In the early 1980s, Israeli forces stormed several Palestine Liberation Organization command posts in southern Lebanon, seizing a wide array of documents detailing various military operations. Among the papers were letters orchestrating the PLO’s dispatch of officers to East Germany, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, North Korea and China for military training from the mid-’70s.
Hidden among the letters was a three-page manual for handling and assembling explosives. The pages detail (in Mandarin) how to build mines using barbed wire, cement, gunpowder and other materials.
The instructions arrived in Lebanon in one of several shipments of Chinese arms to the PLO that took place in the ’60s and, according to documents obtained by Haaretz, were part of a greater Chinese effort to support the Palestinian liberation movement.
Shortly after the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing (then more widely known internationally as Peking) recognized the State of Israel. However, by the ’60s, the communist regime started to enjoy warmer relations with the Palestinians, seeing the Palestinian struggle through the lens of a larger fight against imperialism.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, China supplied large quantities of arms to various Palestinian guerrilla groups at no cost. Israeli intelligence valued the Chinese weaponry provided to the Palestinians between 1965 and 1970 at $5 million (about $33 million today, adjusted for inflation). Rifles, hand grenades, gunpowder, mines and other explosives were among the arms supplied. Initially, China provided secondhand rifles and machine guns manufactured in the Soviet Union. However, by 1967, the Palestinians were seemingly fighting almost exclusively with Chinese-made weaponry.
In addition to supplying arms, China also provided ideological inspiration and military training to PLO members. A letter obtained by Haaretz — dated March 26 but no year — documents four PLO units being urged to dispatch officers for an intensive summer commander’s course in China. It seems the officers were sent to a military academy in Nanjing. Although the number of officers receiving such training probably wasn’t more than a few dozen, it was nevertheless the start of a years-long private agreement to provide arms and training to the PLO.
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In 1970, Yasser Arafat was quoted in the Peking Review as describing China as “the biggest influence in supporting our revolution and strengthening its perseverance.” Between 1964 and 2001, the Palestinian leader went to China on 14 separate official visits. Indeed, by the ’80s, Chinese homes had become accustomed to images of Arafat on their televisions, stepping off a plane dressed in his trademark military uniform and kaffiyeh.
“Arms supply was a kind of Chinese gesture to show Palestinians they support them,” Prof. Emeritus Yitzhak Shichor from the Department of Asian Studies at Hebrew University tells Haaretz. According to Shichor, the PLO didn’t actually do much with those arms. Had it carried out an attack that killed many civilians, for example, the implications would have been very different. Not only did the weapons remain largely unused in serious military operations, but the amount of arms supplied were beyond what the Palestinians needed, Shichor says.
The Chinese instructions that came with the explosives contained blank columns to document the devices’ effectiveness once assembled. Interestingly, those columns were never filled in and there is no hard evidence to know how or if the explosives were used.
Chinese aid was “a political statement, and not much more than that,” says Prof. Meron Medzini from the Department of Asian Studies at Hebrew University. China had a much larger interest in providing arms as a kind of gateway for its own foreign interests, he says.
However, historian Lillian Craig Harris has argued the opposite, writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1977 that “without such aid, the PLO might not be the politically powerful organization it is today.”
Harris suggested that the aid provided was an overlooked point in history in which China — unlike other “half-hearted” nations such as the Soviet Union — consistently advised the Palestinians and truly invested in their revolutionary cause.
In 1960, China sent financial aid via Syria to what it noted as “the Palestinian nation,” which was meant to help refugees in their first attempt to support an organized Palestinian population. After the first Arab League summit, held in Cairo in January 1964, support for Palestine in the Chinese media grew.
Soon, the Chinese began to express clear support for the Palestinians and public demonstrations were held in Beijing. On May 15, 1965, China celebrated Palestine Solidarity Day for the first time — and would continue to do so until 1971.
China became the first non-Arab country to establish relations with the PLO after it was founded in 1964, and the PLO’s first chairman, Ahmad Shukeiri, made the first of many delegation trips to China in March 1965, Harris writes.
During the trip, it was understood that the PLO would set up a mission in Beijing and the Chinese would support the Palestinian cause “by all means,” according to a joint statement published during the visit. However, it had been at Shukeiri’s initiative that a Palestinian delegation travel to China, that a PLO mission be opened and — according to him — that China would supply the PLO with military aid and training, notes Harris.
It was this meeting that prompted Israel to back Taiwan over the People’s Republic in a UN vote, hoping to send a message to China that its support for the PLO was unwelcome.
China began exporting arms to the region soon afterward. They most likely entered through Iraqi ports, with the plan being for them to be forwarded via Syria to Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan. However, these Arab states opposed the Chinese shipments — seemingly from a fear of angering the Soviet Union — and reportedly seized several Chinese vessels. On one occasion in 1970, a Chinese ship loaded with a large quantity of munitions was seized by Syrian forces in Latakia, Shichor tells Haaretz.
Exporting Maoism to the Middle East
In the late ’60s, the attention given by the Chinese to the Palestinian struggle was the most significant of any nation other than neighboring Arab states.
