The PLO and the Gulf War

Tom Hermes, Dickson College, 2010

printThis essay was written in response to the self-devised focus question: "Why did the PLO support Iraq in the Gulf War and what were the consequences of this?" It was submitted as part of the Modern Middle East unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

The decision by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) to support Iraq in the 1990 Gulf War was widely condemned by Western countries and Arab countries alike. The PLO took this course because Iraq believed in many of the same diplomatic ideas as the PLO, they shared an anti-Israeli sentiment. They also saw in Iraq a powerful military ally who could hold its own against the Israeli military, and a nation who wanted to see Israel destroyed. Iraq had few allies in this war and the PLO’s decision to side with Iraq was very contentious, it hindered the peace process between Palestine and Israel and caused the PLO to lose significant financial and diplomatic support from many Arab countries.

The primary reason the PLO supported Iraq in the Gulf War was that Iraq represented a strong opponent to Israel in the Middle East and designed a link between the Gulf crises and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq 1979-2003, was clear in his anti-Western, and thus anti-Israeli view, he made this very clear throughout his Presidency in phrases like “God is on our side, and Satan is on the side of the United States.” (Saddam Hussein Quotes, viewed 20/10/10). The PLO saw in Iraq a powerful military ally and so wished to form stronger ties with the nation, other Arab nations provided diplomatic and financial support but the difference here was that Iraq could provide significant military support, Iraq had also supplied the PLO with weapons during the 1980’s. The PLO saw little hope for substantial military support from neighbouring Arab countries, as Jordan and Egypt had made peace with Israel. The rebellious Intifada mindset made allying with a strong military power like Iraq even more tempting. The PLO requested that Iraq draw a parallel between the occupation of Kuwait and the Israeli occupation of territories in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO 1959-2004, said during an interview in early 1991:

It is Saddam Hussein who is my ally. Because Saddam Hussein has accepted the requests we offered to him from our people under occupation to make this linkage between the Gulf crises and the Palestinian cause and he has fulfilled his promises by making this linkage. (The Journal - Paul McGrath interviews Yasser Arafat 1991)

Hussein publicly stated

… that all cases of occupation, and those cases that have been portrayed as occupation, in the region, be resolved simultaneously…

Hussein said that if this occurred he would withdraw from Kuwait. In an interview in early 1991 Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, described the parallel between Kuwaiti oil and Palestinian land in a interview with American journalist Paul McGrath in early 1991 as such:

The link between oil and Palestine, the armada is there, not for the sake of Kuwait or anything else. It is only for oil, to control oil, you are looking for oil, we are looking for our holy, sacred Muslim and Christian places in Palestine.

Neither Iraq nor the PLO wanted a strong pro-Israeli American influence in the region and the PLO considered gaining the support of Iraq the best hope of gaining statehood. The Gulf War was even likened by Iraq as a follow on from the Crusades in Medieval times. And while it is true that the PLO had had talks with the US, these talks had been suspended indefinitely and in the militant mindset that came with the First Intifada the anti-Western factions of the PLO influenced the leadership more so than usual. The parallel of Palestine and Kuwait was seen by the PLO as a good chance to establish a nation for Palestine in the Israeli occupied territories and the primary reason the PLO became allies with Iraq in the Gulf War, and as a consequence go against the Arab League and the UN.

Iraq made the comparison between the occupation of Kuwait and the occupation of Palestinian territories because of their strong animosity towards Israel and shared with the PLO a desire to see Palestine liberated, creating a bond between the two parties and the two peoples. Hussein made his attitude towards Israel clear when he made this statement shortly after the out-break of the Gulf War “If Israel attacks any Arab country ... we have the means to burn half of Israel.” Iraq certainly was a credible threat to Israel during this time, it had one of the largest and best equipped militaries in the world and had very powerful chemical weapons which, if fully utilised could have devastated Israeli populations. Iraq continued to threaten Israel throughout the conflict causing Israel to remain out of the war. This action by Iraq of standing up to Israel made a big impression on the Palestinian public which was at the time involved in the First Intifada, a Palestinian civil uprising defying Israeli occupation. The Iraqis also fired Scud missiles at Israel to show that there was substance to their threats, though these attacks were rarely very effective due to inaccuracy. These attacks demonstrated most obviously the widespread support of Iraq among the Palestinian population as there were many reports of Palestinians cheering and celebrating as the missiles flew by. In an excerpt from Palestinian Refugees by Robert Bowker the author asks a Palestinian man from Hebron why he cheered the Scud missiles, he replies “It was the first time I saw panic in the eyes of the Israelis. I wanted them wanted them to feel the same panic they caused me.” There were also marches and demonstrations in support of Iraq in many Palestinian population centres. This sentiment was clearly summarized by the statement from the PLO Executive Committee in August of 1990 "The Palestinian people stand firmly by Iraq's side." The bond between the two peoples was also more than diplomatic, as some of Iraq’s intelligence on Kuwait prior to invasion came from the PLO and thousands of Palestinians joined in the war on Iraq’s side. The peoples of Iraq and Palestine shared many principles and had a common overall aim which made them strong allies.

