By the early 1960s, Palestinian public and underground organisational life was developing rapidly, but a major structural gap still remained. Several Arab governments were speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people, and there was still no independent space for Palestinians to represent themselves on their own terms. The first step towards resolving this representational dilemma was initiated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who called for the convening of the first Arab summit in Cairo from January 13 to 16, 1964. With strong Egyptian backing, the summit recommended that Mr Ahmad al-Shuqairi (the representative of Palestine at the Arab League), should be entrusted with “contacting the Palestinian people and the Arab countries for the purpose of laying sound foundations for establishing a Palestinian entity”. The resolution was not explicit about the precise nature of this “Palestinian entity”, yet al-Shuqairi – an eloquent Palestinian notable, lawyer, and former Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab League – took up the initiative with the aim of establishing a national political body for all Palestinians. His own account constitutes a valuable source for understanding this key episode in Palestinian political history.
Al-Shuqairi began by contacting and then visiting Palestinian refugee communities across the Arab world in the hope of preparing for a national conference at which as many Palestinian geographic sectors and political currents could be represented. In turn, Palestinian communities began preparing for it. The details of that process, and how it came about, are described here by Khairi Abu al-Jubain, an active grassroots leader in Kuwait. As he notes, the nature of the preparations and the selection of delegates reflected the political conditions in various locales. For instance, due to official hurdles and regime opposition, Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon were unable to elect their representatives to the conference. Instead preparatory committees were established on the local level, and these structures then nominated delegates.
In the case of Jordan, the selected candidates were complemented with Palestinian members of both houses of parliament, ministers, and heads of professional associations. As for Gaza, it already had fifty elected representatives to the National Union of the United Arab Republic, and these were automatically selected for the conference. In Kuwait, a conducive political atmosphere enabled the large Palestinian community to carry out deliberation and debate on a broad scale, to organise national conferences and conduct mobilisational activities, and to elect its own representatives to a body called the ‘Palestinian Higher Committee’. Al-Shuqairi admitted seven of these representatives, adding several other delegates from various movements, parties, regions, and professions, so as to achieve broad sectoral representation.
The conference was finally convened in Jerusalem on May 28, 1964. Many Palestinian revolutionaries viewed the conference with suspicion, concerned that it was connected to Arab official initiatives, and organised with the approval of Arab regimes (including Jordan). Despite these concerns, the conference went ahead, declaring itself as the Palestine National Council (PNC). It established the PLO by official decree, and issued the first Palestinian National Covenant, the text of which is reproduced here. The motto of the PLO was also chosen: ‘National Unity, Arab National Mobilisation, and Liberation’, consciously situating the Palestinian struggle within the broader current of Arab nationalism.
More important than the resolutions was the creation of the institution itself. The founding of a sovereign legislative body of the Palestinian people created a much needed collective space for national discussion, deliberation, and policy determination. Whereas the PNC possessed legislative authority, the daily workings of the PLO were entrusted to its Executive Committee. The details of its establishment are told by Bahjat Abu Gharbiya, one of its original 15 members. Al-Shuqairi played a major role in its set up and continued with the practice of appointing its members until the 4th PNC session, which gave the PNC the sole authority to elect Executive Committee members. The Committee was “answerable” to the PNC, and given the role of implementing “the policies, programmes, and plans” that the legislature had decreed in its sessions.
The Executive Committee thus acquired substantial powers which it exercised through seven departments of finance, military, organisational, information, and research, as well as Arab relations and foreign affairs. These can be found in the Basic Law of the PLO. Of significance was the creation of the Palestine Liberation Army (which was officially given its name at the 3rd PNC session held in Gaza in 1966), comprising three major units: Hittin in Syria; al-Qadissiya in Iraq; and ʿAin Jalut in Egypt and the Gaza Strip. This roughly coincided with the establishment of sixteen PLO bureaus in various countries, and Shafiq al-Hut here provides an insight into the functioning of the PLO’s bureau in Beirut, one of the most important.
The PLO’s bureaucratic structures eventually became filled with more popular organisations. The earliest to join the PLO were the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS), with the General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW) following shortly after. Although it took some time for the relationship between the PLO and such popular bodies to stabilise, as shown in the extract provided here, some effective measures were taken to integrate them.
The PLO sought to organise and arm the Palestinian people in the refugee camps and in exile entirely through official Arab channels, rather than via local grassroots associations, or mobilisation with the revolutionary parties that already had armed resistance as their central aim. As a result, relations between the PLO and the clandestine groups were tense, with the PLO often accused of being too closely connected to the Arab states, and too bureaucratic and distant from the Palestinian people themselves. In spite of their reservations, fidaʾi groups recognised the historic importance of the establishment of the PLO and of its foundation, as shown here. This understanding formed the basis for the organisation’s transformation following the 1967 war. The war began with an Israeli attack and destruction of the Egyptian air force, followed by military operations resulting in the occupation of the remainder of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. The defeat of the Arab armies dispelled the idea that Palestine could be liberated through any action on their part. The notion of a long term People’s War, which had been previously advocated by a minority (notably Fatah), now rose to prominence.
The bureaucratic legitimacy that the PLO derived from the Arab state system was rapidly superseded by the revolutionary legitimacy acquired by fidaʾi guerrilla units. All major Palestinian clandestine groups began to prepare for direct operations. The question of the integration of their fidaʾi groups into the PLO became pressing following al-Shuqairi’s official resignation from his position as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO in December 1967. The PLO announced its commitment to “the establishment of an Assembly representing the will of the people, which will be the source of responsible collective leadership” and the “unification and escalation of armed struggle”. This led to a period under the chairmanship of the renowned communist lawyer Yahya Hammuda, during which the PNC was reconstituted, and the character of the PLO transformed by uniting various Palestinian parties under its roof, most notably those committed to the armed struggle.
Rapid structural transformation took place at the 4th PNC held in July 1968, where a new Palestine National Charter was introduced, the key text of which is reproduced here. While retaining pan-Arabist language, this new charter emphasised the Palestinian character of the struggle, and highlighted the significance of armed struggle to a greater degree. It defined the phase through which the Palestinian people were passing as “the stage of the national struggle for the liberation of its homeland”, and stated that “the Palestinian masses, both as organisations and as individuals, whether in the homeland or in such places as they now live as refugees, constitute a single national front working for the recovery and liberation of Palestine through armed struggle”.
Institutional transformation continued during the 5th PNC convened in 1969. A new Executive Committee was constituted, led by Fatah with strong backing from al-Ṣaʿiqa. Yasser Arafat was elected as the Chairman of the PLO and a new era began: the conflict between official PLO structures and grassroots armed revolutionary parties was over. Once again, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt played a pivotal role, putting his weight behind this transition and alteration of the PLO’s representative and organisational character. Complete national unity was only achieved with the PFLP’s symbolic participation at the seventh PNC, held over May and June 1970, signalling the complete transformation of the PLO through the incorporation of all major Palestinian fidaʾi groups into its structures for the first time.