The Palestinian National Movement and the Jewish Question (II)

The Palestinian National Movement and the Jewish Question (II)
After the Nakba

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Ilan Halevi and Yasir Arafat

Courtesy of Halevi's Family

Before 1948, the Palestinian national movement had to define its position on the future of the Jewish minority that emerged from the successive immigration waves to Palestine; after the Nakba , however, it had to define its position toward the state that the Zionist Movement succeeded in establishing on Palestinian land and toward its Jewish residents.

A Democratic State: Recognition of the Jewish Presence in Palestine

Among Palestinians, the dominant attitude in the 1950s was to equate Zionism with Judaism. This was the position taken by the Arab Higher Committee (Hay'a) under Muhammad Amin al-Husseini , which continued to operate out of Cairo and then Beirut , and by the Arab Nationalist Movement , which believed that Judaism and Zionism were “two names with the same meaning, even if we consider the latter to be the modern political face of the former, as some people like to do.” Judaism is the source, while Zionism is the manifestation in action. The Muslim Brotherhood also took this position, considering that Zionism and international Judaism meant “the same thing.”

With the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization  (PLO) in 1964, this conflation of Zionism and Judaism disappeared and there was an evolution in the attitude toward the future of the Jewish presence in Palestine. The Palestine National Charter of 1964 dismissed “claims of historical or spiritual ties between Jews and Palestine” and viewed Judaism “as a revealed religion and not a nationality with an independent existence” and Jews as “not one people with an independent identity.” But then it said that Jews “who are of Palestinian origin” should be considered “Palestinians if they are willing to live peacefully and loyally in Palestine” with the Arab inhabitants; the authors of the charter did not explain what they meant by the reference to Jews of Palestinian origin. The 1968 version of the charter said the Jews who would have the right to stay in Palestine after liberation were the Jews “who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion,” without specifying an exact date for the start of this invasion.

After taking control of the PLO in the summer of 1968, the Fatah movement tried to win recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. When Egypt and Jordan accepted Security Council Resolution 242 and recognized the de facto existence of Israel, the PLO began to look for a formula for coexistence with the Jewish community in Palestine that would be acceptable internationally. In January 1968, in its first booklet directed at the foreign press, the Fatah movement said that its struggle was not aimed at Jews as Jews, but at the Zionist-fascist military system, and that Palestinians were aware that “once the Palestinian flag is flying over the liberated territory of a democratic and peace-loving Palestine, a new era will begin, and Palestinians and Jews can live side by side in harmony.” In the statement the movement sent to the United Nations in October 1968, the objective of a democratic state was clearly prominent: it said that the aim of the Palestinian resistance movement was to “liberate all of Palestine from usurpation and occupation, and set up an independent and sovereign democratic state in which all lawful citizens, regardless of religion or language, will enjoy equal rights.” The statement avoided defining lawful Jewish citizens, but it made a distinction between Judaism and Zionism and asserted the need to “liberate Jews from Zionism (which has) displaced our people and brought Jews for use as instruments on the altar of its expansionist ambitions.” This assertion was repeated by the Fatah representative at the international conference in support of Arab peoples, held in Cairo in January 1969.

In spring 1969, one of the most prominent leaders of Fatah, Salah Khalaf  (Abu Iyad), emphasized the humanitarian and non-racist nature of the Palestinian revolution “by clarifying our humane attitude toward Jews as people … and persuading them that we are not really as Zionism portrays us—savages who want to massacre them and throw their women and children into the sea.” He called on Arab states to say they were willing to receive all Jews who had migrated to Palestine from Arab countries and to restore their property and their civil rights as Arab citizens in those countries on an equal footing with other Arab citizens. He said Arab states should take advantage of the contradictions within Israeli society, especially between Oriental Jews and Western Jews.

Fatah's adoption of this objective provoked rich debate in Palestinian circles, with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) taking distinctive positions. In the second half of 1968, the PFLP adopted the aim of setting up “a democratic Arab state on the land of Palestine, in which the cultural and religious rights of the non-Arab communities would be preserved, including the Jewish community.” That would come about after the destruction of Israel “as an economic, political and military entity based on aggression” and the liberation of Palestine. In 1970 the front judged that the long and arduous process of liberating Palestine would be achieved by “a broad-based, socialist, progressive national liberation movement, with a base much broader than the masses of the Palestinian Arab people,” and that the state that would be set up after liberation would be “defined geographically, not by the borders of Palestine as drawn by the British Mandate, but by the borders of the socialist, progressive popular struggle movement that achieves liberation.” It said that “within this state a democratic solution to the Jewish question will be possible, and the Jews will become citizens of that state with rights equal to those of other citizens, and with the same obligations.”

