Sayigh: Armed Struggle and the Search for State
Full text: 

    One rarely looks forward with anticipation to new books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this volume is an important study of a subject that receives intense polemical interest. Without exaggeration, this work is probably one of the most comprehensive studies yet written about the Palestinian national movement. Sayigh's chronicle of Palestinian politico-military history, with special reference to the PLO, contains a level of detail and specificity that will particularly please specialists, but it can be read and appreciated by nonacademics. Scholars may find the book too unburdened by theory and academic jargon, but this quality also ensures its readership among lay Lebanese and Palestinians once it is translated into Arabic. Every chapter is important and tells the story that has to be told in detail.
    What Sayigh does in this book has never been done before: he traces the origin and evolution of Palestinian military history. The book should have been titled more accurately as a military history of the Palestinian national movement. He succeeds in this tremendous task by mastering the intricate organizational relationships between and within all PLO organizations. A meticulous researcher, Sayigh is able to link the Palestinian story to its wider Arab and regional contexts. This major accomplishment is not only the product of sharp analytical skills and attention to detail, but also to very hard labor. The book is based on primary documents and political literature of the Palestinian people supplemented by numerous interviews with major and minor figures representing a variety of viewpoints and ideological strands in the Palestinian national movement. Refreshingly, the author is too knowledgeable to be swayed by his interviewees.
    More than a chronicle of the Palestinian national movement, the book offers an insightful critique of the path of armed struggle preached and practiced--albeit in deformed ways--by PLO organizations. The author's critique is quite objective; in fact, he may be faulted for writing about the tragic contemporary history of the Palestinian people with little, if any, emotion, passion, sensitivity, or empathy. Sayigh casually labels PLO acts "terrorist" (pp. 210, 306), while refraining from using that term to characterize Israeli attacks against Arab civilians (p. 211). More surprising, an Israeli invasion of Lebanese territory is a "mission" (p. 312). There is much to criticize about PLO behavior, but it is indubitable that Israeli violent acts over the decades have caused the death and injury of far more innocent people than have those of the PLO. Israel's attacks are labeled as "vigorous" (p. 202), and so keen is Sayigh on being dispassionate about his subject of study, he even refuses to hold the Zionist movement or Israel responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees (p. 4). Furthermore, his account of Black September is quite sympathetic to the official Jordanian point of view, primarily blaming PLO organizations for the bloodshed and eviction (not to mention murder) of PLO fighters: "The Jordanian government had good reason to rein in the emerging Palestinian state-within-the-state and reassert its own authority" (p. 243). While the author harbors some sympathy for the role of Abu Jihad (pp. 382, 407, and 689), he does not allow his analysis to serve the interest or agenda of any one leader or movement. He almost sounds neutral, if such a thing is genuinely possible or laudable, about the "rights and wrongs" (p. 4) of the Arab-Israeli conflict itself.
    Sayigh presents a devastating critique of the military strategy--or lack thereof--of all PLO organizations. In chapter 8, he superbly reviews the path of Palestinian armed struggle in theory and practice. He correctly points out that the Palestinian political movement "lacked the single-minded determination to take the practice of armed struggle to the elevated position it occupied in formal doctrine and to develop its organization in a manner commensurate with the task" (p. 664). He laments the "absence of clear thinking on the form and requirements of establishing guerrilla authority" (p. 201). Sayigh also points out that a gap between "the polemical and instrumental approaches to armed struggle" (p. 207). Who can disagree with his criticisms of the destructively fatalistic attitude of PLO leaders such as the late Khalid al-Hassan, who considered the "suicide" of Israel as a "serious possibility" (p. 686)? Similarly, who can disagree that the "PLO was slow to pay serious attention to the inner workings of Israeli society and politics" (p. 676)?
    All those who are concerned about the political future of the Palestinian people would learn from this book. There is so much that is new and original here. English-language readers would learn probably for the first time about the crucial roles of people like Naji 'Allush, Nimr Salih, Mamduh Nawfal, Mustafa al-Zibri, Muhsin Ibrahim, Munir Shafiq, Zuhayr Muhsin, Majid Abu Shrar, and Hani al-Hassan in Palestinian politics. Sayigh's examination of the Fatah movement and its internal squabbles is essential for our understanding of the political and military failures of the movement.
    Sayigh's account of the Palestinian sojourn in Lebanon is the best published account, and his chronicle of the 1965-76 phase of the Lebanese civil war and of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon is close to being definitive. While the quality of the chapters is consistently high throughout, the book appears rushed at the end, especially when the story picks up with the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of 1982. The assassinations of Abu Iyad and Abu al-Hawl, under very mysterious circumstances, are mentioned only briefly (p. 654); the author did not analyze their backgrounds, especially in relation to the secret negotiation that Abu Iyad had been conducting with Abu Nidal. The book provides new information about the extent of the conflict between Arafat and Abu Jihad and how Arafat tried to undermine the power of every capable leader under his command.
