Although Zionist apologists and Israeli propaganda
(hasbara) make hypocritical attacks on Hamas, Hezbollah and ‘Islamic extremism’
Zionism has always considered its main enemy to be secular and in particular
left-wing Palestinian nationalism.
This is as true today as it was in the period
of the British Mandate when the Zionists always preferred to deal with HajAmin al Husseini, who
later collaborated with Hitler, to his secular opponents in the Istiqlal
(Independence) Party. Indeed it was the Zionist
and first British High Commissioner Sir, later Viscount, Herbert Samuel who appointed Husseini to the
post of Mufti despite him having come fourth out of four in the elections to
Today Israel demonises Hamas as a Nazi genocidal,
Jew hating group rather than the conservative Islamic group that it actually
is. Israel glosses over the fact that it virtually created Hamas, the Gazan
offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers singlehandedly. I have covered this in a number of posts in How Israel Created Hamas and HAMAS
– When Israel & Netanyahu Sang from a Different Songsheet. If you
Google ‘Israel created Hamas’ you
will find a wealth of evidence that in the late 1980’s, whilst Netanyahu was
Prime Minister, Israel helped nurture Hamas as a means of undermining secular
Palestinian nationalism. See in
particular the admission of the Military Governor of Gaza at the time, Itzhak
Segev, that he helped fund Islamic groups to counter the PLO. A particularly good article is How Israel Helped
Spawn Hamas which was published by the Wall Street Journal (now behind its
with Hamas of course is nothing new. The
USA virtually created the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in order to
overthrown the then Soviet backed government.
Reactionary. Conservative Islamic parties or groups have always been
seen by Israel and imperialism as a bulwark against socialist or left-wing
parties. The same was true in Iran where
Ayatollah Khomeini had close
links to the Americans who were most fearful of a socialist revolution.
Below is an
excellent review in Ha’aretz by Gideon Levy of a new autobiography of the founder of
the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash. The PFLP were a left-wing, Marxist
group. They still have support amongst
the Palestinians, in Gaza in particular.
If only, as he says, Habash had triumphed over Arafat and the Oslo
Accords had not been agreed with Israel then the situation could have been very
different today for the Palestinians.
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
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
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.
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
Members of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers, 1987, including Yasser Arafat, left, and George Habash, second from right. Mike Nelson-Nabil Ismail / AFP
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
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”
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
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
Militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Jordan, 1969. Thomas R. Koeniges / Look Magazine Photograph Collection / Library of Congress
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,
A mourning procession for George Habash, Nablus, January 2008. Nasser Ishtayeh / AP
To where is
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
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.
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.