Political Representation and Armed Struggle

In 1974, both the Arab League and the United Nations recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” This article explores the dynamic history of the PLO’s methods of political representation from its establishment in 1964 through the height of the armed struggle in the mid-seventies. Contrasting fedayee theories of political representation with their practice, the author draws upon a range of ideological documents produced by different guerrilla factions, as well as accounts from prominent actors in the movement.

DURING THE MID-1960S, three principal actors waged a battle over the right to represent the Palestinian people: the Arab League (with its member states’ competing agendas), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Ahmad Shuqayri, and a cohort of young petit bourgeois Palestinian activists who would eventually come to form the Palestinian resistance movement. Shuqayri founded the PLO and the Palestine National Council (PNC) in 1964 in the context of the restrictive mandate assigned to him by the Arab League.1 Shuqayri saw the PLO’s establishment as a milestone in the struggle to achieve Palestinian “entity-ness” (kayaniyya).2 However, the young activists saw Shuqayri’s PLO as a puppet institution through which the Arab League sought to exercise its domination and patronage (wisaya) of the Palestinian question. By the end of the 1950s these young activists would coalesce into several political parties with varying ideologies. These fedayeen (guerrillas) championed armed struggle against Israel, a bastion of colonialism and Western imperialism, as the sole means of liberating Palestine, and encouraged the Palestinian masses to take up and support this struggle. By the time the fedayeen took over the PLO in 1969, the Palestinian revolution was well into its heyday.

Palestinian armed struggle carried significant implications for Palestinian political representation. The fedayeen considered it to be a means of mobilizing a mass movement that would, in turn, grant true meaning to a notion of representation that went beyond mere electoral politics. Made up primarily of armed factions, the Palestinian national movement emerged as the chief contender for the mantle of representative of the Palestinians, and in 1974, the Arab League recognized the PLO, under the leadership of the fedayee factions, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The men and women who were involved in the Palestinian resistance movement did not conceive of their actions in terms of their representative dimensions. Rather, they acted on the basis of their movement’s potential to achieve national liberation, making possible an eventual return to their homeland.

Today, the received wisdom among Palestinians about the early national movement revolves around the Palestinian fedayeen’s successful efforts at creating a Palestinian mass movement and reawakening popular political consciousness. More specifically, armed struggle is often purported to have played a crucial role in bringing about this historic development. This perception partly derives from populist fedayee rhetoric, which emphasized the role of the Palestinian “masses” (al-jamahir)asagentsof a “people’s long-term liberation war.” The armed struggle, as it was practiced by the fedayeen, served initially as a mobilizing force in the Palestinian mass movement, but eventually it became the limit of its mass character. This limitation was in part due to the fedayeen’s monopoly on violence, and thus their monopoly on power. It was also due to the factions’ desire to gain political hegemony and exercise considerable influence over the political system of representation.

Representation in Theory


The Palestine National Council was the highest political and representative body of the PLO, tasked with setting the organization’s overall policy and ensuring the leadership’s adherence to and implementation of its resolutions. The PNC’s representative character radically shifted in the years between 1964 and the early 1970s. The first Palestine National Council, convening in Jerusalem in 1964, was based on the principle of proportional representation according to the geographic distribution of Palestinians across the world, with a total of 400 Palestinian delegates participating in the conference.3 With Shuqayri’s resignation in 1967 and Yahya Hammuda’s interim succession, the fedayeen began to gradually join and dominate the PLO. This process was formalized by the fedayee takeover of the PNC in 19694 after the fourth PNC was reconfigured in July 1968 to have 100 seats, half of which were allotted to the fedayeen. A coalition of fedayee factions headed by Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) took the lion’sshare of those seats (thirty-eight), while the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) was given ten.5 The pre-allocation of the seats in this manner would usher in the PNC’semerging “quota system,” which would be adopted in the council in different incarnations for decades to come. Fatah created this system in cooperation with Yahya Hammuda, who after 1968 worked to ensure Fatah’s influence at the PNC. Fatah’s primacy was considered natural given its massive popularity after the Karama Battle (discussed in more detail below), considered an indicator of its representativeness.

