The biography of the founder of the Palestinian Popular Front makes it clear: The leftist leader was right -
Israelis considered George Habash a cruel airline hijacker, but Eli Galia’s new Hebrew-language book shows that the PFLP chief’s views would have been better for the Palestinians than Arafat’s compromises
George Habash was Israel’s absolute enemy for decades, the embodiment of evil, the devil incarnate. Even the title “Dr.” before his name — he was a pediatrician — was considered blasphemous.
Habash was plane hijackings, Habash was terror and terror alone. In a country that doesn’t recognize the existence of Palestinian political parties (have you ever heard of a Palestinian political party? — there are only terror groups) knowledge about the man who headed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was close to zero.
What’s there to know about him? A terrorist. Subhuman. Should be killed. Enemy. The fact that he was an ideologue and a revolutionary, that his life was shaped by the expulsion from Lod, changed nothing. He remains the plane hijacker from Damascus, the man from the Rejectionist Front who was no different from all the rest of the “terrorists” from Yasser Arafat to Wadie Haddad to Nayef Hawatmeh.
Now along comes Eli Galia’s Hebrew-language book “George Habash: A Political Biography." It outlines the reality, far from the noise of propaganda, ignorance and brainwashing, for the Israeli reader who agrees to read a biography of the enemy.
Presumably only few will read it, but this work by Galia, a Middle East affairs expert, is very deserving of praise. It’s a political biography, as noted in its subtitle, so it almost entirely lacks the personal, spiritual and psychological dimension; there’s not even any gossip. So reading it requires a lot of stamina and specialized tastes. Still, it’s fascinating.
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Galia has written a nonjudgmental and certainly non-propagandistic biography. Taking into consideration the Israeli mind today, this isn’t to be taken for granted.
Galia presents a wealth of information, with nearly a thousand footnotes, about the political path of Habash, a man who was considered dogmatic even though he underwent a number of ideological reversals in his life. If that’s dogmatism, what’s pragmatism? The dogmatic Habash went through more ideological changes than any Israeli who sticks to the Zionist narrative and doesn’t budge an inch — and who of course isn’t considered dogmatic.
The exodus from Lod following an operation by the Palmach, 1948.Palmach Archive / Yitzhak Sadeh Estate
In the book, Habash is revealed as a person of many contradictions: a member of the Christian minority who was active in the midst of a large Muslim majority, a bourgeois who became a Marxist, a tough and inflexible leader who was once seen weeping in his room as he wrote an article about Israel’s crimes against his people. He had to wander and flee for his life from place to place, sometimes more for fear of Arab regimes than of Israel.
He was imprisoned in Syria and fled Jordan, he devoted his life to a revolution that never happened. It’s impossible not to admire a person who devoted his life to his ideas, just as you have to admire the scholar who has devoted so much research for so few readers who will take an interest in the dead Habash, in an Israel that has lost any interest in the occupation and the Palestinian struggle.
The book gives rise to the bleak conclusion that Habash was right. For most of his life he was a bitter enemy of compromises, and Arafat, the man of compromise, won the fascinating historical struggle between the two. They had a love-hate relationship, alternately admiring and scorning each other, and never completely breaking off their connection until Arafat won his Pyrrhic victory.
What good have all of Arafat’s compromises done for the Palestinian people? What came out of the recognition of Israel, of the settling for a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the territory, of the negotiations with Zionism and the United States? Nothing but the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation and the strengthening and massive development of the settlement project.
In retrospect, it makes sense to think that if that’s how things were, maybe it would have been better to follow the uncompromising path taken by Habash, who for most of his life didn’t agree to any negotiations with Israel, who believed that with Israel it was only possible to negotiate by force, who thought Israel would only change its positions if it paid a price, who dreamed of a single, democratic and secular state of equal rights and refused to discuss anything but that.
Unfortunately, Habash was right. It’s hard to know what would have happened had the Palestinians followed his path, but it’s impossible not to admit that the alternative has been a resounding failure.
Members of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers, 1987, including Yasser Arafat, left, and George Habash, second from right. Mike Nelson-Nabil Ismail / AFP
The Palestinian Che Guevara
Habash, who was born in 1926, wrote about his childhood: “Our enemies are not the Jews but rather the British .... The Jews’ relations with the Palestinians were natural and sometimes even good” (p. 16). He went to study medicine at the American University in Beirut; his worried mother and father wrote him that he should stay there; a war was on.
But Habash returned to volunteer at a clinic in Lod; he returned and he saw. The sight of the Israeli soldiers who invaded the clinic in 1948 ignited in him the flame of violent resistance: “I was gripped by an urge to shoot them with a pistol and kill them, and in the situation of having no weapons I used mute words. I watched them from the sidelines and said to myself: This is our land, you dogs, this is our land and not your land. We will stay here to kill you. You will not win this battle” (p.22).
On July 14 he was expelled from his home with the rest of his family. He never returned to the city he loved. He never forgot the scenes of Lod in 1948, nor did he forget the idea of violent resistance. Can the Israeli reader understand how he felt?
Now based in Beirut, he took part in terror operations against Jewish and Western targets in Beirut, Amman and Damascus: “I personally lobbed grenades and I participated in assassination attempts. I had endless enthusiasm when I was doing that. At the time, I considered my life worthless relative to what was happening in Palestine.”
“The Palestinian Che Guevara” — both of them were doctors — made up his mind to wreak vengeance for the Nakba upon the West and the leaders of the Arab regimes that had abandoned his people, even before taking vengeance on the Jews. He even planned to assassinate King Abdullah of Jordan. He founded a new student organization in Beirut called the Commune, completed his specialization in pediatrics and wrote: “I took the diploma and said: Congratulations, Mother, your son is a doctor, so now let me do what I really want to do. And indeed, that’s what happened” (p. 41).
