Beyond Arab Nationalism? The PLO and Its Intellectuals, 1967-1974

Katlyn Quenzer. Interventions. Volume 21, Issue 5. 2019.

The Arab defeat of 1967 ushered in a new period of resistance. With Arab nationalism’s weaknesses fully exposed and the PLO given renewed support, leftist intellectuals within the organization had space to think beyond the realities they had experienced in the past few decades. For them, Palestinian liberation meant more than simply what its name suggested; it was part of a larger revolutionary struggle to transform the region. Their context, goals, and ideas define them as anticolonial intellectuals, much in the fashion of Fanon’s concepts of the colonized intellectual and building national consciousness. By 1974, with these goals left unfulfilled, a different course was chartered for the PLO, and national consciousness was left as fractured as the groups that worked to build it. Framing them as anticolonial intellectuals as described by Fanon’s colonized intellectual helps to clarify their goals, obstacles, and shortcomings. In this essay I demonstrate that Fanon’s notions of the colonized intellectuals and anticolonial efforts at building a national consciousness are parallel to and predict the efforts and failures of the leftist intellectuals within the PLO from 1967 to 1974. Using primary source material such as PLO factions’ publications, the intellectuals’ memoirs, and personal interviews with individuals active during the time, as well as secondary materials, I work to show the important link between Fanon and the PLO’s leftist intellectuals working from 1967 to 1974. In doing so, we gain a better understanding of what led to their failures, the overall significance of their work in spite of it, and the type of changes this created in the PLO’s politics.

It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps. (Fanon 1963, 119)

Scholars who have been steeped in histories of anticolonial movements have stressed the importance of studying these efforts, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they were. Historian Robin D. G. Kelley (2002, ix) notes, “unfortunately, too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they ‘succeeded’ in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves.” Within the context of Palestine and the Arab world more generally in the 1960s and 1970s, the wide-ranging views of intellectuals not only demonstrate the extent to which there was room to dream, but also that they could not agree on one path for resistance. By “intellectuals,” I refer to the individuals largely working within the PLO who spent much of their time developing and reflecting on the ideologies and direction of the resistance movement. What was clear to the Left was that fundamental changes in the society were needed. Intellectual Bilal al-Hassan (1971, 5) wrote at the time: “even the ordinary citizen knew that the demands of Arab-Israeli confrontation required deep change in economic, military, and political realities.” In this study I focus on the viewpoints and work of the leftist intellectuals who were largely working within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). I also use the term “the Resistance” to refer to these individuals as well as those involved in the PLO more generally, including all of the PLO factions as well as individuals who were at times on the periphery of the PLO but were still involved in some capacity, through sharing their ideas, for example.

Beyond Zionism, nationalism and imperialism also began to be perceived as growing threats, particularly after the devastating defeat the Arab world faced in the 1967 Six-Day War. It demonstrated the power of Israel as much as it demonstrated the weaknesses and insufficiencies of the Arab world and the nationalist parties. At this point, many of those who had been invigorated by Arab nationalism had grown weary of what began to seem like false calls for welfare for all and unity and strength against imperialist and colonialist powers. Despite the self-proclaimed power of Nasser’s Egypt and the Ba’th Party in Syria and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab world was rocked by a staggering defeat that left regimes in embarrassment. With such failures, non-state actors that had been working on the margins had an opportunity to develop their groups and their ideological visions for resistance and unity. Fouad Ajami (1992, 31) recalls some of their reactions:

yesterday’s radicals—the Ba’th Party and President Nasser … were now on trial. A younger generation was to see, in the full light of the defeat, the shortcomings of that brand of radical nationalism that had held sway from the early 1950s up to 1967.

