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Palestine Liberation Organization

Glenn E. Robinson
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Palestine Liberation Organization

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964 in Jerusalem. It was founded in response to a number of factors, including the growing salience of the Palestine question in inter-Arab politics; the increasing friction between the Arab states and Israel over water diversion projects and other issues; and the growth of underground, independent Palestinian nationalist activity, which Arab governments, notably that of Egypt, wanted to preempt.

Development of the PLO.

The PLO quickly became the arena for much of this nationalist activity, which was increasingly directed at achieving independence of political action from the Arab regimes, in addition to the basic aim of liberating Palestine and securing the return of the approximately 700,000 Palestinians who had been made refugees in 1948. In the wake of the June 1967 war, and the attendant shattering of the prestige of Arab regimes, control of the PLO was seized by independent Palestinian political formations with a more radical program than that of the original founders. These factions have dominated the organization ever since. Fatah stands for the Arabic Harakāt al-Tahrīr al-Watanī al-Filistīnī, or Palestinian National Liberation Movement; fatāḥ means “opening” or “conquest.” It is by far the largest faction within the PLO, although leftist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestine Communist Party have also played key roles in the development of the PLO.

The PLO's first leader, the lawyer Aḥmad Shuqayrī, was a close ally of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the PLO was strongly influenced by Egypt during its early years. However, in 1969, the organization signaled its emerging independence by choosing Fatah's leader, Yasir Arafat, as chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, the organization's guiding body. Arafat held the position until his death in November 2004. In 1968, the PLO's charter was amended to reflect the ideology of militant groups like Fatah, which advocated Palestinian-initiated “armed struggle” against Israel as the main vehicle for the liberation of Palestine. This ideology marks a contrast to the original approach of Shuqayrī and others of his generation, who believed that Arab states must play the leading role in dealing with Israel. The ideology of “armed struggle” was also a means by which the emergent middle-class leadership of the PLO could differentiate itself from the Palestinian elite, who were widely viewed as not suitably militant.

The new leaders of the PLO were younger, more radical, and generally of more modest social backgrounds than the old-line politicians from upper-class families who had dominated both the organization and Palestinian politics prior to 1969. These younger leaders also came from disparate political backgrounds. Arafat and his closest colleagues in Fatah, Ṣalāḥ Khalaf (Abū ʿIyāḍ) and Khalīl al-Wazīr (Abū Jihād), were deeply influenced, during their time as students in Egypt, by the Muslim Brotherhood. Others, such as Fārūq al-Qaddūmī (Abū Luṭf) of Fatah, and George Habash, leader of the PFLP, were closer to Baʿthist or other Arab nationalist ideologies. They all agreed, however, on the principle of Palestinian agency—that Palestinians themselves must initiate political action and other forms of struggle—and all shared a profound skepticism regarding the professed commitment of Arab governments to act in support of the Palestinians.

After the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the PLO rapidly became the central focus of Palestinian political activity and by 1974 it was recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by the Palestinians themselves, Arab and Islamic countries, and much of the rest of the world. “Armed struggle” by the PLO included some notorious acts, such as a wave of airplane hijackings spearheaded by Wadi Haddad and the PFLP, and the “Black September” attack by Fatah on Israel's Olympic team at the 1972 games in Munich. The insurgency against Israel inside the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the international acts of violence failed to garner much success for the PLO, which gradually turned toward political solutions after the early 1970s. With the PLO's expulsion from Jordan in 1970–1971, it reestablished its operations in Lebanon, and increasingly focused on creating state-like institutions.

Beginning in 1974 with the twelfth meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the highest representative body of the PLO, the organization began to move away from its original maximalist policy of calling for the liberation of Palestine in its entirety, and toward a two-state solution that called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in accordance with pertinent United Nations Security Council resolutions. This evolution was completed with the resolutions of the nineteenth PNC meeting in 1988 and the PNC's declaration of independence in the same year. This position firmly established the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (to be achieved via negotiations with Israel in an international forum) as the PLO's political objective.

This political evolution, while representative of majority Palestinian sentiment and welcome to most Arab states and much of the international community, met with the resistance of an important minority among Palestinians. Initially, the main advocates of this resistance were the so-called rejectionist groups of the PLO, backed by Arab regimes that claimed to be opposed to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict or to the recognition of Israel. As these states waned in their opposition or their importance, and as the rejectionist trend within the PLO weakened, radical Islamic groups increasingly came to lead the Palestinian opposition to the PLO's policy of a negotiated, compromise settlement that would result in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel.

The most important of these Islamic groups, ḥamās (from the Arabic word meaning “zeal” or “enthusiasm” and an acronym for ḥarakāt al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmīyah) was founded in 1988 in the Gaza Strip as an outgrowth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had long been a political force among Palestinians. ḥamās soon spread to the West Bank and other areas. It was established in response to several factors, including the outbreak of the first intifāḍah or Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories in December 1987; the growth of militant, independent Islamic groups such as Islamic Jihād, which strongly criticized the moderate line of the Muslim Brotherhood vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation; and the PLO's political shift toward a compromise solution with Israel.

The Oslo Accords.