The decision of the PLO supporting Iraq was highly contentious and arguably not in the best interests of the Palestinian people. The decision caused conflict in the PLO, compromised the peace process with Israel, caused Palestinians to be expelled from Kuwait and most significantly lost the PLO the financial and, to an extent, diplomatic support from most Arab countries. Arafat made the choice to support Iraq against the will of his advisors and much of the PLO leadership. Abu Iyad, Fatah’s second-in-command strongly opposed supporting Iraq and argued that the PLO should remain neutral, Iyad would be assassinated by Mossad soon after the war began but the issue continued to divide the organisation. The US had promised their Arab allies to endeavor to create peace between Israel and Palestine, they honoured this promise in the Madrid and Oslo peace conferences. Because of this the set back of the PLO supporting Iraq on the peace process was not as drastic as it could have been but did serve to create more animosity and mistrust between the two peoples. As previously mentioned, the war had popular support from the Palestinian public but in hindsight the choice of the PLO was not advantageous. The PLO’s decision to side with Iraq was a serious set back for the relations between Israel and Palestine, Israeli peace activist Yaron London, wrote an open letter to the Palestinians saying “This week you proved to me for many years I was a great fool. When you ask once again for my support for your 'legitimate rights,' you will discover that your shouts of encouragement to Saddam have clogged my ears.” The PLO’s actions were universally criticized by Israeli leaders and and was a controversial move by Arafat.

Beside the damage to the peace process, during the post war period further evidence of the short-sightedness of the PLO’s choice was displayed. Due to Iraq’s defeat and the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty around 400,000 Palestinians were exiled from the country because of the PLO’s decision which the Kuwaitis deemed a betrayal. This had dire consequences for Palestinians especially in the West Bank Most significantly the PLO also lost major financial support from the greater part of the Arab League, Kuwait made a proposal, which was accepted, to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) to discontinue financial backing of the PLO. It is estimated that before the Gulf War the PLO were receiving around $250 million from official support from Arab states including almost $100 million a year for the past decade from Saudi Arabia (. Because of the PLO’s alliance with Iraq a significant amount of this annual support was discontinued. Many Arab states began to fund other Palestinian organisations such as Hamas at the PLO’s expense and this severely hurt the PLO’s ability to maintain control and public support and which contributed to their failure to successfully govern the occupied territories post Oslo. And because of Iraq being comprehensively beaten in the Gulf War they were unable to provide significant funds or military assistance due to trade sanctions imposed by the victorious coalition nations. Siding with Iraq in the Gulf War cost the PLO huge sums of money and caused huge numbers of Palestinians to be exiled once again.


Literary Sources

Lowry, Richard 2008, Gulf War Chronicles: A Military History of the First War with Iraq, iUniverse, New York.

Rubin, Barry 1994, Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Online Sources

All Great Quotes 2010, Saddam Hussein Quotes, viewed 20/10/10, <>

Australian War Memorial 2010, First Gulf War 1990-1991, viewed 22/10/10 <>

Bard, Mitchell 2010, The Gulf War, Jewish Virtual Library, viewed 23/10/10 <>

Bard, Mitchell 2010, Myths & Facts - The Gulf Wars, Jewish Virtual Library, viewed 23/10/10 <>

Hadi, Dr Mahdi Abdul 1998, Post Gulf War Assessment: A Palestinian Perspective, Passia, viewed 23/10/10 <>

Intelligence Research Program 1998, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), viewed 22/10/10, <>

Janabi, Ahmed 2009, Arafat’s costly Gulf War choice, Aljazeera, viewed 23/10/10 <>

Palestine Facts 2010, Finances of the PLO, viewed 20/10/10, <>

Palestine Facts 2010, What was the effect of the Gulf War of 1991 on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, viewed 20/10/10 <>

Youtube 2010, The Journal - Paul McGrath interviews Yasser Arafat 1991, viewed 23/10/10 <>