Criticism came from all sides. From the secular side, for example, Sadik al-Azm wrote his famous al-Naqd al-thaati ba’d al-hazima (Self-Criticism after the Defeat, 1968), which presented an embittered case of the shortcomings of Arab society, insisting that problems stemmed from a lack of progress, an over-adherence to tradition, and a refusal to come face to face with this reality. The anticolonial guerilla movements taking place globally were also a source of inspiration and a point of comparison. On the religious side, thinkers such as Mohammad Jalal Kishk argued Arab society had lost touch with Islam, and many intellectuals’ shift toward the Left was ironic because the anti-imperialist ideas they touted also came from the West (Ajami 1992, 63). Although the period ultimately ended with the status quo maintained, the leftist intellectuals’ failures are a window into understanding the general challenges facing an anticolonial movement, as well as the types of political precedents set in the PLO during the first decade of its existence. One particular anticolonial thinker and activist, Frantz Fanon, is helpful in understanding the types of challenges the leftists within the PLO faced and in explaining why they ultimately failed. In this essay I demonstrate that Fanon’s concept of the colonized intellectual and anticolonial efforts at building a national consciousness are parallel to and predict the efforts and failures of the leftist intellectuals within the PLO from 1967 to 1974. Using primary source material such as the PLO’s factions’ publications, the intellectuals’ memoirs, and personal interviews with individuals active during the time, as well as secondary materials, I work to show how Fanon’s anticolonialist ideas can help us understand the successes and failures of the PLO’s leftist intellectuals. In referring to leftist intellectuals, I refer to members of the PLO’s various factions, who sought radical change for Palestinians as well as for the entire region. While their visions differed somewhat, they were characterized by designing their struggle around an anticolonial, anti-imperial revolution. They often aligned with groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). These groups at least claimed to work towards a Marxist-leaning approach to revolution. In looking at these individuals, we can understand their impact, or lack thereof, on the PLO and on the general political culture that came to dominate the organization. Lastly, we get a glimpse into Fanon’s deep understanding of the pitfalls of anticolonial struggles and why they relate to the PLO’s leftist intellectuals and their efforts.

It is important to point out that the position of Palestinians, largely an exiled people (particularly those in the PLO), is significantly different from Fanon’s reference points, such as the FLN in Algeria. Mona Younis (2000) discusses the relationship between the availability of political power to the indigenous population and that group’s status as either exploited or excluded. She notes, “leverage is the preserve of some indigenous classes but not others. It is the latent power of the ‘economically exploited’ class as opposed to the ‘economically oppressed’” (30). The Palestinians, being in a particularly difficult position, were (and still are) economically oppressed. This position of economic oppression, while far more advanced now than in the 1960s and 1970s, was yet another hurdle for the stateless PLO. Gaining support from other states also provided its challenges, given that many took issue with the very existence of those states.

Two concepts that Fanon introduces in Wretched help to categorize the PLO’s leftist intellectuals, define their goals, and predict their failures: that of the colonized intellectual, and the importance of efforts at building an anticolonial struggle centred around national consciousness, rather than nationalism. In the first three sections of this essay, I discuss a particular theme present in the strategies and goals of the leftist intellectuals of the PLO. Fanon’s concepts of the colonized intellectual and national consciousness become guides in understanding the intellectuals as anticolonial actors and providing an explanation as to why the period ended with their failure. In the first section I employ Fanon’s concept of the colonized intellectual to demonstrate how the leftist intellectuals in the PLO can be understood as anticolonial revolutionaries, despite critiques to the contrary. I also demonstrate how the importance Fanon places on building a struggle that focuses on creating a national consciousness and moving away from nationalism is contextually and ideologically significant for the Left in the PLO at the time of their anticolonial struggle.

In the second section I delve deeper into the complications that arose in working to create a unified movement based on leftist thought. Despite a general sense of the need to make the movement larger than Palestine, disagreements as to the appropriate path oftentimes overtook discussions, leading to further fracturing amongst the intellectuals and within the PLO in general. As will be discussed, Fanon alludes to this in his own writing, warning that such discussions can derail the revolutionary struggle entirely, causing the basic goals to be lost. He also speaks of the masses’ ability to understand and maintain a closeness to the goals of the movement, a focus which is oftentimes stronger than that of the intellectuals themselves. Mass mobilization and armed struggle become the subject of the third section; it was another area on which the intellectuals were in agreement in principle, but were unable to develop a clear, practical method effectively to create it. Despite the intellectuals’ criticisms of Arab nationalism and Ba’thism and its false promises to the masses, as Fanon predicts, the colonized intellectuals also struggle to be true to their words. In the final section I deal with the ramifications of obstacles and missteps discussed in previous sections, the Palestinian intellectuals’ vision for an anticolonial movement, and the direction of the PLO more generally toward the end of the period.

The year 1974 arguably marks the end of this period, as noted by major authorities on Palestinian and Arab contemporary history, such as Fouad Ajami and Yezid Sayigh. Ajami (1992, 157) refers to the 1973 War, when Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula, as “the sudden remaking of the political order.” Sayigh (1997, 321-322) describes the change in acute detail, explaining that along with the friendlier relations between the United States and Egypt came the US agreement with Israel in 1975 to not “deal with the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted UNSCR 242 and 338 … The battle-lines for the Middle East peace process had been drawn, and would remain largely unchanged for the next decade.” This was, as Sayigh describes, to the detriment of the PLO, which had gained international recognition at the UN in 1974, in part “due to its willingness to modify its objectives and strategy, exemplified by the resolution of the PNC [Palestinian National Council] in 1974 to establish ‘a fighting national authority’ on any Palestinian soil vacated by Israel” (322). Such steps also alienated leftist groups, who were hoping for larger, systemic changes and a more uncompromising stance towards Israel.

