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The Old-New P.L.O.

By Eric Trager

International observers of the Israeli-Palestinian con-flict expect that a resolution will involve Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). Yet although this notion is a popular one, an honest look at history reveals that it is dangerously misguided. It is a product of a mentality that searches for comfortable diplomatic solutions before adequately confronting an uncomfortable reality. Created by one such attempted solution, the Oslo Accords of 1993, the P.A. has, since its founding, continued to endorse and sponsor terrorist activity while oppressing its own people. Despite its initial agreement to dismantle terrorist organizations and establish a legitimate democratic government in the territories it provisionally received from Israel, the P.A. has supported the killing of innocent Israeli civilians, encouraged rejectionism of Israel through its own media channels, and violated the basic principles of an open society that respects the rule of law.

The Oslo Accords sought to end years of violence between Israel and the Palestinians by transforming the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) from an umbrella group for terrorist organizations into a stable self-government. In exchange for the promise that the P.A. would promote peaceful coexistence, Israel granted it land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and autonomy as a ruling body. This was clearly the greatest flaw of Oslo: Israel traded land for promises, exchanging a tangible for intangibles that would never be fulfilled. In signing an agreement that had no provision for ensuring that the P.L.O. would keep its end of the bargain, Israel put itself in a most vulnerable position, ultimately allowing the creation of an authoritarian regime with terrorist ties in its own backyard. Thus, before insisting that Israel return to the negotiating table with Arafat and his partners in the P.A., diplomats and other observers might do well to consider the history and continued brutality of this regime.

The P.L.O.

The rejectionism and terrorist violence of the P.A. should come as no surprise to Israel, for it has long confronted the very same tendencies in the P.L.O. Founded in 1964 at the First Palestinian Conference in Jerusalem, the P.L.O. was created to be the political representative of Arab refugees from Israel’s War of Independence. These refugees were living largely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, then occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively. At that time, there were no “occupied territories” as the term is generally used today. Rather, tor the P.L.O., all of Israel was “occupied territory.” The Palestinian National Charter, the definitional document of the movement, vowed solemnly to annihilate the Jewish State by force. In its own words, its purpose was to “amass its forces...to continue its struggle and to move forward on the path of holy war (al jihad) until complete and final victory has been attained.”1

Initially, the P.L.O. intended to rely on the support of the Arab nations surrounding Israel to unseat the Israeli government and replace it with its own. Yet after Egypt, Syria, and Jordan failed to defeat Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, the P.L.O. turned to a strategy of guerilla warfare. Egyptian-born Yassir Arafat, leader of the Fatah movement, became leader of the P.L.O. and, with the backing of the Syrian government, worked to increase the organization’s military strength.2 Soon thereafter, in 1968, it launched a series of small guerilla attacks on Israel from its headquarters in Jordan. Israel responded swiftly, and under the command of General Ariel Sharon, bulldozed roads within Palestinian camps and stationed armored vehicles to patrol them.3

Thus suppressed by Israeli security measures, the P.L.O. turned its military focus against Jordan, questioning the legitimacy of the then-ruling Hashemite government. King Hussein of Jordan became increasingly wary of threats to his regime and jailed a Palestinian leader who voiced open criticism. The P.L.O. responded by seizing a hotel in downtown Amman, holding its European guests hostages, abducting and murdering a United States military attaché, and wounding a French diplomat.4 Although King Hussein initially agreed to meet some of the P.L.O.’s demands—most notably veto rights over cabinet appointments—he decided soon thereafter that he had no choice but to strike back. In September of 1970, King Hussein launched his army against P.L.O. strongholds, expelling the P.L.O. from Jordan in 1971. The Palestinian guerilla forces retreated largely to Lebanon.

