PLO History of a revolution - Lebanon civil war
PLO: History of a Revolution

Did the PLO die in Lebanon?

Some Palestinians believe the resistance movement’s power waned after 1982.


Some feel the unity of the resistance faltered once Arafat left Lebanon in 1982 [GALLO/GETTY]

Al Jazeera’s six-part series on the history of the PLO tells the turbulent story of the Palestinian struggle for a national home.

In the following account, Spencer Osberg looks at the role the PLO played in the Lebanese Civil War and how the events of those years shaped the Palestinian resistance movement.

“We have to fight the Israelis any place we can,” says Mahmoud Taha. In 1972 he left his job as an electronics repairman in Saudi Arabia to join the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in Lebanon.

“We brought the war to Lebanon,” Taha, who today lives in the Bourj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut, told Al Jazeera.

“But I did not think for one day the war was against the Lebanese. We were obliged to fight the war inside Lebanon, but we didn’t want it.”

Others, however, might disagree.

The role the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – of which the DFLP is a part – played in the Lebanese Civil War is highly politicised. The accounts and reports of the events that happened are always incomplete, and often contradictory, depending on the personal interests and political affiliations of those recounting them.

What remains indisputable, however, is that by the time the war ended in 1991, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed, the vast majority of them civilians.

The PLO was an essential party to this tragedy.

Rise of fedayeen

Mahmoud Taha, a former fighter, says the war was not against the Lebanese [Osberg] 

Large numbers of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their land following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Many streamed across the northern border into Lebanon where they set up refugee camps.

Hesham Dibsi, a former commander with the PLO and today a political adviser at the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon, says PLO fighters – known as fedayeen – began establishing bases in Lebanon after the six-day Israeli-Arab war in 1967.

The PLO’s main headquarters, however, continued to be in Jordan.

But the Lebanese state was already entering a precipitous slide at that point, says Walid Jumblatt, one of the central political figures in Lebanon during the past 30 years and leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party.

He notes that the economy was failing and the government was hobbled by political divisions between a predominately Christian right-wing on one side, and a predominately Muslim leftist movement on the other.

While the leftists supported the Palestinian cause and the PLO’s expanding influence over parts of the country, the right-wing regarded the armed Palestinian presence as a threat. The PLO presence appeared to be exacerbating Lebanon’s internal tensions.

Cairo Agreement



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 PLO: History of a Revolution

In many ways the Lebanese Civil War was all but assured in the Cairo Agreement in 1969, when Yasser Arafat, the then-chairman of the PLO, and General Emile Bustani, the commander of the Lebanese military, signed a deal to end skirmishes between the two sides.

The Cairo agreement legitimised the PLO’s presence in Lebanon and granted it the right to carry out guerrilla attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory.

The left saw a natural ally in the secularist PLO and supported the Cairo Agreement. Leftist leaders sought to benefit from the PLO’s military muscle, which they lacked, while offering Arafat and the PLO political cover for their actions in Lebanon.

Many on the right, however, regarded the Cairo Agreement as confirmation that the Lebanese state and army could not protect them from the Palestinians.

Christian leaders then began the large-scale reinforcement, training and arming of their militias.

Lebanon headquarters

Palestinian armed groups changed the political dynamic in Lebanon [EPA]

In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan sent his tanks against the PLO in a bid to dislodge them from the Hashemite kingdom.

Referred to as the events of ‘Black September’, thousands of Palestinians were killed in the ensuing battles.

“After Black September, the PLO was transferred to Lebanon,” says Dibsi.

“After this transfer, the Palestinians definitely altered the political dynamic inside Lebanon, siding with the left – the Nasserites, the Communists and others – against the right wing – the Phalanges party and the National Liberal Party [among others].”

In 1972, young Palestinians left the Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp for Jordan, where they were given training in guerrilla warfare by Egyptian army officers.

Imm Abed was one of those who returned from the training camps in 1973, and used her training to establish small cells of fighters in the refugee camps. She was only 21 at the time.

“The cause was the Palestinian cause, but we had to defend ourselves from anyone that was going to harm us, and the Lebanese army was trying to harm us,” she says.

Imm Abed says the army would often enter the camps to round up resistance members. The small resistance cells then united, she says, eventually coming under the banner of the Palestinian Liberation Army, and gaining enough military strength to fight off the Lebanese army.