Ironically, many wanted to change the political order of the region in ways that would undermine the regimes that supported them. After all, working towards complete change in the Arab world would mean removing existing power structures. Furthermore, Palestinian and Arab leftists could not gain the type of popular support that Arab nationalism, for example, garnered, in part due to its broad, more general message of Arab unity. Ran Greenstein (2014, 195) comments on Arab nationalism’s effectiveness: “nationalism had proved more powerful than class in appealing to the masses; class discourse can be effective within national boundaries, not across them.” Due to these types of dilemmas, much criticism has been thrown at the leftists. Ajami (1992, 5-6) writes: “1967-1973 had its dreamers, those who thought that the world could be unmade and remade with a pamphlet, but on balance caution prevailed and the social order hung together.” While Yezid Sayigh (1997) discussed the PLO and its factions at length, the opinion that they truly were anticolonial actors has been perhaps most commonly held by the intellectuals themselves. As we will see, the intellectuals also expressed great frustration with their inability to create the type of revolutionary change they had envisioned.

The Colonized Intellectual and the PLO’s Leftist Intellectuals

Fanon’s colonized intellectuals are anticolonial intellectuals who, being from a colonized land, work to reject all manifestations of colonialism that have come to influence their country and their outlook. They work to set out the goals and characteristics of revolutionary, anticolonial fighters. The leftist intellectuals of the PLO understood themselves to be radically changing the region’s social and political makeup. “It was their belief,” Ajami writes, “that they were living in a situation that would soon give rise to revolutionary politics: out of the debris of the defeat [of 1967] would emerge new people and new politics” (1992, 86). Clinging to the ideologies of successful guerrilla resistance movements globally at the time, such as the FLN in Algeria, many of the Palestinian and Arab intellectuals leaned increasingly toward the Left, particularly those involved with the PLO. The intellectuals’ vision of themselves is much like Fanon’s concept of the colonized intellectual. To him, colonized intellectuals engage locally in an anticolonial struggle, ridding themselves and their surroundings from the impacts and influence of colonialism and working to create a national consciousness amongst their people in order to defeat colonialism. He writes that while the colonized intellectual initially accepts ideas from the West “during the struggle for liberation, at the moment the native [colonized] intellectual comes in touch again with his people, this artificial sentinel is turned into dust” (1963, 47). While Palestinian and Arab intellectuals were not colonized in the same sense as Fanon likely envisioned, their presence and efforts demonstrated an attempted break from the traditional leadership of Ottoman rule and even the Mandate period (1922-1948), in which a few elite families were a kind of intermediary between the masses and the British, largely controlling the political situation of the masses (Matthews 2006, 39-43).

Fanon makes an important distinction that clarifies the type of struggle the PLO’s leftist intellectuals had hoped to create. He writes: “national consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension” (1963, 247). Through a Fanonian perspective, we can understand national consciousness to be an awareness by the general population of its collective identity and collective goals. By describing what national consciousness will not become, Fanon (1963, 148) provides a definition of it:

instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, national consciousness will be … a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.

Fanon asserts national consciousness is an awareness of the collective aspirations of a people, and he laments it will not be realized, in part due to the failures of colonized intellectuals. Conversely, when he refers to nationalism, he speaks of the political parties in the Third World that attempted to change the colonial system, but whose rhetoric and efforts were either insincere or simply insufficient to create the change necessary to truly and wholly reject colonial systems. In nationalism, Fanon saw false promises and little potential for real revolutionary change: “when the nationalist leaders say something, they make quite clear they do not really think it” (1963, 60).

An example of Fanon’s criticism of nationalist parties can be found in the criticisms of Arab nationalism made by the Left. For example, Walid Kazziha notes “the left increasingly realized that … Nasserism did not form the magical solution for the crisis of the national movement in the Arab world” (1975, 85). Not all, however, were committed to a complete move from this ideology. Lebanese intellectual and academic Hani Faris (2016) describes long-time Fatah member Shafiq al-Hout’s views: “he was for a very long time the head of the PLO office in Beirut. His writings reflected primarily classical nationalist thought … that was his limitation.” Faris’s comment demonstrates the growing tension at the time between those within the PLO who were supporting nationalism and those in it—with leftist orientations—who began to reject nationalism and look toward the anticolonialist movements as well as Marxism for more inspiration and for a wider-reaching national consciousness.

