The period of the 1960s-1970s in the history of the Middle East was characterized by the developing Arab-Israeli conflict. In this opposition, Palestine felt oppressed because of the necessity to provide the part of its territories to the state of Israel1.
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In this context, the public’s dissatisfaction with the actions of the governmental officials in Palestine resulted in the development of the guerilla movement that became known as the fedayeen movement in the 1960s. The representatives of different guerilla organizations hoped to contribute to the nation’s struggle against the Israeli forces2.
In spite of the fact that the actual successes of the Palestinian fedayeen in the 1960s-1970s were rather limited and often overestimated, these guerrilla groups contributed to drawing the public attention to the Palestinian question in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they worked to encourage the young Palestinians to protect their lands.
Beginnings of the Palestinian Fedayeen Movement and Its Goals
The first organizations uniting those Palestinians who had the nationalist visions and intentions to protect their territories from the Israelis began to form in the late part of the 1940s. The term “fedayeen” that was taken from the Arabic language was used to call such activists, and it meant “freedom fighter” and “self-sacrificer”3.
This term was actively used to speak about the Arab guerilla or paramilitary groups having radical views. These fedayeen groups often emerged abroad where they felt the support of the Arab community4. However, their first attacks on Israelis were ineffective because the groups were disorganized. The situation changed in the 1950s when these paramilitary organizations received more support from the Arab world, and they focused on organizing military attacks5.
Nevertheless, more attention should have been paid to the internal organization of the movement in order to achieve higher results. As a consequence, in 1957, the nationalist leaders formed Fatah, the main organization uniting the Palestinian fedayeen groups6.
The trigger for such active steps was the Suez crisis. In 1956, Gaza was occupied by the Israeli military troops, and many fedayeen were killed7. Israel succeeded in occupying these territories for about four months, and the disorganized guerilla groups could not initiate the effective attacks in order to oppose the enemy8.
As a result, the decision about the formation of Fatah was made by the movement’s leaders. Previously, the Arab world supported the Palestinian refugees, but the crisis demonstrated the necessity of focusing on national problems rather than discussing the Palestinian question.
Therefore, such Palestinian nationalist and guerrilla leaders as Yasser Arafat, Khalil Wazir, and Salah Khalaf decided to organize the strong rebellion unit in response to the occupation of Gaza and the development of the Suez crisis9. Fatah was organized in Kuwait, where the Palestinian fedayeen groups received the prolonged ideological and material assistance, and in 1957, it included only about twenty activists10.
Since the first attempts to organize the guerilla groups in the 1940s, the primary purpose of the Palestinian fedayeen’s activities was the destruction of the state of Israel, the protection of the Palestinian territories from the foreign invasions, and the formation of the independent state of Palestine with the help of military strategies and resources11.
Young Palestinians did not believe in the success of the authorities’ initiatives in relation to gaining independence in the Arab world and protecting the Palestinians’ interests12.
Therefore, the radically oriented Palestinian nationalists began to organize and join the fedayeen groups in order to make their personal contribution to the fight for national prosperity. Although the tools and strategies used by the fedayeen differed in the 1950s and then in the 1960s and 1970s, their goals were the protection of the Palestinians’ honor and dignity.
The Palestine Liberation Organization
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was organized by the Arab League in 1964. It was an attempt by the Arab leaders to control the activities of the Palestinian fedayeen whose actions were viewed as extreme and terroristic in their nature13. Ahmad al-Shukayri was elected as the first head of the organization14.
According to Byman, the Arab states “saw Palestinian groups as a threat as well as an opportunity”; thus, “led by Egypt, several Arab states collaborated to create the Palestine Liberation Organization to ensure that the Palestinians remained docile; they believed that by organizing the Palestinians, they could control them and score points with their own peoples”15.
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The decision of organizing the PLO was supported by the majority of the Arab leaders because the first part of the 1960s indicated that the Palestinian fedayeen could be threatening to the other Arabs because of the risk of the further destabilization of the situation in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict16.
From this perspective, the Palestine National Council (PNC) was organized to provide the regulation for the activities of the Palestinian fedayeen groups and affect the militaristic nature of Fatah’s activities. The membership of the PNC increased in accordance with the progress of the Israel and Arab world opposition17.
The declared purpose of this organization was to contribute to destroying the state of Israel and protecting the Palestinian territories from the invasion, and it reflected the major goals proclaimed by the disorganized fedayeen groups and Fatah18. The arms were declared as tools in this struggle, but the PLO planned to coordinate the activities of Palestinian fedayeen to make them more organized.
However, the problem was in the fact that visions of Fatah and the PLO regarding the further development of the fedayeen groups were different, and these organizations became two independent cores of the Palestinian fedayeen movement.
The Palestinian Fedayeen’s Implications in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
While discussing the consequences of the Palestinian fedayeen’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 1960s-1970s, it is important to examine the actions performed by these groups in order to achieve the declared goals. It is significant to note that in spite of developing its activities as the organized guerrilla group, Fatah did not demonstrate the active participation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early part of the 1960s19.
