An Overview of the Palestine Liberation Organization

PLO fighters with 30mm machine gun and mortar November 3, 1983 near Baddawi Camp, Lebanon.
Roland Neveu/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Since its creation in 1964, the PLO has gone through several make-overs--from resistance organization to terrorist organization to quasi-occupying and governmental force (in Jordan and Lebanon) to close to irrelevance in the late 1990s in the Occupied Territories. What is it today and what power does it wield?

The Palestine Liberation Organization was created on May 29, 1964, at a meeting of the Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem. The Congress' meeting, the first in Jerusalem since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, was held at the then-brand new Intercontinental Hotel. Its earliest leader was Ahmed Shukairy, a lawyer from Haifa. His leadership was quickly eclipsed by that of Yasser Arafat.

Arab Duplicity in PLO's Creation

The blueprint for the PLO was drawn by Arab states at an Arab League meeting in Cairo in January 1964. Arab states, especially Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, were chiefly interested in channeling Palestinian nationalism in such a way that Palestinian refugees on their soil would not destabilize their regimes.

The motive behind the creation of the PLO was therefore duplicitous from the start: Publicly, Arab nations averred solidarity with the Palestinian cause of reclaiming Israel. But strategically, the same nations, intent on keeping Palestinians on a short leash, funded and used the PLO as a means to control Palestinian militancy while using it for leverage in relations with the West and, in the 1980s and 1990s, with Israel.

It wouldn't be until 1974 that the Arab League, meeting in Rabat, Morocco, officially recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

The PLO As a Resistance Organization

When the 422 Palestinian delegates claiming to represent half a million refugees formed the PLO in Jerusalem in May 1964, they rejected any plans to resettle those refugees in host Arab nations and called for the elimination of Israel. They declared in an official comuniqué: "Palestine is ours, ours, ours. We shall accept no substitute homeland." They also created the Palestine Liberation Army, or PLA, though its autonomy was always doubtful as it was part of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

Again, those nations used the PLA both to control Palestinians and use Palestinian militants as leverage in their own proxy conflicts with Israel.

The strategy was not successful.

How Arafat's PLO Came to Be

The PLA conducted several attacks on Israel but never amounted to a major resistance organization. In 1967, in the Six Day War, Israel demolished the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in a surprise, pre-emptive attack (following rising belligerence and threats from Egypt's Gamal Abd el-Nasser) and took over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Arab leaders were discredited. So was the PLA.

The PLO immediately began developing a more militant tenor under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and his Fatah organization. One of Arafat's earliest moves was to amend the Palestine National Council's charter in July 1968. He rejected Arab meddling in the PLO's affairs. And he made the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of a secular, democratic state for Arabs and Jews the twin goal of the PLO.

Democratic means, however, were not part of PLO tactics.

The PLO immediately became more effective than Arabs intended, and more bloody. In 1970 it attempted a take-over of Jordan, which led to its expulsion from that country in a short, bloody war that came to be known as "Black September."

The 1970s: The PLO's Terrorist Decade

The PLO, under the leadership of Arafat Also recast itself as an outright terrorist organization. Among its most spectacular operations was the September 1970 hijacking of three jets, which it then blew up after freeing passengers, in front of television cameras to punish the United States for its support of Israel. Another was the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a German police officer during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

Following its expulsion from Jordan, the PLO established itself as a "state-within-a-state" in Lebanon, where it turned its refugee camps into armed fortresses and training camps used Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israel or Israeli interests abroad.

Paradoxically, it was also at the 1974 and 1977 Palestine National Council meetings that the PLO began moderating its ultimate goal by setting its statehood sights on the West Bank and Gaza rather than the whole of Palestine. In the early 198s, the PLO began edging toward recognition of Israel's right to exist.

1982: The End of the PLO in Lebanon

Israel expelled the PLO from Lebanon in 1982 in the culmination of Israel's invasion of Lebanon that June. The PLO established its headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia (which Israel bombed in October 1985, killing 60 people). By the late 1980s, the PLO was directing the first intifada in the Palestinian territories.

In a speech to the Palestine National Council on Nov. 14, 1988, Arafat recognized Israel's right to exist by symbolically declaring the independence of Palestine while endorsing United Nations Security Council 242--which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops to pre-1967 borders. Arafat's declaration was an implicit endorsement of a two-state solution.

The United States, led by a lame-duck Ronald Reagan at the time, and Israel, led by the hard-liner Yitzhak Shamir, scorned the declaration, and Arafat was himself discredited when he supported Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War.

The PLO, Oslo, and Hamas

The PLO officially recognized Israel, and vice versa, as a result of the Oslo talks of 1993, which also established a framework for peace and a two-state solution. But Oslo never addressed two key issues: Israel's illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, and Palestinian refugees' right of return. As Oslo failed, discrediting Arafat, a second Intifada exploded, this time led not by the PLO, but by a rising militant, Islamic organization: Hamas.

Arafat's power and prestige were further diminished by Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, including a siege of his own compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The PLO's fighters were to some extent incorporated into the Palestine Authority's police force, while the authority itself took over diplomatic and administrative functions. Arafat's death in 2004 and the Palestinian Authority's decreasing influence over the Territories, compared with Hamas, further diminished the PLO's role as a significant player on the Palestinian scene.

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Tristam, Pierre. "An Overview of the Palestine Liberation Organization." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 26). An Overview of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Retrieved from Tristam, Pierre. "An Overview of the Palestine Liberation Organization." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 23, 2021).