Factionalism and Fractured Visions

Fanon (1963, 50) notes the colonized intellectual at times “over-stresses details and thereby comes to forget that the defeat of colonialism is the real object of the struggle.” In this section I explore how this was the case for the left-leaning Arab intellectuals in the PLO. Ironically, for them, the very argument of whether or not they were over-stressing details became a debate in itself. Fracturing within the PLO, at this point, became common. This characteristic of welcoming all streams of thought in an effort to reach Palestinian liberation is noted by the head of the Palestine Research Centre at the time, Anis Sayigh, in the first issue of Shu’un Filastiniyya (Sayigh 1971). What some of the intellectuals lamented, however, was that expression of thought came at the price of the loss of a substantive, singular plan to achieve liberation as well as to clearly visualize what a liberated Palestine would look like for its inhabitants.

For some within the PLO, particularly those leftist intellectuals included in this study, a clear understanding of what liberation encompassed was necessary if they were to obtain their goals. Naturally, this path looked different for different groups and individuals, both within and outside of the PLO. The two factions that competed for power the most, Fatah and the PFLP, had two different visions for resistance. For Fatah, the composition of a Palestinian state would reveal itself as liberation unfolded, and was not seen as a matter for serious debate during what they saw as a phase of active liberation. For example, when asked in 1969, “what precisely is Fatah’s concept of the democratic Palestinian state?” Fatah responded:

We have taken up arms to arrive at a genuinely peaceful solution for the problem … This peaceful solution cannot be arrived at except within the framework of a democratic state in Palestine. What are the details? I believe that the national struggle in the course of its development will take care of the details. (A Dialogue with Fateh 1969, 65)

For Fatah, armed struggle and focus on Palestinian national liberation, not necessarily anything beyond that, would naturally lead to the quest for a democratic state, and the details of this would emerge as the Resistance gained ground both literally and figuratively. Other factions (as will be discussed) did not agree with Fatah’s approach and claimed to seek more fundamental changes in their society.

Many saw these differing views as a demonstration of the potential of the PLO to create a democratic system. Faris (2016) remarks that “what makes it a landmark period is the fact that all these schools coexisted. They all had a voice and the means to express their thought.” Still, these differences also demonstrated what seemed to be insurmountable problems for the Resistance. To understand this, we look to Fanon. Within his discussion of national consciousness, he emphasizes that “the building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values” (1963, 247). Thus, while disagreement is inevitable, unity in such situations is necessary for the survival of national consciousness and therefore national liberation. These struggles over values, as demonstrated not only by the various factions within the PLO but also by those outside of it, continued to divide and strain resistance efforts. Within the PLO, tension persisted between those who saw the Palestinian struggle as far bigger than Palestine and those who were more focused on Palestinian liberation. The former can be understood as seeking larger structural change, the latter a creation of a kind of Palestinian nationalism. It is along these lines that I understand Fanon’s division of national consciousness versus nationalism to manifest, with the former group comprising anticolonial intellectuals and hoping to build a more all-encompassing national consciousness, and the latter group representing nationalist political parties.

Some found that the masses were not involved to the full extent necessary, in large part due to in-fighting. A. Said of the Arab Liberation Front explains in an interview with Clovis Maksoud (1973, 142):

The problem is that the diversity became transformed into distorted and harmful rivalry which led the groups to engage in dubious practices for political gain. Much effort was expended in such activity instead of confronting the enemy, mobilizing the masses and increasing the capabilities of the resistance.

Disagreements within factions led to splits and the formation of new ones. These groups began to further distance themselves ideologically, and at times more literally, from Fatah. While Naji Alloush claims the most important discussions in resistance thought took place between 1967 and 1974, he maintains that because of factionalism during this period, controversial studies and intellectual dialogue were not supported (Alloush 1993, 140). For him, the period could have been more—a holistic effort at change which would include cultural development—than what he perceived it to have become—a great effort at armed struggle. This criticism becomes somewhat common, as many point out that the broader scope of the movement was lost for details and instead focused only on some points of strategy.

Armed Struggle and Mass Action

Armed struggle remained at the heart of discussions about how to resist, and most remained dedicated to it, seeing it not only as effective strategically, but also as a means to empower Palestinians, the fedayeen in particular, and involve them in the struggle. These tactics and the factions that employed them provided an alternative to the military failures of the Arab states in both 1948 and 1967. Fanon (1963, 59) stated “the national political parties never lay stress upon the necessity of a trial of armed strength, for the good reason that their objective is not the radical overthrowing of the system.” In armed struggle, the intellectuals and the factions saw the potential for genuine, radical change. This strategy, however, quickly became complicated and at times even became an obstacle for anticolonial resistance.

