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George Habash (2 August 1926 – 26 January 2008)

Feb. 24, 2010 5:56 P.M. (Updated: March 1, 2010 4:38 P.M.)
George Habash was a Christian Palestinian nationalist who founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

He is considered a founding father of the resistance movement of the Palestinians and a pioneer of armed struggle and revolutionary violence as the sole means for the liberation of Palestine.

Habash served as the secretary-general of the PFLP until 2000, when ill health forced him to resign. He died in Amman, Jordan on 26 January 2008.

Despite a politically tumultuous life, Habash remained faithful to his conviction that only by force could Palestinians regain their rights, including the recovery of the original Palestinian territory.

Habash was born in Lydda, Palestine (today’s Lod in Israel) to a family of Greek Orthodox grain merchants. He later studied medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where he would eventually graduate at the top of his class.

As a 22-year-old undergraduate, Habash returned to Lydda in 1948 to serve as a medical orderly during the conflict known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, to Palestinians. The defeat of the Jordanian Army and Arab Liberation Army by Zionist forces, and the expulsion of the local population, made refugees of his family.

The Nakba had a profound effect on Habash, who, on returning to AUB, began organizing Palestinians against the self-declared Jewish state. Two years after graduation, in 1953, Habash helped found the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) in Jordan.

The group received financial backing from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and established a "people’s clinic" and school for refugees in Amman. From 1956 to 1964 the ANM worked, unsuccessfully, toward the creation of an Arab "super state."

Frustrated with the ANM’s lack of progress, and the inability of Nasser to effectively confront Israel, Habash began to reorganize the ANM in 1964 and to distance himself from the Egyptian leader.

However, as a result of the defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 ‘Six Day’ war, and of the consequent widespread disillusionment with Nasserism, Habash ultimately founded the PFLP.

He continued to believe in pan-Arab action, but regarded the various Arab regimes as weak and, in fact, supported the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. Instead, Habash turned toward armed struggle, following in the steps of Yasser Arafat and the Fatah movement.

Habash believed that only a revolutionary movement, with a disciplined political machine to lead it, would be able to achieve the desired objectives.

Under Habash, the PFLP became known as one of the most radical and militant Palestinian factions. After the hijacking of an Israeli El-Al airliner in June 1968, the PFLP carried out a series of bombings and hijackings of civilian targets. The most brazen of these was the June 1970 hijacking of four Western aircraft, which were later blown up in front of the world’s media in Jordan after the hostages had been evacuated.

The PFLP’s actions, along with the actions of other Palestinian groups and subsequent Israeli reprisals, angered Jordan’s King Hussein who, fearful of appearing weak in the eyes of his own populace, declared martial law and forced all Palestinian factions out of Jordan and into Lebanon and Syria.

Habash, now living in Beirut with the rest of the PLO, continued to orchestrate a number of high-profile and deadly acts of violence. These included the 1972 attack on tourists at Lod airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) with the support of Japanese Red Army gunmen.

The 1970s saw an increasingly moderate approach within the Palestinian resistance movement. While Habash continued to favor armed struggle over diplomacy he remained loyal to the will of the majority and chose not to walk away from the PLO, even in the wake of Arafat’s 1988 acceptance of the two-state solution.

This loyalty to Palestinian national unity helped solidify Habash’s popular support, although it also generated tensions between himself and more radical members of the PFLP, who would later move to challenge his authority.

In 1993, now based in Damascus, Habash rejected the Oslo Accords, and formed the Rejectionist Front, which incorporated Islamist factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

However, during the 1990s, Habash found exercising political power problematic whilst operating outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now the epicenters of the Palestinian resistance.

As a result, Habash moved toward conciliation with Arafat in an attempt to gain a foothold in post-Oslo politics while attempting to remain true to the PFLP's founding principles. This balancing act never proved wholly successful.

In 2000, Habash resigned as secretary-general due to his deteriorating health, but continued to work as an activist within the PFLP up until his death in 2008.
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