affairs. In this sense Fatah set out to secure the interests of the Palestinian bourgeoisie.

The organisation had its origins in the early 1950s among a group of Palestinian students in Cairo, most of whom were the sons of Palestinian bourgeois and petit bourgeois. [12] Several of them had spent the years since 1948 attempting to organise guerrilla resistance to Israel from Egyptian territory, with the aim of raising the level of conflict to a point at which Egypt and the Arab states would be drawn into war. In such a confrontation, the students believed, the Arabs would emerge victorious and would restore Palestine to its former inhabitants.

The group, which included future PLO leaders Yasser Arafat, Salah Khalaf and Khalil al-Wazir, was a militant extension of the movement of the 1930s, which, under the leadership of the landowners and bourgeoisie, had placed all its emphasis on national unity. The students had some connections with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood – most of its influences were from the right. Its strategy reflected the Palestinians’ weakness. The students were the only current among the Palestinians – apart from cells of the Muslim Brotherhood – to attempt to continue the struggle. In the absence of a Palestinian movement they looked towards non-Palestinian forces to secure the return of Palestine – but their assumptions about the character of national struggle caused them to look automatically towards the Arab ruling classes.

The students’ approach also revealed a form of doublethink which was to become a serious contradiction in Fatah’s strategy; while they were suspicious of the Arab regimes and condemned their role in the 1930s and during the 1948 events, they relied upon them to repossess Palestine on behalf of its people.

In later years the group was based in Kuwait. Its members’ education allowed them to sell their skills in the Gulf and several became wealthy and influential in the Palestinian community. Salah Khalaf – better known as Abu Iyad – comments:

It is not a coincidence that Fatah was founded in Kuwait. Many of us had good positions in the country; Yasir Arafat was a respected engineer in the Ministry of Public Works, Faruq al-Qaddumi [Abu Lutuf] headed a department at the Ministry of Public Health, Khalid al-Hassan and Abd al-Muhsin al-Qattan were part of the high government administration, Khalil Ibrahim al-Wazir [Abu Jihad] and I were teachers in secondary schools. [13]

Khalaf might have added that Arafat established his own contracting business and made large sums of money. Another leading member of Fatah, Khalid al-Hassan, has commented that if he had stayed in business Arafat would have become a multi-millionaire. [14] Khalid al-Hassan himself became chief executive of Kuwait municipality, one of the most powerful positions occupied by a Palestinian working for the Gulf regimes.

It was during the group’s period of consolidation in Kuwait that it put forward principles which included the assertions that Palestinian liberation would involve a national struggle and the exercise of ‘mass revolutionary violence’, but that this should be limited by a strict policy of non-interference in the affairs of the Arab states. This limitation was scarcely surprising – the community within which the group operated owed its existence to the development of the local economy and the growing apparatus of state. In addition, militant Palestinian workers had only recently been expelled for organising in the oilfields. The principles which were to guide a new generation of nationalists were a reflection of the Palestinian bourgeoisie’s dependence upon Arab capitalism – they did not threaten the status quo, but were a Palestinian adaption to it.

The Arab left

In the early 1960s Fatah grew rapidly, drawing in not only young businessmen and professionals from the Gulf, but activists from the camps. Its appeal was due to the simplicity of its slogans – for a Palestinian struggle, for a return to the homeland – which struck a chord with the exiled masses. But its success was also a reflection of the failure of other political currents in the Arab world to provide answers to the problems of the mass of Palestinians.

The rulers of the Arab states surrounding Palestine had shown only cynicism in using the conflict with the Zionist movement to further their own ambitions. In 1948 the armies of Egypt and Transjordan (later Jordan) occupied those areas of Palestine they could secure from the Zionist militias and subsequently the regimes used the Palestine issue as a device to deflect domestic discontent. The Free Officers’ coup of 1952 in Egypt brought to power a new ruling group under Nasser which announced that it would renew the struggle for Palestine but never fulfilled the promises of its rhetoric. Ten years after he came to power Nasser announced that he had ‘no plan’ for the liberation of Palestine.

For those Palestinians seeking an alternative to the bourgeois organisations there were, in theory, two options – the communist parties and the Arab nationalists.

The communist parties failed to attract more than a handful of Palestinians. During the 1940s and 1950s they were almost without exception small, marginal and highly bureaucratic. All were committed to the popular front strategies Moscow had imposed upon satellite parties since the 1930s. This produced the usual attempts to draw in ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie and landowning classes, but also had some especially shocking manifestations – as in Lebanon, where the party courted ‘progressive’ personalities such as Pierre Gemayel, founder of the extreme right-wing Phalange.

In Egypt, the most important of the Arab countries in terms of the potential of its growing working class, the party had long since split into a set of warring factions, the most important of which trailed the bourgeois Wafd Party and had proved incapable of intervening in the mass struggles that preceded the coup of 1952.

As a result the parties were not a pole of attraction in the Palestinian communities, which were anyway deeply mistrustful of the link with Moscow – which had not opposed the establishment of Israel in 1948 – and which contained those who remembered the bankruptcy of the Palestinian Communist Party. In the late 1930s the party had abandoned internationalism when it split into Arab and Jewish sections.

