Habash, George

Habash, George
1925-Jan. 26, 2008
Palestinian nationlist leader


Dr. George Habash, the sexagenarian leader of the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), one of the most radical of the groups making up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has achieved international notoriety as one of the men responsible for "modernizing and perfecting the practice of terrorism," according to U.S. News & World Report (May 22, 1978). In 1967, Habash's PFLP guerrillas seized upon the use of airplane hijackings and other wanton acts of terrorism as a means of attacking Israel and publicizing what Habash has described as the "oppression and scattering and misfortunes [suffered by] the Palestinian people" since 1948, when 80 percent of what had been Palestine became Israel. Although Habash has since moved to shift PFLP policy away from such tactics, he continues to "object to the Israeli state" and to maintain that "no Arabs can accept a racist state in Palestine that regards Arabs as second-class citizens."

George Habash has been called a "natural leader," and his followers refer to him as "Hakim"-a term of respect meaning both "doctor" and "wise man." Yet his hard-line Marxism, which makes the toppling not only of Israel but also of "reactionary" Arab regimes one of his priorities, has combined with his Christian roots to limit his influence within the Palestinian movement. According to the editor of a Beirut newspaper, "if George Habash had been named Ahmed Habash, the whole history of the fedayeen movement and the Middle East might have been different."

George Habash was born in 1925 in the town of Lydda, Palestine (now in Israel), near Tel Aviv, the son of a middle-class grain merchant of the Greek Orthodox faith. After completing his basic schooling, he enrolled as a premed student at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. One of his classmates has recalled Habash at the time as an "odd figure, dead-serious, hard-working, deeply introverted, and so poor that he always seemed to wear the same pair of khaki pants." He was twenty-two when the British withdrew from Palestine in May 1948, and the Habash family was forced to join the more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were displaced by the creation of the Israeli state. Habash hurried home from Beirut, arriving just in time to help his family carry whatever possessions they could, as they joined the mass exodus of refugees.

In an interview excerpted in John K. Cooley's Green March, Black September: The Story of the Palestinian Arabs (1973), Habash recalls, "I was absorbed by sports and student life….Then we suffered a profound shock, seeing people driven out by force. The scenes at the time were indescribable-people were shot in the streets…Arab young people as a whole were deeply stirred." The course of Habash's life was forever altered by the events of May 1948. His comfortable, middle-class days were over, and he became politicized. After his return to the American University in Beirut to complete his studies, Habash and like-minded classmates began gathering at sidewalk cafes near the campus, forming a loosely knit discussion group that they called al-Urwa al-wuthga (The Firm Tie). "From 1949 to 1951," Habash told John K. Cooley, "we were not a political party in the proper sense of the word" but "of course, we discussed the problem of how to return to Palestine." The group agreed on three basic principles: Arab unity, freedom, and revenge against the Israelis. Beyond those vague ideals, they had elaborated no coherent political philosophy. "By the school year 1951-52," Habash told Cooley, "our group was ready to graduate and return to our homelands. We asked ourselves: were we really sincere, or were we only salon intellectuals? If we were sincere, then we must fight-not keep silent."

Wanting to start a new political party but unable to agree on an ideology, the members of the Firm Tie, Habash told Cooley, "decided to study the matter-not just in books and our rooms, but out in the world, among people. We had to know all the sociological, economic and political facts about ourselves, and above all about Israel. We agreed to meet regularly, at least once every three months, to discuss the results of our studies."

In 1953 Habash and his associates feared that Israel and the major Western powers were moving towards an unjust "final solution" to the Palestinian question, and as a result they formed an underground organization called Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-Arab, or Arab Nationalists' Movement (ANM). Under the patronage of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who trained Palestinian "fedayeen," or commandos ("those who sacrifice themselves for the homeland"), and supported their raids into Israel, the ANM branched out from its base in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Cells were established in countries throughout the Middle East, and the ANM committed itself to a program of Socialist activism. Habash established an ANM medical clinic in Amman that served mostly poor people from whom he refused to accept payment. "We began to talk a popular language, and establish a reputation among the people," he recalled for Cooley.

In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company with the aim of using its revenues to build a dam at Aswan, Egypt. Israel, which had been denied use of the canal since 1950, invaded Egypt with the backing of Britain and France and occupied the Sinai peninsula. Despite that military setback, Egypt retained control of the Suez. "From then on," Habash told Cooley, "Nasser's star rose high in the Arab world." "Nasserism" and the competing Syrian Baath Socialist movement became the guiding lights of Arab resistance to Israel and the West. Viewing his movement as "the path to the liberation of Palestine," the ANM supported Nasser.