Sparks of war

As tensions built, skirmishes between the opposing sides were common. Most history books record April 13, 1975, as the day the Lebanese Civil War began, when 27 Palestinians were killed in a Phalanges militia attack on a bus in the Beirut neighbourhood of Ain el Roumeneh.

Dibsi, says this attack is comparable to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which led to the First World War. In both cases, he says the many seeds of conflict had long taken root and the war needed only a spark to catch fire.

While the conflict spread around the country, the PLO had quickly eroded the sympathies of the local south Lebanese population, who were predominately Shia Muslims.

PLO fighters frequently abused the impunity their weapons offered to plunder from the communities, while their attacks on Northern Israel provoked Israeli bombardment of Lebanese towns and villages.

A resistance movement began to form against what was seen as PLO ‘occupation’ of South Lebanon in the late 1970s, through the ascent of the Shia Amal militia.  

Israeli invasion

Hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children were massacred by Phalanges militia

In 1982, the Israel army invaded Lebanon, an action many in the South had initially applauded as relief from PLO oppression but soon came to realise was the replacement of one occupier with another.

Few had anticipated how destructive the campaign would be, or that the Israeli army would advance all the way to Beirut and lay siege to the capital to destroy the PLO presence in Lebanon.

The siege of Beirut lasted some 70 days. Battles were fought all around the city and Israeli artillery, air and navy bombardments destroyed much of West Beirut, where Arafat and the main body of PLO fighters where bunkered down.

Casualty figures from the siege vary, from thousands to tens of thousands dead and many more wounded, most of whom were Lebanese civilians.

Though Arafat had publicly promised to turn Beirut into another “Stalingrad,” he eventually conceded to pressure from his leftist Lebanese allies, who petitioned him to leave to save the population from further suffering.

In a US-brokered deal, the PLO leadership, most of its fighters (some 12,000 according to Dibsi) and their military hardware boarded boats at the port of Beirut and left Lebanon. The PLO headquarters was then re-established in Tunisia.

“When the first convoy of Palestinian soldiers left Beirut … I took my Kalashnikov and shot in the air, saluting them,” says Jumblatt. “It was an emotional moment, because we spent years fighting together, after all. Fighting for Palestine and fighting for Lebanon.

“We escorted him [Yasser Arafat] to the port, and there we were crying, and the Lebanese officer was telling me ‘why do you cry?’ and I said, ‘because your Lebanon is not my Lebanon’.

“I defied the Lebanese officer, because the right-wing Lebanese officers were willing to get the Palestinians out, and were anxious to get Bashir Gemayel [the Phalanges leader] in.”

Sabra and Shatila massacres

Within weeks Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Phalanges militia, became president of Lebanon, and days after assuming the presidency he was assassinated.

The Phalanges blamed the PLO and in response carried out massacres, supported by the Israeli army, in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Between 800 and 3,000 civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered.

Though Arafat attempted to re-establish his forces in Lebanon the following year, in the northern city of Tripoli, he was fought by the Syrians and opposing Palestinian forces. He eventually left Lebanon again, never to return.

The next major battles involving the PLO and other Palestinian groups were between 1985-1988, in one of the last sub-conflicts of the civil war known as “the war of the camps”. The Amal militia, back by Syria, laid siege to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, destroying huge swathes of them and killing thousands.

PLO power wanes

The PLO never regained its previous power and influence in Lebanon after 1982. Imm Abed says after Arafat left for Tunisia there was chaos, with remaining PLO figures fighting to assume the leadership.

“When we first started following Arafat, we were full of energy, full of hope,” she says.

“But year after year, the scandals started burning, and we were disappointed in the leaders and in Arafat, because we felt like we were fighting and fighting and paying sacrifices in blood, and we’re not reaching anywhere. On the contrary, we’re going backward.”

Imm Abed says she, and many others, felt that the PLO strayed from its roots, starting as an organisation dedicated to the armed liberation of Palestine only to degrade into a means for its leaders to pursue personal interests.

“For me, the PLO is completely dead,” she says, explaining that it no longer represents the Palestinian resistance.

She says that is why, in 1987, she and thousands of other disaffected Palestinians began to join the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas.