The Middle East: 2. The Fedayeen

The history of the Palestinian liberation movement challenges, or at least stands on its head, Walter Bedell Smith’s aphorism that “diplomacy has rarely been able to gain at the conference table what cannot be gained or held on the battlefield.” The fedayeen have gained or held nothing on the battlefield but an almost unrelieved succession of defeats. Yet they constitute one of the major forces that have so far prevented diplomats from even coming to the conference table. Perhaps General Smith’s rule was not meant to apply to those bent on wrecking rather than serving the uses of diplomacy.

The half dozen or more different liberation groups would insist, of course, that they are not wreckers, but fighters for a constructive goal, the recovery of Palestine by and for its former Arab inhabitants. But that, even they admit, is a far-off thing and dependent on the destruction of the State of Israel. And the immediate goal, the only realistic hope of the Palestinians for at least a few years, is totally negative: the spoiling of any possibility of a peaceful, political, negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Their fighting force is only a few thousand men, surprisingly inefficient in attack and sabotage, and behaving like Keystone Kops in the conduct of terrorism inside Israel. Yet they enjoy enormous political power and can boast that until now no official governmental body had dared to contend openly against their cardinal goal of war-not-peace. To be sure, it is not merely or even mainly the Palestinian liberation groups that have blocked a Middle East settlement so far: for reasons of their own, the governments of the United Arab Republic, Jordan, and Syria have refused to discuss the procedures and the terms that stand some likelihood of leading to permanent peace. The importance of the Palestinian organizations lies in the future: if the Arab governments someday do decide they ought to end the ancient battle against Zionism, it is by no means sure that they will dare make the try if the commandos object, and if their political muscle is as strong then as now.

Internecine struggles for power, feuds over doctrine, and political gambits by various Arab governments combine to guarantee that any program with the names and numbers of the various liberation groups will be out of date before it can be printed. It is sufficient to know that there are several small outfits, two or three organizations that are largely controlled by the governments or armed forces of Arab countries (if they are not mere extensions of them) , and only two entities (plus their schismatic offshoots) that have significantly engaged in combat.

The largest is El Fatah (the name is an acronym of the Arab words, in reverse order, for Palestine National Liberation Movement) . It commands 70 to 80 percent of all fedayeen under arms and is also the strongest politically. It came into being in 1957, but its strength and importance date from the months following the Six-Day War. By last February it had become so powerful and popular that it was able to take over what is supposed to be the top international fedayeen holding company, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) , an entity created and generously financed by the several Arab states themselves.

Much smaller than Fatah, but better trained, tougher, and from the Israeli point of view, nastier, are the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and one or more of its ideologically dissident offshoots.

The commandos

Fatah and the Fronts call their combat forces commandos. The term is to some extent inaccurate because only the lesser part of their activities are those that are “commando” by definition: swift forays and armed raids on military objectives inside enemy territory. Another name, more exact from their own point of view, is “freedom fighters”; equally exact, from the other side’s view, is the Israeli word for them, “terrorists.” Fedayeen, derived from an Arabic word meaning sacrifice to a cause, has become the generic and most convenient term.

Fatah’s fighters, who are almost 100 percent Palestinian, were recruited in the early stages mainly from the refugee camps. They were a raggle-taggle lot, more given to decking themselves out as one-man arsenals, swaggering in camouflage garb, and carrying on small-scale extortion of “contributions” than to disciplined harassment of the enemy. Among their number were more than a fair share of delinquents, dropouts, and the Arab equivalent of drugstore cowboys. The quality of recruits has since improved considerably, so that today the troops are stiffened with university graduates and other Palestinians who held substantial jobs throughout the Arab world as teachers, technicians, and skilled workers. At the top, in noncombatant roles of organizers, propagandists, recruiters, money-raisers, and staff officers, are some impressive men and women, many educated in American and European universities and linked with the intellectual centers of Arab nationalism at the University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut.