Aside from differences on the extent to which armed struggle should be featured in plans for resistance, ever aware of the importance of timing, the factions were working together to decide on an appropriate date for armed struggle to begin just after June 1967 (Habache and Malbrunot 2008, 69). Working collectively towards this decision revealed some of the challenges of the period for the intellectuals and the Resistance more generally, such as establishing common goals for resistance and maintaining impact. Despite efforts to agree upon a date for the commencement of armed resistance, according to Yezid Sayigh “Arafat had brought the date agreed with the Fatah higher central committee forward by three days in order to impress the Arab heads of state assembling in … Khartum for an emergency summit conference,” during which the famous “Three No’s”—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel—were established (Sayigh 1997, 161). This move bruised the relationship between Fatah and the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) (and later the PFLP, what a portion of the ANM became when it dissolved) and, I argue, established mistrust between them. Such disagreements would continue to complicate matters for creating unity within the Resistance movement and working towards a shared national consciousness. The fractures between the PFLP and Fatah would also continue to affect the chances of breaking the status quo. Without unity, agreeing to the policies of more dominant and powerful states would be inevitable. Indeed, one need only look further into the future of the PLO to see this happening.

Fatah claimed that while “it was possible to postpone” the start of armed struggle for a few weeks, they were already fully prepared at that point, and not beginning immediately would expose them to more danger (A Dialogue with Fatah 1969, 41-42). Habash nonetheless stated that Fatah’s actions “harmed the unity that we knew to be indispensable to victory … [and] allowed Israel to weaken us in quick response to armed action that started in Palestine” (Habache and Malbrunot 2008, 70). These opposing views demonstrate some of the complications surrounding armed resistance that began to manifest themselves, as the focus became more about executing operations more successfully and more prolifically than other groups. This competition is evident in the factions’ publications throughout the period. For example, in the PFLP’s magazine al-Hadaf, the competition between factions is palpable; armed operations were announced with great pride, and calls were made for clarification and evidence as to which group had carried out which operation (al-Hadaf 1969).

By 1973, armed operations were still taking place, yet criticism of them and competition between the factions was intense. The PFLP (1973) issued the following statement, warning against military action that lacked the support of the masses: “Revolutionary violence and military activity must be the crowning of the mass movement and not an alternative to it.” Without clear goals for armed resistance, the movement would lose the momentum necessary to realize its longer-term goals, and it would lose momentum to build national consciousness. It was the vagueness of this programme that led many intellectuals to criticize certain factions and to doubt the individuals’ and factions’ allegiances to the larger cause of liberation and reforming Arab society. Armed struggle would continue to be contentious within the Resistance, yet would remain a defining element of this period of Palestinian resistance. The general focus on armed struggle became one of the greatest criticisms of intellectuals such as Kamal Nasser and Naji Alloush, who saw a necessity for exploring the possibilities, socially and culturally, for Palestinian resistance and liberation that would go beyond Palestine and bring more awareness to the region of its people, literary traditions, and general social and cultural possibilities.

More than resenting Fatah’s decision to commence with armed struggle practically on its own, Nayif Hawatmeh finds a contradiction within the very idea of “Palestinian” resistance. For him, it is impossible for it to exist on its own because of the strength of Israel and its support from the West. For others, 1967 presented Palestinians with the opportunity to create their own, distinctly Palestinian resistance movement. Hawatmeh explains that “the notion that the Palestinian people alone can defeat the combined forces of Israel and imperialism is an unrealistic one” (quoted in Maksoud 1973, 84). Hawatmeh’s statement recalls what was said by Kamal Nasser with regard to the near impossibility of the Palestinians liberating Palestine on their own given their small numbers. Here we find a stumbling block that demonstrates the appeal and possible positive aspects of an ideology like Arab nationalism. For Hawatmeh and many on the Left, however, this could be solved with greater connections to similar struggles globally. Along with efforts to involve fedayeen fighters, efforts were made to inform the general public on all things related to the cause. The Palestine Research Centre, for example, produced writings on topics ranging from Zionism to Palestinian history in order to emphasize the importance of contemporary conditions. Additionally, considering the background of this new generation of intellectuals—most of whom were not from the elite—involving a larger portion of the population was not so foreign. Still, the obstacles faced call into question the effectiveness of the intellectuals as well as the possible strengths of Arab nationalism and those who still held on to it to some degree. The movement’s constant fracturing left a vacuum in the PLO. Without a clear ideology it was difficult to direct the public. In this sense, Fatah’s less ideological approach had an edge. Rather than focusing on details, they could spread a message of armed struggle and Palestinian liberation. No matter how vague it may have been, its simplicity worked to its advantage. Meanwhile, other factions struggled to build and agree upon a clear, coherent ideology, and this further complicated their efforts to garner the support of the masses.