In contrast, the Arab nationalists had a significant impact. The most influential early formulation of their ideas was that of the Syrian Michel Aflaq, who formed the Baath (‘Resurrection’) Party in 1940. Aflaq called for the unification of the ‘Arab fatherland’ and its ‘renewal and resurrection’. The Baath’s slogans were ‘Unity, Freedom and Socialism’ and ‘One Arab Nation with an Immortal Mission’. Aflaq described himself as a ‘patriotic nationalist’, maintaining, ‘We want socialism to serve our nationalism’. [15]

The Baath attracted mainly students, technocrats and army officers in Syria and Iraq, though it had small groups in other Arab countries. Its essentially elitist politics did not attract workers and peasants, and its Palestinian recruits, mainly from Damascus and Baghdad, were principally students. The Baath’s main importance for the Palestinians was its contribution to a climate of pan-Arabism that influenced young activists throughout the region.

A second current of Arab nationalism that had a more profound effect on the Palestinians was the Arab National Movement (ANM), founded in Lebanon in 1949 by a group in which several Palestinians were prominent. Its main slogan was ‘Unity, Freedom, Revenge, Blood, Steel, Fire’. [16] It also emphasised Arab unity, seeing this as the first requirement for any further progress in the region. One of its founders, Palestinian George Habash, has recorded the anti-Marxist sentiments of the group: ‘we rejected the principle of class struggle. We believed that all classes in the Arab countries could be mobilised in the overall national struggle’. [17]

The ANM set up branches throughout the Arab world, most successfully in Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait. It was an enthusiastic supporter of Nasser’s Free Officer government in Egypt, with its formal commitment to pan-Arabism and its anti-imperialist, pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

The impact of the Arab nationalists was sufficient for the founders of Fatah to define some of their ideas in response. By the late 1950s the Fatah group had decided that the main weakness of Palestinian nationalism in the 1930s had been its dependence upon the Arab rulers and that now it was necessary for Palestinians to initiate their own struggle for liberation. It argued that Arab unity could only come about after the liberation of Palestine – an assertion that the group saw as a vital development in Palestinian strategy. Khalid al-Hassan later commented: ‘We reversed the slogan [of Arab unity] and this is how we reversed the tide of thinking.’ [18]

Fatah takes off

In 1962 Fatah made a breakthrough. Nasser’s admission that he had ‘no plan’ for Palestine, and the dramatic success of the Algerians in expelling the French after nine years of guerrilla war, appeared to vindicate the group’s ideas. Activists flocked to Fatah, which began to take on the appearance of a genuine movement. This development caused great anxiety among the Arab leaders, who recognised the Palestinians’ potential for destabilisation in the region and, led by Nasser, they took the initiative. In 1964 the regimes founded a Palestine Liberation Organisation under the leadership of Ahmad Shuqeiry, a ‘safe’ Palestinian lawyer charged with the task of heading off the new movement.

Nasser’s move backfired. It projected the Palestinian question to the centre of Arab politics, giving Fatah a huge audience. Fatah debated whether to enter the organisation and even attempted to do a deal with Shuqeiry, but eventually decided to act alone. In January 1965 it launched its first guerrilla raid against Israel, beginning what it called the Palestinian ‘revolution’. As its attacks, launched mainly from Jordan, stepped up over the next two years, more and more young Palestinians were drawn in. The atmosphere in the camps began to change – for the first time in 20 years Palestinians were again politically active. A generalised political movement developed with tremendous speed, in which the masses of the camps were deeply involved. Fatah had helped to release tremendous energies – yet the narrow nationalism of its strategy was to misdirect and waste them.

National struggle and ‘non-interference’ Between 1966 and 1970 Fatah led a movement that galvanised the whole Palestinian diaspora. It did so on the basis of a strategy based on two principles – those of national struggle and guerrilla warfare. But both these principles were quite inappropriate solutions to the problems faced by the majority of Palestinians.

It was only years later that Khalid al-Hassan explained that Fatah had not intended that the Palestinian struggle itself could achieve liberation: ‘We intended to provoke and capture the imagination of the Palestinian and Arab masses. We thought we could create a new atmosphere in which no Arab leader would dare to ignore the subject of liberating Palestine ... when the Arab leaders were coming under pressure for action from their own masses, we would engage them in dialogue. We would ask them to join us in planning a co-ordinated strategy for the actual liberation of our homeland.’ [19]

So the Fatah strategy had not changed – as before the Palestinians were to act as a lever on the Arab regimes, which would use their prowess to secure Palestine. The difference was that Fatah, having tired of lobbying the Arab leaders, was now committed to organising a mass struggle to bring pressure to bear on them. However, because the regimes were central to Fatah’s plan, there could be no question of directing the energies of the mass struggle against them – hence the principle of non-interference in the affairs of the Arab regimes must be upheld at all costs.

Khalid al-Hassan added a rider to his explanation of the strategy for liberation:

If they [the Arab leaders] turned us down we would lead a confrontation between the Palestinian refugees and the regimes. And the aim of this confrontation would be to provoke a real Arab revolution that would end with the bringing to power of regimes that would have the power to fight Israel. [20]

But Fatah already claimed to be without illusions as to the effectiveness of the Arab regimes – the Arab rulers had helped to sabotage the early national movement and had, indeed, ‘turned down’ later requests for help. Why, then, did Fatah not argue for ‘a real Arab revolution’ that could bring new forces into action against Israel?

The answer lay in Fatah’s most basic assumptions. To have confronted the regimes would have meant embracing the idea of change from below, of completely re-orienting the struggle of the mass of Palestinians by linking it directly to the struggles of Arab workers and peasants. This, of course, was never an option – Fatah was never prepared to challenge Arab capitalism, it was committed to acting through the regimes, not to toppling them.