In the 1950s, the fedayeen acted as disorganized groups, but the organization of Fatah did not guarantee the development of the single strategy for their activities, and the fedayeen required the significant assistance to realize their radical plans as the organization. Therefore, in the first part of the 1960s, the Fatah leaders moved to such Arab countries as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in order to gain more support from the Arab community20.
The situation changed in December of 1964 when the fedayeen demonstrated the decisive intentions to join the struggle against Israel. Fatah mobilized its forces and initiated the attack on Israeli towns. However, in spite of involving the fedayeen groups from several Arab states, only a few groups could reach Israel and enter it without being prevented21. The operation was not successful, but it attracted the public attention to the activities of the fedayeen, and Fatah was renamed and became known as al-Asifah22.
In 1965, Palestinian fedayeen continued their attacks on the Israelis even without much support from the PLO23. The Fatah leaders chose to communicate openly with the mass media, and they informed about their intentions to continue activities directed to destroying the Israeli state. As a result, the development of two fedayeen forces, including Fatah and the PLO, became more obvious and meaningful for the public.
In addition to Fatah and the PLO, the significant guerilla force was represented by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) that emerged as the third force among the Palestinian fedayeen groups in 196724. The PFLP was organized by the former representatives of the Arab Nationalists Movement in Palestine, and these particular fedayeen organized the hijackings in the 1970s25.
While discussing the role of the fedayeen groups in drawing the public attention to the Palestinian issue, it is possible to state that the PFLP used the most provocative and shocking acts of terrorism that made people from all over the world discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict26. These fedayeen organizations were actively involved in the conflict, and their activities became more noticeable in the late part of the 1960s, as well as in the 1970s, because of the active use of not only sabotage but also terroristic or violent means.
The role of the fedayeen forces in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increased because of the Palestinian peoples’ support of these groups. The turning point in the crisis development became the Six-Day War of 1967. In spite of the fedayeen’s contribution to opposing the Israeli military troops, it is important to state that the Israeli attacks on the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces were rather successful, and the fedayeen groups could not prevent the unexpected attacks of the enemy27.
As a result, Israel gained control over the West Bank and Jerusalem during the short period of time. Therefore, after the successes of the Israeli forces in 1967, the Arab leaders decided to change the approach to regulating the activities of the guerilla groups, and the PLO put the emphasis on the actions of paramilitary groups28. The fedayeen movement received an opportunity to demonstrate its powers in further battles.
The choice of the radical groups as one of the leading forces in the struggle between Israel and Palestine was based on the idea that the self-sacrifice of the nationalists could contribute to opposing the Israeli forces with the help of actions that were rather terroristic in their nature29. The Arab leaders revised their approach to using extreme means.
The number of fedayeen groups joining the PLO or developing independently increased continuously. In 1968, Fatah successfully grew, and the researchers state that its influence on the unorganized fedayeen groups became even more significant than the impact of the PLO on guerilla30. Such changes in the distribution of forces were associated with Fatah’s successes in the Jordan Valley in the spring of 1968.
The successes in Karameh in the Jordan Valley provoked the public’s hoping for changing the situation for the fedayeen because the nationalists were proud of their victory achieved by only seventeen fedayeen31. The references to this triumph became the core of the Palestinian propaganda aimed at attracting more fighters in the fedayeen groups. Fatah called for the active resistance of the Palestinian fedayeen against the Israelis in the form of numerous attacks, sabotage, and military actions.
As a result, in 1969, Fatah organized the Palestine Armed Struggle Command (PASC)32. The popularity of Arafat increased significantly, and he developed as an influential guerilla leader. During that period of time, the actions of the Palestinian fedayeen became more violent and radical. The movement leaders proclaimed the orientation to the revolution in Palestine to protect the nationalists’ visions. In the 1970s, the number of violent terrorist attacks and hijackings conducted by the fedayeen groups increased significantly33.
In Palestine, the fedayeen became viewed as the influential force that could protect the dignity of the Palestinians, but the actual successes of the fedayeen were not so significant, and the victory in the Jordan Valley was also a challenging event because of the losses experienced by the Arabs in that fight. However, the fedayeen did not stop their activities, and in the 1970s, more than fifteen planes were attacked by the representatives of the PFLP. According to Pearlman, the PFLP members were highly idealistic in their visions, and they saw terrorism as the only means to fight the Israelis34.
The series of terroristic attacks conducted by the Palestinian fedayeen in the 1970s attracted the people’s attention, but the Arab leaders decided that the growing reputation of PFLP and Fatah as the terroristic organizations prevented the realization of the political goals, and they were focused on supporting the reputation of the PLO35. As a result, the violent activities of the fedayeen groups were limited by the Arab community.
The Successes and Achievements of the Palestinian Fedayeen
While discussing the successes of the fedayeen groups in the struggle against the Israeli forces, Nasr notes that “the guerilla groups were at their best when they fought each other”36. This provocative statement seems to explain the overall achievements of the fedayeen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the period of 1965-1967, the fedayeen groups organized more than one hundred attacks in spite of the fact that they claimed the number more than three hundred attacks37.