In 1993, the PLO exchanged letters of recognition with Israel, and both signed a Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DOP), commonly known as the Oslo Accords. The PLO accepted terms in the Oslo Accords that it had previously rejected, including a five-year interim period prior to the commencement of an unstated final status arrangement. The PLO probably accepted unfavorable terms because of its desperate organizational situation. Arafat's support for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to the financial bankruptcy of the PLO (which had received the bulk of its funding from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) and to its political marginalization regionally and internationally. The Oslo Accords were a surprise development that appeared to rescue the PLO from a critical situation, open up prospects of a change in the status quo in the Occupied Territories, and spark new Palestinian opposition.

The PLO's gambit in signing the DOP in 1993 and a series of other agreements with Israel throughout the 1990s failed to produce an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, Israeli colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem intensified during this period, with Jewish settlers doubling in number during the first decade of the Oslo peace process. The failure of the Oslo peace process gave more political clout to opponents of the PLO, especially ḥamās. The inability of the PLO, Israel, and the United States to agree to terms of a final settlement at Camp David in the summer of 2000 ignited a second Palestinian uprising in September, the “al-Aqṣā Intifāḍah.” While Fatah initially controlled the Palestinians in this second intifāḍah, they gradually lost ground to Ḥamās, whose suicide bombings inflicted the most casualties on Israel.

The death of Yasir Arafat in November 2004 accelerated the fragmentation of Fatah and the PLO. Fatah had, by 1993 when it focused on creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, already lost significant control over the Palestinian diaspora population. Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon came to symbolize the often lawless character of this new reality, as PLO authority in the camps waned and the power of radical Islamists gained ground. Inside Palestine, the second Palestinian intifāḍah and its suppression by Israel led to the geographic fragmentation of the West Bank, where over five hundred permanent checkpoints and road closures made travel from town to town nearly impossible. As a result, local strongmen gained control over small fragments of Palestine; many of these men claimed allegiance to the PLO but in reality exerted power for their own interests. The widespread corruption of Fatah rulers while in power also contributed to discontent and opposition among Palestinians.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, prompting Palestinian groups to jockey for power. ḥamās effectively won the initial competition, first through its victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and then in its 2007 plot to drive Fatah and the PLO out of Gaza. Whether Fatah in particular and the PLO in general can regroup and regain their preeminent position in Palestinian politics is unknown. Certainly, the era of Fatah one-party dominance over Palestinian politics is over and a new era of political pluralism has begun.



  • Abū ʿIyāḍ [ Ṣalāḥ Khalaf] with Eric Rouleau. My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle. New York: Times Books, 1981. A frank, first-person account by one of the founders of Fatah.
  • Brand, Laurie A.Palestinians in the Arab World: Institution Building and the Search for State. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Careful examination of some of the major constitutive organizations of the PLO.
  • Brown, Nathan J.Palestinian Politics after the Oslo Accords. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2003. A careful analysis of Palestinian politics in the Palestinian Authority, with a focus on legal and constitutional issues.
  • Brynen, Rex. Sanctuary and Survival: The PLO in Lebanon. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Study of the PLO's “Lebanese era,” from 1969 to 1982.
  • Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power, and Politics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Standard work on the history of the PLO during its first two decades.
  • Farsoun, Samih K.Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. General history of the Palestinians with a sympathetic voice.
  • Gresh, Alain. The PLO: The Struggle Within. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1985. Detailed and knowledgeable examination of the evolution of PLO policies.
  • Khalidi, Rashid. Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking during the 1982 War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Case study of how the PLO functioned during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, based on primary sources.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. Excellent sociological and political overview of Palestinian history.
  • Maʿoz, Moshe. Palestinian Leadership on the West Bank: The Changing Role of the Arab Mayors under Jordan and Israel. London: F. Cass, 1984. Examines key role of West Bank city mayors under Jordanian and Israeli rule.
  • Mishal, Shaul. The PLO under Arafat: Between Gun and Olive Branch. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Critical analysis of shifts in PLO strategy through the mid-1980s.
  • Parsons, Nigel. The Politics of the Palestinian Authority. New York: Routledge, 2005. A detailed analysis of Palestinian politics in the Palestinian Authority, including the breakdown of the Oslo Accords and the second uprising.
  • Quandt, William B., Fuad Jabber, and Ann Mosely Lesch. The Politics of Palestinian Nationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Valuable but now dated study of different facets of Palestinian nationalism.
  • Robinson, Glenn E.Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Case study of first Palestinian uprising and its political aftermath. Based on primary sources.
  • Rouleau, Eric. Les Palestiniens: D’une guerre à l’autre. Paris: Editions la Découverte, 1984. Acute analysis of the PLO and its leadership by a journalist.
  • Sahliyeh, Emile. In Search of Leadership: West Bank Politics since 1967. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1988. Valuable overview of the PLO's rise in the West Bank in the first two decades following the 1967 War.
  • Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Single best source on the PLO, using unrivaled primary sources.
  • Shemesh, Moshe. The Palestinian Entity, 1959–1974: Arab Politics and the PLO. London: F. Cass, 1988. Examines the development of the idea of a Palestinian state up to 1974.
  • Smith, Charles D.Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 5th ed.Boston: St. Martin's Press, 2004. Best textbook on the conflict; includes essential documents.
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