Tue, July 12, 2011 | By Jared Feldschreiber
An Analysis of George Habash – And the Rise and Fall of the Palestinian Left
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War caused great indignation and humiliation for the Palestinians. Since the 1948 War, the Palestinian narrative has been that the Zionists forcibly uprooted them from their homes, and kicked them out of Palestine. “On May 15, 1948, Zionist forces and Palestinian mujahidin waged a bitter contest for control over the main communication routes. The Palestinian blockade against Jewish settlements tightened… the shortage of combat material, disorganization, and factional rivals took the mujahidin to the point of collapse….” As a result, the essence of Palestinian nationhood may be a multi-varied definition of an armed struggle against Israel, epitomized by its own fragmented society.
As early as the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Palestinians felt humiliated by the intrusion of their land by the “Zionist Project,” as a result of the British and French Mandates over Jewish and Arab territory. Thereafter, the Palestinians implemented an armed struggle they deemed necessary to defeat Israel, viewed as an imperialist presence in the Middle East. Until his death in 2004, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman, became the international face of the Palestinian struggle, especially after the 1967 Six-Day War. Perhaps too often overlooked were his radical cohorts, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s George Habash, who often undermined hopes for statehood. These ideologues had varying interpretations of armed struggle. The PLO and PFLF, and their increasingly splintering radical groups, shaped the direction of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s until present, sometimes inspiring, but other times worsening their unique refugee experiences. This essay will focus on the rise and fall of the Palestinian Left, with a special emphasis on George Habash’s Arab Nationalist Movement that became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This internal strife within Palestinian society persists today.
The seeds of the Israeli-Arab conflict over territory traces back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the British Mandate of Palestine. There were many skirmishes between the new Zionist immigrants and the Palestinians. “The Palestinians were now governed by Britain and confronted with a Jewish state in the making. Their opposition expressed itself graphically in 1920-21, during which violent and anti-Jewish riots occurred. Continued Jewish immigration, coupled with the emergence of a clear trend within the Zionist movement calling for the voluntary or compulsory transfer of the Arab population to make way for a Jewish state, led to a further escalation of violence.”
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War left the Palestinians disorganized and depressed. As their entire social infrastructure collapsed, so too did their strong sense of demoralization, feeling as though the Zionists had committed an injustice. To salvage their dire situation, “Palestinians stressed the most appropriate strands of their identity; kinship, locality, religion and Arab ethnicity… Palestinian nationalist patriotism was related to three principal factors. First was the degree to which government policies led to the marginalization of the stateless Palestinians, especially in the Arab confrontation states… it followed that patriotic feeling was most likely to acquire a Palestinian nationalist character, when social mobility and economic access were blocked or could not be translated into political resources.” With this as its backdrop, the emergence of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) took shape, emphasizing the importance of armed struggle. ANM was pan-Arab in focus, and not yet Palestinian Nationalist.
In the 1950s, the future leaders of the organization of Fatah and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with their various radical offshoots, concluded that the Palestinians must take an active, though non-ideological armed struggle against Israel. Various Palestinian students who attended Arab schools throughout the Arab world ardently believed that armed struggle was necessary to achieve Palestinian statehood. The founder of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), George Habash, a Palestinian Christian medical student at the American University of Beirut, articulated his views, providing a first-hand account of the “Naqba” (“the Catastrophe”):
“I was born to well-to-do merchants, unable to return home; I had moved to Amman during Palestine [War] as I have no political motive to participate in the political struggle in the area except that which every Palestinian citizen has. Before 1948 I was so far from politics… I was a student in Lydda, the town where I was born. And I have seen with my own eyes the Israeli army entering — the town and killing its inhabitants. I am not exaggerating…They have killed our people and expelled us from our homes, towns. On the way from Lydia to Ramallah I have seen children, young and old people dying. What can you do after you have seen all this? You cannot but become a revolutionary and fight for the cause. Your own cause as well as that of your own people…”
Subsequent to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, “clandestine groups that emerged among the scattered Palestinian communities… were: al Qawmiyyin al-Arab and Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Harakhat al Tahrir al Watani al Filastini).” This was universally known as Fatah. ANM’s ideology mirrored the visions of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s view of Pan-Arabism of the 1950s, who historically gave funding and arms for its missions. Its ideology centered on Arab nationalism with Palestine at the heart of the Arab nation, and was highly inspired by young Arab intellectuals. Nasser provided aid to ANM, even as it already had its financial support from its wealthy members.
George Habash and a Syrian by the name of Hani al-Hindi were both volunteers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. “They were deeply embittered in the wake of the war by Arab disunity and what they saw as the collusion of Arab governments with Great Britain.” Habash and Hindi joined al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (“The Firmest Bond”), a student society, editing its newsletter and espousing the need for armed struggle. Habash and Wadi Haddad often took in potential recruits of ANM. These men included various Palestinians who had been wounded in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Habash and his associates became active in a variety of Arab political movements in the late 1940s, paving the way to their increasingly violent guerrilla-style tactics in the ensuing decades.
