The Wise One

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

George Habash, a 2004 picture. He founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the aftermath of the disastrous 1967 war.-KHALED AL-HARIRI /REUTERS

George Habash, a 2004 picture. He founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the aftermath of the disastrous 1967 war.-KHALED AL-HARIRI /REUTERS

George Habash (1926-2008) refused to compromise on the guiding principles of the movement he led. By John Cherian

George Habash, a

GEORGE HABASH was, until the early 1990s, one of the tallest Palestinian leaders, the other being Yasser Arafat. A paralytic stroke curtailed his activities in the last three decades. His death on January 26, at the age of 82, brings to a close yet another chapter in the tragic history of a people struggling to be free.

Habash, whose nom de guerre was Al Hakim, the Doctor or the Wise One in Arabic, was the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP was formed in the aftermath of the disastrous 1967 war in which Arab forces were routed by Israel. Before the 1967 war, Habash was in fact against the Palestinian people resorting to guerilla warfare. He had reposed his faith in Gamal Abdel Nasser and his concept of a unified Arab nation taking on the Zionist state. But that scenario was no longer feasible after the 1967 war.

Habash was quick to embrace the tactics that Palestinian groups such as Al Fatah had already put into practice. The PFLPs first official statement declared that the only language the enemy understands is that of revolutionary violence. The PFLPs strongest support base was in the Gaza Strip. Until the late 1980s, the PFLP was the Fatahs main rival within the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The PFLP shot into prominence on the international scene in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when its cadre undertook guerilla missions to highlight the Palestinian cause. Habash was inspired by the tactics employed by the Chinese and the Vietnamese during their successful quest for liberation. Against the American-backed Jewish state, a powerful enemy, Habash felt he had to adopt new tactics. An Israeli plane was hijacked in 1968, and a supermarket in Jerusalem was bombed in 1969.

The simultaneous hijacking of three civilian passenger planes in 1970 was front-page news all over the world. These acts forced the international community to take notice of the Palestine issue. Habash told the German magazine Der Stern that hijacking a plane was an effective propaganda tool. 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, Habash pointed out. Habash said that armed struggle is determined by the nature of the enemy.

Habash was born to a prosperous Christian family in Lydda, which today is part of Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel. He joined the liberation struggle at an early age. When the Jewish state was created in 1948, Habash was studying to be a doctor. As his family was forced to flee its home, his medical studies were briefly interrupted. Habash once described Palestinian refugee camps as little better than Nazi concentration camps.

Soon after completing his medical studies in Beirut, he became a committed Marxist and devoted his life to the Palestinian cause. He practised medicine for a while in Amman, Jordan, in the 1960s and was well known for treating patients without charging a fee. Even those Palestinians who differed with him described him as the conscience of the Palestinian revolution.

He refused to compromise on the principles that guided the Palestinian struggle. From the outset, he was opposed to the peace talks with Israel sponsored by the West and conservative Arab states. He predicted that Israel would never deliver on its promises regarding the creation of a Palestinian state. He was sharply critical of the pro-Western Arab states, which he viewed as being an impediment to Palestinian statehood. He repeatedly emphasised that victory over Israel could only be achieved after traditional Arab governments were replaced by revolutionary regimes.

In 1969, the PFLP blew up Tapline, a pipeline that belonged to the jointly held American-Saudi Arabian oil company ARAMCO. The PFLPs struggle, according to Habash, was not merely to free Palestine from the Zionists but also to free the Arab world from the remnants of colonial rule.

Habash expected all Arab revolutionaries to be Marxists. He said that Marxism is the expression of the aspiration of the working class. The PFLP viewed itself as part of the larger anti-imperialist and decolonisation struggle that was raging in the 1970s and the 1980s in many parts of the world.

Despite his disagreement with the path chosen by Arafat, he remained in the PLO. He voiced his strong objection to the two state solution proposed by Arafat in 1988 in Algiers and in 1991 in Madrid. After the PLO signed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Habash was scathing in his criticism of what he viewed as capitulation by the PLO. He said that Arafat was wrong to break ranks with Arab negotiating partners, forgetting that the Palestinian cause is the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He refused to set foot in the occupied territories. Earlier, after the PLO was expelled from Lebanon in 1988, he refused to follow Arafat into exile to Tunisia. He instead went to Syria, which also hosted other Palestinian groupings opposed to the policies of rapprochement with Israel followed by the PLO led by Arafat.

When they were young, Habash and Arafat shared a close working relationship. In 1970, following the defeat of the PLO in the Black September fighting with Jordanian forces, the two leaders shifted base to Lebanon. Many of the planes hijacked by the PFLP had been flown to Jordan, and some of them were blown up in the Jordanian desert after the passengers were freed. The Jordanian government came in for strong criticism from the West for allowing its territory to be used by the PFLP and the Fatah as staging points for their missions. King Hussein of Jordan unleashed his forces on the Palestinians in order to send a strong message to the world. The PLO never fully recovered from Black September.

Habash never wavered in his beliefs until the end. He wanted all Palestinian groups to engage in a national dialogue. In 2000, before stepping down from his leadership post in the PFLP because of ill health, Habash said that he supported the stance of groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which insisted that meaningful negotiations with Israel could only begin after all the territories occupied in the 1967 war were returned. He said that the PFLP was in touch with Hamas. Every Palestinian has the right to fight for his home, his land, his family, his dignity.

Three days of national mourning was declared in both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. It is sad that Habash died without seeing either of his dreams materialising that of Arab unity and an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people.

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