Zionist mythology has it that the land of Palestine, whilst it may have been inhabited by a few Arab nomads, was mostly desert. One of the great feats of Zionist enterprise, it is claimed, has been to turn that desert green. Israeli exports of grapes and oranges around the world, grown on the kibbutzim, are proof indeed, if proof be needed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Jaffa Orange which has come to symbolise Israeli agricultural endeavour actually confirms the opposite: that the orange groves and the vineyards were stolen from the Palestinian peasants who had tilled the soil for centuries. The orange groves of Jaffa go back at least until the beginning of the eighteenth century. By 1880, when the orange groves were entirely in Arab hands, they included 765,000 trees. Thirty million oranges were harvested there and many were exported to Europe. 
The Palestinian peasantry had a history – and a proud one. They resented the Zionist interloper from the beginning. This is not to say they resented a Jewish presence. Small Jewish communities were scattered throughout the Arab countries and had been for centuries. The resentment started when Britain offered “protection” to the Jewish minority in the early nineteenth century as a way of obtaining a toehold inside the Ottoman Empire – the so-called “Eastern Question”.  For the Zionist interlopers were seen for what they were – unwelcome visitors imposed on the Palestinians by their new rulers, the British Empire.
There were periodic clashes both between Palestinians and Zionists and Palestinians and the British authorities throughout the 1920s. The Palestinians resented the restriction of their rights both from British rule and from the continuous expansion of the Zionist settlements at Palestinian expense. Violence flared continuously. If the Jewish rate of immigration of the 1920s were to continue, then in 15 or 20 years, the Palestinians would soon have been a minority in their own land. Particularly fierce fighting erupted between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem in 1929 leaving over a hundred Arabs and a hundred Jews dead. Most of the Arabs were killed by British soldiers.
But, without doubt, the most important single event which occurred during the period of the British Mandate was the Palestinian General Strike in 1936.
This was nothing less than a revolt against British rule. The main slogan was “Independence for Palestine!” And the revolt involved the entire Palestinian nation. Every town, city and village had some form of organisation supporting the strike. Arab workers went on strike. Arab shops, businesses and markets closed down. Transport and communication ground to a halt.
The British authorities were taken aback. They made a series of mass arrests of local leaders, but the strike deepened. In Jaffa, where the strike was rock-solid, its organising centre was the ancient walled city. The British army sealed off the quarter and used a tactic that was gleefully borrowed later by the Zionists, the dynamiting of hundreds of houses.
By June the British High Commissioner reported that Palestine was in “a state of incipient revolution”. There was, he reported, “little control of lawless elements outside principal towns, main roads and railways”.  More than 2,500 Palestinians had been arrested. Over a thousand had been killed.
In July, backed by the Zionists, the British placed Palestine under martial law and rushed more troops out from Britain. More than 20,000 British soldiers now patrolled Palestine. Ships arrived loaded with tanks and machine-guns. The Royal Air Force began strafing the countryside. The British formed Zionist settlers into “night squads” to attack Palestinian villages. The Haganah, the Zionist army, were given their first taste of war.
The British approached King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan and King Faisal of Iraq to intervene. Despite demonstration against the kings’ interference, the tactic worked. The Palestinian leadership was drawn from the same kind of feudal strata as the kings – in particular the Mufti, the religious leader of Jerusalem. They had no stomach for a full-scale national war of independence.
As so often in the history of the Palestinian revolution, its turning points, victories or defeats, have been commemorated in poetry. The Palestinian poet Abu Salma wrote of the kings:
Shame to such kings, if kings are so low.
But the struggle was by no means over. Although the general strike ended (it had lasted six months, the longest general strike anywhere), the mood of resistance persisted. It was given added impetus by the British announcement in 1937 that Palestine would be partitioned under British control.
By the summer of 1937 guerrilla warfare had spread to the hills and rebellion engulfed most of the country. Most of the fighters were peasants. The British began arresting anyone in town wearing a keffiyah, the traditional peasant scarf. The level of unrest in the urban areas was such that a British general reported that “civil administration and control of the country was, to all practical purposes, non-existent.” 
In a four-month period the British dynamited 5,000 houses, added a thousand more prisoners to the 3,000 already in jail, and executed 148 prisoners in Acre prison alone.
This was the high point in the Palestinian struggle to throw British imperialism out of their country. It also underlined in blood how the Zionist settlement was an extension of the British Empire. The Zionists fought alongside the British in efforts to break the Palestinian will.