Habash organized Kata’ib al Fida’i, which was a series of kidnapping plots against Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian officials. Throughout the 1950s Habash and his cohorts, Haddad, al-Yamani and Abd al-Karim, were extremely active in conducting a series of raids and terror attacks, seeking ‘Al Thar’ (Arabic for “revenge“) against Israel, to “liberate” Palestine. ANM had strongly influential roots akin to the ideological springs of Fascism as the group’s own dissidents were merely a phase of preparation and experimentation, in which combat teams could train.
ANM succeeded in extending its branches to a number of Arab states, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. As noted, ANM was also belligerent towards conservative Arab regimes, which they felt were not sufficiently hostile either against Israel or against Western countries. As a result, some of its members were arrested for their actions in Arab countries, including Habash. In 1957, Habash was actually expelled from Jordan on suspicion of working for Syrian intelligence. ANM’s influence was felt throughout the Arab world, led by Habash. Other members also included Jihad Dahi, Muhsin Ibrahim, and Abd al-Fattah Isma’il, who served as the leader in South Yemen. All of these men were dedicated to its Arab Nationalist philosophies and the liberation of Palestine. Despite its outreach, ANM would never achieve cohesion, and often lacked legitimacy.
ANM, while ultimately collapsing in the late 1960s gave rise to more radical — and ideological — groups, particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — and its splintering factions. The Fatah organization, meanwhile, which would became the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is seen as the internationally recognized body of the Palestinians, began in October 1959 by a group of twenty Palestinians meeting in Kuwait. Like ANM, they were also committed to armed struggle against Israel, and conducted raids into the country in 1965, launched from Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza. Its original Covenant “called for the destruction of Israel and disavowed interest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — then held by Jordan and Egypt.”
Fatah was also shaped by the 1948 “Naqba.” Its founders were professionals working in the Gulf States, and were refugees in Gaza, or Cairo, and came from the lower middle class. Their members initially were comprised of labor migrants in the Gulf, and then students and camp refugees. Its ideology was built on Palestinian nationalism, with a focus on identity and the establishment of a Palestinian state equal to other Arab states. Its political program, in practice, was built on an armed struggle, and, a war of liberation, and yet aspirations of brotherhood and politics to achieve a sovereign Palestinian state. Over the next decades, Fatah, unlike ANM (or later the PFLP), was dependent on funding and support from Arab states to achieve its nationhood.
The huge “setback” of the Six-Day War in June, 1967 devastated the Arab world, and would drastically, geographically and structurally reshape the Middle East. Israel recaptured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. As a result, the Palestinians grew more divided, and displaced, as ANM had dissolved, giving way to George Habash’s creation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was formally established on December 11, 1967, as the result “of the merger between the National Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Habash and Haddad, and Ahmad Jibril’s Palestine Liberation Front, and the smaller Organization of the Heroes of the Return. There were many offshoots, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.” The PFLP became a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization, heavily influenced by leftist, even Maoist ideologies. It cultivated a radical, social, political, and military character, in both theory and practice. Spearheaded by Habash, it “aspired to the vanguard of the Palestinian working class, viewing Zionism, imperialism and Arab reaction as the organically linked foes of the Palestinian people. It stressed the importance of revolutionary upheaval in the Arab world and beyond to the struggle against Israel.”
While Habash accepted the necessity of Marxist transformation, “he argued that the movement could also retain a pan-Arab organization to supervise the struggle at the Arab level. The new movement was named the Socialist Arab Action Party, and it ostensibly supervised all branches of the former movement, or what was left of them.” For Habash, the Socialist Arab Action only served as a vehicle for the newly created Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His ANM “comrades” soon broke ranks, underscoring the fragility of the Palestinian Left as a cohesive unit.
Ahmad Jibril, born in Yazur, near Jaffa, moved to Syria where he was raised and where he served in the Syrian Army in the late 1950s. He had been a partner of Habash in the formation of PFLP, but by 1968, he had broken ranks with him, forming another splintering party, the pro-Syrian PFLP-General Command. Years later, he joined with Habash in their opposition of the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. The PFLP-GC maintained cells in several European cities, which carried out anti-American and anti-Israeli operations on behalf of Syria, Libya and Iran. The credo of PFLP-GC, founded in 1968 was, “All human forces in every Arab country should unite in a strategic, revolutionary democratic alliance in order to realize the national tasks. These forces should work for the emergence of broad national fronts, including all classes of and forces which have the joint interest of struggling collectively for these tasks and in accordance with a joint program of struggle.” On April 11, 1974, three members of the PFLP-GC staged a raid in Kiryat Shmona, killing eighteen Israelis.
