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Palestine Liberation Organization
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), political body working to create a state for Palestinian Arabs in some or all of Palestine, a historic region now comprising Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent wars between Israel and Arab nations displaced many Palestinians. Founded in 1964 as a channel for Palestinian demands for a state, the PLO grew in regional and international prominence after Arab armies proved unable to defeat Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, and Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank. After years of deep animosity between Israel and the PLO, the two sides signed a series of agreements between 1993 and 1998 that transferred almost all Palestinian towns and cities and most of the Arab population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Palestinian administration. The agreements created an interim body, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), to administer these Palestinian areas until their final status was determined. In 1994 the PNA took over many of the PLO’s administrative and negotiating roles with respect to these territories, while the PLO continued to act as an umbrella group representing Palestinian interests both inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and elsewhere in the world. Despite having entered into diplomatic negotiations, the PLO and Israel remain at odds and are often engaged in periods of profound violence.
The PLO is made of three main bodies: the 15-member Executive Committee, which makes decisions and which includes representatives of the PLO's major fedayeen (guerrilla) forces; the 60-member Central Committee, an advisory body; and the 599-member Palestine National Council, which has historically been seen as an assembly of the Palestinian people. Before the creation of the PNA, the PLO also had departments and affiliated agencies that provided military, health, information, finance, social welfare, education, and other services to the dispersed Palestinian population. Since 1994, however, the PNA has taken over these responsibilities for the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In 1947 the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution to partition the disputed region of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Arabs rejected the plan but Jews accepted it, declaring the independent state of Israel in 1948. Five Arab nations—Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—immediately attacked Israel. When the fighting ended in 1949, Israel had gained more land than had been allocated to it by the UN resolution. Jerusalem became a divided city, with Jordan controlling the eastern half (including the Old City of Jerusalem, the site of key Christian, Jewish, and Islamic holy places), and Israel controlling western Jerusalem. After armistice agreements, Egypt retained control of the Gaza Strip (an area just north of Egypt), and Jordan kept the West Bank, a territory west of the Jordan River that it annexed in 1950. Palestinians in the West Bank thus became Jordanian citizens, and those who stayed in Israel eventually became Israeli citizens. Palestinians who stayed in the Gaza Strip or fled to other countries became refugees. From 1949 to 1967 neither Egypt nor Jordan sought to establish a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip or West Bank areas.
In June 1964 the PLO was founded at a summit meeting of the Arab League, an association of Arabic-speaking countries, in Jerusalem. The PLO was established to provide a more legitimate and organized channel for Palestinian nationalism than was offered by scattered Palestinian guerrilla (fedayeen) groups. One of the earliest such groups to join the PLO was Fatah; others such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Saiqa, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) would join later. Professional, labor, and student groups also joined the PLO, but over time the fedayeen proved dominant. The PLO was dedicated to organizing Palestinian people “to recover their usurped homes” and, according to its charter, to replacing Israel with a secular Palestinian state. The PLO's fedayeen were divided on the issue of the degree to which the Palestinians should liberate Palestine by themselves or rely upon varying support from Middle Eastern Arab states.
In its early years the PLO was based mostly in Jordan, and it sponsored many guerrilla and terrorist acts both in Israel and internationally. Although proven otherwise, the PLO denied taking part in some dramatic terrorist raids by Arab fedayeen, such as the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. In March 1968 PLO fedayeen won fame by repelling an Israeli attack on the PLO’s Jordanian bases, less than a year after Arabs had suffered a devastating defeat by losing control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights region of Syria to Israel during the Six-Day War. In 1969 Yasir Arafat, the leader of Fatah, was elected chairman of the PLO. PLO raids into Israel drew increasingly devastating reprisals on Jordan, and by late 1970 Jordan and the PLO entered a short, bloody war, after which most PLO fedayeen fled to Lebanon. As in Jordan, where the PLO had become a state within a state, raids on Israel led to fierce Israeli military attacks on PLO camps in Lebanon, heightening tensions that culminated in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Syria, originally supportive of the PLO, feared that a victory by Lebanon's radical Muslim left (with whom the PLO was allied) would provoke Israel and lead to a full-scale Arab-Israeli war. Wanting to prevent regional warfare, Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976, attacking the Muslim-PLO forces. As a result, the PLO was often on the defensive throughout the late 1970s. In general, Arab states supported PLO goals, but only to the point where those political objectives did not injure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of those countries.
The PLO did, however, achieve several diplomatic victories. In 1974 Arab nations at an Arab League summit meeting in Rabat, Morocco, recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Previously, many Arab countries, especially Jordan, had opposed independent Palestinian political action. In another important success, in December 1974 Arafat addressed the United Nations (UN), where the PLO was granted status as an observer despite the objections of Israel. In the late 1970s the PLO, along with most Arab countries, opposed Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat's negotiations and subsequent peace treaty with Israel.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to stop PLO raids across its northern border. The invasion severely weakened the PLO, intensified splits among its factions, and forced some 12,000 PLO members in Beirut to flee once more, this time to several Arab countries. PLO fighters loyal to Arafat made their headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, where an Israeli bombing raid severely damaged the main buildings in October 1985.