The actual victories of the fedayeen were rather rare, and they could not oppose the well-armed army of Israel. However, it was important for the fedayeen not only to demonstrate their decisiveness in opposing the Israeli forces but also to attract the Palestinian population, as well as the wide Arab community, to resolve the question38. Therefore, the fedayeen leaders chose to declare false attacks and victories in order to gain the support of the public.
Nevertheless, while focusing on the fact that these paramilitary groups could not significantly contribute to the Palestinian victories in the struggle, it is important to state that they added to the national awareness of the young Palestinians. First, the Fatah leaders developed the active propaganda of their activities39. Second, they focused on achieving the “consecutive detonation” in the context of which they intended to “provoke an Israeli response, which in turn would galvanize the Arab people and the Arab masses”40.
As a result, being unable to demonstrate success through sabotages and attacks, the fedayeen groups concentrated on provoking the Israelis to develop the conflict and participate in fights. In this case, the main achievement was encouraging young Palestinians to participate in this war.
The Six-Day War contributed to the mobilization of the guerilla forces and the public’s belief in them. Nevertheless, after the war of 1967, the Palestinian fedayeen lost the support of the Arabs, and Egypt in particular, because of their focus on the successes of Israel in the war41. As a result, having no assistance from the Arabs in Egypt, the Palestinian guerilla groups decided to act more radically.
The opposition of the Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank led to the high number of arrests and killings of not only fedayeen and soldiers but also civilians. In the 1970s, the Palestinian fedayeen could not gain the support of people in the West Bank despite the variety of approaches and strategies used in order to draw the public attention to the Palestinian problem42. The situation changed every day, and in this context, it was difficult to assess the actual achievements of the fedayeen.
The Arab leaders played a key role in analyzing the successes of the guerilla groups. However, in spite of relying on the support of the Arab states and suffering while lacking it, Fatah emphasized that the focus on the “pan-Arab identity” should be changed with the focus on the liberation of the Palestinian people opposing the Israelis43. Thus, Fatah’s statements put the stress on “the humiliation and hopelessness of the situation, the abandonment of the Palestinians by Arab states, and sought to restore Palestinian dignity”44.
From this point, the main achievement of the fedayeen groups was in the possibilities to make the world focus on the Palestinian question and organize the young Palestinians to stand against the state of Israel as the enemy. The ideological victories were more significant in that situation while comparing them to the role of the actual military and paramilitary activities.
Although the Palestinian fedayeen groups could not contribute significantly to the military successes of the Palestinian army, these groups were important in order to attract the public’s attention to the challenging question of Palestine in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The active development of the fedayeen movement led to the organization of Fatah, the PLO, and the PFLP that used different tools to support the Palestinian nationalists and demonstrated various levels of success.
However, these organizations gave the start to the further growth of the Palestinian political elite having the nationalist but rather democratic views. The leaders of the fedayeen movement further became the leaders of the country.
Therefore, while speaking about the activities of the fedayeen groups in the 1960s-1970s, it is possible to state that these guerilla teams contributed to the creation of the specific vision of Palestinian nationalism. Much attention was paid to gaining the awareness of the Palestinian interests in the nationals and to attracting the public’s views to the problem. From this point, it is possible to state that, in the 1960s-1970s, the fedayeen groups added to the creation of the Palestinian nationalist ideology.
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1 Milton-Edwards 2008: 106.
2 Lukacs 1992: 19.
3 Paine 2015: 190.
4 Nasr 1996: 38.
5 Sayigh 1986: 96.
6 Pearlman 2011: 67.
7 Sayigh 1999: 112.
8 Chamberlin 2012: 72.
9 Paine 2015: 198.
10 Sayigh 1986: 97.
11 Snapper 2011: para. 4.
12 Ghanem 2013: 13.
13 Giacaman 2013: 26.
14 Pearlman 2011: 70.
15 Byman 2011: 30.
16 Chamberlin 2012: 74.
17 Milton-Edwards 2008: 133.
18 Chamberlin 2012: 94.
19 Baumgarten 2005: 27.
20 Sayigh 1999: 114.
21 Nasr 1996: 172.
22 Byman 2011: 56.
23 Chamberlin 2012: 50.
24 Milton-Edwards 2008: 133.
25 Pearlman 2011: 76.
26 Lukacs 1992: 312.
27 Byman 2011: 33.
28 Baumgarten 2005: 28.
29 Paine 2015: 189.
30 Sayigh 1986: 98.
31 Byman 2011: 38.
32 Lukacs 1992: 456.
33 Ghanem 2013: 14.
34 Pearlman 2011: 75.
35 Giacaman 2013: 26.
36 Nasr 1996: 46.
37 Chamberlin 2012: 236.
38 Sayigh 1999: 116.
39 Pearlman 2011: 77.
40 Byman 2011: 32.
41 Milton-Edwards 2008: 135.
42 Paine 2015: 191.
43 Byman 2011: 30.
44 Byman 2011: 30.