There are no ideological or political requirements, save for dedication to the goal of destroying the Jewish state, for membership in Fatah; its forces can hold any sectarian, philosophical, or attitudinal convictions they choose. But as it happens, they are overwhelmingly leftist in outlook, subscribers to the doctrine and program of revolutionary Arab socialism. The Popular Fronts are even more so and require formal adherence to one or another radical doctrine as a condition for membership.

Not unnaturally, Fatah declines to reveal the strength of its military arm, Al Asifa. Estimates of combatants in the field, which is to say mainly Jordan and to a lesser extent Lebanon, and in training camps range from 3000 to 5000. Another concentration of about 2000, so the Israelis claim, is in Israel, in prison. But at least 1700 of these are not fedayeen captured in forays; they are Palestinians rounded up in Israeli antisubversion raids and the like. The combat strength of the Popular Fronts is believed to be only a few hundred men.

Fatah’s finances, now bolstered by the PLO funds, seem abundant for its needs. The money comes from three main sources: the oil sheikhs and millionaires of the Persian Gulf lands (King Faisal and other princelings of the area are said to contribute large amounts, viewing Fatah as an organization that Nasser cannot dominate and therefore a future counterforce to him) ; “tithings,” mainly by payroll checkoff systems, from thousands of Palestinians holding relatively high-wage jobs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere; and donations from Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Military training of the commandos now takes place mostly in Jordan and Syria and to a lesser extent in the UAR, Iraq, and probably Algeria; commando spokesmen claim some is even carried out in China. Some of the weapons come from the military stores of those nations, and the rest from open and black markets in Europe. As might be expected from such sources, the weapons are preponderantly of Russian and Soviet-bloc manufacture, with a lesser miscellany of Chinese, Swedish, German, British, and even American origin. The principal problem for the fedayeen is the acquisition of heavy arms: cannon, mortars, rockets, and launchers.


The operations Fatah most enjoys talking about are its armed bands slipping into Israel and striking at military forces and installations. Israel reports some 1900 military “incidents” since the June war, of which at least 468 involved fedayeen border crossings. But in more than 400 of these incidents, the fedayeen got only about 1.2 miles into Israel.

In part, commando infiltration may be held down by Israel’s “defensive fence,” a swath of mined land a few yards wide bounded by barbed wire strung with detection devices, a few hundred yards behind the West Bank of the Jordan River and stretching from the Dead Sea to Galilee. Fatah spokesmen claim that it is child’s play to cross it. Having seen a stretch of it, I am sure they are right. What is remarkable is how ineffective the raiders seem to be when they do come across. Recently their main operation has been mine-laying under the unpaved roads patroled by Israeli border guards and those leading into the riverside fields of the agricultural settlements. The effect is principally to cost the Israeli farmers time: they must wait each morning for the army’s mine-detecting vehicles to sweep the roads.

Fatah’s principal military action against Israel is in cross-river shelling. The routine procedure is to load a 130 mm. Czech-made rocketlauncher or a large mortar on a truck in a fedayeen camp in the hills on the East Bank, drive into the valley and set the weapon up within striking distance of the Israeli side, lob half a dozen or more missiles across, get the weapon back on the truck, and drive to safety before Israeli counterfire zeroes in. These attacks almost always escalate: Jordanian Army posts tend to respond to the Israeli counterfire (in recent months, instantly and almost automatically, probably as a result of new official Jordanian orders), and heavy artillery duels then ensue. Moreover, if the Arab shells fall on relatively populated areas, it is standard operating procedure for the Israelis to put planes in the air to quench the attack by bombing, and to try to burn the attackers out of hiding, if they are in brush or reeds, by napalm.

According to Israeli figures, the total casualties from all fedayeen action since the Six-Day War until late July this year are 108 soldiers killed (including 4 colonels) and 443 wounded; 36 civilians killed and 412 wounded. It can be assumed that most of the military casualties resulted from direct combat with infiltrating raiders, while almost all of the civilian casualties are from crossriver shelling. (Israeli troop losses in engagements with Jordanian and Egyptian regular military forces: 142 killed, 550 wounded, from the end of Lhe Six-Day War until July 20.) It is those encounters, principally the shelling from the west side of the Suez canal, that bring Israel its greatest injury and anguish.

