Ay — Grace Halsell — A Visit With George Habash: Still the Prophet of Arab Nationalism and Armed Struggle Against Israel

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A Visit With George Habash: Still the Prophet of Arab Nationalism and Armed Struggle Against Israel
By Grace Halsell
September 1998
On a tree-shaded street in Damascus, I found the apartment of Dr. George Habash, a Syrian-based leftist Palestinian leader who came to symbolize revolutionary violence at its most uncompromising. Dr. Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out numerous attacks against Israeli targets as well as civil aircraft hijackings, received me in his apartment, attractively decorated with mementos of Palestine. As I sat drinking tea with him, I saw what appeared to be—not a firebrand bomb-thrower—but rather a benign, genteel family man, surrounded by his wife, Hilda, a native of Jerusalem, a daughter and two grandchildren.
“There’s no chance of justice for Palestinians through a ‘peace process’—there’s no hope for diplomacy to work with the Israelis,” he told me. “If that had been possible, there would not have been a conflict to begin with. Israel’s Labor and Likud parties have the same objectives—as regards Jerusalem, the settlements in the occupied territories, the question of water resources. So Labor is the same as Likud—except for a slight difference. I see Labor as more dangerous. While Labor has the same goals as Netanyahu, their party moves to attain the goals diplomatically. And Arafat is pushing toward this trend. His position has been disastrous for our people. Our misery today is due to Arafat. He is responsible.”
Saying he condemns Arafat for signing the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel, Dr. Habash said 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.’”
Habash, born in 1926 in Lydda, Palestine, recalled how his Christian Palestinian merchant family was expelled from Palestine by Zionist invaders in 1948. In Lebanon, he enrolled at the American University in Beirut. He talked nostalgically about how the then- president, Dr. Bayard Dodge, talked to students, “telling us about an America that stood for justice, freedom and humanitarian principles. But I soon saw the contradictions between what he said about America and what the U.S. was doing to support Israel—and Zionism.”
George Habash graduated in 1951 with a medical degree, but soon left the medical profession to engage in a life-long struggle for the liberation of Palestine. In 1952, he founded the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) and, operating in Amman, Jordan, he was actively engaged in ANM management aimed at unifying the Arab world to confront Israel. In 1957, he was in Damascus at the time the United Arab Republic was constituted between Egypt and Syria. He says he became an avid convert to Nasserism and pan-Arabism.
Arafat and Habash never saw eye-to-eye. But at times they presented a show of unity. I recall being in Beirut in 1981. Palestinian school children were staging a program to honor PLO Chairman Arafat, then at the zenith of his popularity, back when the Palestinians almost “ruled” Lebanon, or at least the Muslim half of it. As usual, Arafat was late. Eventually, to enthusiastic applause, Arafat came on stage—arm-in-arm with George Habash.
From the earliest days of their struggle, however, Habash developed theories conflicting with those of Arafat’s Fatah organization. Habash felt that in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, it was essential that the Palestinians become the catalyst that would create an intervention on the part of the Arab states against Israel. He saw in Nasser the instrument of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine through a conventional war to be fought when the time was right. He still holds to the necessity of having Arab unity that stands up to the Zionist conquest “and liberates all occupied Palestinian and Arab lands.” In short, he says what he said from the beginning: “there’s a necessity of linking Arab nationalism and local activism.”
Early on, Habash was one of the most influential critics of the Palestinian go-it-alone fedayeen raids. But after the catastrophe of June 1967—the war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan that Israel won in only six days—Nasser’s prestige was crippled, and the Arab Nationalist Movement atrophied.
With the weakness of the Arab “confrontation states” bordering Israel exposed, Habash concluded that guerrilla warfare was, after all, “a necessity.”
Out of the Arab Nationalist Movement ashes, he formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The Front’s 1967 inaugural statement declared that “the only language which the enemy understands is that of revolutionary violence” and that the “historic task” was to open a fierce struggle against the enemy, “turning the occupied territories into an inferno whose fires consume the usurpers.” The Front put down its strongest roots in the festering, tightly packed squalor of the Gaza Strip.
Habash, the former opponent of guerrilla activism, now became its most extreme practitioner. His conviction was that a desperate people must turn to desperate acts. It therefore became legitimate in his eyes to hijack not just Israeli civil aircraft but American, British and even Swiss airliners, too. As for the ethics of hijacking and the charge that it put the lives of uninvolved, non-Israeli civilians at risk, the PFLP leader’s reasoning was: don’t blame us, blame the Israeli crew who try to foil our form of warfare.