With at least seven armed guerilla groups operating out of Lebanon by the early 1970s, the P.L.O. refocused its attention against Israel, launching a number of small campaigns against northern Israeli villages. In March of 1978, a group of Palestinian terrorists crossed the northern Israeli border, murdered an American tourist on a beach, and hijacked a civilian bus, killing 34. Israel responded militarily, and a wave of violence ensued. The P.L.O. ignored the ceasefire brokered by the United States in July of 1981, committing 270 terrorist attacks through June of 1982.5 During this period, it built a tremendous arsenal, equipped with enough light arms for five brigades, along with mortars, Katyusha rockets, and an antiaircraft network.6 Finally, when Palestinians attempted to assassinate Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov in June of 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. After over a year of fighting, Israel had captured Beirut, defeated Arafat’s forces, and withdrawn, leaving behind 1,000 soldiers to help patrol a security zone on Lebanon’s southern border.7

Despite its withdrawal from Lebanon, the P.L.O.’s agressive tactics did not wane. Most notably, it orchestrated a violent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that began in 1987 and lasted until 1993. The leading group of the uprising, the Unified Leadership of the intifada, was dominated by the P.L.O. It frequently issued leaflets establishing where and when the violent attacks against Israeli civilians would take place.8 The intifada also took its toll on Arabs whom Yassir Arafat deemed to be collaborating with Israel. The “intrafada,” as it came to be known, sought to cleanse the territories of Palestinian dissidents, whose “offenses” ranged from working in Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza to merely having contact with Jews.9 Through the repeated maiming and killing of suspected Arab informers, the intrafada claimed the lives of over 1,000 Palestinians.10

The P.L.O. continued its onslaught against Israel by playing an active role in the Persian Gulf War. Arafat believed that a powerful Iraq would help the Palestinians to oust the Israeli government. Thus, P.L.O. officials in Kuwait provided critical intelligence information to Saddam Hussein, enabling Iraq’s invasion.11 One even declared that he was prepared to send 50,000 Palestinian fighters to protect Iraq.12 Once the war began, Arafat was adamant in his support for Saddam Hussein, declaring his regime “the defender of the Arab nation, of Muslims and of free men everywhere.”13 Even after Iraq’s defeat, Arafat continued to vocally support Hussein.

Thus, when Israel arrived at peace talks in Oslo in 1993, it was bargaining with a partner that had been conspiring with terrorist organizations for decades; had encouraged attacks on Israeli civilians; had killed nearly 1,000 of its own people for disagreeing with its policies; and had supported Saddam Hussein against the United States. Though at the time observers throughout the world viewed Oslo with great hope—as the harbinger of security for Israelis and self-determination for beleaguered Palestinians—many now realize that Israel had overlooked or simply chosen to ignore the real intentions of its bargaining partner. The result, as we see today, is that the same rejectionism and violence once instigated by the P.L.O. continues under the auspices of an armed and legitimized P.A.

The Oslo Accords

The 1993 Oslo Agreement and subsequent 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement took measures towards establishing a democratic Palestinian state that would recognize and coexist with Israel. Signed by Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, the Accords attempted to end the violence of the intifada in a reasonable, diplomatic way. Yet in putting complete faith in this political solution, Israel consented to establish, legitimize, and arm a force that has never fully accepted its existence. This blind optimism, on the part of both Israelis and the international community, is evidenced by the vagueness of the Accords themselves. In this agreement, Israel conceded land and conferred power on the P.A. in exchange for unclearly delineated duties and, in the end, unfulfilled promises.

The Oslo Agreement first laid the groundwork for the founding of the P.A. It stipulated that internationally observed, “direct, free, and general political elections” would be held upon Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho.14 Along with the establishment of the elected Palestinian Council, the Agreement allowed for a strong Palestinian police force.15 The 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement further detailed the functions of the Palestinian Council, including an executive committee within the Council to be called the Executive Authority. One significant weakness of this part of the Accords was the breadth of power it attributed to the Executive Authority, including the complete power to determine its own internal procedures and decision making processes.16 The unlimited nature of the Executive Authority’s role in Palestinian government is in part what led to its corruption, allowing Yassir Arafat to take near-dictatorial control of the P.A.

