By Joharah Baker
When late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat passed away in November 2004, much was said about the charismatic but often controversial leader. Still, one thing every Palestinian was in unison over was the fact that Abu Ammar died before his national dream, the one he had dedicated his life to, had never been realized.
On January 28, the Palestinians lost another leader, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Dr. George Habash. Habash, in turn, passed from this world before his dream of an independent Palestine could be realized and his people, dispossessed for 60 years, could return home.
Like many of Palestine’s leaders, it has been a long and hard journey for Habash, fondly known to his people as “Al Hakim” a dual reference to the fact that he was educated as a physician and as a “sage” of the revolution. While Habash himself always portrayed a demeanor of composure, a seemingly quiet but proud man, the leftist movement he led was often anything but. The PFLP, founded after the 1967 War espoused a Marxist-Leninist philosophy that left hardly any wiggle room.
But if anything, the PFLP’s stances commanded respect. Habash, along with his followers called for the liberation of all of Palestine – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Never did the movement renege, holding fast to an ideology and political position many viewed as rigid and unwilling to adapt to the times.
However, it was the Front’s endorsement of armed struggle and their active execution of this tactic, especially in the seventies, which won this national movement a permanent spot on the West’s “black list.” Just a year after its inception, PFLP guerillas hijacked their first plane, an Israeli El Al jet flying from Rome to Tel Aviv. In the several years that ensued, PFLP operatives carried out several other operations against Israeli targets, taking up their main headquarters in Damascus and broadening their platform in the Palestinian territories.
Second largest only to Fatah in the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PFLP had its “glory years” throughout the seventies and early eighties, with the advocacy of armed struggle and the liberation of all of Palestine still a popular and passionate goal among the Palestinians. Furthermore, Habash’s fervent determination to fight until Palestinian refugees returned to the homes they were forced to flee in 1948 was still fresh in the minds of those dispossessed and appealing to a zealous people, eager to join the revolution and liberate their land.
However, whether it was because of the complexity of the Front’s ideology, the rigidness of their stances or because other Palestinian movements and factions began to surface in the Palestinian arena, the PFLP’s popular platform began to wane. While the original diehards remained loyal to the end, the Front’s platform hardly expanded – unlike that of Fateh or the Islamic groups – over the years.
Still, the values and principles upon which the Front was established are nothing less than admirable. Even though the Marxist-Leninist philosophy espoused by the PFLP’s founders was not widely embraced by a more religiously-inclined peasant-based society as opposed to an urban working class, this does not negate the fact that George Habash was respected across the political board.
Born in Lydda in 1925, Habash became a de facto refugee in 1948 while studying in Beirut. His family all fled their homes during the fierce fighting and subsequent exodus that would later become the Palestinians’ most widescale tragedy – Al Nakba. Perhaps it was partly due to the plight of his own family or because of the reeling impact the catastrophe had on his people that Habash became a man with a mission and a dream that all those who were driven from their homes would return.
The rest of Habash’s story remains similar to that of other great Palestinian revolutionaries. Never again to return to his hometown of Lydda, Habash led the Front through years of armed struggle, advocated socialism and social liberation and vowed that he would never compromise on what was rightfully theirs – the entire land of Palestine.
Undoubtedly, this no-nonsense stance was the source of criticism and ostracism from both the international community and some Palestinians themselves. The western world deemed the Front a radical organization that adamantly refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and continued to carry out armed operations against Israel, even if these operations were often small-scale and few and far between. Among some Palestinians, the Front lost face, particularly when peace agreements became the fashionable route of the leadership, peaking with the Oslo Accords in 1993. The PFLP vehemently rejected the agreement, deeming it a sellout and an insult to the cause. While the average Palestinian believed the Accords would ultimately bring them their freedom and liberation, getting caught up in the cosmetics of the agreement – the Palestinian police, the shiny new passports – the PFLP’s rejectionist position was unwelcome and shunned by many.
While the Oslo Accords have indeed proven themselves to be a fatal mistake, another fatal mistake was that of the Palestinian left, which offered no feasible alternative. Just saying “no” was not good enough and the PFLP was seen by many as mere talking heads, with only a handful of loyal followers clutching tooth and nail to their ideals.
And as the political situation deteriorated, including that of the Front’s own standing, so did the condition of its secretary general, in the midst of a long battle with cancer. In 2000, Habash delivered his last speech as the PFLP’s secretary general before announcing his resignation. In the years that followed, Habash kept a low profile, turning over the reins of power to his second-hand man, Abu Ali Mustapha, who was later assassinated by Israel in 2001.
The PFLP suffered yet another blow when its subsequent Secretary-General Ahmad Saadat was arrested by Palestinian forces in 2002 and later abducted from his Jericho cell by Israeli troops in a military raid on the prison in 2006. Saadat was charged with masterminding the assassination of extreme right wing Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavaam Zeevi, who was shot and killed by PFLP operatives in Jerusalem in October, 2001.
The armed operations of the Front coupled with its adamancy never to compromise have often placed the PFLP under fire both internally and at the international level. Nevertheless, one of the most powerful binding forces that have kept this movement in tact has been its charismatic, intelligent and fiercely patriotic leader, a man who no one could ever accuse of not loving his country. And for that reason, it could only be with the utmost reverence that we bid him, Al Hakim, farewell.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – republished with permission)