Jibril was critical of Habash for undermining Arab governments, instead of investing more energy on attacking Israel. This is highly suspect, as it was during this time on July 23, 1968 that two members of PFLP hijacked an El Al plane from Rome to Tel Aviv. They declared “passengers and crew would be held as hostages until Palestinians in Israeli prisons were released. The hijack operations, they asserted, would enable the voice of the Palestinian resistance movement to reach world public opinion, despite the Israeli and colonialist siege… and demolish a basic component of Israeli propaganda… that the resistance movement is usually individualistic, always improvised, and hardly ever effective…” The Black September Organization (BSO) was founded in 1971, taking its name from the Jordanian Civil War when Jordanian units suppressed guerrilla organizations. This organization was run by Fatah.
Nayef Hawatmeh, who was an active part of ANM, split from PFLP in 1969. He founded the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Israel blamed this group for a terror attack in Maalot, Israel at the Netiv Meir Elementary School, in which the group took hostage one-hundred and fifteen people, including teachers and students, ordering that twenty-three Palestinian prisoners be released from Israeli prisons, or all would be killed. Israel’s elite force, the Golani Brigade waged a failed rescue raid attempt, and as a result, twenty-five hostages, including twenty children were killed.
Like Habash, Wadi Haddad, was studying medicine at the American University of Beirut. The two had established a medical clinic together; now Haddad became the military wing of PFLP, organizing attacks on Israeli targets. He helped plan and orchestrate the more spectacular and first aircraft hijacking episodes in international terrorism. He also orchestrated the Dawson Field hijackings of 1970, conducting simultaneous hijackings of three planes in Jordan, leading to the Jordanian Civil War. He was expelled from the PFLP in 1973.
The founding document of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reads:
“the military defeat suffered by the Arab armies served as the beginning of a new phase of work in which the revolutionary masses take their responsible leadership role in confronting the forces and weapons of imperialism and Zionism, which history has proved is the most to crush all forms of colonial aggression… the entire masses of our Palestinian people live today for the first time since the catastrophe of 1948 on a completely occupied Palestinian territory, confronting a rapacious enemy face to face, and we now must take up this challenge to its conclusion or we must accept or surrender to the ambitions of the enemy and the daily humiliation of our people and absorbed fortunes of our lives.”
In the 1970s, the PFLP staged high-risk international terror campaigns, concentrated on urban sabotage and terrorist activities as a way to expose the crisis within “Palestine.” Interestingly, the PFLP’s strategies and operations often ran counter to Yasser Arafat’s more moderate Fatah, who garnered greater sympathy for a viable Palestinian nationhood, culminated by his address to the UN Assembly in 1974. The PFLP meanwhile maintained it had “always been fully committed to the total liberation of Palestine through a popular war of liberation. To this end it fielded several thousand guerrillas in Jordan and Lebanon…. It also complemented in [its] guerrilla campaign with political mobilization, particularly in the occupied territories.”
Politically, the PFLP was “structured in three major departments: Political Bureau, Military Command and the Administrative Command. There exists a Central Committee, composed of the leaders of the three departments whose object is to define and supervise policy of the organization.” One of the main reasons for staging the spectacular attacks against international aviation was to gain favor with the Muslim masses in Arab lands. Finally they were able to extract some degree of revenge on the world’s stage.
The PFLP had long resented the rise of Yasser Arafat, who became Chairman of the PLO in 1969. After the Six Day War the PLO was perceived as the umbrella group of the Palestinians. “We say it clearly: let the PLO leadership halt its gradual fall into participation in the settlement,” wrote Habash. “Let it halt its subservience to the Arab reactionary and capitulationism regimes. Let it stop its secret and unsecret contact with contacts with the imperialist enemy. Let it take a nationalist, revolutionary stand that rejects the liquidationist settlement and relies on the masses and the nationalist revolutionary stand… but if the PLO leadership continues in its capitulationist course, it will not only find us outside it, but also against it.” Habash also saw growing dissension in his own faction, as Hawatmeh founded the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, believing that the PFLP had become, under Habash, too focused on military matters, and would have been better served as a more grassroots organization.
The PLO’s principles and goals were articulated by the Palestine National Covenant, which was first adopted in 1964 and revised four years later. According to Article 9, “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine.” Article 15 also said, “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint is a national duty to repulse the Zionist and imperialist aggression from the great Arab homeland and to eliminate the Zionist presence from Palestine.” At least on paper, it seemed as though the PFLP and PLO were very similar in their aims, but ultimately proved very divergent in its execution.
