Formed in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was not the first Palestinian organization after the nakba (catastrophe), the escape from violence and the Israeli expulsion of a good half of Palestinians in 1948. The two most important earlier organizations were Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-‘Arab (Arab Nationalists Movement [ANM]) and Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini (Palestinian National Liberation Movement [Fatah]).
Founded in 1951 in Beirut, ANM became committed to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) and his version of pan-Arab nationalism, which it saw as the means to liberate Palestine, opening a separate Palestinian branch in 1959. (In 1967, it would give rise to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which split in 1968, one wing forming the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP)).
Rejecting Arab states’ tutelage, Fatah was officially born in 1959, though organizational activities began in 1956 and though it built on military cells operating from Egyptian-ruled Gaza from the early 1950s. After Arab armies’ crushing loss against Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 killed any remaining hopes, weakened since the early 1960s, that Arab armies would liberate Palestine, Fatah grew in strength. In 1969, it took command of the PLO. The latter had been founded in 1964 for several reasons. Nasser hoped to weaken Fatah and Syria, a state then in competition with him. Also, the PLO served (upper) middle class Palestinians some of whom—like Ahmad al-Shuqayri (1908-1908), Palestine’s representative to the Arab League and the PLO’s founder and first chairman—had played a Palestinian political role until 1948 and wished to do so again. And these men and women believed Palestinians needed their own statist entity, as Yezid Sayigh’s monumental Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (1997) notes.
In 1965, PLO delegates led by Shuqayri for the first time visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as reported in the English issue of the multi-language international organ Peking Review. Already in 1964 a small Fatah delegation led by Yassir Arafat (1929-2004) had accepted an invitation to visit Beijing, founding an office there. Sure, upon its establishment in 1949 the PRC had de jure recognized Israel, following the lead of the Soviet Union that acted as its older brother in the communist camp. (Israel in turn was the first Middle Eastern state to recognize the PRC, in 1950.) But after the PRC and the USSR split in 1960, Beijing amplified its anti-imperialist rhetoric and policies versus the Soviet Union and the United States, as Gregg Brazinksy’s Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (2017) has shown. It was in this context that it from the mid-1960s delivered arms especially to Fatah and the PLO—it soon also would train fighters—and that it politically embraced the Palestinian cause. The PRC framed this policy as that of one “revolutionary people” helping another one, a story strand in Paul Chamberlin’s The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (2012). By the early 1970s, however, Chinese support became more lukewarm. Moreover, after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), relations with Israel cautiously warmed, though remaining surreptitious until the establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992.