Palestinian contributions to revolutionary efforts across the Arab world coincided with the formation of movements and groups that specifically addressed the Palestinian cause. Amongst the most active were the student unions and societies in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. In the first two accounts, Salim al-Zaʿnun (Abu al-Adib) and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) describe their involvement in early student organising in Cairo. These narratives give an insight into the leadership-building process taking place at the time. The absence of effective Palestinian authorities meant that students had little choice but to take a considerable degree of initiative. It also allowed them freely to operate without any constraints from above. In Egypt, for instance, students assumed responsibilities and operated at campus, popular, and official levels, engaging in activism within their universities. They also raised general awareness around the Palestinian cause in the country, and represented the demands of Palestinians to (as well as clashing with) the highest echelons of the Egyptian government. Beyond the boundaries of Egypt they pursued extensive advocacy within the international student movement.
From this work across these different arenas, student activists acquired a broad range of political skills and experiences equipping them to engage with the outside world. No less important were the internal dynamics that were then taking shape. In addition to subscribing to one or other of the ideologies on offer at the time, many students were doubly active in both regional parties and movements as well as their student unions. This type of organisational work always entailed a degree of competition, reflecting a diversity of affiliations, opinions, and convictions as well as subjective sensitivities and personal incompatibilities. Yet it also necessitated the development of strong mechanisms for common work: student elections were always heated affairs, reflecting party competition (involving the Muslim Brotherhood, the Baʿath, the Movement of Arab Nationalists, the Communists, and other groups), and they often featured (as seen in the memoirs of Abu Iyad) alliances between students belonging to various political currents, as well as with those ‘independent’ of any affiliation at all. These alliances were to prove highly significant for the development of future clandestine networks.
No less significant were the personal bonds built during this period. A substantial number of core leaders of Fateh and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (that would become the two largest Palestinian revolutionary parties in the late 1960s and 1970s), initially emerged out of student networks operating in Cairo and Beirut. A cursory study of the names given in the memoirs illustrates how this was the case for Fateh, and the same can be seen for the PFLP founders mentioned in the memoirs of George Habash.
In addition to being incubators for individual revolutionary talent, the first generation of Palestinian student unions laid the foundations for Palestinian institutional strengthening. They were the nuclei out of which the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) was formed in 1959. This was the first general Palestinian union to be founded, a student experience that was later repeated by Palestinian workers and women. The establishment of the latter two unions are described in the memoirs of Husni al-Khuffash and an interview with ʿIssam ʿAbd al-Hadi.
Besides the unions, dozens of secretive networks were emerging in the 1950s in large numbers, multiplying rapidly by the early 1960s. An interesting example was the Arabs of Palestine, a very small group operating in Damascus. Formed by young students inspired by the Italian carbonari, it was the political alma mater for several leading Palestinian cadres. Its story is evocatively told by one of its members, Faisal al-Hurani. One of the most fascinating elements of this tale is the secretive attempt, on the part of the youth in this group, to train themselves for armed struggle. Despite its modest outcomes, their endeavour reflected the mood of the time: the idea of armed struggle was beginning to take root in many minds. By 1956, this common understanding was translated on the ground when Palestinians fought against the Israeli forces that had invaded the Gaza Strip. This was the first popular experience of armed struggle since the Nakba. Many cadres that had participated in it became convinced that the Palestinian people had to arm itself, rather than rely on Arab armies, if it was to have any chance at liberation and return.
This practical experience was combined with inspiration beyond Palestine. Palestinian youth looked to Algeria, viewing it as a model of hope. Since 1954, Algerians from all ideologies and backgrounds had united in a national liberation front (the FLN) and launched a powerful armed struggle – Algerian led, but backed by all the Arabs. This was what many Palestinians believed was necessary for their cause, and it provided the basis upon which the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fateh) was founded. Created through a series of gatherings that took place in Kuwait, this group soon merged with other similar formations operating in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and West Germany. It also began to recruit in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Syria, largely through the personal connections of the founding members, many of which were forged during previous student activism.
Fateh’s organisational model was articulated in a 1958 pamphlet entitled The Structure of Revolutionary Construction (Haykal al-Bina’ al-Thawri). This pamphlet, the most important in the movement’s early history, describes its principles and planned structures. It was presented as a direct plan for launching a revolution and liberating Palestine. Several features distinguished this vision from others that were put forth around this time, such as the 1961 Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN’s) ‘Plan for the Liberation of Palestine’. One of the key differences is their attitudes towards Arab governments: the MAN viewed Nasser’s United Arab Republic as leading the struggle, and asserted that the mobilisation and organisation of Palestinians must take place in full coordination with it, as part of a general pan-Arabist effort. In contrast, Fateh emphasised that Palestinians must carry out the liberation of their own country on their own terms, with the support of any Arab country willing to help them. Whereas the MAN envisioned creating a limited organisation under the control and direction of the mother movement and its ideology, The Structure of Revolutionary Construction advocated a broad popular front involving all Palestinians regardless of their ideology or party. Finally, the MAN saw a limited mandate for its Palestinian organisation, one concerned with quotidian needs, military and political training, and articulating Palestinian views in Arab and international venues. Fateh was concerned with an immediate preparation for national armed struggle along the lines pursued in Algeria and creating the organisational and material structures necessary for this goal.
In order to publicise this vision, and as seen in this interview with Hani Fakhuri, Fateh created a publication entitled Filastinuna (Our Palestine). This periodical featured pieces focusing on the Palestine tragedy and the urgent need for launching a revolution to reverse it. The magazine continued to appear until the launch of the first Fateh operation and the proclamation of the Palestinian armed struggle at the start of 1965.