The June 1967 war did not create the contemporary Palestinian national movement, but did establish the conditions for its meteoric rise and ability to wrest custodianship of the Question of Palestine from the Arab states. This development has had far-reaching consequences to this day.
From the conclusion of the 1936–39 Great Arab Revolt against the British Mandate in Palestine until the 1967 war, the Palestinians were often little more than spectators to the regional and international decisions and developments that determined their fate—first and foremost the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, which resulted in their collective dispossession. Although Palestinian nationalist movements, such as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), began to emerge within a decade of the 1948 nakba (Catastrophe), throughout the 1950s and 1960s most Palestinians sought and expected salvation from a mobilized Arab world. More Palestinians joined the various pan-Arab, communist or Islamist movements proliferating throughout the region, or pledged allegiance to specific Arab leaders or regimes, than volunteered for organizations bearing a distinctly Palestinian agenda. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was in fact established by the Arab League, in 1964, as a mechanism through which the Arab states, particularly Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt, could control growing levels of Palestinian nationalist activism and thereby perpetuate their custodianship over the question of Palestine and thus leadership of the Arab world.
A mere six days in June 1967 thoroughly transformed these realities. From the comprehensive defeat of the Arab militaries and thorough discrediting of the Arab regimes emerged one new Palestinian nationalist movement after another. George Habash, who had previously founded the pan-Arab Movement of Arab Nationalists, re-emerged in December of that year as the general secretary of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As Palestinians made Jordan into a Palestinian guerrilla base, Fatah seized control of the PLO in 1968–69 and installed Yasir Arafat as its new chairman. By the mid-1970s the PLO had successfully established itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and in so doing it had effectively seen off the claims of Jordan’s King Hussein to the West Bank and representation of its population, and of Israel to deny their very existence.
The centrality of the Question of Palestine to the Arab-Israeli conflict and of Palestinian self-determination to the international agenda were critical if unanticipated consequences of the June 1967 war. Transforming the Palestinian people from a dispersed demographic reality into a unified political actor remains the Palestinian national movement’s signal achievement. Yet today, seemingly incapable of confronting the relentless advance of Israeli settler-colonialism, this is once again at risk. More fragmented, dispersed, and divided than at any point since 1948, the Palestinians risk once again becoming a politically inconsequential demographic reality. Yet it is only by arresting and reversing the disintegration of the national movement that took form after 1967 that Palestinians will be able to convert their dream of liberation and freedom from a receding mirage to political reality.
[An earlier version of this article was originally published on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.]