Although both the 1993 and 1995 phases of the Oslo Accords outlined measures for cooperative efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the logistical details of Israel’s withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, neither provided adequately for Israel’s security needs. The Interim Agreement stipulated that it would be the job of the Palestinian police to “act systematically against all expressions of violence and terror.”17 Although it placed responsibility for controlling terrorist organizations on the P.A., the Agreement did not provide a system of checks by which Israel could ensure that this end of the bargain was met. Furthermore, in assuming that Israeli and Palestinian police would willingly share intelligence in order to crack down on terrorist organizations, the negotiators did not set up a clear enough procedure through which such information would be exchanged. As a result, while Israel has frequently provided Arafat with lists of known terrorists, the P.A. has refused to make the necessary arrests. By thus overestimating the goodwill of Arafat and his colleagues, Oslo failed ensure that such basic confidence-building measures would be taken.

The Interim Agreement also included provisions requiring Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to acquire licenses in order to carry firearms. It placed responsibility for keeping up-to-date license records and seizing unlicensed weapons on the Palestinian police.18 Yet once again, the Agreement did not explicitly outline the method by which Israel could ensure that this clause would be met, and the provision was never implemented adequately.

Moreover, in opting to legitimize its enemy in exchange for promises of peace and security, Israel sent the message that it was weakened from years of violence and thus desperate to reach a settlement. In short, the message it sent to the P.L.O. was that its terrorist tactics had worked. In this light, it seems that the misguided optimism that underlay Oslo—based as it was on a mistaken belief in the willingness of the P.L.O. to compromise—not only led to an agreement that did not adequately consider Israel’s security needs but, in giving the appearance that Israel was weak, simultaneously encouraged the use of violence as an effective political tool.

The P.A. and its Failures

The Oslo Accords gave the P.L.O. legitimacy in the form of the P.A., while Israel agreed to withdraw from lands with only a minimal recognition of its true priority in seeking peace: internal security. With its newfound legitimacy, the P.A. proceeded to establish a government that denies its people basic civil liberties, fills government-controlled media with anti-Israel propaganda, refuses to disassemble terrorist organizations, and continues to support and participate in acts of terror against civilians.

Life under the P.A. is oppressive. As during the “intrafada” of the late 1980s, the P.A. has exploited its power by fixing elections, depriving Palestinians of basic social welfare, reversing West Bank court decisions, and detaining its own citizens without charges.

Consider, for example, the financial corruption of the P.A. In a report published in 1997, the Palestinian Council “found that $326 million of the Palestinian Authority’s $800 million annual budget had been squandered through corruption and mismanagement.”18 The corruption has taken place among those closest in rank to Arafat. Consider Information and Culture Minister Yassir Abed Rabbo’s use of $7,500 from the ministry budget to install a central heating system in his home; high-ranking official Abu Mazin’s million-dollar home; Civil Affairs Minister Jamal Tarifi and Planning Minister Nabil Sha’th’s misappropriation of funds from foreign donors; and Transportation Minister Ali Qawashma acceptance of bribes to license illegal cars.19 The indulgences of Palestinian leaders have not gone unnoticed by the Palestinian public; in a survey conducted in June 1997, 62 percent of Palestinians said they believed the P.A. was corrupt and just over 50 percent supported a vote of no-confidence against Arafat’s administration.20

Challenges to Arafat’s authority, however, have been almost entirely suppressed by his authoritarian regime. The democratic procedures outlined in Oslo were abandoned when the Palestinian government held its first elections in 1996. The P.A. closed down newspapers, restricted telephone access, and intimidated campaign workers in a successful attempt to suppress opposition.21 It bribed candidates to withdraw from the election and overruled the voting of the Fatah primaries by replacing the victors with handpicked candidates from established Palestinian clans.22 Arafat further assured his victory by allowing the P.A. police to monitor Palestinians as they voted in over 100 polling sites.23