The machine-gunning of an Israeli airliner at Athens airport—and the killing and wounding of two aboard—was justified on the ground that El Al was an integral part of the enemy war machine.
The hijackings were loudly and widely condemned. Yet, there is no doubt that foreign operations of the kind that George Habash pioneered did bring publicity to the Palestinian cause, and that was one of his purposes. “When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle,” Habash told the German publication Der Stern in 1970. “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.”
After the October 1973 war, Habash rejected the idea of an interim program, insisting that there must be no deviation from Revolution Until Victory. He held that in its refusal to take any clear-cut position, the Fatah leadership was simply “burying its head in the sand.” He pointed out at that time that the “doctrine of stages” was so much wishful thinking, for the “present balance of Palestinian, national, democratic power makes it impossible to create a national, democratic state or authority which our masses could rely upon to continue the struggle.” He saw from the beginning that any settlement would be the once and for all suppression of Palestinian belligerency.
Diffusing Powerful Cards
Oslo, he said, diffused some of the most powerful Palestinian cards, including agreeing to the containment of the intifada, thus bowing at the onset to a clear Israeli condition. And giving up the legal international framework represented by United Nations and Security Council resolutions, including those recognizing the right to self-determination, to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as capital, the right of return, as well as the inalienable right to resist and not to recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist state.
The Popular Front was among 10 Palestinian groups that rejected the Israel-Arafat Oslo accords. In 1996, Israel approved the entrance of Habash to the area of Palestinian self-rule so that he might attend a meeting at which the Palestine National Council (PNC) was scheduled to consider canceling sections of the Palestinian covenant that call for the destruction of Israel. Habash chose not to attend.
Dr. Habash blames his fellow Christians in America for their rush to sanction the creation of a Jewish state on Palestinian soil, as well as for the continued oppression of Palestinians. “The Israelis could not have done what they did without the support of American Christians,” he says. “They are responsible for those sitting in the camps today.” He called the Palestinian refugee camps “little better” than the Nazi concentration camps for Jews.
There are 85,000 Palestinians in Syrian refugee camps and 360,000 in Lebanese camps. While the Syrians grant Palestinians work permits, the Lebanese do not. The Lebanese Christians oppose granting work permits to the Palestinians. “They base their opposition on politics,” Dr. Habash explained. “They say if they accept Palestinians, who are for the most part Muslim, into the mainstream, it will create a political imbalance between Christians and Muslims living in Lebanon.”
Habash talked about the success of the armed struggle by Hezbollah Shi’i fighters against Israelis occupying a strip of southern Lebanon, about one-fourth of Lebanon’s territory. The Lebanese Hezbollah receives from Iran military assistance, which flows through Syria.
Israel now indicates that it no longer wants to fight Hezbollah, but instead wants out of southern Lebanon. And there’s been talk that if Israel would return all of the Golan Heights, Syria might sign a peace agreement with Israel. Did Dr. Habash, I asked, think it possible that Syrian President Assad would sign a peace agreement with Israel?
“It’s possible. But not likely. And this is because Assad has based his entire political agenda on the Arab issue. Yes, I know that some are saying the question of Palestine is no longer an Arab issue—that it is only a Palestinian problem. But an overwhelming majority of Arabs feel that it is a pan-Arab cause. We are one people with one history, one culture, one language. Millions still believe in what Nasser talked about, what he gave to us. Zionism has divided much of the Arab world. It fosters the elements of division and fragmentation in the land, people and culture of the Arab nation. But we still have a common cause, a common enemy.”
Sitting with Dr. Habash in Damascus, I recalled our previous meetings, first in Beirut and then in 1987 at a meeting of the PNC in Algiers. Several hundred delegates attended, and I sensed, listening to speakers who had come from all over the Arab world, that the various factions felt that through unity they would gain victory. Many were expressing this hope. Now Habash thinks it’s time for another such meeting. He wants it to include all Palestinian factions and to focus on new strategies to achieve Palestinian rights. “Every Palestinian with a minimum level of responsibility must think in terms of having a national dialogue,” he said. That dialogue must include those who believe in continued armed struggle, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Arafat. And since the Israelis might block some from attending such a meeting in Palestine, Habash suggests the meeting might be held in Egypt, Tunisia or Syria.
Habash indicated he felt closer to those still devoted to armed struggle than to Arafat. “We are associated with Hamas. Every Palestinian has the right to fight for his home, his land, his family, his dignity—these are his rights,” Habash asserted. Although there’s been little PFLP activity of late, he insisted the Front has no plan to halt military action. Armed struggle, he said, reflects the nature of the conflict, “which is determined by the nature of the enemy.”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1998, pages 49, 136