The particular form of national struggle now advocated by Fatah – that of mass action directed to pressuring the regimes – had further deepened the contradiction in the organisation’s politics. It argued for mass struggle to pressurise the regimes, but not to threaten them. Yet under the conditions imposed by the regimes on the mass of Palestinians any form of organisation was regarded as a threat and ruthlessly suppressed. How could the Palestinians organise ‘mass violence’ without bringing the control of the regimes into question? This was a question Fatah never addressed directly. Instead it insisted that Palestinian struggle should be confined to Palestinian national issues. This formula was to lead the whole Palestinian movement to disaster.

‘Revolutionary violence’ The second principle that guided Fatah was that of ‘mass revolutionary violence’. This emerged in the idea of ‘people’s war’, stimulated by the success of the Vietnamese and the Algerians. But when, in 1964, a Fatah delegation visited China in an effort to obtain arms, according to Arafat, the Palestinians were told that they were wasting their time attempting to start guerrilla warfare:

They told us: ‘What you are proposing is unbelievable. You can’t do it. You have no bases in the territory to be liberated and no prospect of creating them. From where will you start? There are no conditions for guerrilla warfare.’ [21]

The Chinese were right. Guerrilla warfare required large areas in which to operate, terrain suitable for hit-and-run attacks and which provided safe areas in which guerrillas could hide, and above all a population willing to support and protect the fighters. None of these conditions were satisfied in the case of the Palestinians, where the home territory was occupied by the hostile Zionist population. Attempts to conduct warfare against the regimes, in Arab states where conditions were more favourable, would, of course, fall outside Fatah’s principle of ‘non-interference’.

When it launched attacks against Israel in 1965, they were isolated attacks against installations, carried out by small groups of activists. For three years the pattern was maintained. Then, in 1967, Fatah made its one and only attempt to launch a wider armed struggle on Palestinian territory. Following the Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, over a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli occupation. In the wake of the defeat and to try and initiate ‘popular war’, Fatah sent several hundred guerrillas into the West Bank.

The operation was a terrible failure, Fatah losing hundreds of fighters to the Israeli occupation forces who easily isolated them from the Palestinian population. From this point on the movement was operating with a strategy flawed in both its major principles: its ‘revolutionary violence’ was ineffective against the Zionist enemy, while its strategy of mass mobilisation was bringing it closer and closer to confrontation with the Arab regimes.

The radical critics

The first clear criticisms of Fatah from within the new Palestinian movement began to emerge in the late 1960s. They came mainly from former members of the ANM who in 1967 had left the organisation to form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The front reflected the process of radicalisation which had been under way in the Arab nationalist movement for some years, partly as a result of Fatah’s success. It underwent a sudden conversion to ‘Marxism-Leninism’. [22]

In fact the front, and the series of splits it produced during the late 1960s, had absorbed a form of radical nationalism common among national liberation movements worldwide at this period. It incorporated many of the ideas to be found in the politics of the communist parties – particularly the Arab world’s highly-Stalinised organisations – a generalised commitment to ‘the masses’; the theory of class blocs; the ‘stages’ theory; and the need for close links with the ‘socialist’ countries. [23]

The Popular Front and the current that emerged from it in 1968, the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP – later simply the Democratic Front – DFLP) argued that Fatah was under a petit bourgeois leadership indistinguishable from that which controlled many of the Arab states. The Democratic Front criticised Fatah’s willingness to accept arms and finance from Arab states – it had had various sources of supply since the early 1960s – maintaining that the organisation had become ‘a tactical weapon in the hands of the regimes’. [24] It also rejected Fatah’s principle of non-interference in the affairs of the Arab states. Both organisations called for the redirection of the struggle towards the mass of Palestinians.

Despite the shallowness of the fronts’ own political theory they were able to point up the enormous contradictions in Fatah’s strategy. But their audience was small – at this stage Fatah seemed unstoppable, appearing to most Palestinians and to much of the population in the region as the only self-reliant Arab force. Recovering from the defeat on the West Bank in 1967, Fatah scored an important success when its guerrillas fought off an Israeli attempt to destroy its main military base in Jordan. [25] This was the signal for more Palestinians to flock to recruiting centres in the camps, while in Egypt, where Nasser had been humiliated by the crushing defeat of the June war, thousands rushed to Fatah offices to enrol as fedayeen. Critics like those in the fronts were marginal; Fatah had control of the movement, confirmed by its assumption of the PLO leadership in 1969 at the expense of Shuqeiry’s successor, Yahya Hammuda, and the increasing supplies of arms and finance that were coming into its hands from the Arab states.

Black September

A year later the movement’s rise came to an abrupt halt as the central contradiction in Fatah’s strategy was exposed. By 1970 the PLO, firmly under Fatah’s control, had developed a ‘state within a state’ in Jordan. It operated its own army (having taken over the PLO’s Palestine Liberation Army (PLA)), guerrilla groups, civilian administration, welfare and educational organisations. It ran affairs in the camps, in large areas along the border with Israel, in the northern towns and in much of the capital, Amman. In a country in which 70 per cent of the population was of Palestinian origin, there was widespread support for the PLO, extending to many government officials and even into the army. [26]

Many Palestinian activists, including leading cadres of Fatah, argued that the movement should take power. Eventually, under pressure from Hussain’s frequent attacks, its own members, the demands of the fronts and a final crisis precipitated by a spate of hijackings, Fatah at last endorsed a general strike, demanding that the Jordan regime convoke a ‘people’s assembly’ to choose a new government that would include Palestinian representatives. Hussain now loosed his troops on the PLO, with Arafat belatedly declaring that ‘the Palestinian revolution will fight to defend itself to the end until the fascist military government is overthrown’. [27]

Three thousand Palestinians were killed in vicious fighting and much of the PLO infrastructure broken up. Arafat’s appeal to the Syrian and Iraqi governments, both of which had troops nearby, to intervene in favour of the PLO, went unheeded. The fedayeen were forced back to the camps and then attacked in further savage assaults. Within months the movement in Jordan had been entirely destroyed.

Yet for most of 1970 Hussain had been unable to assert his control in Jordan. After years of repression Palestinians had begun to enjoy a taste of their own freedom and there was a widespread desire to bring down the king and place the resistance movement in power.

The fall of Hussain would have had a destabilising effect on all the Arab regimes, with incalculable effects for the Palestinians and the local populations. But Fatah could not act – and its inaction kept Hussain in power. The implications of the subsequent defeat were bleak. The movement had been crushed by one of the weakest regimes in the region, in a country in which the majority of the population was Palestinian and the state apparatus was in disarray. It was unlikely that the movement would fare better elsewhere, unless a radically different strategy were adopted.

But Fatah drew the most negative conclusions. It attacked the fronts for ‘political extremism’ and ‘provocations’. Salah Khalaf later commented: ‘The extremists jumbled together the fight for national liberation (which Fatah advocated exclusively) with the class struggle.’ [28] Khalaf was right, the fronts had attempted to pursue the only course the movement could take if it was not to be destroyed – recognising the threat posed by a ruling class at bay, they demanded that it be tackled before it turned on the movement. The fronts, even if their own political perspectives were far from clear, correctly linked Palestinian national liberation with class struggle. For Fatah, for whom Hussain was devious and self-serving but essentially a legitimate ruler, any hint of class confrontation was a departure from the politics of nationalism.

The Fatah leadership clearly believed that the Syrian or Iraqi forces positioned close to the centres of the September fighting would intervene to save them. In the event the whole Arab world looked on while an Arab ruler savaged the movement. If the regimes would not defend the PLO against attacks within an Arab country, despite widespread support for the PLO among the Arab populations, how could they be expected to take any initiative against the immensely strong Israeli state?

Fatah preferred not to contemplate these difficulties. When the PLO left Jordan to establish a new base in the camps of Lebanon, it was even more rigid in its insistence that the movement must respect the Arab rulers. It was determined that the movement should never again threaten an Arab state and suffer a defeat like that of 1970. As a result more tragedies were to follow.

A state without a territory

The PLO that moved its operations to Lebanon in 1971 was much weakened militarily but was soon able to recover. This was a result of two processes that had been taking place in the years before the Jordan debacle. First, a series of wealthy Palestinians had swung behind the movement. Appalled at the failure of the Arab regimes in 1967 and impressed by Fatah’s rapid rise and at its promise that the movement would not threaten their privileged positions, leading Palestinian capitalists threw in their lot with the organisation. This confirmed Fatah’s link with Palestinian capitalism – if, until the mid-1960s it represented the most politically-ambitious section of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, by the end of the decade it had become that class’s ‘official’ representative. Secondly, closer links had been developed with some of the most important Arab regimes. In 1969 Fatah persuaded King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that the organisation should be supplied with finance and weapons. Saudi Arabia was already the wealthiest state in the region, and as Arafat’s biographer has pointed out, ‘The significance of Saudi Arabia’s support for Fatah cannot be exaggerated. As time proved, with Saudi Arabia on its side, Fatah was indestructible – as long as it was pursuing policies the Saudis could endorse.’ [29]

Other sections of the movement also received backing from the regimes. This process had begun in the mid-1960s, when the Baath Party, which had come to power in Syria in 1963, had established Saiqa (‘The Thunderbolt’), in an effort to keep pace with Fatah. In Iraq, the rival section of the Baathist movement, which had come to power in 1968, had established the Arab Liberation Front (ALF). Neither organisation had a real base among Palestinians, but acted as a lever for its sponsoring regime within the PLO, of which, like the two fronts, both Saiqa and the ALF were members. [30]

With such backing the PLO was soon able to rebuild its apparatus on an even grander scale. Military and civilian organisations were extended, press agencies, research institutes and radio stations established and offices opened abroad. The PLO was beginning to take on the attributes of the state that Fatah aimed to establish. Following the 1973 war between the Arab states and Israel, the most pro-Western Arab countries joined in a US initiative, offering the PLO the bait of a Palestinian ‘mini-state’ in the West Bank and Gaza in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel within the borders it had established in 1948.

Fatah accepted, dropping its principal aim – the liberation of the whole of Palestine – in favour of the prospect of the mini-state, which was to be pressed on Israel by the US. The Democratic Front – the ‘Marxist-Leninists’ of earlier years – declared that the struggle for such a state was a ‘transitional demand’ and backed the project. The Popular Front led a ‘Rejection Front’ which opposed the scheme.

For the majority of Palestinians the plan was a disaster. In the unlikely event that the Israelis were to concede the territory they had colonised in 1967, a tiny Palestinian ‘statelet’ – an Arab bantustan – would be policed by both its Zionist and Arab neighbours. It would imprison the Palestinian movement far more effectively than Nasser’s PLO or Israeli repression in the occupied territories. But far more probable was a long process of diplomatic manoeuvring aimed at further sapping the Palestinian movement.

Alan Hart, Arafat’s biographer, and a strong supporter of Fatah, admitted that, had the plan been openly canvassed by the PLO leadership, ‘it and they would have been repudiated and rejected by an easy majority of the Palestinians who were actually engaged in the liberation struggle.’ [31]

In the most militant camps and those containing Palestinians forced from areas of their country other than the West Bank, the plan received an especially hostile reception. Salah Khalaf reports that in Tal al-Zaatar camp, Beirut, he found, ‘to my amazement the walls of this desperately poor shanty town plastered with slogans denouncing the Palestinian ministate!’ [32] But Fatah, with its grip on the movement’s political leadership and its control of its finance and administration, won provisional support at the Palestinian National Congress – the movement’s assembly.

Two important events now occurred which pushed the PLO even closer to the regimes and the mini-state plan. The Arab states appeared to rally behind the Palestinians: at an Arab summit in 1974 they affirmed: ‘the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent national authority under the command of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, in any territory that is liberated.’ Fatah was delighted; it appeared to be receiving just the recognition it had long craved.

Fatah and the Arab states were now working hand-in-hand. A month after the Arab summit Arafat appeared at the United Nations to make a speech ‘with gun and olive branch’ and the PLO was admitted to the organisation with observer status – a further confirmation in the eyes of its leadership that it was achieving the status they had long desired. For Salah Khalaf, with this recognition, ‘All our objectives on the international scene had thus been reached.’ [33] But acceptance of the Kissinger scheme had now entangled the organisation in a web of diplomacy from which it was never to escape. Arafat jetted from capital to capital collecting large cheques and handsome promises, but the Arab rulers baulked at using the oil weapon which alone could bring US pressure on Israel to move towards concessions. Meanwhile another confrontation was looming.

War in Lebanon

The PLO’s second major conflict occurred under circumstances very different from those of the confrontation in Jordan. The Lebanese civil war of 1975–76 found the Palestinians fighting a long defensive struggle against the militias of the Lebanese right and the armies of Syria. The war began with attacks by Lebanese rightists on Palestinians in the Beirut camps, but in line with the policy of non-interference in the affairs of the Arab states, Fatah remained aloof. In the early phases of the war only the Popular and Democratic Fronts joined the militias of the mainly Muslim Lebanese National Movement (LNM) against the rightists’ Lebanese Forces.

Fatah made strenuous efforts to keep the Palestinians out of the conflict, and when Syria threatened invasion to head off the forces of the left, to come to an agreement with the Syrian leader, President Assad. But when the Syrians sent in 40,000 troops to aid the Lebanese Forces, Fatah was forced to engage in desperate fighting to save the camps. The PLO was badly mauled but survived – but now Lebanon was under the control of a Syrian army of occupation which confined the PLO to small areas of the country. The Palestinians were trapped, physically and politically. For the next six years they remained active only in pockets of Lebanese territory, while the Arab states developed ever closer ties with the PLO factions, using them quite cynically in inter-Arab disputes.

This was the situation when Israel launched its third invasion of Lebanon in 1982, smashing its way through to Beirut and then expelling 10,000 PLO fighters. The Arab states looked on passively and then quietly received shiploads of guerrillas whom they consigned to camps safely isolated from the Arab capitals. But there was still more conflict to come – in 1983 Fatah split, with a pro-Syrian faction under Abu Musa declaring the majority Arafat group to have sold out the cause. With the backing of Syrian forces the Fatah ‘rebels’ drove the remaining Arafat loyalists out of Lebanon as another convoy of ships left bearing guerrillas for the Arab states. The events reflected the fact that the PLO had been almost completely colonised by the Arab regimes – the Syrians using the Fatah ‘rebels’ as if they were part of its own armed forces. The Popular and Democratic Fronts remained formally neutral but soon they, like the Abu Musa section of Fatah, were based in Damascus and under strong Syrian influence.

By 1984 Fatah’s diplomatic manoeuvrings were exhausted as the long-running mini-state saga came to an end with the US admitting it had no intention of pressurising Israel into concessions. After 20 years of the PLO the Palestinians were still victims – both of Israel and its backers, and of the Arab regimes – but now they were more vulnerable than ever before.

Palestine and the Arab states

Palestinian nationalism has failed. Israel’s determination to destroy all forms of Palestinian self-organisation has been of great importance, but of equal significance is the failure of the movement’s leadership to come to an accommodation with Arab capitalism. Fatah set out to persuade the Arab rulers to accept a new Palestinian state – a partner on whose behalf they should take up the battle against Israel and imperialism. But the strategy has foundered on Fatah’s inability to resolve the contradiction between the interests of the mass of Palestinians and those of the Arab ruling classes. It could not mobilise a mass movement which expressed Palestinians’ aspirations and contain the movement within the political systems controlled by the regimes.

It is significant that the PLO’s greatest opportunity arose precisely at the point when the movement extended beyond the limits imposed by Fatah. In Jordan the energies released by the national movement caused a rise in self-confidence that allowed Palestinians and some Jordanians to pose an alternative to the Hussain dictatorship. It was Fatah’s fear of threatening Hussain’s power that caused it to rein in the movement, leading to the inevitable catastrophe. From 1970 it was downhill all the way.

At the core of the problem was Fatah’s insistence on Palestinian unity. It saw the call for unity as a dramatic reversal of the Arab nationalists’ appeal for Arab unity: in fact Fatah merely repeated the nationalists’ slogan in Palestinian terms. The tragedy of the whole Palestinian movement has been its inability to seek a different sort of unity – that between the mass of Palestinians and the other victims of the regimes – the Arab working class.

From the moment of the expulsion in 1948, the Palestinians found themselves dependent upon other forces in the region. The allies that the leaders of the new movement sought were not among the Arab proletariat, but their class antagonists – the kings, shaikhs and presidents. The Fatah leaders’ narrow nationalism has been a key reason for this mis-orientation, but the absence of an effective Arab socialist tradition has also been of great importance. This has meant that the Arab workers’ movement has not offered obvious points of contact with the Palestinians, who have conducted their struggle with a strategy which sealed them off from the region’s most potent political force.

During the 1950s, as Fatah was putting down roots, the communist parties were revealing the bankruptcy of Arab Stalinism. In two of the most important Arab countries parties closely tied to Moscow were abandoning the working class.

In Egypt Nasser had come to power in 1952 after eight years of workers’ struggles which had included general strikes, occupations and mass demonstrations against the British colonial administration and the regime of King Faruq. The success of the Free Officers’ Movement was a classic example of the process of ‘deflected permanent revolution’. [34] Nasser immediately initiated a regime of fierce repression against worker militants and members of the Communist Party. By the mid-1950s, however, the party had identified the Nasser regime as essentially ‘independent’ and ‘progressive’. [35] By the early 1960s, liquidation of the party was being discussed by the organisation’s leaders and in 1964 a formal statement dissolving the party in recognition of the progressive nature of the regime was agreed. Party members were urged to join Nasser’s monolithic Arab Socialist Union (a key element in the structure of the new Egyptian state capitalism) and the Egyptian socialist movement was paralysed for over 10 years.

In Iraq the Communist Party spent 10 years from the late 1940s building up a base which, in 1959, it surrendered to the nationalists. In 1958 the monarchy was overthrown and the nationalist General Kassem took power. The party seized the chance presented by the rapid radicalisation of workers, students and even some sections of the army to extend its support and by the summer of 1959 was strongly placed against a weak government. It then passed up a historic opportunity to lead the movement to power. With Moscow watching approvingly the party abandoned its attacks on Kassem and in the confusion that followed the momentum went out of the movement. Within two years the nationalists felt strong enough to begin repression of the party and its supporters, and in 1963, when Kassem was overthrown in a further nationalist coup, thousands of communists and worker militants were murdered. [36]

Such policies effectively removed the left from the political map in the Arab world – a fact that had an important bearing on the development of the Palestinian movement. Egypt was the political centre of the region; there was a large Palestinian community and it was here that Fatah emerged. The conduct of the communist party meant that there was no current offering a strategy for change in Egypt based on the working class – though it was during this period that the Egyptian proletariat grew most rapidly. Iraq was not as central to Arab politics, but in the 1950s its communist party was the strongest in the region. The party’s conduct in 1959 removed, at a stroke, the most important radical pole of attraction in the Arab world. Elsewhere the communist parties were pursuing the same popular front strategies that had proved so ineffective in the 1940s. In Syria, for example, the party lobbied the Baathists who had seized power in 1963, viewing them in the same light as the Nasser regime. In 1966 they were admitted to the government, being allocated two ministers, and for several years had representation in a ruling ‘progressive front’. This did not stop the regime developing a police state in which all dissent was suppressed.

The policies of class collaboration pursued by the Arab communist parties had a profoundly negative effect on the Palestinians. For the founders of Fatah, the communists were anyway marginal, but the absence of a left-wing pole of attraction meant that their activists moved the more easily towards the Arab rulers. But for those who looked for a radical alternative, the absence of genuine socialist politics was disastrous. Not only was the communist tradition mistrusted because of the failure of the Palestinian party in the 1930s, and Moscow’s approval for the establishment of the Israeli state – it was simply incapable of expressing the interests of those suffering under the regimes. When a leftward-looking current finally emerged among the Palestinians in the early 1960s its only model was that of the local Stalinist parties. The ‘radicals’ of the Popular and Democratic fronts absorbed all the ideas of mainstream Stalinism from ‘socialism in one country’ to the alliance with the ‘socialist’ states of the Eastern bloc. In the absence of a Palestinian communist party, the fronts expressed Palestinian Stalinism.

On the basis of such ideas the fronts criticised Fatah’s strategy, especially its policy of non-interference in the affairs of the Arab states and the close link with regimes they deemed ‘reactionary’, like those of the Gulf. But they found no contradiction in supporting the local state capitalisms, which they identified as ‘progressive’ on the basis of their rulers’ rhetoric about Arab socialism’, ‘popular power’ and ties with Moscow. Syria, Algeria, Libya, South Yemen and sometimes Iraq were embraced as allies, despite their repression of all domestic opposition and cynical use of factions within the PLO.

This also helped to isolate the Palestinians from the struggles of Arab workers. The presence of Israel and the expansionary policy that has led it into five major wars has allowed the Arab rulers an alibi – they have been able to direct domestic discontent into nationalism, with the Zionists the main enemy. Their ability to produce Palestinian leaders to verify their anti-Zionist credentials has helped to give a whole generation of shaikhs and presidents legitimacy and has weakened the basis for unity between the Palestinian masses and Arab workers. This has been true whether Arafat has been appearing alongside the Gulf shaikhs and emirs, or, George Habash of the Popular Front and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front have shared platforms with the ‘progressives’ – Syria’s Assad, Libya’s Qaddafi, Algeria’s Boumedienne or Chadli. There has been no part of the Palestinian movement not identified with a section of Arab capitalism.

The regimes have long understood that while the Palestinian movement is a potentially subversive force, properly controlled it could also play a useful role. Thus after the 1967 war, when for the first time in 15 years Egyptians were organising against the Nasser regime, Egyptian government officials met PLO leaders to plead for their help. The Egyptian foreign minister begged the Palestinians to ‘make some military operations’ in the newly-occupied territories, with the intention of distracting the attention of the mass of the population from the military and political failings of their rulers. Otherwise, predicted the minister, ‘the masses would turn against their regimes’. [37] Fatah encouraged such attitudes. Khalid al-Hassan coolly relates that he told Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal ‘to give us the opportunity to direct the anger and bitterness on our side [after Black September] away from violence and into support for positive political action’. He adds, ‘We didn’t need to tell Faisal that if we lost control there would be an escalation of violence ... which would lead in time to the collapse and defeat of Arab moderation and, eventually, the downfall of the pro-Western Arab regimes.’ [38]

The fronts were less crude but tacitly played the same game. Whenever a leading Palestinian radical appeared in Tripoli, Damascus, Baghdad or Algiers, it was to hail the local ‘revolutionary leadership’. The existence of vicious police states which repressed all worker opposition was simply ignored.