    It is very impressive that a book of this size contains only a few errors and mistakes. For example, the Egyptian coleader of Kata'ib al-Fida' al-'Arabi was Husayn Tawfiq and not Tawfiq al-Hakim (p. 72); anti-Jewish attitudes cannot be attributed simply to Islam as Sayigh claims, when it was Christianity that produced this ideology of hate (p. 85); Paul Findley was not a U.S. senator (p. 441); political Islam did not emerge after 1967 (p. 143); the massacred passengers of the bus in 'Ayn al-Rummanah were supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), not the Arab Liberation Front (p. 361); the Revolutionary Socialist Action Organization was not a fictitious name by the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front but the name of a short-lived Lebanese sister party of the PFLP-GC (pp. 365-66); the Workers' Leagues (he most probably means Rabitat al-Shaghghilah, Toilers' League) is not Trotskiest (p. 370) but Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist; relying on the fallacious account of Abu Iyad, he mistakenly portrays the assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon in 1976 by the Socialist Arab Action Party-Lebanon (SAAP; ASAP in the book) as the result of a well-thought-out plan (p. 395), whereas it was the result of the improvised act of a local unit in the Ra's al-Nab' neighborhood; the formation of the Front of Popular Resistance for the Liberation of the South from Occupation and Fascism by SAAP-Lebanon was in fact effective and inspired other Lebanese groups to emulate it (p. 430); it was a group of former disillusioned members, not the SAAP-Lebanon that was behind the attack on the El Al passengers in 1978 at Orly airport (p. 433); SAAP-Lebanon is not defunct (p. 561); and the attacks against UNIFIL in May 1978 were perpetrated, in fairness to Palestinian groups, by the SAAP-Lebanon and not by Palestinian "rejectionist groups" (p. 431). None of those points, however, detracts from the overall validity of this book.
    The translation and transliteration of Arabic is near perfect, but one may suggest a few alterations and corrections: ilhaq is "annexation," not "subordination" (p. 335); hasm 'askari is "military decisiveness," not "military decision" (p. 382); maslakiyyah is either "conduct-related" or "behavioral," not "moral" (p. 598); it is didd, not dud (p. 845); jadwa is "efficacy," not "feasibility" (p. 846); mu'dilatuha is "its dilemma," not "its problems" (p. 849); "tasks" is mahammat, while muhimmat (p. 850) is "missions"; "campaign" is hamlah, not himlah (p. 853); mughalatat is "fallacies," not "distortions" (p. 861); al-uslub is "method," not "means" (p. 845); ma'alim is "features," not "outline" (p. 848); 'afaq is "horizons," not "prospects" (p. 874); and mumarasah is "practice," not "conduct" (p. 875). On the gender question the author is entirely insensitive despite a perfunctory reference in the acknowledgment section (p. xx). This comprehensive military history of the Palestinians leaves women totally outside its scope. For somebody who is a stickler for the name of every male appointed to any major or minor post, it is astonishing that female appointees are referred to as "two women" (p. 189) or "one woman" (p. 207). Why not name them, and why not identify those women who played military roles (like Layla Khalid and Maha Abu Khalil as hijackers and Dalal al-Mughrabi as commando leader, among many others)?
    Documentation for the book is thorough and only a few places need further corroborative evidence: Lebanese discomfort with Hashim 'Ali Muhsin (p. 233); that Walid Qaddurah was an agent of the deuxième bureau (p. 302); and on Syrian intelligence information (p. 598). The book would have been easier to follow for the general reader if the author had used the noms de guerre of PLO leaders instead of their real names: Abu 'Ali Mustafa instead of Mustafa al-Zibri; Abu Salih instead of Nimr Salih; Abu Ahmad Fu'ad instead of Fu'ad 'Abdul-Karim; Abu Iyad instead of Salah Khalaf; Abu Jihad instead of Khalil al-Wazir; Abu 'Adnan instead of Hashim 'Ali Muhsin; Abu al-Hawl instead of Hayil 'Abdul-Hamid; Abu Musa instead of Sa'id Muragha; Abu al-Lutf instead of Faruq al-Qaddumi; Abu al-Za'im instead of 'Atallah 'Atallah; Abu al-Walid instead of Sa'd Sayil; Abu Nidal instead of Sabri al-Banna; and Abu al-Tayyib instead of Tayyib Abdul-Rahim.
    In conclusion, it is not easy to contain one's enthusiasm and admiration for this special book. It fills a gap in the political and academic literature, and the author has rendered a service not only to the scholarly community but also to the Palestinian people. He is writing about the Palestinians' own very contemporary history, their very living memory. The story, however, is a painful one, filled with defeats, frustration, betrayals, incompetence, massacres, and blunders. After finishing this book, one might conclude--not necessarily in accordance with Sayigh's own views--that Yasir Arafat, through mismanagement, arrogance, deceit, duplicity, ruthlessness, political shiftiness, autocratic leadership, encouragement of factionalism, toleration of corruption, conceit, brutality, subservience to corrupt regimes, a fixation with pleasing the United States, and personal envy, has done the Palestinian cause irreparable damage. The author presents the information while suspending his judgment, for the most part.

As'ad Abu Khalil is associate professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Read more