Between 1956 and 1964, the ANM unsuccessfully devoted itself to promoting the creation of an Arab superstate that would surround Israel. Habash's efforts in this regard landed him in trouble. In 1957 he was implicated in a plot to overthrow Jordan's King Hussein. Habash fled to Damascus, Syria, where he set up another medical clinic and married a cousin, who eventually bore him two children.

The ANM suffered further reversals during the early 1960s. In September 1961, after having had a three-year-old merger with Egypt, Syria withdrew from the United Arab Republic. Two years later, the Baathists expelled Habash from Syria, forcing him to go underground in Beirut. In 1964 the Israelis began diverting the Jordan River to provide water for desert irrigation. Habash and other ANM leaders grew disillusioned and frustrated by Nasser's inability to react to the diversion, and while Egypt continued building its army for a conventional war with Israel, the ANM and the newly formed Al Fatah group, led by Yasir Arafat, began a guerrilla war aimed at targets within Israel. Ironically, George Habash was at the time among those in the ANM's ranks who opposed the use of such tactics, arguing that it was premature to provoke Israel since the Palestinians were not yet strong enough to liberate their homeland, and he accepted Nasser's plan to prepare for a conventional war. The 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, "brought a full revolution in our thought," Habash told John K. Cooley. "We decided to adopt the Vietnamese model: a strong political party, complete mobilization of the people, and the principle of not depending on any regime or government. We were now preparing for twenty or more years of war against Israel and its backers."

On December 7, 1967 Habash and his supporters, unable to reach an agreement on strategy with Al Fatah's leaders, formed a new group they called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), dedicated to destroying "the troika of Zionism, imperialism, and Arab reaction" and to creating a secular, Marxist-Leninist Palestine. Habash has said that it was only with the founding of the PFLP that he "overcame" his middle-class background and became a "true revolutionary." It was also his PFLP activities that made Habash, hitherto a relatively obscure Palestinian physician, into a force to be reckoned with in any future Middle East peace plan.

In March 1968 Habash was imprisoned by the Baathists while traveling in Syria to obtain arms. Deprived of Habash's leadership, the PFLP began to fragment, but he was freed in November by PFLP commandos led by one of his former medical school classmates, Wadieh Haddad. Disguised as Syrian soldiers, Haddad and his men walked into the jail in which Habash was being held and walked out again with their leader.

Once freed, Habash moved quickly to expel dissidents and reassert his PFLP leadership. In 1969 his group, now numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 fedayeen, launched a series of spectacular and sometimes bloody hijackings and bombings masterminded by Wadieh Haddad, who headed the PFLP's "external operations branch." In June of 1968 the PFLP hijacked a Tel Aviv-bound El Al jet to Algeria, and in December two of its fedayeen attacked an El Al jet in Athens, killing one passenger and wounding two others. In February of 1969 an El Al plane was attacked in Zurich and the pilot was fatally wounded. Later in the month a PFLP bomb killed two youths and wounded twenty other people in a Jerusalem supermarket. A TWA jet was hijacked to Damascus, Syria in August, and the Israeli embassy in Bonn and the El Al office in Brussels were bombed in September. "We want Israel to know that we are insisting on our rights," Habash declared, "and that her choice is to accept a Palestinian democratic state in which Arabs and Jews can live together or face instability and trouble for an unlimited time." Habash went on to explain that he considered El Al to be "a military objective because it transports military personnel and material" and that United States jets were viewed as targets because of American support of Israel.

Although the hijackings and other PFLP actions attracted worldwide attention, they led to sharp differences of opinion within the PFLP leadership itself. They also deepened a growing rift between the PFLP and the umbrella body that linked all the Palestinian rebel groups, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Conservative Arab regimes that generally sympathized with the Palestinian cause were uneasy with PFLP tactics and politics. "We do not care for the Reds of the Popular Front," one Saudi official told Gavin Scott in an interview for Time magazine (September 27, 1971). Sensitive to at least some of the criticism, Habash emphasized that during the hijackings his men "took care not to kill civilians" and insisted that his was not a terrorist party but a party of revolutionaries.

In a Washington Post interview (November 14, 1969) with Jesse W. Lewis Jr., Habash said: "We are very conscious of world opinion. But we are also conscious of Palestinian and Arab opinion. Regarding Palestinian and Arab opinion, we feel great support after such an operation, like hijacking a plane." That observation was confirmed by a Lebanese intellectual who told Newsweek (September 21, 1970) that Habash's front had given his country "victory headlines" that the Arab armies and Al Fatah had so far only promised.

Habash's determination to generate more "victory headlines" by using Jordan as a staging ground for raids into Israel led to bloody confrontations between PFLP commandos and the troops of Jordan's King Hussein, who attempted to limit the activities of the PFLP and other Palestinian commando groups within his country. During the second week of June 1970, intense fighting broke out in and around Amman, with Habash's guerrillas, numbering around 2,000, giving the Jordanian army stiff opposition. On June 9 the desperate guerrillas seized sixty foreigners in two downtown hotels, threatening to kill them if the Jordanians continued the battle. All of the hostages were released unharmed when Yasir Arafat succeeded in arranging an uneasy truce between Habash and Hussein, but the fighting resumed after an attempt on Hussein's life on September 1, and it gained new impetus in mid-September when the PFLP hijacked three Western jets to Jordan, emptied them of their passengers-forty of whom were kept as hostages-and blew them up. Now determined to drive the PFLP and all the other Palestinian guerrillas out of his country, Hussein massed 30,000 troops, forced the guerrillas out of Amman, and trapped them in a mountainous area near the Syrian border.

Aware that his forces were losing the battle in Jordan, Habash sought outside support. In November 1970 he visited China and North Korea, where he arranged joint operations with leaders of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group and secured arms. Habash's Chinese hosts reportedly advised him "to be less dogmatic, more pragmatic and compromising, and not to try to fight all (his) enemies at the same time." It was the same advice he was hearing from a growing chorus within his own group.

Meanwhile, Jordanian officials put a $14,000 bounty on Habash's head. Although that move did not lead to his capture, by late 1971 King Hussein had largely succeeded in driving the PFLP and other Palestinian guerrilla groups out of his country. "We are beaten," Habash admitted to Gavin Scott. "We are having a very hard time. But from the hard times we will build a real underground." First, however, Habash faced the task of reconciling warring factions within the PFLP. An ideological fissure opened within the group in 1971, when its left-wing majority condemned airplane hijackings and voted to concentrate PFLP energies on toppling King Hussein. In February 1972, when it was discovered that $2 million in ransom money paid to PFLP hijackers had found its way into secret bank accounts, the leftists announced that they were breaking away to form their own group, to be called the Popular Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Although stunned by the defections, Habash did not condemn or move to halt the international terrorism campaign that Haddad continued to orchestrate. In May 1972 three Japanese gunmen, said to be trained by the PFLP, killed twenty-six people and wounded eighty at Israel's Lod International Airport. In September, during the 1972 Olympics, held in Munich, West Germany, Arab commandos of the Black September group, which has been linked to the PFLP, raided the lodgings of the Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli team members and took nine others hostage. All of the hostages were later killed during a gun battle between the terrorists and the Munich police. Such attacks, according to U.S. News & World Report (May 22, 1978), "marked the beginning of a split between Habash and Haddad." The PFLP continued to be linked to commando raids, but Habash began to deny responsibility for them, asserting that they were contrary to PFLP policy. For all of its violence, the terrorism campaign, in any event, proved to be more of a "psychological nuisance than a military threat to Israel," according to John K. Cooley, and by 1972 whatever military effectiveness the commando attacks might have had, had been reduced to ineffectiveness by an Israeli retaliatory policy that included bombing raids against villages thought to harbor guerrillas.

Habash nonetheless continued to espouse an ideological hard line. In 1971 he called on the entire Palestinian guerrilla movement to sabotage an American-backed plan for a diplomatic settlement between the Arab states and Israel that would permit the establishment of a Palestinian state on the west bank of the Jordan River on lands seized by Israel during the 1967 war. He also vigorously opposed plans to mend relations between Jordan and the fedayeen, calling instead for the overthrow of Hussein. Israeli agents meanwhile set out to either kill or capture him. In February 1973 Israeli commandos raided a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where Habash had been expected to appear for a meeting which, it turned out, had been postponed. In August 1973, in an incident that created an international uproar, Israeli fighter jets intercepted a Lebanese airliner on which Habash was believed to be a passenger, but Habash had changed his flight plans.

Meanwhile, relations between the PFLP and the PLO continued to deteriorate. In September 1974 Habash withdrew from membership in the PLO's ruling executive committee when Yasir Arafat expressed some interest in joining the Jordanian delegation in peace talks on the Palestinian question held in Geneva and chaired by United States Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Vowing to continue the fight against any political settlement based on UN Resolution 242 (which implicitly ratified Israel's right to security within its pre-1967 borders), Habash and the leaders of three other radical groups formed a "rejection front" dedicated to ending Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's improving relations with Israel and to touching off a new Middle East war. The Palestinians, Habash told a Beirut newspaper, had nothing left to lose.