In addition to failing to fulfill the governmental procedures outlined by Oslo, the P.A. has consistently refused to crack down on terrorists. The current intifada is simply an extension of the pattern of violence begun after Oslo with a wave of terrorist bombings. At the time, Arafat and the P.A. consistently found many a reason to justify the attacks. In 1995, the P.A. claimed that the two terrorist bombers who murdered 21 Israeli bus passengers did so out of anger regarding increased security and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet such security measures were an inevitable, and reasonable, Israeli response to three years of mounting terrorist activity.24 The P.A. has also unceasingly encouraged jihad and martyrdom through the tightly controlled Palestinian media. In one radio advertisement, Arafat recalls the death of a 12 year-old child caught in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire and urges other Palestinian children to join him in paradise by becoming child martyrs.25

Recent months have demonstrated even more conclusively that Arafat never intended to crack down on terrorists nor to encourage recognition of Israel among the Palestinian people. Prospects for peace have grown increasingly dim since the summer of 2000, when after rejecting a peace plan that included Palestinian control of East Jerusalem, Arafat balked at offering a counter-proposal and opted instead to unleash a wave of violence that has continued until today.

In response to the Palestinian terror attack that took place on the first night of the Passover holiday, noted Israeli columnist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote:

For Israelis, there is something surreal in the world’s preoccupation with political solutions to the Middle East crisis. Mitchell-Tenet, the Zinni mission, the Saudi plan—all assume a conflict amenable to rational solutions, a Palestinian leadership ready to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish State. But Arafat in his besieged office proclaiming his desire to die like the seder suicide bomber—‘Oh God, give me martyrdom like this,’ he told [the P.A. television station] Al Jazeera on March 29—should have put to rest the fantasies of the peace-makers. Does anyone imagine that the Israeli public—even those of us who in principle are ready for almost any concession in exchange for real peace—will accept a plan that involves ‘sharing’ Jerusalem with Arafat?26

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is still affirmative. Journalists, European leaders, and certainly many in the Arab world continue to expect that Israel will negotiate with Arafat or, failing that, with officials close to him in the ranks of the P.A. Such stubborn legitimation of the P.A. betrays either a dangerously unrealistic analysis of the situation or intentional malice towards Israel. As the tragedy of September 11 demonstrated, nations whose governments support and participate in terrorist acts pose a serious threat to innocent civilians worldwide and must be held accountable. A peace process that recognizes the P.A. as the government of a Palestinian state will only strengthen the belligerent threat against Israel and tacitly sanction the terrorist approach that threatens the world at large.

Eric Trager, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Queens, New York.


1. Palestinian National Charter, para 3.
2. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel: From The Rise of Zionism to Our Time (San Diego: Alfred Knopf, 2001), 683.
3. Ibid, p. 685.
4. Ibid.
5. Mitchell Bard, “Lebanon War,” www.us-israel.or/jsource/History/Lebanon_War.html, para 2.
6. Ibid, para 3.
7. Ibid, para 18.
8. Joel Greenberg and Michal Sela, “Palestinians Reject U.S. Criticism of Terror Bids,” Jerusalem Post March 14, 1989, p. 1.
9. Sachar, p. 965.
10. Ibid.
11. Mitchell Bard, “The Gulf War,” www.us-israel.or/jsource/ History/Gulf_War, para 46.
12. Ibid, para 44.
13. Declaration of Principles On Interim Self-Government Arrangements, III:1 and V:1.
14. Ibid, VIII.
15. Oslo Interim Agreement, V:2.
16. Oslo Interim Agreement, Annex I, II:2:b.
17. Ibid, II:2:c.
18. Kenneth C.W. Leiter, “Palestinian Authority,” Middle East Quarterly, September 1998, p. 47.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid, p. 41.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Derek Brown, “Israel wants Proof P.L.O. Is Getting Tough on Terrorists; Palestinians Decry Decision to Extend Border Closing,” The Ottawa Citizen, February 6, 1995, p. A5.
25. Tom Rose, “The End of Oslo,” The Weekly Standard, June 18, 2001, p. 27.
26. Yossi Klein Halevi, “Agoraphobia,” The New Republic, April 2, 2002, p. 20.

This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

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The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh