For most of the Palestinians, the long march into exile began 34 years ago. Although the British-mandated territory of Palestine had 1.3 million Arab inhabitants and about 600,000 Jews, with the Arabs owning 93 percent of the land, the United Nations approved a partition plan that would have given the Jewish minority 53 percent of the territory for the new state of Israel.
When the Palestinians balked at what they considered an injustice, the Jews, already armed and organized, proclaimed their state unilaterally. In the first Arab-Israeli war that followed, the Arab armies were defeated and 700,000 Palestinians fled into a new diaspora.
The events that led to the Palestinians' flight are clouded in controversy. The Israelis insist that the Palestinians simply abandoned their lands rather than agree to live in harmony within the new Jewish state. The Palestinians contend that their people were forced out of their homes by acts like the massacre of 254 Palestinian men, women and children in a town called Deir Yassin, led by the underground Irgun organization headed by Menachem Begin, today the prime minister of Israel.
Dispirited, leaderless since the defeat of their first revolt against the British that began in 1936 and dispersed to refugee camps in the neighboring Arab lands, the Palestinians at first relied for redress of their losses on the flamboyant Arab leaders of the time, men such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser who took up the Palestinian cause as a tool for their own grandiose pan-Arab policies.
Such hopes, however, were dissipated quickly by the Arabs' humiliating defeat in 1956 when Israel, with the help of Britain and France, invaded the Egyptian Sinai -- and the Palestinian Gaza Strip -- on their first drive to the Suez Canal.
It was on the basis of conclusions drawn from that Arab defeat that Yasser Arafat and a few close friends then living in Kuwait, in 1959 founded the Palestine National Liberation Movement, whose Arabic initials spelled backward gave it the more familiar name "Fatah."
From its inception, Fatah strove to hew an independent course. It was that search for independence that led to the Nasser-sponsored creation of the umbrella group, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in 1964 as a tool to control the various new Palestinian resistance movements that, like Fatah, had begun to spring up to act on their own.
Nasser's humiliating defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, which saw Israel expand its control over Palestine to include the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip and Syria's Golan Heights, doomed his efforts to dominate the PLO. Within a year and a half of the Arab disaster, Arafat had pushed Nasser's aide, Ahmed Shukairi, from power and taken over the PLO chairmanship that he has held ever since.
By the time Arafat took over, the PLO had begun to inspire concern in Israel as well as in Arab capitals. It had come of age a year earlier, in 1968, when Israel, in response to continued guerrilla raids from Jordan into the occupied West Bank, retaliated by sending a tank-backed infantry column against the East Bank refugee town of Karameh.
Instead of running away as the Israelis had expected, the guerrillas in the town not only decided to stand and fight but also shamed the cautious Jordanian army of King Hussein into joining them in facing the advancing Israelis.
Israel said 21 Israeli soldiers died in the battle of Karameh. The PLO claimed the number was as high as 200. Although as many as half of the PLO's 350 guerrillas also were killed, their willingness to stand and fight gave heart to the Palestinians and convinced them and other Arabs that in the right circumstances they could be a match for the Israelis.
Karameh, however, also spawned in the PLO self-destructive delusions of grandeur that in the years since have led it into countless political disasters in both Jordan and Lebanon.
By 1970 the PLO's motley collection of gunfighters had all but taken over King Hussein's capital of Amman. They manned roadblocks in the streets, acted as if they and not the monarch ruled the country and clashed with the king's police and Army each time Jordan tried to curb their excesses.
About the same time, the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine began a series of airplane hijackings. In September 1970, it hijacked four planes in one week, bringing three of them down in the Jordanian desert to the embarrassment and rage of King Hussein.
No sooner had the hijacked passengers been freed, and the three planes dynamited in front of television cameras, than Hussein turned his tough, Bedouin-led army loose against the PLO to reclaim his capital. The two-week civil war that ensued ended with the PLO's expulsion from Amman and a trauma that has since been enshrined in the mythology of the organization under the name of "Black September."
Cast adrift and defeated by an Arab enemy, the PLO leaders gravitated toward unstable Lebanon to lick their wounds and rebuild the state within a state they had sought to create in Jordan. Remembering the weakness of their lightly armed guerrillas against King Hussein's superior army, the PLO also succumbed to the temptation to build its own forces as a conventional army, a decision that eventually gave Israel the grounds to invade Lebanon in the name of defending the security of its own borders.
It was during the immediate aftermath of its humiliation in Amman that the PLO also did the greatest damage to its image by openly venting its frustrations through the sort of terrorism that left it with a repugnant reputation that it still has to live down almost eight years after it began to abandon the tactic.
The killing of Jordanian prime minister Wasfi Tell in Cairo in 1971 by a group, apparently organized by Fatah, calling itself "Black September" set the tone of the era. Before Fatah, as the dominant PLO organization, decided to rein in the Black September group in 1974, a trail of innocent civilian dead had been left from the Olympic Village in Munich to Tel Aviv's Lod Airport.
The 1975-76 Lebanese civil war drew the PLO in against its better judgment on the side of the country's Moslems, compromising the PLO's long-term aims. Instead of being a force aiming at the recovery of its occupied territories in Palestine, it became a party to Lebanon's historic communal fratricides, heightening the enmity of the Lebanese Christians who eventually made cause with the Palestinians' Israeli enemy.
"At the time we did not see it that clearly," says one senior PLO leader today. "We made a tragic mistake in Lebanon. We succumbed to the arrogance of power and lost sight of our true aims."
As it had a decade earlier in Jordan, the PLO blindly abused Lebanese hospitality. In southern Lebanon, it became the virtual government and army, clashing repeatedly with Shiite Moslem residents who resented Israeli retaliations the PLO brought down upon them.
Blinded by its own growing sense of omnipotence, the PLO failed to see the writing on the wall when in 1978 Israel launched its first big invasion of southern Lebanon.
Astute PLO leaders today privately admit that the growth of their conventional armies gave them an inflated view of their own power, not only in the face of Israel, but among their fellow Arabs as well.
"We came to believe that we were so important that we could do little wrong," says one Yale-educated Palestinian political scientist from Beirut. "We failed to see that along the way we were not only antagonizing Israel but many of our own fellow Arabs as well. When the invasion came this summer, we thought the Arab cavalry would come over the hill to rescue us. When it didn't, we had to face the reality that our policy had failed us."