As relations with the PLO were cemented, Beijing also began cultivating national liberation movements as part of a local, strategic front against imperialism, aiming to revolutionize both China and neighboring countries. Communist parties influenced by Chairman Mao Zedong began to emerge in Malaysia, Vietnam, India and, most notably, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
“Helping the Palestinians had implications for all of the Middle East and all Arab countries,” says Shichor. China regarded the Middle East as a crucial region to launch its battle against imperialism. It especially saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the result of an imperialist struggle with other, external forces, and that it could use it as a strategic point-of-entry to open diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
If China could help the Palestinians during a time when pan-Arab sentiment was sweeping the entire Middle East and Muslim countries beyond, it could win the goodwill of many, Shichor explains.
Chairman Mao was also looking to promote his theory of Third Worldism (aka Maoism) — an anti-imperialist ideal that looked to create new democracies through a union of the masses. This also made the Palestinian cause the perfect stage to demonstrate his revolutionary Maoist ideologies.
In March 1965, Mao famously told a PLO delegation: “Imperialism is afraid of China and of the Arabs. Israel and Formosa [Taiwan] are bases of imperialism in Asia. You are the front gate of the great continent, and we are the rear. They created Israel for you, and Formosa for us. ... The West does not like us, and we must understand this fact. The Arab battle against the West is the battle against Israel. So boycott Europe and America, O Arabs!”
China sought to reach out to the PLO not only as a source of support, but as a fellow ally in the same struggle.
At the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict in the ’60s, China found itself isolated from the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom also supported Israel — and thus began to look to the Third World. Supporting the Palestinian cause was also a way of offsetting the Soviet Union’s growing power in the Middle East.
The financial cost for China to act as the PLO’s arms dealer was insignificant in comparison to what it gained: regional and global recognition, and a means of spreading the People’s Republic’s ideology. “To China, this was a very good opportunity to do a number of things: To be anti-America, anti-Israel, anti-imperialist, to export the revolution and to create and pose a challenge to the Russians,” Medzini explains.
Mao’s books “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” “Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan” and “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong” (aka “Little Red Book”) became recommended reading for members of Fatah, the largest faction in the PLO, as it began studying Chinese revolutionary models more closely (it also looked to learn from recent events in Vietnam and Cuba).
After Israel defeated neighboring Arab states in the Six-Day War, Palestinian ideology veered away from pan-Arabism and more toward wataniyya (loyalty to a single Arab state). The idea of an armed struggle, particularly through guerrilla warfare, emerged as a central pillar of Fatah as the means of liberation. These values — armed struggle, self-reliance and a people’s war — were all central to Maoism and adopted by various Palestinian liberation movements. Soon after the war concluded in June 1967, Fatah found itself receiving significant Chinese attention. As China saw it, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was an opportune moment for the Palestinians to launch an armed struggle from within the local population.
Throughout all this, the PLO also tried to maintain good ties with the Soviet Union, parallel to the latter maintaining full diplomatic relations with Israel. “The Palestinians preferred a Soviet supply of weapons because they were in the United Nations and [the] Security Council, because they had embassies all over the world,” and because they had political influence in places the Chinese did not, Shichor explains.
Hoping to maintain its position as the Palestinians’ truest ally, China pointed to Soviet ties with Israel in a bid for political leverage. “There were a number of occasions where the Chinese [sought] to remind the Palestinians that the Soviets had supported the establishment of the State of Israel,” says Medzini.
Fading Chinese solidarity
By the early ’70s, China had largely cut back on its arms supplies to the Palestinians due to internal unrest during its ongoing Cultural Revolution, its desire to create good relations with Arab states after the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the UN in 1971, and increased infighting between the Palestinian factions sparked by the Black September conflict. The dwindling practicality of an arms struggle being the main ideology behind a political Palestinian party further served to alienate the Chinese.
Chinese relations with the PLO had minimal effects on its relationship with Israel. “China was very pragmatic: On the one hand, it appeared to be very dogmatic by standing by its principles. Then, on the other hand, China was very flexible with those principles,” says Shichor.
Although communist China ideologically supported the Palestinian national movement, Israel was becoming a far more valuable strategic partner by the ’70s. It had developed into a nation with far more to offer — and with far deeper pockets as an economic partner — than Arafat and his movement. “If they weighed the importance of the Palestinians on one hand and Israel on the other, Israel was more important for them practically,” adds Shichor. After Mao’s death in September 1976, his eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, redacted support for militant groups.
China and Israel would go on to develop closer relations, including, by the ’80s, some military ties. However, the two would not establish official diplomatic relations until 1992, four years after the Chinese established formal diplomatic ties with the Palestinians. It is also worth noting that China has never backed Israel during UN referendums nor in Security Council votes.
Despite the revelatory nature of the secret arms deals between China and the Palestinians, Mao’s assistance was a passing phenomenon. In 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation Of Palestine said “China is our best friend,” while Fatah was quoted in the Peking Review as saying that “the Chinese people’s support for the revolutionary cause of Palestine … [is] an important pillar of the Palestine revolution.” Nearly 50 years on, though, the only pillars associated with China in the region are those it is building in large infrastructure projects throughout Israel.