In 1969 Hawatmeh split from the PFLP, and was joined by others who felt that the PFLP’s claims that they were indeed following a Marxist agenda in rallying the masses, and the working class in particular, to support their cause, were not genuine. Hawatmeh created the DFLP. In a 1968 conference of the PFLP, Hawatmeh and his followers accused Habash of making “a verbal commitment” to the Left regarding the PFLP’s platform without actually following it (Kazziha 1975, 86). According to Kazziha,

The political platform defined in the Report bore the distinct touch of Hawatmeh … It extended the political analysis which the Movement’s Executive Committee had elaborated in July 1967 to include the modern history of the Palestinian national movement. It claimed that the Palestinian feudal and bourgeois classes were as responsible for the Arab disaster in 1948 as were their counterparts in other Arab countries. Similarly, the shocking defeat in June 1967 was the outcome of the reluctant and undetermined approach of the Arab petty bourgeoisie in confronting imperialism and Zionism, and its half-hearted attempts to mobilize the Arab masses. (Kazziha 1975, 87)

The PLO, its factions and its intellectuals, seemed stuck between calls for what could be described as a leftist revolution and for the bringing together of the proletariat, and other calls for a liberation struggle that had some basis in Arab nationalism. Attempts at appeasement were made as the PFLP’s Executive Committee’s decisions on the report reinforced the idea that the intellectuals understood the importance of this period and the urgency of immediate action. They reported that action would include not only armed resistance, but also a firm grasp of how Palestinian society must change in order to ease the burden of the Resistance. The report concluded that the “‘Road to National Salvation’ lay in the adoption of the ideology of the proletariat, the enhancement of the political consciousness of the masses, the rejection of Security Council resolution 242, and the establishment of closer relations with the Arab Revolutionary movement” (Kazziha 1975, 87). The details still seemed vague, yet what is visible is an acknowledgment that much was left to be done to rally and unify Arab, not just Palestinian, society. Hopes were placed on the idea that this would involve a move away from any surrendering to the status quo. Perhaps the Left’s calls to organize based on class did not speak to the larger population the way that organizing simply for the sake of Palestinian liberation did.

The State of National Consciousness by 1974

For Hawatmeh, perhaps the period began with the potential for revolutionary change, but the results of the Resistance’s actions soon proved simply to maintain the status quo. He notes the following in an interview with Maksoud:

Instead of … rejuvenating the ties of the Arab nationalist movement with the Arab liberation movement through a revolutionary platform, Fatah developed isolationist characteristics which rested upon the principle of ‘Palestinizing’ the Palestinian question and turning one’s back on the surrounding Arab countries. Hence the resistance movement, from the start, carried within itself the fault which led to its characteristic attitude toward the status quo. (Maksoud 1973, 85)

Leftists like Hawatmeh continued to emphasize that the Palestinian question was and must continue to be bigger than Palestine and that Arab nationalism needed to be modified in order to achieve more revolutionary goals. As Fatah began to focus increasingly on Palestinian liberation, the greater goals of the Resistance and the Left were marginalized.

Fawwaz Trabulsi, Lebanese historian and political activist, shares Hawatmeh’s view, acknowledging the capabilities of the Zionists and doubting the ability of the Palestinians, given the smallness of their numbers. Additionally, he emphasizes the potential of the fight for Palestine, seeing it as a larger part of the Arab Revolution:

What is termed the Arab Revolution is potentially a combination of two relatively autonomous, yet dialectically interrelated struggles: the anti-imperialist class struggle and the anti-Zionist struggle. Neither can be deferred to await the outcome of the other. Neither is a substitute for the other … The Zionist state is not likely to be the weakest link in this chain under the prevailing conditions in the area. Furthermore, the forces of the Palestinian people are not by themselves strong enough to break it, if by this is meant defeating also the imperialist powers that sustain the state of Israel. (Trabulsi 1969, 88)

Trabulsi makes the claim that an Arab revolution would be possible if and only if the Resistance aligns itself more clearly with the larger anti-imperialist class struggle taking place globally. The two interrelated struggles mentioned by Trabulsi—the bringing together of an anti-imperialist cause and the anti-Zionist cause—reveal the enormous hurdles facing the PLO: creating unity in political commitment and building a national consciousness.

