Democratic governments and political scientists celebrate new political parties as it is an indispensable element of democracy. Political parties voice economic and social disparities of the masses to progress democratic institutions. In contrast, insurgent groups are perceived and stereotyped as violent organizations aiming to dramatically change or extinguish democratic political practices.
Guerilla warfare and terrorism has been a relatively effective tool for some political insurgent groups to promote intense ideologies. Though, a majority of political parties have successfully propagated their beliefs and electoral principles by non-violent conventional means. This poses the question, what entices political parties to mold into insurgencies?
Examples of political parties who turned to violent means are far from few: the African National Congress in South Africa, the Kurdistan Workers Party, Progressive Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, Palestinian Liberation Organization, etc. Each insurgent organization listed experimented with and, to some extent, embraced party politics. In this report, the Palestinian Liberation Organization is analyzed to contribute to previous research about shifts between strategies involving political violence and strategies embracing nonviolent political participation.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization
The violent birth of Israel ignited the Arab-Israeli War. The unceasing conflict was originally fought between the newly declared State of Israel and a military coalition of Arab states over the control of former British Palestine. Palestinian Arab populations either fled or were expelled because of the enduring territorial disputes. Emerging in response to the compounding events, Palestinians came together to create one central organization – the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO) during the Cairo Arab League Summit in 1964.
The PLO was formed to centralize the leading political ideologies of various Palestinian communities. The guiding ideology of the PLO was outlined in the 1964 Palestine National Charter, which contained 33 articles calling for the destruction of Israel and the “liberation and freedom” of dispersed Palestinians.
The Arab Summit in 1974 acknowledged the PLO as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and since then the PLO has represented the state of Palestine at the United Nations. The PLO is composed of the Palestine National Council (PNC), Executive Committee, and Central Council. The PNC is the highest decision-making body of the PLO and is considered to be the parliament of all Palestinians. The Executive Committee is the leading body and represents the PLO at an international level. The Central Council functions as an intermediary body between the PNC and the Executive Committee.
However, with no future anticipation of legitimacy and sovereignty, the PLO splintered into political factions, some of which engaged in radical terrorism tactics. The PLO government now functions as the umbrella organization of popular insurgent groups, such as the Fatah.
Under Yasser Arafat, Fatah became the dominant political party of the PLO. Fatah was founded in Kuwait in the 1950s and later joined the PLO. The party was assigned 33 of 105 seats in the Executive Committee, with Chairman Arafat as the leader in 1969. However, the Fatah had a violent tactical shift a few months later. Rather than working to influence policy, the politically driven organization reformed into a popular insurgency.
Fatah is recorded to have carried out 2,432 guerilla attacks the same year Arafat seized leadership. Though, the group continued to participate in party politics while engaging in violent conflict against Israel. Fatah’s party-terror tactical shift constructs understanding and curiosity of what factors can contribute to the extensive shift from non-violent propaganda and politics to violent insurgents.
Strategic Shift Theories
Existing literature and research divulges theoretical reasonings related to the formations of political insurgent groups. Scholars argue political parties convert into guerilla armies because their political ideologies were previously radical and prone to violence and exacerbated by domestic conflict. Domestic conflict often withholds privileges to propagate and advertise political ideologies and beliefs. When a country endures through the suffering of internal conflict, citizen’s rights to speak out and stand up for their beliefs are revoked. Developing and weak states, strain political ideals that may either threaten power or inflame the current conflict. 
A popular study conducted by Weinberg and Eubank investigates that “most modern terrorist groups originate as political parties, turning to terrorism in reaction to changes in domestic political conditions.”  They note the coincidence of regime changes or territorial transitions from party politics to insurgencies, as seen with the PLO. The study also divulges into the features of parties that cause them to be more susceptible to an insurgent transformation, specifically parties suffering from state oppression. In the case of the PLO, the persistent conflict between Israel and Palestine aggravated and persecuted Palestinian communities.
Another potential explanation for the strategic shift is the leadership of assertive individuals. When charismatic individuals are perceived to have supernatural qualities or they manifest captivating oratorical skills, they can motivate others to join their cause. Yasser Arafat’s fierce nationalism allowed him to succeed in putting the Palestinians back on the political map after their ruinous uprooting. He gained civilian support as his political objectives coincided with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy. Therefore, it is possible that Arafat’s charismatic leadership attracted and inspired a sizable number of followers, assembling a popular insurgent group.
Deeper research has yet to decipher why these parties used terrorist means to instill fear into governments and civilians, rather than conventional propagation. Relatively little extant research is directed toward explaining why terrorist groups turn to party politics. Even less research offers insights into cases in which political parties turn to terrorism – though literature and research on the subject issue still remains in its infancy.
Carlie Chiesa is a senior at American University studying Foreign Policy and National Security. Her interests include the geopolitics of the Middle East and Religious Conflict. She has published work with International Christian Concern (ICC) and The Borgen Project analyzing global poverty atrocities and persecuted religious minorities.
Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd Edition, revised,
Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2005. ISBN-13 978-1574881721
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“Turning to and from Terror: Deciphering the Conditions under Which Political Groups Choose Violent and Nonviolent Tactics.” Perspectives on Terrorism, www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/215/html_1.
Weinberg and Eubank, “Terrorism and Democracy: What Recent Events Disclose.” Vol. 13
(Spring 2001), pp. 155-164.
Weinberg, “Turning to Terror.”
 “History of the Question of Palestine - Question of Palestine.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/unispal/history/.
 Byman, Daniel L. “The 1967 War and the Birth of International Terrorism.” Brookings, Brookings, 31 May 2017, www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/05/30/the-1967-war-and-the-birth-of-international-terrorism/.
 “Palestine Liberation Organization.” State of Palestine Mission to the United Nations, palestineun.org/about-palestine/palestine-liberation-organization/.
 “Palestine Liberation Organization.” State of Palestine Mission to the United Nations, palestineun.org/about-
 “Profile: Fatah Palestinian Movement.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Aug. 2009, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/middle_east/israel_and_the_palestinians/profiles/1371998.stm
 Weinberg, “Turning to Terror.”
 Weinberg and Eubank, “Terrorism and Democracy: What Recent Events Disclose.” Vol. 13
(Spring 2001), pp. 155-164.
 Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd Edition, revised,
Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2005. ISBN-13 978-1574881721
 Griffith, Samuel B. Mao Tse-Tung on Guerilla Warfare. Praeger, 1961.