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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2011

3 - Roots and Rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization, 1949–1987


The Nakba destroyed Palestinians’ national life in nearly every respect. Villages were erased, homes and fields dispossessed, and families torn asunder. Decades of urban and commercial development were lost. The dispersion of refugees – 10 percent going to the East Bank of the Jordan, 39 percent to the West Bank, 26 percent to the Gaza Strip, 14 percent to Lebanon, 10 percent to Syria, and 1 percent to Egypt – left Palestinians a diasporic nation. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of people on foot with only the clothes on their backs began their descent into a day-to-day battle for subsistence.

Palestinian refugees insisted that they had fled temporarily under duress. In December 1948, United Nations Resolution 194 affirmed their right to return to their homes inside the new state of Israel. Arguing that returned refugees would constitute a fifth column, Israel sealed the borders. It appropriated the lands of nearly four hundred villages emptied during the war and established 186 Jewish settlements in their place. As years passed, refugees’ emergency tents evolved into 59 concrete refugee camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Some refugees attempted to infiltrate Israel to return to their homes, harvest crops, or smuggle goods. Infiltrations gradually became more political, resulting in hundreds of violent incidents from 1951 to 1955. Responding to these acts, Israeli forces carried out harsh reprisal raids causing deaths in the thousands. In the succeeding decades, Palestinians formed political groups and expanded cross-border operations as a strategy to revitalize the national movement. Their efforts eventually became embodied in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).