The PLO relied on Arab States for financial and military aid, not to mention, as a base from where it could launch attacks on Israel. As a result of these attacks, Arafat and the PLO gained legitimacy. The PFLP, meanwhile, declared war against these same Arab States, and were thus treated as pariahs, even in the Palestine National Council, which met sporadically throughout the decades. “The fact that the PLO has been able to achieve and maintain such a dual character is largely due to one man: Yasser Arafat… when Arafat assumed leadership in 1969, Fatah was, if anything, more activist and extreme than the original leadership. Arafat has deliberately and skillfully steered the PLO towards acceptability by the world community. The turning point- and Arafat’s personal triumph- was the formal recognition of the PLO by the United Nations in 1974.”
The more leftist groups like the Popular Democratic Front felt that George Habash was not radical enough, and broke away. Other Palestinian groups that splintered included the Vanguards of the War of Popular Liberation, the Arab Liberation Front, the Arab Sinai Organization (ASO) and the Palestine National Liberation Front, a Jordanian-based organization that was formed in 1968.
The ensuing decades included the Palestinians’ tumultuous path toward statehood and often tenuous relations with Arab governments, beginning with Jordan, then Lebanon and then finally Tunisia. After recognition from the United Nations, oil-rich kingdoms like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also provided military and financial aid to the PLO, as did Algeria and Iraq. Arafat’s rift with Habash stemmed from the PFLP’s refusal to participate in preparations for the Palestine National Council in 1974. As a result, Fatah emerged as the most powerful, viable, and legitimized Palestinian organization. Arafat became Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee.
Despite its fragmented society, “the irony was that the PLO reached a historic highpoint in this period. The political support it enjoyed in the occupied territories, coupled with the continuing armed activity of its clandestine cells, reinforced its claim to the central Palestinian representative… Arafat sought determinedly to capitalize on the PLO’s stature to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.” In 1974, the Palestine National Council met in Cairo and adopted a program for gradual “liberation” of Palestine, declaring that it would establish a state on any part of Palestine liberated from the Zionists. There, the PNC rejected UN Security Council Resolution 242, which included Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.
Thereafter, the PFLP, and the Palestinian Left in general, continued to lose relevance, culminating with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Marxist-Leninist element of the Palestinian struggle has mostly disappeared. The PFLP joined the PNC only met five times- in 1967, 1969, 1972, 1981 and 1992.
As ANM transformed into the PFLP, effectively switching its ideologies from pan-Arabism to Marxism, little changed in its hopes for achieving its brand of Palestinian nationalism. “The Palestinian Left may have employed Marxist-Leninist terminology and spoken in terms of class conflict after 1967, but in reality there was little social or economic analysis in its programmes. As was the case for the mainstream PLO leadership, the predominance of nationalist politics and the rapid emergence of a statist option, financed by Arab oil wealth, precluded a transformative project and instead encouraged rentier politics even on the left.”
Even Habash conceded:
“Socialism was not part of our agenda at the beginning, even though we knew that the masses were the basis for everything. In that sense, we were progressive. We issued a very important circular outlining in the states in which socialism had to be realized. That was the first step toward greater democracy with regard to the movement’s ideology. In those days were still able to evolve without creating splits within the movement. Had that state of affairs continued, the ANM would not have broken down.”
In contrast, the PLO has received financial backing from many wealthy Arab sources, and garnered sympathy from the world community in achieving “Palestine.” The armed struggle has gone from the notion of a “state within a state” (as it was in Jordan then Lebanon in the 1970s to mid 1980s) to a viable state in exile.
“The PFLP and PLO shared the notion of “armed struggle,” but Arafat had caved in for being too moderate. We always differed on major issues. For example, we always stressed interdependence of the Palestinian and Arab nationalist dimensions, that the liberation of Palestine cannot be achieved without this interdependence. Fatah’s grave error — its fatal error — was to disengage the Palestinian cause from the Arab Nationalist cause.”
“There’s no chance of justice for Palestinians through a peace process,” Habash said in 1998. “There’s no hope for diplomacy to work with the Israelis. It was wrong to break ranks with Arab negotiating partners, forgetting that the Palestinian cause is at the core of the Arab-Israel conflict. And forgetting the true nature of Zionism. The PLO lost its Arab backing, especially from Syria and Lebanon, as well as Palestinian backing represented by Palestinian unity.”
Arafat and Habash shared the belief that armed struggle was a necessary means to achieve Palestinian nationhood. It was Habash’s contention, as leader of the PFLP, that there should be no retreat from its basic principles. There could be no acquiescence to imposed conditions or demands from other countries in order achieve a “liberated” Palestine. George Habash’s relevance waned as did that of the Palestinian Left. The rift that existed between Habash and Arafat epitomized the fragmentation that stalls the hopes for the Palestinians.
George Habash died in Amman, Jordan in January, 2008.
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