The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964 under Ahmed Shukairy to represent Palestinian national demands for self-determination. In 1964 the Palestine National Council (PNC, or parliament) of 350 representatives met in East Jerusalem and voted on the Palestine National Charter, or declaration of independence, that declared historic Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian Arabs. The charter has been amended several times.
In 1968 the charter added that "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine". In 1988 the PLO under Yasir Arafat’s orders agreed to drop the use of terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and essentially accept the establishment of the independent state of Palestine in the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank—the so-called mini-state solution.
Although some Palestinian groups opposed Arafat on these issues—the changes were agreed upon by the Palestine National Council, dominated by pro-Fatah Arafat supporters. Fatah (the Palestine National Liberation Movement) continued to dominate the PLO until 2006.
After the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Shukairy stepped down as chairman of the PLO, and Yasir Arafat, the leader of Fatah, the largest guerrilla group, was elected chairman.
Arafat remained the leader of the Palestinian national movement until his death in 2004. The PLO constantly struggled to remain independent from any Arab government and often found it difficult to steer a neutral course among rival Arab governments.
Secular and all-inclusive, the PLO was an umbrella organization of some 10 different Palestinian groups, including the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), under Dr. George Habash, and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), led by Naif Hawatmeh; the Arab Liberation Front, supported by Iraq; and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, a PFLP splinter group supported by Syria and sometimes Libya.
The Palestine National Council operated until the 1993 Oslo Accords as a government in exile. The PNC comprised over 300 members, including fighters, union members, students, and women. The Palestine Central Council acted as an advisory board of approximately 60 representatives from all the various factions.
The Executive Committee ran the PLO on a daily basis and comprised 15 members. In contrast to many other Arab governments, the PLO was highly democratic and engaged in lively and often public debates about strategies and tactics.
The Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) was the PLO’s military wing and was often made up of fedayeen (self-sacrificers). By the 1970s the PLA had an estimated 10,000 fighters based mostly in Lebanon and Syria.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon the PLA was forced to scatter to a number of Arab countries. After the establishment of the Palestine Authority (PA) under the 1993 Oslo Accords, many soldiers were subsumed under the police force.
The Palestine National Fund was the PLO’s economic arm. The fund was financed by donations from Palestinians in exile as well as taxes levied on Palestinians working in some Arab nations such as Libya. Individual Arab governments, such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also provided aid. Those regimes cut off aid after the PLO supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the First Gulf War.
After the 1967 war, some groups within the PLO endorsed terrorist attacks on civilians. The PFLP simultaneously skyjacked four planes, landing them at a remote airstrip in Jordan in 1970; this incident precipitated "Black September", when the Jordanian army attacked and defeated Palestinian forces and ousted the PLO, which then moved its base of operations to Lebanon.
Attacks on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics followed in 1972. The cycle of violence escalated as PLO groups launched raids inside and outside of Israel and Israel assassinated Palestinian leaders in the Middle East and Europe. As a result many innocent civilians on both sides were killed and wounded.
Within the Arab world the PLO was recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Although it was condemned as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, the PLO gradually gained international recognition, and, once it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist, even Israel and the United States entered into both public and secret negotiations with it.
The PLO also established an extensive network of social services, including schools, orphanages, and hospitals. The Palestine Red Crescent was active in providing health and emergency care. SAMED provided an economic infrastructure of small businesses, workshops, and factories manufacturing textiles and even office furniture in Lebanon and Syria.
Many of these institutions were destroyed in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the 1970s the PLO also sponsored some agricultural cooperatives in Sudan, Somalia, and other African nations. It also sponsored art and cultural events.
The Palestine Research Center, based in Beirut, focused on collecting materials and publishing books and articles on Palestinian history in order to preserve its cultural heritage. The center was also destroyed, and materials were taken by the Israelis in the 1982 war. The PLO also maintained information bureaus and had diplomatic representatives in major world capitals.
In the midst of the 1987 Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the occupied territories, a rival Islamist organization, Hamas, emerged to challenge Fatah’s leadership. Financed by devout Muslims, especially in conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Hamas prospered first among poor Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip.
Because it competed with the PLO, Israel initially ignored Hamas but subsequently found that in many ways it proved a more dangerous enemy. When the PLO, in spite of concessions to Israel, failed to achieve a viable Palestinian state, many more young Palestinians who had grown up under Israeli military occupation joined Hamas.
When the Palestine Authority was established in the territories evacuated by the Israeli military in 1994, Arafat became the leader of the PA; he won a clear-cut majority as president in open and fair elections in 1996.
However, the PA leaders, most of whom were members of Fatah who had spent years outside the Occupied Territories, were also accused of corruption and inefficiency. After Arafat’s death Mahmud Abbas was elected president in 2005.
Fatah dominated the Palestinian parliament until it was defeated by the Islamist Hamas party in the 2006 elections and Ismail Haniyeh became prime minister. As the two main political forces—Fatah and Hamas—competed for power and the Israeli occupation of most of the territories continued, the future of the PLO remained uncertain.