The practice of Palestinian revolutionary diplomacy in the 1960s and 1970s can be best understood with reference to its historical context. Up to the end of Ottoman rule, Palestinians were recognised as citizens and they possessed, under the Ottoman Nationality Law of 1869, equal political rights with citizens living in other parts of the Ottoman empire. They enjoyed the right to elect representatives to the parliament in Istanbul. At home their presence, rooted in their land, was secure. Abroad, they were represented as Ottoman citizens by imperial diplomacy, embassies, and consulates, and some of them served as diplomats in these institutions. In other words, Palestinians, through their political status as Ottoman citizens, enjoyed sovereign political relationships within an empire, of which their homeland was a constituent part. This situation was abruptly and quite radically altered after the arrival of British military occupation in 1918.
After defeating the Ottomans, the British Empire ignored Palestinian demands for self-determination, and their desire to be citizens of an independent Palestinian, Syrian, or larger Arab state (these being the principal preferences expressed in democratic discussions amongst Palestinians at the time). Indeed, Britain refused to recognise the population’s political rights, establishing a mandate administration for Palestine very different from what it created (with colonial France) for other peoples in the region. Instead, it began sponsoring a colonisation programme that, over the next two decades, brought in large numbers of European Jews to settle in Palestine, mobilised under the political ideology of Zionism.
Britain granted Zionist colonists, through the Jewish Agency, official political representation even before most of them arrived to the area. In contrast, Palestinian efforts to organise national representation were actively thwarted by British authorities, although the Palestinians managed to retain an overwhelming demographic majority throughout the British mandate period. The British held a clear understanding that instituting national representative governance in Palestine would effectively prevent Zionist colonisation, as discussed in the extracts included here, from the Peel Commission Report of 1937. In this context, Palestinian national and political struggles were directed towards achieving independence from the colonial British regime, while establishing a democratic and self-governing representative government in Palestine that would preserve their land, and their political rights.
As can be seen in week one of the course, Palestine was erased from the map in 1948, and while some Palestinians were able to remain in their lands, the majority became refugees outside their homeland. Palestinians came under the direct rule of either Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese or other states, and henceforth lacked the protection of a representative roof that could reflect their Palestinian national identity. In an international order governed by states with defined boundaries, this lack of representation was most keenly felt in the sudden absence of institutions which could champion their human, political, and national rights as a people. Under these new circumstances, especially with the forced dispersal and dispossession of their people from historic Palestine, Palestinians faced an enormous challenge to develop the representative capacities of a liberation movement.
Yet, even in the decades preceding the Nakba, Palestinians both young and old, had acquired a highly informed appreciation of the stakes at hand, and a detailed knowledge of the role Britain (as the colonial power), and the Great Powers (in the early days of the UN), had played in instituting their dispossession. Many read papers and listened to the radio daily - in critical periods on an hourly basis - and had intimate knowledge of regional and diplomatic dealings, the workings of international commissions, and the results of delegations. Palestinian life was profoundly affected by the international sphere, and also directly experienced the pervasive connections between local, national, regional, and international forces. The imperative of finding any means to overturn the current status quo, and restore their national rights in the international arena, was therefore a goal commonly shared by Palestinians, whatever their political orientation. The drawbacks too, that were inherent in the old style of diplomacy, practiced by the Palestinian notables in their dealings with the colonial powers, had only heightened this awareness. With the advent of the Palestinian revolution therefore, came a collective popular understanding that only a revolutionary approach to diplomacy could have any hope of overcoming their complete marginalisation in both Arab and international arenas.
In this revolutionary context, diplomacy was not relegated (or even conceived) as a separate sphere to be left to experts or leaders alone, but instead needed to rely on popular participation. It was a diplomacy of mass responsibilities, with all sections of society sharing in the design of broad strategic aims and contributing to them. Indeed, this role was seen as the natural right of all Palestinians – to participate in their political emancipation, and the fight to regain their land. It was also the most obvious means to transform the prevailing system of power relations, which continued to rely on classic colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies to control and enforce the status quo. The revolution’s different strands adapted this popular sense of a natural right into a duty for Palestinians: unions, refugee camps and villages, political movements and their cadres of every faction came together regularly, in a variety of creative ways, to influence the international order with a united voice.