In the more than two years since the June, 1967, war, the Israelis claim to have killed 665 fedayeen and to have captured about 261.

The liberation organizations’ figures, as one might expect, do not agree with Israel’s. Communiqués of the Popular Front, several every day, state that the Israeli Army has been pretty well destroyed. Fatah contents itself with saying each day that “several" casualties were inflicted. Their spokesmen add, however, that their figures tally nicely with death tolls admitted by Israel plus the postwar increase of deaths ascribed to auto accidents, under which disguise, they say, the Israelis are concealing the losses inflicted by the fedayeen, Israelis point out, however, that their deaths from auto accidents, high enough, heaven knows, have not increased since the war. Fatah spokesmen assert their losses to be “less than 300.”


The principal hurt that Fatah inflicts is to deter the flow of tourists. Israel’s tourist receipts will be sharply down this year from the 1968 figure, and a good part of the drop can he fairly attributed to the worry that fedayeen operations engender. As for the commandos’ direct damage to life and limb, it is mercifully low in proportion 10 the weight of the shellings. Nevertheless, all lives are precious, and there are costs to Israel in other terms as well. Shelters have had to be built in all the border kibbutzim and moshavim and concrete roofs for the major structures. Despite the work time lost, agricultural production has increased steadily in the area since the war, and in the several settlements that I visited, life and spirits seemed to me buoyant. When I recently visited one moshav—of “Oriental" Jews from Iraq—its chief problem was how to accommodate young members who had left for urban jobs some years ago and now insisted, as a matter of conscience and from a sense of obligation, on returning because their settlement was on the front line.

The operations of the Popular Front are more sharply focused and more resolutely executed. Their theater of operations outside Israel is largely south of the Dead Sea, whence they raid military installations and industrial facilities, principally chemical. The Front’s specialty, however, is sabotage and subversion within Israel. It was the Front that also conceived and engineered what were certainly the most menacing economic thrusts against Israel, the assaults on its airline by a hijacking in Rome and shootings in Athens and Zurich.

On the other hand, the Front was also responsible for the stunningly idiotic act in May of blowing up the Aramco tapline at a point where a thirty-mile segment crosses the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The effect was to block the shipment of 440,000 barrels a day of Saudi Arabian oil, to cost Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon transit fees at the annual rate of $23 million, and to suspend the tidy refinery and shipping terminal business Lebanon enjoyed at Sidon.

Israel is in no hurry to authorize repairs, insisting first on guarantees against damage to its land and water supply in the event of future sabotage of the thirty-inch line. There is no particular reason for Israel to put itself out in the matter: it collected no transit fees when the oil flowed and loses nothing while it is blocked. The oxen that are gored belong to four of its enemies.


If, as the Israelis sardonically claim, the military campaign of the fedayeen adds up to the worst Arab defeat since the Six-Day War, how does it come about that the Palestine liberation movement is so powerful a political force in the Arab states? The easy answer, and quite possibly the accurate one, is that in defeat the Arabs have made a psychological reality out of the words, the spirit, and the appearance of resistance. The very existence of the fedayeen and the daily publication of their asserted triumphs lift a dreadful humiliation from the Arab back.

The political power of the fedayeen movement was demonstrated nowhere more vividly than in Lebanon, the place where it was least suspected. Of all Israel s neighbors, Lebanon has most wanted to keep clear of the Arab-Israeli conflict and has best succeeded. Its population, about 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim, has always been vastly more interested in economic tangibles than patriotic abstractions; it has long been taken for granted that “Lebanon will be the second country to make peace with Israel,” and was anxiously waiting only for some other Arab state to go first and make the act respectable. In addition, Lebanon entertains an obsessive fear, which Israel’s raid on the Beirut airport last December did nothing to abate, that the Zionists are champing at the bit for the slightest excuse to invade it and occupy its southern regions up to the Litani River.