Although not entirely disconnected from the Palestinian public, by 1973 a struggle that needed to belong to the masses seemed to some among the Resistance to be distant from them. Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf) of Fatah states that one of the reasons why the Resistance was in crisis in 1973 is its treatment of the general public. He describes this as demonstrating a “lack of frankness toward the masses—and the disrespect implied thereby” (Maksoud 1973, 44). The PFLP also had a similar sense of how the masses were being treated, reflecting on the problematic rhetoric used by the factions: “What is required is not simply the repetition of the word ‘masses’ and verbal emphasis on the popular line of the party, but a change in the way we behave which aims at translating such words into action” (PFLP 1973, 1). The inability to reach the masses demonstrates the shortcomings of intellectuals more generally and the extent to which their message did or did not fit their audience. In reflecting on this question, Ajami appears to criticize anticolonial intellectuals’ attempts to use certain leftist ideologies for solving the problems of the Arab world. He writes that they sought

in the translated writings of Guevara, Debray, Marx, Lenin, and Giap what the liberals had sought earlier in the nationalism, the legality, and secular politics of the West. The sentiment was the same as was the frustration and impatience that gave rise to it. What differed were the books … and the models they admired. (1992, 48)

Ajami, one could argue, oversimplifies. Nonetheless, he raises important questions about the extent to which these anticolonial intellectuals had really been working towards something new and radical for the region after all. He challenges their rhetoric and asks if it is any different from the romantic calls made by Arab nationalism and Ba’thism—the same style of rhetoric that Fanon accused nationalist parties of using to “make the people dream dreams” (1963, 68). Given this, we are forced to ask whether the national consciousness that the PLO’s Left was working to build was powerful enough to yield different results to those of the Arab nationalists. Towards the close of the period, efforts at creating a national consciousness became increasingly strained. Even members of Fatah were unhappy with the vagueness of its programme. Abu Iyad discussed the three main problems of the PLO at that time. Amongst them he highlighted “the absence of a single clear political line embracing all organizations” (Maksoud 1973, 43). This absence contributed to factionalism. Abu Iyad concluded: “had the political line been clear, and organizational relations absent from the scene, the crisis of the resistance movement would not have been as great” (44).

Post-Black September realities revealed, at least for some within the movement, a different understanding. In 1973, Abu Iyad stated:

What happened in Jordan before September is a clear indication that a plot to annihilate the resistance was being planned … In my opinion, the nature and essence of this crisis are to be found in the internal situation, whether on the level of major organizations, of the relations between them, or of the task as a whole … Fatah’s lack of a clear political line and of any stand on fundamental issues must have an effect on the other organizations and the overall movement. This … is why I believe that the quandary of the movement stems from within. (Maksoud 1973, 43)

This lack of unity, aside from revealing ideological differences, would tear at the PLO during its conflict with Jordan between 1970 and 1971, causing further rifts amongst the intellectuals. Beyond Fatah’s approach, or lack thereof, to pressing political problems and events, its plan to first liberate Palestine and then create the necessary ideological approach for Palestinian society was problematic. Without this, it was more difficult to make definitive decisions related to resistance strategies and ultimately liberation. Some of the intellectuals also saw this ambiguity to be apparent in the armed struggle framework. Bilal al-Hassan (1971, 6), for example, speaks of the superficiality with which factions, and Fatah in particular, have analyzed the Defeat and the subsequent role of the fedayeen and the masses in resisting. His criticism highlights the ambiguities found not only in Fatah’s ideology, but also in their ideas for armed struggle. Nonetheless, despite general utterrances about a democratic Palestine led by the masses through armed struggle, it is unclear whether any other faction more clearly defined the means to reach this end.

Hawatmeh noted another type of ambiguity within the rhetoric of the Resistance. He perceived a gap between what the Resistance claimed to be accomplishing and what they were able to accomplish. He notes:

The resistance movement … did bring forth a number of theoretically revolutionary slogans such as ‘the people’s national war,’ ‘the people’s war of national liberation,’ ‘protracted war;’ yet these were hollow and empty of content. To transform them into meaningful slogans requires, from the start, mobilizing the Palestinian and Arab masses against the whole camp opposed to the cause of the revolution and the liberation of Palestine. (Maksoud 1973, 87)

Given the context of his statement, the “whole camp” included the Jordanian regime, but its conflict with the Resistance had already begun to ignite. In a (2016) interview Sadik al-Azm expressed a similar sentiment, remarking that the “original sin” of the Palestinian Resistance was not removing the regime. Resentment and frustrations with Jordan not only caused uproar within their discussions, but also rocked the entire Resistance and its place in the Arab political arena. Moreover, to Hawatmeh, the period lacked sincerity in the ideas put forward. Comparing Hawatmeh’s perception of the shortcomings of the period examined here to the conviction found within the articles of the time—for example, al-Hadaf and Shafiq al-Hout’s pieces—leaves one at a loss to understand the extent to which the efforts at the time were in vain. While they included calls for mass participation and announced armed operations and shared resistance ideology, it is impossible to deem these efforts successful, due to the power and sway the movement lost by the end of the period. As Hawatmeh notes, “the difference between a successful revolution and a fumbling one lies in the way each one deals with these turns imposed upon it by shifts in the balance of forces” (Maksoud 1973, 94-95). For many, the constant internal divisions amongst factions and intellectuals made overcoming political obstacles more difficult. These internal difficulties posed by factionalization were compounded by the challenges of external relations between the PLO and Arab states, whose support was typically not as strong as promised.

