A pet peeve of mine is the lack of books about Palestine in English written by Palestinians themselves. As such, Pluto Press is to be commended for publishing these translated memoirs of the late journalist, activist and diplomat Shafiq al-Hout, a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). My Life in the PLO: The Inside Story of the Palestinian Struggle is historically sweeping, politically critical and fascinating throughout.
Al-Hout was born in Jaffa in 1932. At the end of the nineteenth century, his grandfather had emigrated there from Lebanon. In 1948, he and his family fled to Lebanon as Zionist militias occupied the city of his birth.
During his time at the American University of Beirut in the 1950s, he became a leftist, and was involved in attempts to revitalize Palestinian political life after it was crushed by the catastrophe of 1948 (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine known as the Nakba). His activism soon drew the attention of university authorities, who accused him of being a communist, and al-Hout was suspended for a year — although he was spared the exile imposed on some of his comrades (24). He began writing for al-Hawadeth, a political weekly, of which he became editor in 1960.
After much struggle with the bureaucracy, his grandfather’s Lebanese citizenship finally secured al-Hout a Lebanese ID and passport. The discovery of oil in the Gulf countries led al-Hout, like many Palestinians, to seek work there. He made some money as a teacher in Kuwait between 1956 and 1958 before returning to Lebanon (37). In 1961, he and some comrades started the Palestine Liberation Front (not connected to the modern PLO faction of the same name), and al-Hawadeth soon became closely associated with it.
Humble about his role
In 1964, the PLO was founded under its first president Ahmed al-Shuqayri, and al-Hout was involved from the start. Nevertheless, his account of this founding focuses on the facts and he is genuinely humble about his role. Al-Hout was appointed as the PLO’s representative to Lebanon, and so resigned as editor of al-Hawadeth. As a sign of its commitment to pan-Arabism, and to Palestinian national unity, the PLF eventually dissolved itself into the PLO.
Looking back, he describes the PLO as the Palestinians’ “most significant achievement in their six decades of national struggle” (54) and he recounts the grassroots work done in the refugee camps early on to form the Palestinian National Council (as the PLO’s representative decision-making body).
At that time, the Palestinian fedayeen commando groups which had began forming in the refugee camps clustered around Palestine were not part of the PLO. Indeed, al-Hout records that the PLO was at first greeted with skepticism: “the various political groups considered it nothing more than an attempt by Arab leaders to divert people from the true path of the revolution” (53).
Al-Hout was a follower of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism. There is an interesting chapter on Nasser here, although al-Hout did not find many critical things to say about him. But considering his life-long emphasis on Arab unity, perhaps this is not surprising. The chapter is intended more as an anecdotal recollection than political analysis.
The Israeli military defeat of Egypt and the other Arab states in 1967 gave the fedayeen groups a new momentum. The fire of hope that Nasser’s pan-Arabism represented to Palestinians was beaten down. The armed Palestinian factions (Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.) took control of the PLO and Yasser Arafat became its new leader.
Al-Hout emphasized the need for these factions to engage with the PLO: “In the 1960s, the number of Palestinian fronts and organizations increased gradually until there were 17 of them, most of which had almost identical goals” (45). He continued to hold this unifying outlook for the rest of his life, calling for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the PLO in the early 1990s, long before it became a common (and commonly ignored) demand (272).
Sparring with Arafat
Probably the most enjoyable aspect of this book is al-Hout’s open criticism of powerful Arab figures — Arafat, Shuqayri, Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian intelligence (who he believes were behind one of the many attempts on his life in Lebanon, 58), the list goes on.
There are no holds barred on his criticisms of Arafat, in particular. While he tells many stories showing how they got on well at a personal level, he lays into Arafat politically. He recounts several blazing rows with Arafat, even making fun of his Arabic. The central cleavage point is of course the ill-fated Oslo accords, which al-Hout was against from the beginning, and he even suspended his membership of the PLO executive committee weeks before it was signed (he had not liked the unaccountable direction the PLO-Israel negotiations were going in even before the secret Oslo track was uncovered). After the terrible details of Oslo were revealed, he suggested to Arafat with typical acid humor that he should “retire to a cottage on a Tunisian hillside” (276).
The book covers a lot on Lebanon, and the sad history of the long-suffering Palestinian refugees there. There is also a very insightful historical analysis of the PLO’s decision in the 1970s to engage with the United Nations, culminating in Arafat’s famous “Gun and Olive Branch” speech in 1974 (often attributed to Mahmoud Darwish, al-Hout says that it was in fact a joint effort written by himself, Darwish, Walid Khalidi and Salah Dabbagh, based on bullet points by Nabil Shaath) (121).
These days, we perhaps tend to take for granted that the UN (at least the General Assembly) is on the side of the Palestinians but it’s easy to forget that at the time, it was a controversial move for the PLO to engage with the UN. After all, it was the UN that had in 1947 partitioned Palestine - an act which was arguably one cause of the Nakba: “Some considered it to be a betrayal of the cause and carried banners condemning those that had approved it” (127).
Al-Hout was both an outsider and an insider. An outsider in the sense of being a Palestinian refugee, so outside the homeland. But he was also an outsider in the sense that (like his friends Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish) he was never a member of any particular PLO faction, insisting on maintaining his independence. He was an insider because he was, and remained, inside the PLO from its inception until his death in 2009 (only intermittently part of its leadership).
This memoir is a highly entertaining and informative take on a critically important stage of the Palestinian struggle for return and national liberation.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He edited the book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation, published by Pluto Press. His website is www.winstanleys.org.