For decades George Habash was one of the most important Palestinian militant leaders. In 1967 he founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – at one time the most notorious of the many Palestinian factions. The group and its leader pioneered the tactic of hijacking aeroplanes, to try to achieve political objectives. For many years the PFLP was very influential within the PLO, second only to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
George Habash was born into a Christian family in Lydda (present-day Lod) in Palestine around 1926. His family fled their home in 1948, when Israel was founded. Soon afterwards George Habash enrolled at the American University of Beirut where he studied medicine. From an early age politics was Dr Habash’s passion. He was an Arab nationalist and was active in the “Youth of Vengeance” group, which advocated violent attacks on traditional Arab governments.
Inspired by the pan-Arab message of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, George Habash believed for many years that unity between Arab states could bring about the “liberation of Palestine”. After Israel’s resounding victory against Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967, pan-Arabism appeared to have been destroyed.
Soon afterwards George Habash formed the PFLP. The group’s inaugural statement said that, “the only language which the enemy understands is that of revolutionary violence”. Within the year the PFLP had delivered on its threat of violence. In July 1968 the group hijacked an El Al aeroplane en route from Rome to Tel Aviv. A new tactic in the Palestinian “resistance” had been born.
George Habash Full Biography and Profile
George Habash was critical of existing Arab governments, most of which he said should be overthrown, of a long series of attempts at peace negotiations, and of his longtime rival, Yasser Arafat. A stubborn opponent of the Oslo accords, Habash refused to set foot in the areas under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority.
In turn, he earned the enmity of King Hussein of Jordan, who in 1970 expelled all the Palestinian guerrilla factions who had been threatening his rule – most notably that of Habash – in a brief but fierce civil war remembered by Palestinians as Black September.
Although his tactics softened somewhat in the 1980s, and his organization receded from the headlines, Habash remained a determined Marxist who continued to denounce Arab governments he felt were too closely aligned with the West and Palestinian leaders he suspected were ready to make concessions to Israel.
Habash, whose nom de guerre was Al Hakim, which means either “the Doctor” or “the Wise One”- the double meaning was deliberate – was married to a cousin, Hilda Habash, in 1961. She survives him, as do their two daughters, Mesa, a doctor, and Lama, an engineer.
Habash, the son of a well-to-do grain merchant who was Greek Orthodox, was known as a hard-working and serious student who was introverted in his youth. He studied medicine at the American University in Beirut, but his studies were interrupted in 1948 when he left school to help his family flee Palestine when violence deepened between Arabs and Jews.
That experience of the nascent Israeli Army driving the Palestinians from their homes had a profound effect on the young medical student, who began organizing Palestinians as soon as he returned to medical school, graduating first in his class in 1951.
In 1953, Habash was among the founders of an organization in Jordan called the Arab Nationalists’ Movement. Backed with financing from Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the group established a medical clinic in Amman and promoted the broader goal of a unified Arab superstate.
Habash founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in December 1967 in the bitter aftermath of Israel’s stunning defeat of the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
Habash later remarked that the Arab defeat that year convinced him of the need to adopt a strategy like that of the Marxist guerrillas in Vietnam.
The struggle of the front, he said, was “not merely to free Palestine from the Zionists but also to free the Arab world from remnants” of Western colonial rule. All Arab revolutionaries, he said, “must be Marxist, because Marxism is the expression of the aspirations of the working class.”
George Habash and Yasser Arafat had a long-standing rivalry. The tensions between them are cited as one of the reasons why Dr Habash founded the PFLP.
When Fatah, which was led by Yasser Arafat, attempted to build support for the Palestinian cause amongst Arab states in the 1970s, the PFLP turned to Russia and China.
By the 1990s Yasser Arafat was negotiating with the Israelis. The PFLP rejected political compromise with Israel and continued to promise to replace it with a secular, democratic Palestinian state.
George Habash was vehemently against the Oslo Accords that were signed by Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin in1993.
After Oslo Dr Habash refused to go to the Palestinian territories, even though he was given clearance by Israel to travel there for a meeting in 1996. He believed that if he set foot in the territories he would be legitimizing the Oslo process.
By the time George Habash resigned his leadership of the PFLP in April 2000 the group had been marginalised. The secular Marxist militant group was losing ground to radicals of an altogether different type – Islamist groups like Hamas.
After years of fighting for a Palestinian state George Habash died in the Jordanian capital. Shortly after his death his wife said that he had been watching the latest news from Gaza closely.
“While he was suffering, the doctors used to tell him, you are feeling pain with the people of Gaza”, Hilda Habash said.
- George Habash Full Biography and Profile