Lack of unity within the Resistance, coupled with the ambiguous nature of its relationship with the Arab states upon whom it often relied, would continue to raise obstacles to creating and executing revolutionary ideas. For all of the richness that many perspectives and even disagreements gave to the period, factionalization created constant contention and even distrust. Increased hostilities between factions and disagreements between their leaders led to the development of even more factions, more enthusiastic and ambitious debates as to where resistance, Palestinian society, and the Arab world could go. The lack of clarity about the path to resistance led to ambiguity in the steps needed to reach liberation, begging the question as to whether it was the lack of clarity in ideologies that led to factionalization or if it was factionalization that led to a lack of clarity in ideologies. Consequently, the greater goals of the Resistance also became clouded. The extent to which the masses were being mobilized—arguably, a fundamental element of the revolution—was unclear. Their mobilization, including those within the Arab world at large, became a point of ideological contention for the intellectuals, and for the factions and their relationships with Arab states more generally.

The View in 1974

This essay has looked at the so-called dreamers of the PLO. I placed them within the sphere of anticolonialism as defined by Fanon’s colonized intellectual, working to build a national consciousness yet ultimately failing. June 1967 may have begun with the potential for systemic change, yet ideological differences and a lack of focus on shared goals played a significant role in hindering it. With even close colleagues often disagreeing, the post-1967 War period began with fractured understandings as to what the Resistance should fight for and how they could build an identity based on it. In many ways, the period ends as it begins, with criticisms of Arab regimes, frustrations with the lack of progress made by society, and a revulsion at some of the ideas in which they had laid their hopes. While national consciousness, at this point, may not have resembled nationalism, it also seemed in the end not to be present at all. Without a clear message to the public, this important part of the Resistance’s programme was lost. Thus, even within the basic idea of mass mobilization, there existed a plethora of criticisms as to why this goal was not being achieved. Did their ideas truly represent their populations? This remained a subject for debate.

The Arab Left’s inability fully to realize its goals also brings to light the obstacles they faced and the shortcomings of the intellectuals and the ideas they proposed. In relation to Fanon, these failures demonstrate the colonized intellectual’s inability to break away from ideas and codes set by external forces. In the context of Palestine and the Arab world, we can understand these external forces to be the status quo, largely set by heads of state both in and outside of the Arab world. While united over a cause regardless of socioeconomic background, the intellectuals diverged as to how they hope to steer the public, and they diverged in regard to the extent to which they consider that they have indeed reached the public. Additionally, the heavy emphasis on armed struggle in the factions’ literature and the efforts made to empower fighters may have disempowered the PLO, contributing to its leaders’ inability to create a genuinely united front.

Aside from their general support for fighting against occupation and Zionism, for the Palestinian people as well as those committed to their cause, the question of resistance centred on whom they should support and how they should define themselves as politically committed. The questions being asked by the population and the demands being made by the intellectuals, as evident in the oftentimes instructive articles within factions’ magazines, posed another difficulty for creating a mass, revolutionary resistance movement. Fanon is aware of the dangers of such stumbling blocks towards national consciousness and liberation:

Reason hesitates and refuses to say which is a true decolonization, and which a false … for a man who is in the thick of the fight it is an urgent matter to decide on the means and the tactics to employ: that is to say, how to conduct and organize the movement. If this coherence is not present there is only a blind will toward freedom, with the terribly reactionary risks which it entails. (Fanon 1963, 59)

Fanon’s words are almost haunting. He captures both the hopes and the defeats of the anticolonial Left within the PLO during 1967-1974. Whether it was the nationalist ideas that continued to loom large within the PLO in its early days, the new order set by figures such as Sadat and Kissinger in the 1970s, or the disconnect the intellectuals still seemed to have with the masses, anticolonial intellectuals could not seem to break through and create the type of change they were looking for. This impasse had significant impact on the PLO for years to come, as the organization moved away from working towards a larger, anticolonial struggle. The longings of the intellectuals would leave a vacuum; whether or not it has been filled is a question that likely causes even more debate.