But this was not ultimately a struggle between “Arabs” and “Jews”. It was a struggle by the British to keep their grip on a strategically crucial centre of the Middle East. As the Second World War approached the British authorities were compelled to make temporary concessions to the Palestinians. A ceiling was imposed on Jewish immigration and vague pledges were made about Palestinian independence. Cynical as such concessions were, they were a tribute to the Palestinian struggle, as indeed was the simple fact that no less than one-third of all the troops of the British Empire had been needed to “restore order” in Palestine.
By 1939 20,000 Palestinians had been killed or wounded and thousands jailed or deported. Many of the best fighters and organised workers had been shot. The British did finally break the back of the movement – but its spirit lived on. 1936 would become a symbol of the Palestinian revolution.
The struggle was renewed after the Second World War on an entirely different plane. Now the USA had a vested interest in promoting Zionist territorial ambitions. The British were running scared and the Arab states would not support the Palestinians. The Zionists could mobilise world public opinion – and, more specifically, funds for arms – because of the shock of the Holocaust. America, which could easily have absorbed the Holocaust survivors, refused. Instead it recognised, as the British had recognised fifty years earlier, the advantages of transforming the tragic victims of European anti-semitism into aggressive defenders of Western imperialist interests in Arab lands. America’s doors remained firmly locked.
The Palestinians were left isolated and their sad exodus began.
Ghassan Kanafani, an exiled Palestinian writer, described the flight of his family from Jaffa in a story titled The Land of Sad Oranges. He recalled:
the long queues of lorries, leaving the land of oranges far behind and spreading out over the winding roads of Lebanon. Then I began to weep, howling with tears. As for my mother, she eyed the oranges silently and all the orange trees my father had left behind to the Jews were reflected in his eyes ... and glistened through the tears he could not check ... We arrived in Sidon that afternoon, we were homeless. 
The destruction of Palestine and the forcible expulsion of Palestinians quickly became the “refugee problem” in the eyes of the West. Stories of the “refugees” starving to death finally hit the headlines of the Western press. The needs of three-quarters of a million displaced people – 460,000 in Jordan, 200,000 in Gaza, 100,000 in Lebanon, 85,000 in Syria – were staggering. These Arab countries were desperately poor and the Arab cities were already swollen with people looking for work. Despite Zionist propaganda, it was hardly the responsibility of the Arab countries to absorb “the refugees”.
Finally in 1949 the United Nations made a gesture. It set up the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) to take over the running of sixty refugee camps from voluntary agencies. It kept people alive, but only just. Refugees who qualified for aid received roughly 37 dollars a year. Identification cards branded each person as a permanent refugee.
But the refugee status and the humiliation at the hands of the Zionists could not erase the memory of revolt that lingered on. As the Palestinian poet Fawaz Turki has written:
The people outside the camps (not to mention the Western tourists with their blessed sympathy ...) seeing our tattered rags hanging on us like white flags of surrender ... did not know what we had. A feeling inside us. Growing. Hope. 
In makeshift classrooms teachers encountered the most eager students “like ones possessed”.  Worn newspapers and leaflets telling of resistance to Israel were passed from tent to tent. Palestinians were preparing for one thing only – to return home. Life Magazine reported in 1951:
The refugees don’t want to be compensated for their lost lands. They want to go home ... “I will never change this idea,” says Said Kewash, a lean-faced man who comes from Mayroon, near the Lebanese border (inside Israel). Maud Saleem agrees. He says he has the key to his home in his pocket and he has told his son that if he dies, the key is to buried with him. 
A year earlier, 25,000 refugees had gone on hunger strike against UNRWA, saying they would rather starve than settle outside Palestine.
Where Palestinians had settled in Arab cities they joined in the growing Arab radical nationalist movements which were organising demonstrations against US involvement in the Middle East. Hatred for the puppet Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah, who had collaborated with Israel, grew as their true role in 1948 and afterwards was exposed. There were demonstrations against Abdullah in Jordan in 1951. In the same year a Palestinian tailor shot and killed him.
Throughout the 1950s Arab national consciousness grew and developed. British and French imperialism met defeat after defeat at the hands of mass-based armed national liberation movements throughout Africa and Asia. The mood spread like wildfire through the Arab countries of the Middle East, which, though nominally independent, were governed by feudal puppets of the West. The fate of Mossadeq in Iran in 1951 exposed the real face of US foreign policy for the region. American backing for Israel was identified as a further example of the US mailed fist.
