The period between the 1973 war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was a tumultuous one in Palestinian history. Beginning on a high note, the 1973 war and the 1973–74 oil embargo inspired a sense of Arab confidence and unity. At the same time, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) achieved increasing regional and international recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, allowing the Palestinians a voice in the global diplomatic arena where they had long been denied one. By the beginning of the 1980s, however, many of these gains had proven short-lived or illusory. Fissures emerged within the PLO, and the Arab world was riven by division: civil war raged in Lebanon and Egypt signed a separate peace treaty with Israel. Other changes, including the ascendance of the Right in Israeli politics, the entrenchment of colonization in the West Bank and Gaza, and the development of Islamist political movements, would continue to have long-term implications well beyond 1981.
In October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a combined surprise attack against Israeli positions. Initial Arab military successes were reversed after the United States intervened to resupply Israel with arms, but many Arabs felt that the war had at least partially redeemed the humiliation of 1967. The oil-producing Arab states initiated an embargo against Israel’s supporters, with significant economic and political impact.
The PLO also made significant diplomatic gains. At the November 1973 Arab summit in Algiers, the Arab heads of state agreed to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. In November 1974, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty in Palestine. It also recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and granted it observer status at the UN. For the first time, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat addressed the General Assembly and dramatically called on the world community to decide between the olive branch and the freedom fighter’s gun.
The PLO paid a cost for its increased international acceptance, however. The Rejection Front—a coalition of PLO member groups that included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a number of smaller factions mostly sponsored by Syria and Iraq—rejected the Ten-Point Program adopted by the Palestinian National Council in 1974, which expressed a willingness to establish Palestinian sovereignty within parts of historic Palestine and was thus seen to implicitly accept Israel’s rule over the rest. Already destabilized by internal divisions, the PLO then became embroiled in the lengthy and brutal civil war in Lebanon that started in April 1975. The 1969 Cairo Agreement had given the PLO autonomy in Lebanon’s refugee camps, and it had built up significant military and civil infrastructure there. When the civil war erupted, the PLO became a key player, engaging in direct conflict with various Lebanese and Syrian forces. In March 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon and established its proxy, the South Lebanon Army, on areas south of the Litani River.
The extent of the Arab world’s internal conflicts became even more acute as the Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat visited Jerusalem in November 1977, six months after Menachem Begin’s Likud electoral victory. Separate Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, presided over by President Jimmy Carter, resulted in the September 1978 Camp David Accords (one of which consisted in a framework for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza) and the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. As Jordan refused to join talks on autonomy, Egypt and Israel started to negotiate on the issue bilaterally. Between May 1979 and November 1981, they held a dozen negotiation sessions in which they defined their positions on issues such as modalities of elections in the West Bank and Gaza; participation of East Jerusalem Palestinians in elections; powers of the Palestinian self-governing authority (whether administrative or legislative); and the territorial jurisdiction for the autonomous area. However, no real progress was made: Having gained a separate peace treaty with Egypt, Israel had no incentive to make concessions on the Palestinian question.
In fact, the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza accelerated while negotiations with Egypt were under way. In April 1979, Jewish settlement in the Old City of Hebron started. In July 1980, the annexation of East Jerusalem was further consolidated through the Basic Law on Jerusalem, which declared Jerusalem, “complete and united,” to be Israel’s capital. By 1981, more than 100,000 settlers were living in the West Bank and Gaza, benefiting from the institutional support of the state as well as non-state groups like Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), a religious-nationalist organization formed in 1974 that called for Jewish settlement throughout the occupied territories. To further strengthen control over the occupied territories and impose its concept of Palestinian autonomy unilaterally, the Military Government established in November 1981 the “Civil Administration” in the West Bank and Gaza, while the Knesset voted in December 1981 to apply Israeli law in the Golan Heights.
The Palestinian population inside Israel, though, became increasingly active in the 1970s. With the lifting of military rule in 1966 and renewed contacts with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war, Palestinians inside Israel reasserted their political voice and resisted attempts to manipulate them through a coopted leadership. Palestinians in Israel formed new organizations (such as the Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands, founded in 1975) and elected more vocal and activist political leaders (such as Tawfiq Zayyad, who was elected mayor of Nazareth in 1975). When Israel announced that it would expropriate thousands of dunams of land in the Galilee to expand Jewish settlements, Palestinians demonstrated and held general strikes on 30 March 1976 not only in Arab localities in Israel, but also in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Israeli security forces violently repressed the protests, killing six unarmed demonstrators, wounding nearly one hundred, and arresting hundreds more. The event, which came to be known as Land Day, has been observed annually ever since.
The period from 1973 to 1981 also saw the rise of political Islam in the Arab world, including Palestine. The perceived failure of Arab nationalism to achieve its goals (regionally, and particularly with regard to Palestine) had led to widespread disillusionment with secular Arab politics, and the repression of Islamic political movements had led to a rise of militant political Islam, particularly in Egypt and Syria. In 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran inspired those who envisioned a revolutionary politics rooted in Islam. Inside Israel, Abdallah Nimr Darwish, who had in 1971 founded the Islamic Movement primarily to provide welfare services for Muslim communities, became active in the Family of Jihad (Usrat al-jihad), an underground group inside Israel that was inspired by the militant Islamic politics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria as well as the Islamic revolution in Iran. In Gaza, Ahmad Yasin (who in December 1987 was one of the founding members of Hamas) was active in al-Mujamma‘ al-Islami, an Islamic charity that funded religious and civil society institutions; Fathi Shiqaqi and Abd al-Aziz Awda, two Palestinian refugees inspired by militant Islamic politics in Egypt and the Iranian revolution, founded the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine in 1979.
The significance of these developments would only become apparent in later decades. Yet even by the beginning of the 1980s, it was clear that the optimism sparked in 1973 had borne only partial fruit. The PLO had achieved unprecedented international recognition for the Palestinian people, but it was also beset by internal friction and mired in the bloody Lebanese civil war. Palestinians within Israel were increasingly vocal in resisting marginalization and oppression, but the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza became ever more entrenched. Meanwhile, regional instability, at the roots of which laid the unresolved Palestine question, escalated and would continue to do so.