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The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) was founded in February 1969 when members within the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) decided to secede from the organization and to form a separate group. Intellectual and political differences had begun to appear within the PFLP just a few weeks after its first general congress was held in August 1968. Those differences became public when its magazine al-Hurriyya [freedom] started publishing articles criticizing the leadership for not adhering to the meeting’s resolutions, which had declared that the front would adopt “the proletarian intellectual platform.”
By the first week of February 1969, these differences became sharper, and armed clashes began to erupt between the two opposing factions. Then, on 22 February, a communiqué was issued by the “progressive wing” inside the PFLP, announcing that it was forming the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that would operate autonomously and would cut all ties with the Movement of Arab Nationalists. In the first half of June 1969, it was joined by two other small leftist groups: the Popular Organization for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian Revolutionary Left League. Then in 1972 it was joined by some of the leaders of the Popular Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Palestine (another group that had splintered from the PFLP).
The group continued to operate under the name Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine until 1975, when it decided to adopt the name Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Its most prominent leader is Nayif Hawatmah, who has held the position of General Secretary since its founding. In 1990, as a result of intellectual, political, and organizational disagreements, a number of prominent members broke away from it, most notably Yasser Abed Rabbo, Saleh Ra’fat, and Mamdouh Nawfal, and formed an independent group called DFLP-Democracy and Renewal. Since April 1993 it has called itself the Palestine Democratic Union (FIDA in Arabic).
Organizational Structure of the DFLP
The DFLP structure consists of its branches in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip and in Arab and foreign countries with a Palestinian refugee presence or immigrant community. As its organizational structure follows the principle of democratic centralism, its core leadership is made up of (a) the national general congress, which is the highest political and legislative authority in the front, and meets once every four or five years; (b) the national general conference, which has the same powers as the congress and meets when the central committee calls for it to discuss specific issues; (c) the central committee, elected by the national general congress, which in turn elects the general secretary and the members of the politburo; (d) the political bureau, which is the supreme executive body charged with applying the central committee’s decisions; and (e) the central committee for party oversight, elected by the national general congress and whose function is to preside over maintenance of internal order. The members and supporters are active at the local level in their communities through mass organizations, such as the Unified Workers’ Bloc, the Union of Women’s Action Committees, the Union of Democratic Youth, and other groupings based on occupation (for example, teachers, government employees, skilled professionals), which act as independent frameworks that attract membership on the basis of the DFLP platform.
Since holding its first national general congress (also its founding meeting) in August 1970, the DFLP has held seven congresses and four conferences, through which it has developed how it defines itself from “a unified leftist front” (i.e. a revolutionary democratic organization) to a democratic leftist party that is guided by “scientific socialism as its method to analyze social reality and how to work to change it.” It sees itself as “part of the Palestinian working class movement” and as “working to strengthen the relationship between its different factions in all their components in their common struggle.” This is stated in the resolutions of its seventh and most recent congress, convened in stages over the first half of 2018 under the title “The Congress for Jerusalem and Return – a Station on the Road of the Struggle for [the right of] Return and the Independent Palestinian State with Jerusalem as Its Capital.”
The Evolution of the DFLP’s Intellectual and Political Positions
At its founding, the DFLP’s ideology was a mix of ideas taken from the Vietnamese revolution, Che Guevara-style guerrilla warfare, and Trotskyist revolutionary workers’ councils, which were championed in the literature of the European “new left.” This school of thought differentiated itself from the classical Marxism-Leninism adopted by the Arab communist parties, which the DFLP took issue with for not having taken a “correct internationalist position” on the Palestinian question. (The Arab communist parties supported the political compromise to the conflict based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 and were seen as not take a “correct” position on armed struggle, which represented “the highest form of struggle.”) The DFLP also criticized the Soviet Union for its positions on the Palestinian issue, seeing them as reinforcing “Stalin’s incorrect position” (supporting the establishment of Israel); it insisted that this criticism “was a friendly one, not that of an enemy.”
On the political level, since its founding the DFLP considered the Palestinian resistance as facing an inherent crisis that was manifested in its “impromptu and sentimental” relationship to the Palestinian masses. It held that for the resistance to transform into a full-fledged people’s war of liberation, it was necessary that the masses be organized and armed with “a fundamental political consciousness” that linked them to the resistance. In this context, the DFLP expressed its opposition to the operational style of the PFLP, and the international hijackings it carried out, which it considered too reliant on individuals.
The front identified what it considered another manifestation of the “inherent crisis” of the Palestinian resistance: the phenomenon of “scattering” that stemmed from the lack of uniformity among the various strata of the Palestinian middle class, which played the main role in forming resistance groups. Other factors played a role in this scattering, such as the geographic dispersal of the Palestinian people and the embedding of “phony” groups by various Arab regimes inside the resistance movement. Nevertheless, the DFLP has participated in the legislative and executive bodies of the Palestine Liberation Organization ever since the sixth session of the Palestine National Council in September 1969. The issue of preserving national unity within the framework of the PLO and opposing rifts within the ranks of the Palestinian national liberation movement has occupied an important place in its political praxis and policies.