The most important expression of the new independent Arab nationalism was Egypt, the most populated country in the Middle East and traditionally the country where radical and left-wing ideas were most widespread. In 1952 a radical army officer, Nasser, had seized power and toppled the feudal monarch. He made fierce speeches attacking the West and Israel. When in 1956 he nationalised the Suez Canal, he became the symbol of anti-imperialism throughout the region. The whole area was a tinderbox, with civil war erupting in Lebanon and British paratroopers flying to Amman, the capital of Jordan, to prop up King Hussein, Abdullah’s heir and grandson.
But Nasser’s defeat by Israel in the 1956 war set limits on his radical nationalism as repeated attempts to unite the Arab world behind his leadership failed. And although Nasser had become too the symbol of Palestinian resistance to Zionism, his repeated calls for unremitting war against the Zionist foe began to sound more and more hollow.
The Palestinians certainly appreciated that they were the victims of Western imperialism and saw their struggle as part of the wider Arab national revolution. But they came to question whether reliance on other Arab leaders would, in the end, bring salvation.
“Self-reliance” became the watchword as a new secret magazine, Falasteen, the voice of Fatah (“victory” in Arabic), was passed around the refugee camps and the Palestinian slums in Arab cities. Fawaz Turki has described the new mood:
At home there were tense scenes where I would argue with my father ... or in desperation rip Nasser’s picture off the wall and spit on it. I did not give the unhappy man the chance to hold on to that symbol of hope ... 
The 15 April 1963 edition of Falasteen summed up the new position:
The Palestinian alone is determined to refuse all colonialist plans . . . He is firmly convinced that armed struggle is the one and only means for the return to Palestine ... He refuses to allow the Arab governments to represent him in their lethargy, diplomacy and defeatism. As soon as he is able to tear away the fetters with which they had bound him he shall return to being what he was, a fedayeen [fighter]. 
Fatah became the largest of several armed guerrilla organisations. They recruited in the refugee camps and in the Arab cities. There was no shortage of volunteers as the new mood for independent armed struggle against Israel gripped the entire dispersed Palestinian nation. The political ideas were a confusing brew of Marx and Lenin and Mao, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh. Probably the idea of “Peoples War”, an idea most associated with Mao in China, Che in Cuba and Ho in Vietnam was the most powerful.
Nasser and the other Arab leaders, worried that they would lose control of the new Palestinian movement, called a summit meeting in 1964. They formed a new organisation, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to control the guerrilla groups. Nevertheless this conservative influence could not hold back the new movement. On 1 January 1965 a Fatah armed unit launched its first attack on Israel.
The Arab refugee was becoming a Palestinian once again. For years the Zionists tried to deny it. As late as 1969 Golda Meir told The Times newspaper:
There were no such things as Palestinians. It was not as though there were a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist. 
But the Palestinian guerrilla struggle shattered this mythology. After the second catastrophic defeat of the Arab countries at the hands of Israel in 1967 and the seizure of yet more Arab land, estimated at three times the size of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the Palestinian armed struggle became the spearhead that transformed Palestinian awareness. For the first time the guerrilla organisations established mass support. The original leadership imposed on the Palestine Liberation Organisation was shaken off and the Fedayeen organisations took it over. By the 1970s the entire world had heard of the Palestinians. The Zionists could no longer pretend they did not exist.
In March 1968, 200 Palestinian guerrillas fought a twelve-hour battle against the Israeli army at the small Jordanian town of Karameh. Overnight the Fedayeen became heroes throughout the Arab world. Pictures of burned-out Israeli tanks appeared in the Arab press. Even King Hussein was forced to declare: “We are all fedayeen now!”  The guerrilla groups blossomed as fresh recruits poured in. But the Jordanian king’s solidarity they could have done without ...
Before Hussein’s eyes, the seeds of a new society were sprouting and threatening his rule. Jordanian officials watched as goods “For the Palestinian Nation” arrived in Amman. Aid from liberation movements such as that in Vietnam flowed into Jordan. In Amman, the guerrillas maintained their own military checkpoints, newspapers and offices.
Hussein knew that the Palestinians would like to see him overthrown. After all, the British had artificially carved Jordan from historic Palestine after the First World War and his grandfather had annexed the West Bank in 1948. Most of Jordan’s population were Palestinian.
In November 1968 Hussein’s army opened fire on Palestinian offices in Amman and on three refugee camps. Several camp-dwellers were killed but the fedayeen repulsed the attack. Nasser in Egypt refused to condemn Hussein, claiming that he could not violate Jordanian “sovereignty”.
The incident and the role of the Arab states sparked a debate amongst the guerrilla organisations on the role of Arab governments in the Palestinian struggle. Fatah, the largest group, argued that the revolution could not publicly challenge the internal structure of the Arab states without losing its base of operations against Israel. The two smaller and more left-wing organisations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front (DFLP), argued that they had no choice but to challenge the Arab regimes (though the PFLP fudged the question of relations with progressive’ Arab regimes). Fatah, effectively, won the argument but the debate anticipated the major flaw in PLO strategy which would haunt it for the next fifteen years.
Meanwhile Hussein was preparing to smash the Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan. Nasser had already stabbed the Palestinians in the back by agreeing to the American “Rogers Plan”, which would give Egypt back territory it had lost to Israel in the 1967 war, in return for Egyptian recognition of Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Then in September 1970 Hussein launched an all-out attack on the Palestinians. With much better weapons and dropping US-manufactured napalm from the skies, Hussein was able to subdue them. Not for the first time, the Palestinians found themselves at war with an Arab government.
Hussein was victorious but at a terrible price. Thousands of Palestinians were killed in the fighting, which dragged on for over a year.  Although Hussein destroyed their base in Jordan he by no means destroyed their organisation. But the scars would go very deep.
A new desperation penetrated the thinking of many of the young Palestinians. The range of forces marshalled against them encouraged the belief that even more extreme and even more heroic military actions would be necessary. Many Palestinians named the month of Hussein’s attack “Black September”. And a few formed a new organisation of that name dedicated to revenge – whatever the price. Assassinations, hijackings and hostage-taking became their hallmark.
While many of their actions may have done little to further the cause of Palestine and, indeed, contributed to the labelling of the Palestinians as “Terrorists” in the West, the fact remained that most Palestinians understood only too well what motivated the Black September group. They understood, too, that the scale of “terror” used by Palestinians could never match the terror used by the Zionists to hijack their entire country.
The Palestinian movement appeared to receive a massive boost from the oil boycott of 1973. The boycott shook the West and forced the Americans to again go through the motions of searching for a “peace settlement”. In 1974 Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, made his famous debut at the United Nations with a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other. But this, while it may have symbolised world-wide recognition of the Palestinian case, by no means led to any concessions. The American “peace process” led to the Camp David Accords which, by bringing Egypt much closer to Israel, considerably weakened the Palestinians yet further.
Meanwhile the real battleground had switched to the Lebanon. The story of the Lebanon is complex, but what concerns us here is how the Palestinians were again betrayed by an Arab power – this time Syria’s leader, Assad. Syria was by now presenting itself as the leader of radical Arab nationalism. In addition, Syria had past historical claims on the land of Lebanon and saw itself as the power-broker there.
In 1975 civil war raged between the Christian rightist forces, who had traditionally ruled Lebanon and the Lebanese Moslem Left.
The Palestinian guerrilla movement had moved its base to Lebanon in the early 1970s after Black September. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had lived in Lebanon since their expulsion from Israel – so it was a natural base. At first the Palestinians were not fully involved in the fighting. But soon they were forced to be.
A combination of the Lebanese left and the Palestinians proved very powerful. So powerful in fact that there was the prospect, as in Jordan six years earlier, of the Palestinians actually being part of a takeover of the country. Then in June 1976 Assad intervened. Tens of thousands of Syrian troops and hundreds of tanks poured across the border. Assad was no more willing to countenance a takeover in Lebanon than Hussein had been in Jordan.
The key battle was for the Palestinian camp at Tal al Zaatar. For 53 days the Syrian army joined the Christian Right in laying siege to the camp.  Yet again thousands of Palestinians were killed. “Black June” would join Black September as a further deadly confirmation that, in the end, the Arab regimes, Right or “Left”, would leave the Palestinians to fight alone, or worse would turn on them ferociously if they became too strong.
By 1982 Lebanon had become the arena for Israel’s attempt to smash the Palestinians once and for all. At no time during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon did a single Arab government provide sustained military assistance to the PLO.
1. Cited in Maxime Rodinson, Israel and the Arabs (London 1982) p.338.
2. Cited in Weinstock, p.53.
3. Cited in Our Roots, p.47. The rest of this chapter draws heavily on this book.
4. Our Roots, p.48.
5. Our Roots, p.49.
6. Our Roots, p.75.
7. Our Roots, pp.80-81.
8. Our Roots, p.82.
9. Our Roots, p.101.
10. Our Roots, p.101.
11. The Times, 15 June 1969.
12. Our Roots, p.122.
13. Our Roots, pp.129-35.
14. Our Roots, pp.160-66.
Last updated on 4.8.2001