Habash's differences with Arafat seemed to have been ironed out, if only temporarily, when the two appeared together in public for the first time in more than a year at a Beirut rally on March 30, 1976. The show of unity was prompted in part by street battles raging in Beirut at the time between Palestinian guerrillas and members of Lebanon's right-wing Christian Phalangist militia, who wanted to eject Palestinians from Lebanon. Arafat and Habash also wanted to join forces to oppose the diplomatic overtures that the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was making at the time to Israel. Although he at first appeared to support Sadat's efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian question, Arafat began reconciling his differences with Habash and other hard-liners because of his fears that Sadat and the Israelis were trying to settle the Palestinian question "over the heads" of the PLO.

In March 1978 Wadieh Haddad died of cancer, bequeathing a worldwide terrorist network to Habash, but his legatee seemed prepared to phase out random PFLP acts of violence. Although he pledged to continue commando raids against Israel, he insisted that the PFLP would try to avoid harming civilians, third parties, and "groups not directly aiding Zionism." The apparent softening of the PFLP position may also have been prompted by the fact that most of its fedayeen were busy battling the Israeli army, which had invaded southern Lebanon in the spring of 1978 in retaliation for an Al Fatah commando attack in which more than thirty Israelis had been killed. Some observers noted that Habash had by now ceased to be the driving force behind Middle East terrorism. The PFLP had established the bloody pattern that others would follow. As one diplomat put it: "[Wadieh] Haddad wrote the textbook and there are plenty of freelancers around who will carry on his work."

At the beginning of the 1980s, the strain of being constantly on the run appeared to have taken its toll on Habash, who had long been rumored to have a heart ailment. In September 1980 it was revealed that a partly paralyzed Habash was in Beirut's American University Hospital after undergoing surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. He underwent further treatment in Czechoslovakia and recuperated in Libya, where he chanced to meet socially with President Jimmy Carter's brother, Billy, on one of his controversial visits. Habash was not heard from again until April 1981, when he appeared at a PFLP function in Beirut. Reporters noted that he remained seated and used only his left arm.

By the middle of 1982, Habash had recovered enough to lead his men as they vainly battled another Israeli army invasion of Lebanon that drove all Palestinian groups out of the country. He and the PFLP fled to Syria and opened new headquarters in Damascus, as did Arafat and Al Fatah. Observers speculated that the military defeat spelled the end of Yasir Arafat's PLO leadership since he would now be powerless to control Habash and other radicals within the organization. But Arafat proved more resilient than many people expected, and when he was able to regroup effectively enough to bounce back, relations with Habash soon reverted to what was becoming a familiar, but somewhat strained situation.

In February 1983 Habash denounced a new Middle East peace proposal advanced by President Ronald Reagan. Speaking before 350 delegates at the Palestinian National Council, or parliament, Habash condemned the initiative for saying "no to a Palestinian state and no to the PLO" and condemned Yasir Arafat for his reported interest in it. At the same time, however, a PFLP spokesman excoriated Syria for its recent expulsion of the PLO chief, and in November 1984, Habash journeyed to Moscow for discussions with Soviet officials on ways to avoid the breakup of the PLO. Responding to Habash's continued outbursts and his close ties to Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Israelis renewed their efforts to remove him from the scene. In February 1986, Israeli fighter jets intercepted a Libyan airliner in yet another unsuccessful attempt to capture Habash, who escaped only because of a change in his travel plans. "They thought they were going to get some big fish," he quipped.

Habash's ongoing love-hate relationship with Yasir Arafat preoccupied him throughout 1987. It was the apparent softening of Arafat's stand against negotiations with Israel that was at the root of PFLP-PLO differences and that led Habash to boycott the year's National Council meetings and head a Syrian-backed Palestine National Salvation Front, a coalition of six anti-Arafat groups. In May 1987 there were indications that the chilly relations between Habash and Arafat were once again warming up, when Habash met with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to discuss a reconciliation with the head of the PLO.

During 1988 Habash took part in debates among Palestinian factions seeking agreement on a formula for establishing a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza strip and tried to constrain moderate factions leaning toward a tacit recognition of Israel. "We as Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza," he said, as quoted in the New York Times (September 24, 1988). "This will solve the problem for the great masses who live there. But we will be misleading ourselves if we believe that this will solve the Palestinian problem."

Little is known about George Habash's personal life, primarily because of his obsession with security concerns and because everything else in his life has had to take second place to his battle against Israel. The heavy-set, round-faced Habash, who has nevertheless been described as "tall, dark, and handsome," is soft-spoken and brooding, and remains something of an enigma even to his followers. In a rare moment of self-revelation in 1970, he tried to explain his motivation to a group of newly released PFLP hostages. "We do not wake up in the morning, as you may, to have a cup of milk or coffee," he said. "We live daily in camps. Our wives wait to see whether they will get water at ten o'clock or twelve o'clock or three o'clock in the afternoon. We cannot be as calm as you, think as you think. And we have been living in these conditions not for days, or weeks, or months, but for twenty-three years."

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