Habash was once asked whether he was the Che Guevara of the Middle East and he replied that he would prefer to be the Mao Zedong of the Arab masses. He was the first to raise the banner of return and in the meantime he opened clinics for Palestinian refugees in Amman. For him, the road back to Lod passed through Amman, Beirut and Damascus. The idea of Pan-Arabism stayed with him for many years, until he despaired of that as well.
He also had to leave medicine: “I am a pediatrician, I have enjoyed this greatly. I believed that I had the best job in the world but I had to make the decision I have taken and I don’t regret it .... A person cannot split his emotions in that way: to heal on the one hand and kill on the other. This is the time when he must say to himself: one or the other.”
Militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Jordan, 1969.1969Thomas R. Koeniges / Look Magazine Photograph Collection / Library of Congress
The only remaining weapon
This book isn’t arrogant and it isn’t Orientalist; it is respectful of the Palestinian national ideology and those who articulated and lived it, even if the author doesn’t necessarily agree with that ideology or identify with it. This is something quite rare in the Israeli landscape when it comes to Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Nor does the author venerate what’s not worthy of veneration, and he doesn’t have any erroneous romantic or other illusions. Galia presents a bitter, tough, uncompromising, very much failed and sometimes exceedingly cruel struggle for freedom, self-respect and liberation.
And this is what is said in the founding document of the PFLP, which Habash established in December 1967 after having despaired of Palestinian unity: “The only weapon left to the masses in order to restore history and progress and truly defeat enemies and potential enemies in the long run is revolutionary violence .... The only language that the enemy understands is the language of revolutionary violence” (p.125).
But this path too met with failure. “The essential aim of hijacking airplanes,” wrote Habash, “was to bring the Palestinian question out of anonymity and expose it to Western public opinion, because at that time it was unknown in Europe and in the United States. We wanted to undertake actions that would make an impression on the senses of the entire world .... There was international ignorance regarding our suffering, in part due to the Zionist movement’s monopoly on the mass media in the West” (p. 151).
The PFLP plane hijackings in the early 1970s indeed achieved international recognition of the existence of the Palestinian problem, but so far this recognition hasn’t led anywhere. The only practical outcome has been the security screenings at airports everywhere around the world — and thank you, George Habash. I read Galia’s book on a number of flights, even though this isn’t an airplane book, and I kept thinking that were it not for Habash my wanderings at airports would have been a lot shorter. In my heart I forgave him for that, for what other path was open to him and his defeated, humiliated and bleeding people?
Not much is left of his ideas. What has come of the scientific idealism and the politicization of the masses, the class struggle and the anti-imperialism, the Maoism and of course the transformation of the struggle against Israel into an armed struggle, which according to the plans was supposed to develop from guerrilla warfare into a national war of liberation? Fifty years after the founding of the PFLP and 10 years after the death of its founder, what remains?
Habash’s successor, Abu Ali Mustafa, was assassinated by Israel in 2001; his successor’s successor, Ahmad Saadat, has been in an Israeli prison since 2006 and very little remains of the PFLP.
During all my decades covering the Israeli occupation, the most impressive figures I met belonged to the PFLP, but now not much remains except fragments of dreams. The PFLP is a negligible minority in intra-Palestinian politics, a movement that once thought to demand equal power with Fatah and its leader, Arafat. And the occupation? It’s strong and thriving and its end looks further off than ever. If that isn’t failure, what is?
A mourning procession for George Habash, Nablus, January 2008. Nasser Ishtayeh / AP
To where is Israel galloping?
Yet Habash always knew how to draw lessons from failure after failure. How resonant today is his conclusion following the Naksa, the defeat in 1967 that broke his spirit, to the effect that “the enemy of the Palestinians is colonialism, capitalism and the global monopolies .... This is the enemy that gave rise to the Zionist movement, made a covenant with it, nurtured it, protected it and accompanied it until it brought about the establishment of the aggressive and fascistic State of Israel” (p. 179).
From the Palestinian perspective, not much has changed. It used to be that this was read in Israel as hostile and shallow propaganda. Today it could be read otherwise.
After the failure of 1967, Habash redefined the goal: the establishment of a democratic state in Palestine in which Arabs and Jews would live as citizens with equal rights. Today this idea, too, sounds a bit less strange and threatening than it did when Habash articulated it.
On the 40th anniversary of Israel’s founding, Habash wrote that Israel was galloping toward the Greater Land of Israel and that the differences between the right and left in the country were becoming meaningless. How right he was about that, too. At the same time, he acknowledged Israel’s success and the failure of the Palestinian national movement. And he was right about that, too.
And one last correct prophecy, though a bitter one, that he made in 1981: “The combination of a loss of lives and economic damage has considerable influence on Israeli society, and when that happens there will be a political, social and ideological schism on the Israeli street and in the Zionist establishment between the moderate side that demands withdrawal from the occupied territories and the extremist side that continues to cling to Talmudic ideas and dreams. Given the hostility between these two sides, the Zionist entity will experience a real internal split” (p. 329).
This has yet to happen.
Imad Saba, a dear friend who was active in the PFLP and is in exile in Europe, urged me for years to try to meet with Habash and interview him for Haaretz. As far as is known, Habash never met with Israelis, except during the days of the Nakba.
Many years ago in Amman I interviewed Hawatmeh, Habash’s partner at the start and the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which split off from the PFLP in 1969. At the time of the interview, Habash was also living in Amman and was old and sick. I kept postponing my approach — until he died. When reading the book, I felt very sorry that I had not met this man.