In theory, then, the Lebanese government should have encountered no significant domestic difficulties in executing a decision last April to put the lid on some potentially dangerous and escalating commando activity. The threat had come from AI Asiqa (“The Thunderbolt”) , a commando group created, controlled, and to some extent officered by the Syrian Army. A sizable contingent (published estimates were 2000, although the figure seems impossibly high) had infiltrated from Syria during the preceding month or two, mainly to make political mischief in Lebanon but ostensibly to launch attacks on Israel from Lebanese soil. Thereupon, some few hundred Fatah commandos, already in Lebanon but until then not forcefully protesting the restrictions against forays across the Israeli border, also seemed likely to cast off the restraints. Using the occasion of a forbidden commando demonstration near Sidon, the Lebanese Army cracked down, probably with undue severity.

To the amazement and vast distress of the government, there was a furious reaction in Beirut: street mobs, Palestinians, Syrian laborers, leftist activists, and most significantly, university students rioted in support of the commandos. At day’s end, some seventeen people were left dead in Beirut and Sidon. The government was obliged to make a formal resignation and, continuing in a caretaker status, to undertake weeks of futile negotiations with the various political forces inside the country and with the Arab world’s top commando personage, Yasser Arafat, head of PLO-Fatah. The stalemate continued for months. The heart of the matter to be noted here is that popular support for the fedayeen in fat, conservative, unafflicted Lebanon was so strong that it was impossible to put together a government committed to preventing the kind of commando activity that would inevitably provoke the same harrowing retaliation that is now racking Jordan.

Jordan suffers that agony, of course, precisely because it is there that the fedayeen are most powerful and most active. In open breach of an agreement last November with King Hussein, armed and uniformed Fatah men make Amman a parade ground; the area north and west of the capital down to the Jordan River is unmistakably “Fatah territory.”

One body of opinion in Jordan is that the fedayeen are powerful enough to prevent Hussein—in the unlikely event that matters soon come to such a point—from accepting even what is no more than a truce agreement under the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution of November 22, 1967, as minimally interpreted by the Arabs, not to mention the “real peace,” permanent and sanctified by a negotiated treaty, that the Israelis demand. More than half of Jordan’s inhabitants are Palestinians; and so are at least half of the military officer corps.

There is, however, a body of optimists who believe that if the United Arab Republic reached an agreement with Israel, Jordan could too; the premise is that the fedayeen could not block it and would be beaten if they attempted to raise arms against the monarch.

It is argued, and I think correctly, that both in their long-term political objectives and in their immediate operations the commandos constitute a graver threat to the Arab regimes than to Israel. Their longtime menace to Hussein and their more recent one to Lebanon are obvious; that they are even a potential menace to such respectably leftist states as Syria and Iraq is evidenced by the pains those two countries take to keep the older organizations on the tightest leash and to channel commando enthusiasm as best they can into new groups under direct government and army control.

Outside as well as within the Muslim world, however, the fedayeen have given the Palestinian cause more publicity and won it more support than anything else since 1949. They have again made a reality out of the concept of Palestine, reviving an issue that had almost been forgotten for twenty years even by other Arabs as well as by the world at large.

For the immediate future, all the commando groups of whatever origin and philosophical persuasion and by whomever controlled profess only the goal of conquering Zionist Israel, effecting the return of all the refugees, and establishing a multinational, democratic, and socialist land where Arab, Jew, and Christian will live in peace—although, let there be no mistake, with the Palestinians in control of the government. Palestinian writers and fedayeen spokesmen insist that Arabs, being Semites, cannot be anti-Semites; that the target is not the Jews, only Zionism and Zionists; that, in victory, no Jew will be harmed. The Israelis are not overly persuaded by these protestations and tend to reach different conclusions in the light of their own experience, especially the treatment of Jews in Arab countries since 1948 and the Arab oratory just preceding the June, 1967, war, uttered when the Arabs thought they were going to win it.