The Blog

The Folly of Linkage

4:50 PM, Dec 16, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Regional power politics also mattered. By 1965, Fatah had been co-opted by the Syrian military intelligence apparatus, which was increasingly under the sway of the Syria’s Ba’ath Party. Damascus wanted to control its own front organization that could take credit for attacks against Israeli targets that actually originated in Lebanon or Jordan. The Syrian military would train and recruit Fatah agents whilst Damascus Radio would broadcast tales of their exploits over the airwaves, shaming Nasser’s toothless PLO. Syria hoped to put Jordan and Lebanon in a double bind: if they retaliated against Fatah, then they would forfeit their claim to the Palestinian cause, leaving Syria as its sole defender. If they failed to retaliate, they would be pummeled by a vengeful Israel—forcing Egypt, which claimed to the Arab world’s leader, to defend Jordan and Lebanon militarily. 

As the British historian David Gilmour has written: “At that time the PLO was not designed to do much about liberating Palestine. Its role was to shout a bit about solidarity and so on, but not to do any actual fighting. Its purpose was to contain rather than express Palestinian nationalism, to act as an outlet for Palestinian frustration--not to be an effective military organization might drag the Arab states into a war with Israel.” 

Syria, by its own provocations in underwriting Palestinian terrorism, became the pace-setter for the disastrous Six-Day War. The first armed operation by the Fatah-Syrian alignment was on New Year’s Eve, 1965. Known as Fatah’s Military Communique No. 1., it was an abortive attack on Israel’s National Water Carrier (the assailants were caught by the Israelis before they could cross the border from Lebanon). The act was condemned by Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan but was praised fulsomely by Syria, which had orchestrated it. For Nasser, the only recourse—short of forfeiting his regional authority—was to transform the PLO into a terrorist organization, which he did beginning in 1965-1966, using Egyptian-controlled Gaza as a base of operations.

The Six-Day War that erupted in June 1967 and resulted in Israel’s legendary defeat of three conventional armies (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) proved to be a devastating obituary for Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism and all other regional political designs save one: the restoration of Palestine. As British journalist and chronicler of the Palestinian refugees Rosemary Sayigh has written: “For the [Arab] regimes, the Resistance Movement (which they had tried to suppress before 1967) now had a specific usefulness, in diverting public opinion from defeat, and giving it new hope.” 

The following year, 1968, Arafat did two things that further decided the course of inter-Arab politics for a decade. The first was that he relocated his headquarters from Damascus to Amman, from where he unsuccessfully attempted to establish a foothold. The second thing he did was join the PLO in a bid to free his Fatah movement from being owned by Syria. The PLO was rebranded a “confederation” of various groups but in actuality became just another armed wing of Fatah, with Arafat serving as chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislative body. Also enlisted in the PLO’s ranks were younger, smaller terrorist organizations, such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which had been backed by Iraq, and Nayef Hawatmeh’s breakaway faction, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).  

Interestingly, given today’s conventional wisdom of seeing all roads to peace leading through Jerusalem, the slogans of both the PFLP and DFLP in the late 1960s was: “The road to Tel Aviv lies through Amman.” Habash and Hawatmeh wanted to ignite a revolution in their host country that would spread throughout the Arab world and their preferred kindling was a series of terrorist “spectaculars.” The most notable of these was the September 1970 hijacking of four international civilian aircraft, three of which were brought to a desert airstrip in Jordan where their passengers were offloaded and the planes themselves blown up. One of these was a Pan American 747, which led to immediate pressure on Jordan by the U.S. to bring Palestinian terrorism to heel.

Recent Blog Posts