The Arab working class

For 40 years nationalism and Stalinism have proved enormous obstacles to the development of the working-class movement in the Arab countries. They have induced passivity among the rank and file and imposed bureaucratic, class collaborationist leaderships. Despite these problems, and the high levels of repression, the working class has repeatedly shown its willingness to take on the regimes.

As Israel was being established, Egyptian workers were engaged in the highest level of struggle since the 1920s, including a series of mass strikes which had the regime of King Faruq on the brink of defeat. Significantly, this wave of activity was only ended by the king’s declaration of war ‘on behalf’ of the Palestinians. The struggles were renewed in the 1950s, when, in the absence of a socialist alternative, the beneficiary was the new petit bourgeoisie represented by the Free Officers.

During the same period Iraq saw the rapid growth of a workers’ movement centred on the oilfields, the port of Basra, the railways and the tobacco industry. There were repeated strikes during the 1950s until in 1959 the communist party finally aborted the movement. Nearby, in the Gulf states, the development of the oil industry produced major struggles. In 1953, 13,000 workers in the Saudi oilfields went on strike, largely under Palestinian leadership. Three years later there were further strikes and deportations leading to the expulsion of many activists.

In the 1960s, the golden age of Arab nationalism, the movement was relatively subdued, anaesthetised by a combination of the nationalists’ rhetoric and repression and the communist parties’ acquiescence, but in the 1970s the movement revived. Egypt was again the centre; from the early 1970s a series of struggles affected almost every section of industry. These included waves of strikes in 1971, 1972 and 1976, culminating in the uprising of January 1977 that took the Sadat regime to the brink of defeat.

The 1977 events were a reminder of the power of workers in the region. Factories, mills, docks and offices emptied and millions poured onto the streets to oppose Sadat’s policies. Despite his quick concession of the movement’s demands, Sadat’s government lost control in every major urban centre in the country. A complete lack of organisation on the left and Sadat’s use of the army to put down the demonstrations just saved the regime. [39]

In succeeding years a string of revolts in North Africa showed that the regimes of the Maghreb were also vulnerable. General strikes in Tunisia in 1978 and 1981 and in Morocco in 1980 were followed by riots in both countries in 1984. In 1985 the focus moved to Sudan where the role of workers in a rising mass movement against President Nimairi became so prominent that army officers seized power before the movement could widen and threaten their own interests.

Throughout the region, which has been industrialising fast, the proletariat is becoming more numerous. Between 1960 and 1980 the proportion of the labour force involved in industry increased steadily. According to figures produced by the World Bank, over 25 per cent of the workforce in the major Arab countries is now engaged in industry. [40]

The increasing pace of Arab workers’ struggle is unlikely to slow. As the regimes’ room for manoeuvre is narrowed by economic pressures, further upheavals can be expected. In a region where there is a tradition of political movements rapidly stimulating activity across national boundaries such struggles are likely to have a highly destabilising effect.

A new tradition

What will be the reaction of the Palestinian movement to new waves of workers’ struggle? For the PLO leadership past struggles have been a sideshow. At best the working class has been seen as a potential ally but one that according to Fatah is ‘ineffective’ and ‘cannot be easily relied on’. [41]

To establish a new socialist tradition in the region, one capable of building on the potential of the Arab working class, it will be necessary to reject this approach. Instead it requires the development of an interest in all the manifestations of workers’ activity in the Arab countries – in strikes, occupations, demonstrations, bread riots, campaigns against repression and for union rights. Above all, it means setting out to build independent workers’ parties whose ideas are rooted in the Marxist tradition.

The marginality of the Palestinians does not make their involvement in Arab politics less relevant, rather it emphasises the need for such involvement. While the dispersion of the Palestinians has produced a well-developed bourgeoisie, the masses have not been integrated into the local economies; Palestinians have been under-represented in the Arab working class. Where they have become workers they have been employed largely in casual occupations on the periphery of industry. Palestinian workers lack real political weight: in order to pursue their interests the Palestinian masses must engage with social forces which possess the power to confront Arab capitalism.

The Palestinian movement has scorned the Marxists’ long-term strategy. Armed struggle seemed to offer the prospect of an immediate engagement with the Zionist enemy, a chance to start the process of liberation after years of rhetoric from the Arab regimes. By comparison, the Marxist strategy of building up a revolutionary current in the working class by engaging in workers’ struggles over many years, seemed laborious. But within a few years the nationalist strategy had delivered up the Palestinian movement to the regimes. The ‘long view’ does not offer the prospect of an immediate confrontation with Zionism, for its success can only be measured by the degree of implantation of revolutionary ideas among workers – there are no short cuts to constructing the party that can argue for such ideas. To succeed in this project means going back to basic principles of politics and organisation, but doing so among proletarian forces that have the potential for change – a sharp contrast to the effort to construct phoney alliances with the bourgeoisie, a class intrinsically alien to the Palestinian cause.

