World attention was riveted on the Palestinian liberation movement in September 1970 when the hijacking of four jet-planes and the holding of their passengers as hostages was shortly followed by the outbreak of civil war in Jordan, These developments gave the Palestinian struggle greater publicity than it had ever received before, but they also illustrated the weaknesses of this movement and the precarious political and military terrain it had occupied since it first achieved prominence in the aftermath of the June 1967 Israeli victory.

The Palestinian movement is involved in a struggle against colonial oppression and against the imperialist forces that support both the Israeli and the reactionary Arab states. But it has certain specific features that make its task one of great complexity and difficulty. First, the Palestinian community is geographically fragmented to an extreme degree: it is scattered into different groups inside pre-1967 Israel, the post-1967 West Bank, Gaza, the present territories of Jordan and Lebanon, and the Gulf and other Arab regions. The social base for a revolution, and the operation of class forces within the movement, are therefore far more complex and refracted than in more classical instances. This dispersal of the pre-existent Palestinian social structure is a result of the specific character of Zionist colonialism: so too is another equally important feature of the Palestinian struggle—the nature of the enemy it faces. The Palestinian resistance does not simply represent poor and unarmed masses against a well-armed, but minoritarian ruling class: it confronts an enemy which, because of present Zionist integration of the Israeli working class, is as numerically strong as itself, and is at the moment far better organized socially, politically and militarily.

This difficult situation is aggravated by the lack of any Arab state genuinely committed to the support of a Palestinian revolution. The resistance has been faced since its inception with the alternatives of either operating within the limits set by the neighbouring Arab states—Egypt and Jordan in particular—or of organizing or contributing to the overthrow of the régimes in these countries in order to establish bases solidly behind them.

This objective set of problems has been reflected in, and compounded by, the weakness of the resistance itself. It has been divided into several different trends; it has failed to free itself from the political and financial influence of the Arab states; it has failed to emancipate itself fully from the paralysing heritage of bourgeois nationalism; and it has failed to effect any significant military or political undermining of the Zionist state apparatus. Two main groups have competed for leadership of the movement: al-Fatah, the first group to launch armed struggle (in January 1965), which does not pretend to any more advanced ideology than that of Palestinian nationalism and two groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (pflp) and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (pdflp ), which designate themselves ‘Marxist-Leninist’. These latter two split in February 1969 after disagreements on organizational and political questions, but remained united in their formal insistence on the socialist character of their goals and the need to link the Palestinian struggle with revolution in the Arab states.

Both entitle themselves Marxist and Leninist, and have frequently stated that they are engaged in transforming themselves from being groups with a petty-bourgeois organization and ideology into being Marxist parties, i.e. their aim is to carry through a transition from radical nationalism to Marxism. This process brings with it problems of analysis and identification: as Lenin emphatically warned in his Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Question, the foundation document of the Third International: ‘It is particularly important to bear in mind the need for determined struggle against attempts to give a Communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries’.footnote1

The adoption of a Marxist-Leninist self-characterization by Palestinian groups is a result of an intersection of two factors—the global advance in the influence of People’s China, of Cuba and of Vietnam, and the specifically Arab crisis of Nasserite nationalism which began in 1961 and reached its culmination in the aftermath of the June 1967 defeat. Both the pf and the df are led by former supporters of Nasserism, and the move towards a new independent position is a result of the crisis of this previously dominant nationalism. The crisis can be resolved when they succeed in creating a Marxist organization and theory for Palestinian and Arab revolution. At the moment they are in a transitional stage, demonstrating the inadequacy of Nasserism, yet themselves still in difficulty about realizing their proclaimed political aims.

These ideological weaknesses of the Palestinian organizations, and their inability to surmount the orthodox limits of bourgeois Arab nationalism led to the defeat they have suffered. To some extent bemused by the mystifications of inter-class ‘Arab unity’, none of the Palestinian groups were able to see early enough that the destruction of the Hashemite state machine in Jordan was an elementary precondition of a serious anti-Zionist struggle. There appears to have been a vague reliance on the ‘patriotic’ sentiments of the Palestinian sections of the armed forces of the Jordanian monarchy. There was no coherent preparation for overthrowing the Hussein régime, while after June Hussein and his generals were methodically organizing the liquidation of the Palestinian resistance.