Conceptions of revolutionary diplomacy were shaped by the conditions faced by different sectors of the Palestinian people, but they were equally informed by the creative practices and philosophies of the tricontinental anticolonial movements. Many of them had begun to enter international decision making bodies, such as the United Nations, as new member states, and they lent their increasingly powerful voice to the Palestinian cause. The collective desire of the colonised to internationalise the strength of their popular demands in multiple arenas, the shared goals of an end to settler colonial rule, for the rights of self determination of peoples, as well as the right to liberate themselves, became the foundations upon which alliances, common strategies, and joint platforms were forged.
Alongside the transformative possibilities revolutionary ideas played in bringing the force of their people’s voice to the world stage, the Palestinian model of revolutionary diplomacy was to engage simultaneously, through international initiatives, at numerous levels. The main strategy in the early phase of Palestinian struggle (1964-1974), was to create a global presence to counter the earlier international institutionalisation of Palestinian dispossession. Beyond Arab and Islamic spheres, the formerly colonised nations were natural allies in this process. In major tricontinental capitals, such as Algiers, Cairo, and Havana, PLO representatives, Palestinian popular unions and associations, various factions and their armed wings established links with governments and anti-colonial movements, strengthened recognition at different levels, and mobilised diplomatic, social, political, and material resources in support of the Palestinian struggle.
PLO representatives who served in these anticolonial capitals usually came from a revolutionary background. A sense of this world can be gained from Abu al-Raed al-Araj, the PLO representative to China, Vietnam, and North Korea in 1971-1975. What becomes clear is the degree to which the Palestinian revolution was supported in the anti-colonial world. Governments like China, Algeria, Cuba and India not only welcomed the creation of PLO offices, they also provided its staff with buildings and facilities, covered their expenses, and established extensive scholarship programmes for young Palestinian engineers, medics, officers, and scientists. Palestinian representatives were integrated into diplomatic networks and encouraged to expand links through them. In the cities of frontline states that hosted liberation movements, training and education were provided, and material support was exchanged. These close relations were illustrated with symbolic gestures, which ranged from giving the PLO representative priority over a senior French politician in disembarking from the plane in Beijing, to gifting the Palestinian people, in Vientiane, a Laotian sword – a symbol of strength – made from the wreckage of downed US fighter jets.
Another key arena for international PLO activity in the early period was the Soviet bloc and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The USSR was a global superpower and allied to several major Arab states. After President Nasser put his weight behind the Palestinian armed struggle following the 1967 war, it became possible to develop stronger relations there. Cooperation on diplomatic, military, and educational spheres rapidly followed Yasser Arafat’s Moscow visit, as a guest of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee in early 1970. The statement issued at the end of the visit reflects the beginning of these strong relations.
While these developments for the Palestinian cause were occurring in Arab, Islamic, tricontinental, and socialist worlds, the terrain in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada was proving more challenging. These countries were major material and financial supporters of Israel, and their political elites were often ideologically committed to Zionism. Nevertheless Palestinians developed networks and broad alliances here too, often with facilitation from anti-colonial countries. For example, Algeria assisted in setting up the first Palestinian representation in Paris, relying on FLN networks that had been built during its revolutionary war of independence. This is discussed by the first Fateh representative in Europe.
Establishing representative offices in as many capitals as possible was seen as key to advancing Palestinian aims. Alongside PLO offices were also bureaus created by individual parties, such as Fateh and the PFLP, as discussed in Abu Mayzar’s description of the establishment of Fateh’s bureau in Algiers (see week 5).
The PLO offices that were created during the Ahmad al-Shuqairi years (1964-67) were greatly expanded following the organisation’s revolutionary turn in 1968-69. These offices served a number of functions and were staffed depending on their location. In Arab capitals with a large Palestinian presence, there was a great deal of stability in the appointments, and continuity between the Shuqairi and post-Shuqairi eras. For instance, the representative in Beirut, Shafiq al-Hout, served from 1964 to 1993, and the representative in Damascus Mahmoud al-Khalidi was appointed in 1966, and continues in post until the present day. These representatives were of a particular kind: already immersed in the political scene in the countries they were responsible for, they possessed extensive local knowledge and broad networks. As Al Hout’s memoirs show, the Palestinian question in Lebanon was treated from an internal perspective rather than a foreign one, and PLO representatives needed to play complex roles. While major political negotiations were carried out by higher tiers of leadership, PLO representatives in Arab countries were expected to improve the condition of the large numbers of Palestinian refugees in these host states, as well as engage in regular crisis management. This required tact: they had to be acceptable to successive governments in the capitals where they served, maintain credibility with the full range of Palestinian movements, while at the same time dealing with the ministries of the interior and security services on a daily basis.
