Palestine Liberation Army
The Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) was ostensibly set up as the military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the 1964 Arab League summit held in Alexandria, Egypt, with the mission of fighting Israel. However, it has never been under effective PLO control, but rather it has been controlled by its various host governments, usually Syria.
History and structure
Immediately after its creation at the 1964 Arab League summit in Alexandria, the PLO (then headed by Ahmad Shukeiri) was effectively under the control of the Arab states, especially Nasser's Egypt. The Palestinians would not gain independent control of the organization until Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction wrested it from Nasser-backed Palestinians in 1968-69, when the Arab states were discredited by losing the Six-Day War, and militant Palestinian organizations were rapidly gaining in importance.
The PLA was originally organized into three brigades:
- Ayn Jalut Brigade, based in Gaza, then administered by Egypt. The formation was named for the Battle of Ayn Jalut, at the location where the Mameluk army of Baybars defeated the Mongols of Hulagu, blocking the Mongol advance to the west.
- Qadisiyyah, originally based in Iraq, but transferred to Jordan in 1967.
- Hattin, based in Syria.
These brigades were staffed by Palestinian refugees under the control of the host countries, who would perform their military service in these units instead of in their host countries' regular armed forces. Formally, the PLA was under the command of the PLO's Military Department, but in practice, none of the governments involved relinquished control of the brigades.
At its largest, the PLA comprised eight brigades with a total of some 12,000 uniformed soldiers. They were equipped with small arms, mortars, rocket launchers, wheeled armored personnel carriers and T-34 tanks. However, the PLA was never deployed in the form of a single fighting unit for the PLO, but instead battalion-size elements were utilized as an auxiliary force by its controller governments.
In 1968, the Popular Liberation Forces (Arabic, quwwat at-tahrir ash-sha'biyya), better known as the Yarmouk Brigade, were established within the framework of the PLA to perform commando actions against Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, occupied by Israeli forces the year before. Generally the PLA refrained from this kind of underground action, having been built up as something of a conventional military parade showpiece.
History of deployment
The fact that the PLA was formally Palestinian was used as political cover by the host governments. Syria, especially, would make great use of its PLA units. In 1970 it sent hastily repainted Syrian Army tanks under the command of the PLA into Jordan to aid the Palestinian guerrillas during the Black September fighting. After international pressures, and threats of intervention from both Israel and the USA, they were forced to turn back; an embarrassment which would contribute greatly to the overthrow of the regime of Salah Jadid by Hafez al-Assad.
During the Lebanese Civil War, Syria likewise made extensive use of the PLA as a proxy force, including against the PLO (the PLA however proved unreliable when ordered to fight other Palestinians, and suffered from mass defections). The PLA was largely destroyed as a fighting force during the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon that started the 1982 Lebanon War. Its fighters in Lebanon left for Tunis when the PLO evacuated Beirut that year, in a US-sponsored cease fire agreement. The Egyptian PLA was also deployed in Lebanon in 1976, after Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat had approached the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, to mend relations damaged by Sadat's peacemaking attempts with Israel. Still, the Egyptian units never proved as important as the fully deployed Syrian PLA.
The PLA today
PLA soldiers later became the core of the Palestinian Authority's (PNA) National Guard, after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, when they were allowed to enter the Palestinian Territories to take up positions in the PNA security services.
The Syrian PLA remains in operation, closely coordinated with the Syrian-controlled as-Sa'iqa faction of the PLO, although the importance of both has diminished. The PLA has been rebuilt and Palestinian refugees in Syria are still drafted to perform their military service in its ranks. Though completely staffed by Palestinians, it remains outside of the PLO's control, and is in effect integrated into the Syrian Army. Nevertheless, it poses as an independent entity, and occasionally organizes pro-government rallies celebrating Syrian commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Recently, with the establishment of the Palestine National Authority (PNA), important parts of those brigades in Egypt and Jordan were absorbed into the PNA security forces. It is reported that approximately 4,500 PLA members remain in Syria. During the Syrian civil war, at least 17 PLA soldiers and 6 officers were killed, with the highest ranking fatality being a Brigadier General, Anwar al-Saqa.
- The name recalls the Arab victory against the armies of Sassanid Persia, at the time of the second caliphate of ʿ Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb . al-Khattab.
- The name refers to the Battle of Hattin, in which Saladin defeated the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
- Arab Armies of the Middle East Wars 1948-73. John Laffin Osprey Men at Arms Series 128, 1982 and 2000, ISBN 085045045104
- Yezid Sayigh, 'Escalation or Containment? Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Army, 1964-67,' International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 1, 1998, pp97-116.