A Palestinian hero: George Habash — 1926-2008

February 2, 2008

Palestinian resistance fighter and founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), George Habash, died on January 26 from a heart attack, aged 81.

Habash, popularly known as Al-Hakim (the wise one) was one of the most influential leaders of the Palestinian national liberation struggle.

Born in Lydda in 1926 into a wealthy Christian family, Habash was a product of his time. In 1936, he witnessed the Great Palestinian revolt and was exposed to ideas of revolutionary struggle and nationalism.

In 1998, in an interview with the Journal of Palestine Studies, Habash recalled the anti-British demonstrations organised by the Palestinian nationalists, and spoke of how his teachers instilled in him a sense of struggle — encouraging their students to fight for their homeland and remember those who died in the struggle.

In 1948, Habash became a refugee when the state of Israel was founded and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcibly driven from their homes, in an event known to Palestinians as al-Nakba (the catastrophe). A medical student at the American University in Beirut at the time, Habash was visiting Lydda when it was over-run by a Zionist terror gang in collaboration with Haganah, the forerunner to the Israeli Defence Force, who ethnically cleansed the city of its 20,000 residents in what became known as the "Lydda Death March".

According to Israeli historian, Benny Morris, more than 335 men, women and children died in the march, while others put the figure higher. Prior to the death march, more than 426 people were massacred by the Zionist forces, including 176 who had sought refuge in the city's Dahmas Mosque.

Habash worked as a doctor in the refugee camps in Jordan, witnessing the everyday suffering of his people in exile. During this period he was drawn towards Egyptian president Gamal Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism. In 1957, Habash was forced to flee as the Jordanian regime began to crack down on political activists.

In 1958, along with other former students of the American University of Beirut, Habash established the Harakat Al-Qawmeyon Al-Arab (the Arab Nationalist Movement). Following the defeat of Egypt by Israel in the Six Day war in 1967 and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Habash co-founded the PFLP.

Over the next decade the PFLP became one of the leading Palestinian factions, second only to Yasser Arafat's Fatah. While both Fatah and the PFLP viewed the liberation of Palestine as their main goal, the two organisations differed on their methods.

Fatah emphasised the struggle's Palestinian character, defining itself as a popular movement that had "its roots in the people", rather than simply an organisation that represented the Palestinian people in the pan-Arab struggle against colonialism and imperialism. Fatah saw armed struggle as a means of advancing its political goals, and coupled it with diplomatic initiatives.

The PFLP under Habash, however, draw its ideological roots from pan-Arab nationalism and Marxist-Leninism. It sought to use "revolutionary violence" to achieve its goals, stating in its inaugural statement issued in 1967, that this was "the only language that the enemy understands".

In the 1967 statement, the PFLP defined its historic task as opening up a struggle against the Zionist enemy by "turning the occupied territories into an inferno whose fires consume the usurpers".

Declaring itself a Marxist-Leninist movement in 1969, the PFLP sought to fight imperialism and Arab reactionism, viewing the struggle to liberate Palestine as part of a broader political and social revolution. The struggle, Habash argued, was "not merely to free Palestine from the Zionists but also to free the Arab world from remnants of Western colonial rule".

According to Habash, by 1967 it had become obvious that in order "to liberate Palestine we have to follow the Chinese and Vietnamese examples". All revolutionaries, he said, "must be Marxist, because Marxism is the expression of the aspiration of the working class".

In 1970, the PFLP burst onto the world stage when its fighters hijacked and destroyed two aeroplanes. Supporting the tactic, Habash argued: "When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle ... For decades world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world is talking about us now."

The 1970 hijackings, however, were followed by the "Black September" expulsions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an umbrella group of Palestinian resistance factions, from Jordan. The PFLP later rejected the tactic of carrying out attacks on Western governments, but continued to affirm its right to engage in armed struggle against the Israeli occupiers.

In the 1980s, Habash suffered a stroke and was forced to step back from activity. In the 1990s he lived in Syria and Jordan.

After Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Habash and the PFLP accused Arafat of selling out the Palestinian national liberation movement.

The accords committed the PLO to accept limited rule, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), over the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 with the stated eventual aim of establishing a Palestinian state over those territories.

This represented a step back from the traditional aim of the Palestinian liberation movement of replacing the Jewish state of Israel with a democratic, secular state, in which people of all ethnicities and religions could live in equality. It was not accompanied by any binding agreement on Israel to resolve long standing Palestinian grievances, such as the right of Palestinians expelled from the territory of Israel to return.

Along with nine other groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the PFLP established the "bloc of 10" who rejected Oslo. After the establishment of PA, Habash vowed never to set foot in PA-controlled territory, refusing to give any legitimacy to the accords.

In a 1998 interview with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Habash reiterated his belief that there was "no hope for diplomacy to work with the Israelis". He accused Arafat of forgetting "the true nature of Zionism", and that the results of Oslo "had been disastrous for our people". Habash became a symbol of principled defiance.

In his last days, Habash called for unity between the warring Palestinian factions and was overjoyed to hear about the detonation of the Gaza wall. Despite never seeing a free Palestine, Habash never lost faith in the Palestinian people. He remained a symbol of Palestinian resistance and a true bearer of the Palestinian dream.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.