As the Palestinian revolution developed its international presence, its representatives were encouraged by their anticolonial allies to articulate their political programme, putting forth a vision for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The democratic state programme began in this context, addressing the question of Jewish settler-colonist presence in Palestine with the principle of democratic inclusion of all the inhabitants of the land upon liberation. The next two sources give two different accounts of how this programme began to be propagated by Fateh. On the official national level, the policy content of this vision can be seen in a PDFLP draft resolution submitted to the PNC calling for a “popular democratic solution for the Palestine problem”. These documents reveal the atmosphere in Palestinian diplomatic circles at the time, which encouraged the official adoption of such a solution. The PNC took up the position at its fifth session in February 1969: “the Palestinian people in its bitter struggle to liberate its homeland and return to it, aims at establishing a free democratic society in Palestine, that includes all Palestinians: Muslims, Christians, and Jews”.
This remained the PLO’s sole guiding vision and international position for five years, but it faced deep challenges, with major changes and disagreements, after the 1973 October war. The UN Security Council passed resolution 338 declaring that: “negotiations start between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East”. A negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict was on the horizon, and it was seen to be crucial that the Palestinians not be excluded from any process that would decide their fate. A 10 point programme was adopted by the 12th PNC in June 1974, with point two bearing great significance, calling for “the establishment of the independent fighting authority of the people on every part of Palestinian soil that is liberated”.
This formulation, with its implicit acceptance of establishing a Palestinian state even if not including the entirety of historic Palestine, marked a major departure from previous policy. The background to this shift is described here by Qais Abdel Karim (Abu Laila), a senior DFLP figure and co-author of its “gradualist programme”. This advocated a Palestinian struggle in “stages”, corresponding to the prevailing balance of power at any given moment, rather than an immediate total liberation. The DFLP, along with sections of the Fateh leadership, became committed to this new strategy. After initially supporting the 10 point programme, the PFLP contested its interpretation by the Palestinian leadership, subsequently creating, with smaller parties (and Iraqi and Libyan support) the Front of Palestinian Forces Rejecting Defeatist Solutions. The position of the Front is set out here by PFLP leader George Habash.
In spite of these strong disagreements, one of the most hard fought campaigns in the history of international anti-colonial diplomacy began. At the November 1973 Arab Summit in Algiers, and with strong backing from Algerian leader Boumedienne, the PLO was recognised by member states of the Arab League (with the exception of Jordan) as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people”. At the subsequent Rabat summit of 1974, a more explicit recognition of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” was won from all Arab states, including Jordan. This marked a watershed for recognition of the Palestinian people’s political and national rights, especially in their right to their own representation.
On the basis of this Arab and regional recognition, an intensive campaign began for the international recognition of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, and the sole representative status of the PLO internationally. The PLO secured support from Arab, tricontinental, and Eastern Bloc allies, with its Chairman visiting key capitals. A Soviet document here summarises those talks in Moscow, demonstrating that while the USSR was willing to put its weight behind this initiative, it was also pressuring the PLO to move towards a two state solution.
Despite intense US and Israeli pressure, the PLO introduced the Question of Palestine as a separate agenda item of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was invited to address the Assembly on November 13, 1974. This represented an enormous diplomatic victory for the Palestinian people: for the first time in history, a Palestinian national leader addressed the General Assembly, delivering what became one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century. Building on its close alliance with newly independent nations, the PLO drew on their enthusiastic support for the Palestinian cause at the UN. In his speech, Yasser Arafat appealed to the unity of those at the UN who had been so recently engaged in their own anticolonial struggle:
I am a rebel and freedom is my cause. I know well that many of you present here today once stood in exactly the same resistance position as I now occupy and from which I must fight. You once had to convert dreams into reality by your struggle. Therefore you must now share my dream. I think this is exactly why I can ask you now to help, as together we bring out our dream into a bright reality, our common dream for a peaceful future in Palestine's sacred land.
