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George Habash – ‘These borders will fall’

The sad passing of George Habash January 26, is an opportunity to learn the lessons from his long life of struggle. In the 1970s at the peak of his influence, he embodied the hopes of thousands struggling to win Palestine freedom against the forces of imperialism, Israeli militarism and capitalism.

Often known as “Al Hakim” (the doctor or wise man),[1] Habash was born in 1925 or 1926 in Lydda Palestine. Like many Palestinians, his hometown has “vanished” – what was Lydda, Palestine now being called Lod, Israel.[2] When only 22, he was “witness to the ethnic cleansing of his home town,”[3] part of the horror of the Nakba (Catastrophe) – the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by the emerging Israeli state. Studying medicine at the American University of Beirut when the Nakba began, he “rushed back to Lydda to serve as a medical orderly as the Zionists advanced on the town and drove out its inhabitants.” From that point on, his life as a doctor was to be combined with his life as a freedom fighter. Over the next three years he would both help in the founding of the Arab Nationalist Movement and graduate from university, “first in his class.”[4]

His political evolution was organically linked to the many phases of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Like many thousands, his first position was that Arab unity could defeat the state of Israel. He was a supporter of the Pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Israel’s shattering defeat of Egypt and other Arab states in 1967’s Six-Day war, drove Habash like many in his generation to look to more radical solutions. In the wake of the 1967 war, Habash helped found the organization with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It became one of the key components of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), second in importance only to Fatah.[5]

Habash is often portrayed as a “terrorist.” The Enclycopaedia Britannica says that “under the leadership of Habash, the PFLP staged several airplane hijackings.”[6] They don’t mention that, according to Oxford University’s Karma Nabulsi, “the tactic of aeroplane hijackings … was never his (and over which he expelled Wadie Haddad from the PFLP).”[7] And of course they do not mention that if we are to talk about terrorism in Palestine – and if terrorism is to be understood as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”[8] (the definition offered by The Enclyopaedia Britannica) – then without any question the biggest terrorist in Palestine is the state of Israel. The ethnic cleansing of Lydda during the Nakba is just one of many examples of the Israeli state terrorism which has fuelled the liberation struggle in Palestine.

Habash was a true internationalist. Inspired by the struggle in Vietnam, he and the PFLP “argued that the liberation of Palestine would be impossible without the liberation of Arab countries from the regimes imposed by the West and Israel. Looking to Vietnam, Habash called for Arab ‘Hanois,’ and stated that the liberation of Palestine passed through every Arab capital.”[9] Habash was also a man of the left. After the founding of the PFLP, he openly embraced Marxism.

We need to also learn the limits of Habash’s politics. The Marxism that he and his generation learned was tangled up with the complex anti-democratic reality of the so-called “socialist” states. Habash was at first openly critical of the Soviet Union, but like many he for a time tried to find an alternative in the equally anti-democratic traditions of “Communist” China. By 1973, according to As’ad AbuKhalil of California State University, the PFLP “had joined the ranks of Arab communist organizations that pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union.”[10] The inability of the left in the Middle East to fully break free from the long shadow of Stalinism made it less and less attractive as a liberation ideology for the oppressed masses of the region. The decline of the left of Habash’s generation meant the marginalization of his organization, the PFLP. “One can’t speak of the PFLP since 2000, when Habash voluntarily resigned from the leadership.”[11]

But the oppression of Palestine continues, and a new generation has taken up the resistance. Habash lived that last years of his life in poverty and exile in Amman, Jordan. But he had his dignity – refusing to the end the corruption that engulfed many of the leadership of his contemporaries in Fatah. And Habash, to his death, was dedicated to the liberation of Palestine.

Karma Nabulsi, in his obituary to Habash, tells a story that is a fitting epitaph. “Just before his death, Habash was told how young Palestinians from a different political party had audaciously destroyed the walls of Gaza, setting free its people. Habash smiled and said: ‘You see, the day will come when these borders will fall and Arab unity will be achieved.’”[12]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] David Hirst, “George Habash,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008
[2] “Habash, George,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008 .
[3] Karma Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008.
[4] Hirst, “George Habash”
[5] As’ad AbuKhalil, “George Habash’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle, The Electronic Intifada, January 30, 2008
[6] “George Habash”
[7] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”
[8] “terrorism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008
[9] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[10] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[11] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[12] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”

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