In 1987 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began a spontaneous uprising, known as the intifada, against Israeli occupation. The PLO and other groups supported the uprising, which quickly spread to the West Bank. At the same time several events led the PLO to reverse its call for the end of Israel. First, the United States, which had led several peace efforts in the Middle East, reiterated that before it would include the PLO in peace talks, the PLO would have to accept Israel's existence and renounce terrorism. Second, in 1988 Jordan's King Hussein relinquished his claims to the West Bank, which Jordan had lost to Israel in 1967. Arafat seized the opportunity to call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem (a city that straddles the border between the West Bank and Israel). Arafat did not call for a Palestinian state in Israel itself, which was seen as an important shift in PLO objectives. In November 1988 the PLO's assembly, the Palestine National Council, officially recognized the sovereignty of Israel, and the following month Arafat renounced the use of terrorism, in keeping with U.S. demands. The United States and the PLO then began a direct “diplomatic dialogue,” the first step toward a negotiated settlement with Israel and the first step toward Palestinian self-determination, and ultimately the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In the meantime, the intifada had intensified. On the one hand, this created pressure for Israel to negotiate with the PLO. On the other, the PLO’s clear readiness to negotiate with Israel led radical Palestinian Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to accuse Arafat of betraying Palestinians by recognizing Israel and being too accommodating to Israeli demands.
In early 1991 the PLO's relations with the United States and pro-Western Arab states deteriorated when Arafat publicly supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. When a U.S.-led international coalition defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, the PLO lost some of its regional and international stature. Arab states in the Persian Gulf region withdrew financial support for the PLO, confiscated the wealth and bank accounts of many Palestinians, and deported many of them as punishment for Arafat’s support of Iraq. This caused severe financial difficulties for thousands of individual Palestinians and nonprofit private institutions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and hurt the PLO financially. In 1991 the PLO's negotiating position was further weakened when the Lebanese army, backed by Syria, forced the PLO to abandon its strongholds in southern Lebanon near Israel's border. After an Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, Spain, in 1991, the PLO and Israel began secret negotiations in late 1992.
In September 1993 Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin concluded a surprise agreement. Signed in Washington, D.C., this agreement, known as the Declaration of Principles (DOP), opened the way for limited Palestinian self-government in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. To administer these areas, Israel and the PLO agreed to the creation of the interim Palestinian National Authority (PNA), headed by Arafat and staffed with PLO members. The PNA was to operate between May 1994 and May 1999, when talks about the final status and the future of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and eastern Jerusalem were to be completed.
Despite this progress, Palestinian-Israeli relations and Palestinian internal politics remained tumultuous. Arafat was repeatedly faced with the conflicting demands of satisfying Israeli security requirements and keeping a semblance of unity in the Palestinian community. Some Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came to disrespect Arafat's administration because segments of it were reportedly corrupt and because Arafat ruled autocratically and filled many official PNA positions with his close colleagues from Tunis. Many Palestinian nationalists objected vehemently and violently to the PLO’s official recognition of Israel, a condition of the DOP. In November 1994 the PNA police force clashed with and killed at least 12 Palestinians protesting further negotiations with Israel. For the next five years, Palestinian radicals and religious fundamentalist groups such as Hamas continued to oppose Arafat's rule and his recognition of and negotiations with Israel, and responded with terrorist acts against Israel. A pattern developed: Arafat would arrest some of the alleged Palestinian terrorists, then let some out of jail, causing the Israeli government to slow down negotiations or impose collective sanctions on Palestinian areas, and the United States to send warnings to the PNA to do a better job of policing radicals and fundamentalists.
In January 1996, in the first free Palestinian elections ever held, Arafat was elected president of the PNA and an 88-member legislative body, the Palestinian Legislative Council, was also elected. However, Arafat's stature and authoritative control kept the council virtually powerless. Difficulties in merging PLO functions with newly established PNA structures, as well as friction between PLO officials (many of whom had arrived with Arafat from Tunis) and local Palestinian leadership, added stress to the community's coherence. Two periods of Palestinian violence—the bombings of Israeli buses in early 1996 and the outbreak of prolonged Palestinian violence against Israel in September 2000—contributed to the election of right-of-center Israeli governments in May 1996 and February 2001, respectively. In both of these violent episodes, attempts at negotiations and cease-fire agreements broke down due to further Palestinian-Israeli violence.
The DOP’s deadline for completion of Israeli-Palestinian final status talks on all outstanding issues—May 1999—passed without conclusion and with considerable Palestinian frustration. Arafat had threatened to establish an independent Palestinian state unilaterally in May and then in September 1999, but backed off because Palestinian control extended over much less West Bank and Gaza Strip territory than Palestinians had hoped for when the DOP was signed. In May a left-of-center Israeli government was elected, and Arafat and new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Talks dragged on into 2000, and in July of that year U.S. president Bill Clinton convened a summit with Arafat and Barak at Camp David, Maryland, in the hopes of reaching a final settlement. In the end Arafat and Barak failed to reach a formal agreement due to severe disagreements over the issues of land transfers, how Israelis and Palestinians could share Jerusalem, and what would become of Palestinian refugees who wanted to return to their former homes in Israel.
In late 2001 the U.S. administration reaffirmed its willingness to endorse an independent Palestinian state, which, if established, would not compromise Israel's existence as a majority Jewish state. However, by 2002 further Palestinian violence put Arafat in the same dilemma he had faced previously: how to restrain violence by radicals and fundamentalists without doing irreparable damage to the broader objectives of retaining the unity of the PLO and maintaining his leadership of it, and without appearing to be under the thumb of Israel and the United States.
Arafat died in November 2004 and long-time PLO Executive Committee member and former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas succeeded him as PLO chairman. Abbas was subsequently elected president of the PNA in January 2005. Although world leaders applauded the Palestinian voters’ choice, Abbas inherited Arafat’s threefold legacy: governing a fragmented national movement, reconciling the dream of Palestinians to return to all of Palestine with the reality that Israel’s will and power made that impossible, and establishing security from what he termed 'anarchy' in order to better an abysmal Palestinian economy.
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