Karl Marx argued that history never raises a problem unless there are the conditions present for its solution. While the Palestinian problem has been most evident in the camps of Beirut or the villages of the West Bank, the solution lies elsewhere. The power to begin the process of change lies above all in the industrial cities of Egypt, the centre of Arab capitalism. A mass movement in Egypt can bring to power a class which has a real interest in confronting imperialism, not accommodating to it. When workers take the factories into their hands and peasants take the land, for the first time there can be an alternative to both Arab capitalism and the Zionist state. The struggle with Israel and its backers will be long, bloody and torturous, but it can take place on the basis of a strategy which recognises both that there can be no compromise with Israel – still the main guarantor of imperialist interests in the Middle East – and offers the prospect of a socialist, internationalist alternative for Arabs and Jews in Palestine. The question for Palestinian and Arab socialists is whether they will be prepared to adopt the only strategy which can offer a chance of removing both the regimes and imperialism’s Zionist watchdog.

The potential of the Arab workers’ movement is not in question; the problem confronting all Arab socialists is that of building a new revolutionary current which can offer real leadership in the political crises which are to come. For Palestinians this does not mean that resistance to the Israelis must be abandoned, but that the most urgent task becomes that of winning activists to revolutionary socialist ideas and to the practical task of building independent workers’ parties. On one score Yasser Arafat has been right. He has admitted: ‘Israel is the superpower of the region and we are resisting it with the equivalent of bows and arrows.’ [42] It is time for the Palestinians to ask how they can participate in forging the weapon of workers’ power.


1. For an account of revolutionary socialist attitudes towards Zionism and Israel see J. Rose, Israel: the Hijack State, London 1986.

2. For accounts of the first nationalist movement see N. Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, London 1979; P.A. Smith, Palestine and the Palestinians, London 1984; and A.M. Lesch, The Palestine Arab Nationalist Movement Under the Mandate, in Quandt, Jabber and Lesch, The Politics of Palestinian Nationalism, Berkeley 1974.

3. Cf. Smith, op. cit., pp. 51–62.

4. Ibid., pp. 87-90.

5. Ibid., p. 223.

6. R. Sayigh, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, London 1979, pp. 110–111.

7. Ibid., pp. 131–133.

8. Smith, op. cit., pp. 115–116.

9. Ibid., pp. 172–173.

10. Ibid., pp. 129–137.

11. E. Rouleau, The Palestinian Diaspora in the Gulf, Merip Reports, No. 132, Washington May 1985, p. 14.

12. Yasser Arafat, for example, was related to the Hussaini clan, the most powerful landowning family in Arab Palestine. See A. Hart, Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker, London 1984, p. 67

13. Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land, New York 1981, p. 38.

14. Hart, op. cit., p. 127.

15. J.F. Devlin, The Baath Party: A History From its Origins to 1966, Stanford 1976, pp. 28, 33.

16. J. Nottingham, A Study of the Ideology of Palestinian Nationalism, unpublished thesis, University of Durham 1969, p. 30.

17. PFLP Bulletin, no. 33, Beirut 1979, p. 5.

18. Hart, op. cit., p. 152.

19. Ibid., p. 153.

20. Ibid., p. 153.

21. Ibid., p. 157.

22. W. Kazziha, Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and his Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism, London 1975, p. 87.

23. These perspectives are laid out in an interview with Habash, Why the PFLP?, PFLP Bulletin, no. 53, op. cit., pp. 3-8.

24. Nottingham, op. cit., p. 151.

25. The battle of Karameh marked the final turning point for Fatah. Its 300 guerrillas held off 15,000 Israeli troops and tanks in what was seen as the first Arab victory against the Zionists since 1948. This put great pressure on the Arab leaders, who had failed spectacularly a year earlier in the June war. King Hussain commented, ‘The time may come when we will all be fedayeen’. See J. Cooley, Green March, Black September, London 1973, p. 101.

26. John Cooley, a journalist who observed the Black September events, quotes Fatah claims that, ‘There are entire army units which are not at all “sure” [of their loyalty to the Hussain regime]. And not all of them are led by Palestinian officers either – we have plenty of sympathisers among the non-Palestinians.’ Cooley, op. cit., p. 112.

27. Ibid., p. 114.

28. Iyad, op. cit., p. 76.

29. Hart, op. cit., pp. 288–296.

30. In the light of Iraq’s rivalry with Syria and the animosity that had developed between Syria and the ANM and the latter’s offspring, the Popular Front, the Iraqis also supported the front – an example of the cynicism with which the Arab regimes used the Palestinian movement and the tangled alliances which resulted. Meanwhile the Democratic Front received support from various governments, including Syria.

31. Hart, op. cit., p. 62.

32. Iyad, op. cit., p. 142.

33. Ibid., p. 147.

34. See Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution, International Socialism 12, London 1963, for an explanation of the theory of deflected permanent revolution.

35. M. Hussein, Class Conflict in Egypt: 1945–1970, New York 1973, pp. 237–241.

36. For a detailed account of the 1959 and 1963 events see H. Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Princeton 1979.

37. Hart, op. cit., p. 267.

38. Ibid., p. 342.

39. See N. Lachine, Class Roots of the Sadat Regime, MERIP Reports, No. 56, Washington, April 1977, pp. 3–7 and Notes of the Month, International Socialism 1 : 96, March 1977 for accounts of the events.

40. Source: World Bank Development Report, Washington 1983.

41. According to leading Fatah member Faruq Qaddoumi (Abu Lutf), ‘Workers, especially in the underdeveloped countries, form a simple and ineffective class which cannot be easily relied on.’ Abu Lutf Answers Questions, in L. Kadi (ed.), Basic Political Documents of the Armed Palestinian Resistance Movement, Beirut 1969, p. 102.

42. Hart, op. cit., p. 335.

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