In the days that followed, the UN General Assembly passed a series of landmark resolutions: Resolution 3236 of November 22, 1974 reaffirmed the “inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine” including the “right to self-determination without external interference,” and the “right to national independence and sovereignty”, as well as the “inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return”. This resolution recognised “the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Also adopted was UNGAR 3237 granting the PLO non-state observer status at the UN, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This type of non-state observer status was held at the time by a handful of other major anticolonial liberation movements, such as the ANC and SWAPO. Finally, included in these set of landmark resolutions was UNGAR 3376, establishing the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
In its first report, the Special Committee presented a programme that was “designed to enable the Palestinian people to exercise the rights recognized in paragraphs 1 and 2 of General Assembly resolution 3236.” It included steps for the implementation of all Palestinian rights, including the right of return. A host of other institutions, procedures, and resolutions had been established to safeguard Palestinian rights, and to condemn their constant violation by the Israeli state. The extent of Israel’s increasing isolation at the UN can be seen by 1975, in the General Assembly resolution declaring Zionism as a form of racism.
The PLO continued its work with those countries, liberation organisations, and popular movements of the anti-colonial world. The 1975 Non-Aligned Movement’s Algiers conference declared that “the struggle of the Palestinian people to recover their usurped homeland is an integral part of the struggle of all peoples against colonialism and racial discrimination and for self-determination”. It called for “severance or suspension or freezing of all relations with Portugal, South Africa, Rhodesia and Israel” and the “denunciation of these regimes” in all international forums.
Also outside of the UN, similar positions were taken by regional bodies, such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the vast majority of African, Asian, and Latin American countries. For instance, at its Kampala summit in 1975, the OAU declared that “the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being". By the end of the 1970s, the vast majority of the countries of the world were in complete support of the Palestinian revolution.
These international endeavours advancing Palestinian national and political rights were seriously undermined by a new Egyptian policy, from President Anwar al-Sadat, who went on to sign the Camp David Accords of 1978 that led to a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. In the midst of Arab and international reactions opposing this unilateral policy, the Palestinians launched a range of efforts, including at high levels, such as with the Soviets. Unable to reverse the effects of Sadat’s policy, the PLO reorganised internal ranks and took a united position, reflected in the decisions of the 14th PNC in Damascus.
Palestinian revolutionary diplomacy of the period relied extensively on mass popular demonstrations and activities throughout the Arab region, and across the world. There was a close link between popular protest and revolutionary diplomacy, especially in shaping government policies towards the Palestinians in regional and international arenas. Revolutionary ideology understood these battles as part of a people’s struggle for freedom, and the balance of forces to be addressed by coordinated, and bottom-up grassroots action. Several important gains were achieved through Arab and international popular participation, from legalising fida’i work in Lebanon, to enforcing boycotts of Israeli companies in the Arab world and beyond.
While taking account of this enabling popular atmosphere in the 1960s and 1970s, it is important to also note the profound structural limits to Palestinian politics during this period. Most notable was the absence of a secure geographic base: Palestinians had to function from many other countries, and were always severely constrained by the domestic factors within them. Second, as the Palestinian political system was pluralist in its movement, party, and ideological composition, creating a cohesive national diplomatic line was always a challenge, especially when it came to fateful decisions – such as negotiated settlements – on which there was no consensus. Further, their political system was profoundly intertwined with Arab regional politics: Syria and Iraq had several parties connected to Palestinian movements, and Jordan had extensive political networks in the West Bank. This meant closing ranks was always an enormous challenge, especially when the Palestinian leadership diverted from the official positions of one of these regimes, as was often the case.
These limitations did not entirely prevent the Palestinians from conducting an effective revolutionary strategy throughout this period. The key bulwark in their work was the existence of functioning national structures: foremost of these being the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile. Until the PLO’s withdrawal from Beirut in 1982 and for a few years afterwards, the PNC acted as a democratic forum where political programmes were debated, and policies could be broadly unified. It provided a vital national arena where international initiatives could derive strength, legitimation, and mass participation from popular and representative institutions.