Since the beginning of May 1969, the DFLP has called for the rejection of “a colonial-Zionist chauvinistic and reactionary solution based on a recognition of the state of Israel” and “to struggle for a popular, democratic solution to the Palestinian and Israeli questions, based on dismantling the Zionist entity and establishing a popular, democratic Palestinian state in which Arabs and Jews would live together without discrimination.” It has called for “initiating a dialogue with all ‘progressive’ Jews in Israel and the rest of the world” and inviting them “to participate in the Palestinian national movement for national liberation in the Palestinians’ armed struggle to eradicate the Zionist entity.” To this end the DFLP did in fact engage in dialogue with a small leftist-Israeli group of Trotskyist leanings called Matzpen.
Based on its conviction that “an organic relationship” exists between the Palestinian and Arab nationalist causes, the DFLP advocated the establishment of “a popular, democratic, nationalist regime” in Jordan that would form “a revolutionary launching pad” for the liberation of Palestine. Then, after both Egypt and Jordan expressed their support for the Rogers Plan put forward by then-US Secretary of State William Rogers in July 1970, the front started to call for the Palestinian resistance, which had become a parallel state within a state in Jordan, to decisively intervene and break the power deadlock in Jordan and take power in the country. It successfully managed to make its slogan “All power to the resistance” the official doctrine of the PLO.
However, the defeat and expulsion of the Palestinian resistance in the summer of 1971 drove the DFLP to critically reexamine its policies and led to its proposing to the Palestine National Council during its ninth session in July 1971 the setting up of “a dependable, liberated fulcrum in the occupied territories that would ensure the continuity of the Palestinian revolution.” After the war of October 1973, the front proposed adopting the tactic of struggle in stages, under the influence of two factors. First, most residents of the occupied territories called for the PLO to take responsibility for the fate of these territories that Israel may withdraw from. The Palestinian National Front in the occupied territories, which representatives of the DFLP participated in, also wanted the PLO to participate in endeavors by the international community toward reaching a comprehensive political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second factor was the growing relationship between the DFLP and the Soviet Union; the front began to laud the “effective” support that the Soviet Union offered to the Arab peoples, while sharply criticizing the “reactionary, collaborator mouthpieces” who suspected “Soviet friendship, Soviet aid and Soviet arms.”
After having played a prominent role in the drafting of the Ten-Point Program that was adopted by the Palestine National Council in June 1974, in late 1975 the DFLP further developed its position on this program through its call to expel the Israeli occupation from the territories occupied in 1967 and ensure the recognition of “the Palestinian people’s right of return and self-determination within the framework of a fully sovereign Palestinian nation-state under the leadership of the PLO.” The DFLP has maintained this position since then and has spelled out its main tenets in its subsequent publications, by emphasizing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, modelled on the principles of a parliamentary democracy with a multiparty political system that would guarantee full legal equality between men and women. It would also ensure that Palestinian refugees evicted in 1948 had the right of return to their homes and properties, as upheld by UN resolution 194, and equality for Palestinian Arabs in Israel. This will eventually lead to an ultimate resolution of the Palestinian national question through the establishment of a single unified, democratic state on the entire land of Palestine, where equality will prevail between all citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds, including equality between the sexes.
On the Arab front, the DFLP has consistently supported the autonomy of Arab national liberation movements, including their right to have independent programs, to operate within their national borders, and to establish frameworks to collaborate and work together to maintain good relations with one another. Within the DFLP, activists have been able to rise through its leadership ranks to the very highest rung, irrespective of their national origins. The front also called for working with Arab government bodies as autonomous and equal partners on anything that would serve the Palestinian national cause.
On the international level, the DFLP considers the Palestinian national liberation movement to be part of the progressive, democratic, socialist forces of liberation that struggle against the ambitions of imperialism. It regards globalization as the highest stage of imperialism, and its aim is to tighten its control on the resources of the world’s peoples and countries.
The Contribution of the DFLP to Armed Struggle
Since its early inception, the DFLP formed small units of commandos (fedayeen) that later grew into “revolutionary armed forces,” particularly in Lebanon. After the exodus of the PLO and its armed forces from Beirut in 1982, the front started giving increased attention to mass struggle inside the occupied Palestinian territories, even as it continued to engage in armed struggle. Indeed, following the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, the DFLP actively participated in popular resistance and in the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, while also forming armed units called Red Star Forces. Then, after the second intifada erupted in late September 2000, it established the Palestinian National Resistance Brigades as the armed wing of the DFLP.
Throughout the DFLP’s history, its fighters have carried out high-level operations deep inside occupied Palestine launched from “anchor points” that were established in Jordan, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. They also fought in battles to defend the Palestinian resistance in Jordan, during the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and in the “War of the Camps” in Lebanon and to repel the Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip.
However, the DFLP’s sway in the Palestinian political arena has witnessed a steady decline since the 1990s; this has affected all leftist groups in Palestinian politics. This decline has resulted from several factors, among them the collapse of the Soviet Union; the changes experienced by the structure of Palestinian society after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority; the decline of traditional models of mass organization, such as worker and student unions and women’s organizations, in contrast to the rise of NGOs and civil society groups; and the entrenched rift between Fatah and Hamas.