On its foundation in 1969 the DFLP took as a premise that two questions needed to be solved: “the Palestinian question” and the “Israeli question.” It said that “a Jewish people” had come into being on Palestinian territory and had the right to enjoy complete equality in “the democratic Palestinian state” and to develop its national culture. As part of its call for a genuine Marxist-Leninist solution to the Palestinian and Israeli questions, the front rejected “chauvinistic and reactionary Zionist solutions based on recognizing the state of Israel” and “the chauvinistic Palestinian and Arab solutions proposed before and after June 1967, which were based on massacring the Jews and throwing them into the sea.” It emphasized that the struggle for a popular democratic solution to these two questions must be “based on eliminating the Zionist entity as represented in all the institutions of the state—the army, the administration, the police force, and all the chauvinist and Zionist political and trade union institutions—and setting up a popular democratic Palestinian state in which Arabs and Jews could live without discrimination, a state opposed to all forms of class oppression, with all Arabs and Jews given the right to develop their own national cultures.” The front advocated addressing Israeli public opinion, opening a dialogue with all “progressive” Jews in Israel and the rest of the world, inviting them to “take part in the Palestinian national liberation movement” and to “join Palestinians in a common fight to liberate Palestine and establish a democratic state.” The front did in fact embark on dialogue with Matzpen , a small Israeli leftist organization with Trotskyite leanings, which favored the idea of setting up a binational state in Palestine.

Toward Implicit Recognition of Israel's Existence

The outcome of the June 1967 War showed it would be impossible to replicate the experience of the Algerian revolution with respect to the future of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, in the sense that, unlike the French settlers in Algeria , they would not be going back to the countries from which they had come, and it encouraged the PLO to adopt the idea of a democratic Palestinian state. The results of the October 1973 war , on the other hand, convinced the organization that it would inevitably have to abandon the aim of liberation and accept the partition of Palestine between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews.

The 12th Palestine National Council (PNC), held in Cairo in early June 1974, approved a provisional political program that called for the establishment of an “independent national people’s authority” in any part of Palestinian territory that might be liberated, given that a step toward liberation would be “progress toward achieving the PLO's strategy of establishing the democratic Palestinian state.” The PLO then developed this objective in the 13th Palestine National Council, which was held in Cairo in March 1977, when it replaced the reference to “the independent national authority of the people, fighting on all parts of Palestinian soil that might be liberated” with an overt reference to an “independent Palestinian state” on national soil, avoiding any mention of the Palestinian democratic state. It also conferred official status on the contacts that leaders of the Fatah movement had started in 1975 with some Israeli organizations that were prepared to engage in dialogue with the PLO. It did this by confirming “the importance of relations and coordination with democratic and progressive Jewish forces, inside and outside the occupied homeland, that are struggling against Zionism ideologically and in practice.”

Toward Open Recognition of the Existence of Israel

After the outbreak of the First Intifada , the PLO took a new step toward recognizing the existence of the state of Israel, when the 19th Palestine National Council, meeting in Algiers in the middle of November 1988, declared an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian territory, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the PLO, for the first time since it was created, accepted UN resolution 181 of 1947 on the partition of Palestine, on the grounds that the resolution “still provides internationally legitimate conditions that guarantee the right of the Arab people to sovereignty and national independence.” At the PNC meeting, the PLO also accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338 , which meant that the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967 would be the area constituting the Palestinian state.

About five years after adopting this position, and as the culmination of the secret negotiations in Oslo between representatives of the PLO and representatives of the Labor Party government in Israel, Yasir Arafat said in a letter he sent to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on 9 September 1993 that the PLO recognized “the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” He repeated that the PLO accepted UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and renounced the use of terrorism and other acts of violence. It said those articles of the Palestine National Charter that “deny Israel's right to exist, and the provisions … which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid.” 

Selected Bibliography: 

Al-Fateh. The Palestine National Liberation Movement: Al-Fateh. Beirut: The Palestine National Liberation Movement Information Office, 1969.

Hudson, Michael C. “Developments and Setbacks in the Palestinian Resistance Movement, 1967-1971,” Journal of Palestine Studies 1, no. 3 (Spring 1972): 64-84.

Muslih, Muhammad Y. “Towards Coexistence: An Analysis of the Resolutions of the Palestine National Council,” Journal of Palestine Studies 19, no. 4 (Summer 1990): 3-29.

Rasheed, Mohammad [Nabil Shaath]. Towards a Democratic State in Palestine : the Palestinian Revolution and the Jews vis-a-vis the Democratic, Nonsectarian Society in the Palestine of the Future. Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization, Research Center, 1970.

Shaath, Nabil. “The Democratic Solution to the Palestine Issue,” Journal of Palestine Studies 6, no. 2 (Winter 1977): 12-18.

Suleiman, Jaber. “The Palestinian Liberation Organization: From the Right of Return to Bantustan.” In Naseer Aruri Palestinian Refugees: the Right of Return. London: Pluto Press.