The fedayeen took official control of the PLO at the fifth PNC session in February 1969.6 The PFLP was dissatisfied with the distribution in the shares of representation, receiving only twelve seats, on par with al-Sa‘iqa’s seats, despite the latter group’s lack of a mass base and the PFLP’s greater representativeness. This distribution was the product of Fatah’s strategy to assuage al-Sa‘iqa and gain it as an ally, while limiting the PFLP’s influence within the PNC. As a result, the PFLP chose, in tandem with the Palestine Liberation Front, to boycott the conference in protest at the emergent quota system and the lack of recognition of the PFLP as the second-largest force after Fatah.7 The battle over shares of representation within the PNC was therefore the institutional expression of factionalism. For Fatah, national unity meant the absorption of all the fedayee forces under a PLO in which Fatah formed the backbone by occupying the largest share of seats in the PNC, using its mass popularity as a justification.8 For obvious reasons, the PFLP rejected this articulation of national unity,9 but was eventually forced to abandon its demands for a larger share in light of the events of Black September (when the Jordanian military’s onslaught devastated the fedayeen, giving rise to the urgent need for their unity). As a result, the PFLP returned to the fold, and shortly thereafter the Unified Command of the Palestinian Resistance Movement was formed.10

With this show of unity enshrined at the seventh PNC, membership expanded by about fifty to accommodate new fedayee groups and additional trade unionists. However, this ostensible reconstitution did not significantly alter Fatah-led fedayee hegemony over the council; the unified block of the resistance movement held a total of eighty-five seats (retaining the original distribution among the fedayee factions), while independents held forty-four seats, and the unions twenty-six. Future sessions would see increased seat distribution in favor of independents, but the fedayeen still exercised influence over most of them, as most of the independents and mass organizations were informally tied to the factions, with very few exceptions.11

The wide divergences in fedayee political agendas prevented the fedayeen from controlling the PNC as one bloc. Some of the factions would often bypass the PLO in their political decisions, a trend clearly reflected in the antagonistic stance of the PFLP and the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) toward the Jordanian regime during 1970—a contributing factor to Black September.12 The parties acted this way in their capacity as armed factions, possessing their own level of military autonomy and political clout. Their show of armed force meant that they enjoyed a political power that superseded the authority of PNC decisions. This political power also presented obstacles to the democratic character of Palestinian decision making.


The Palestinian revolution emerged onto the world stage in the context of a much wider upsurge of anticolonial guerilla movements during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these movements identified with Marxism-Leninism and the Maoist doctrine of guerilla warfare. Similar ideological factors influenced the development of the fedayeen, who took particular inspiration from Mao, as well as from the Vietnamese and Algerian experiences. The leftist Palestinian factions adopted Marxist-Leninist organizational politics, while Fatah accepted the reigning political jargon of the time and echoed generally leftist, and particularly Maoist, rhetoric. These ideological frameworks presented a way for imagining the resistance movement as a popular phenomenon represented by the PLO. Armed struggle was to be its chief means of mobilization, the armed factions its vanguard, and the Palestinian refugee camps its mass base.13

Fatah acted as an underground organization in its early years, in order to avoid provoking the ire of Arab governments. It deliberately avoided going into ideological detail14 in its founding documents, and was consequently characterized by a poorly conceptualized political framework.15 Even leaders of Fatah, such as Hani al-Hasan, have pointed out the theoretical poverty of Filastinuna, Fatah’s underground magazine.16 Upon inspecting its various issues, one would be hard-pressed to see anything beyond passing mention of the ideological tenets of the guerrilla action for which Fatah and the fedayeen would later become known. A part of the ideological ambiguity had to do with the membership of the movement at that time: it was largely made up of the nonsocialist founding cohort of Yasir Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir, who shared a history of involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fatah’s sparse theoretical formulations would quickly evolve after 1965, when it conducted its first military operation in the territories occupied in 1948 and officially launched the armed revolution. This maiden operation, commonly dubbed al-Intilaqah, served as the catalyzing event that brought public discussion of armed struggle into the Arab and Palestinian public spheres. Members of different ideological backgrounds joined the movement, including a cohort of former members of Arab nationalist parties such as Naji ‘Allush, Munir Shafiq, Majid Abu Sharar, Hanna Mikhail, and many others. They would come to form the leftist current of Fatah and eventually influence Fatah’s theory of fedayee action.

As a basic principle, the armed Palestinian factions phrased their populism similarly. Fatah called for the creation of “a revolutionary atmosphere” through armed struggle, which would allow Palestinians to take “a leading role in the liberation of their homeland.”17 The PFLP and the DFLP echoed these sentiments, although they incorporated a class analysis of the Palestine problem in their political statements and manifestos. All the factions agreed on the organizational model of the “revolutionary vanguard” (al-tali‘a al-thawriyya), which would play the leading role in mobilizing the masses and teaching them the principles of fedayee ideology. Once it roused the masses, the vanguard would be able to instigate a long-term armed people’s war, the end point of which was liberation and eventual return.

Read more