PA hails Habash as 'important symbol of revolution'

Officials hope for moderation in PFLP following death of the organization's radical former leader.

Habash 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Habash 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority officials on Sunday expressed hope that the death of George Habash, the founder of the radical Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), would have a moderating effect on the organization he founded after the 1967 Six Day War. Habash, who died late Saturday in Jordan at the age of 81, was one of the prominent symbols of the anti-peace camp among the Palestinians. But this did not stop the PA leadership in Ramallah from announcing three days of mourning over his death. Nor did it stop them from hailing him as one of the "most important symbols of the Palestinian revolution." In fact, Habash had long despised many of the PA leaders who eulogized him, dubbing them "traitors" for recognizing Israel's right to exist and signing the Oslo Accords. On Monday, many PA representatives are expected to attend Habash's funeral in Amman. "Habash represented the old generation of radical Palestinians," said a senior Fatah official. "He was a staunch opponent of any form of compromise with Israel. Until his last day, he did not show any flexibility." Remarked a veteran PLO operative who had close ties with Habash: "The word pragmatism did not exist in his dictionary. He paid a heavy price because of his stubbornness and extremist views." Habash was one of those who strongly believed that only a united Arab state could defeat Israel. In 1951, he founded the Arab Nationalist Movement and aligned the organization with former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's Arab nationalist ideology. But the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 saw the Arab Nationalist Movement vanish from the political scene, only to be replaced by the PFLP, which later became part of the PLO. In 1974, when the PLO's parliament-in-exile, the Palestinian National Council, adopted a resolution considered by the PFLP as a de facto recognition of Israel, Habash pulled out of the PLO. Three years later, the PFLP rejoined the PLO to form an alliance with other Palestinian groups in opposition to former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's peace initiative. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Habash strongly condemned Arafat and the PLO for "selling out" the Palestinian cause and established a rejectionist alliance with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical groups in Syria. Arafat's aides then mocked the move, calling it an "unholy alliance" between Communists and Islamists. Although the PFLP has never been a major player on the Palestinian political scene, the organization had won the respect of many Palestinians because of its involvement in airplane hijackings and other acts of terror. Today the PFLP has only a few thousand followers, especially in the West Bank and Syria. News about Habash's death sent dozens of his grieving supporters to the streets of a number of cities and refugee camps, particularly in the Bethlehem area. As a Christian, Habash was popular among many of his fellow Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur. Habash, who is also known by his nickname Hakim (meaning wise or doctor in Arabic), turned the PFLP into one of the most radical Palestinian factions before Hamas and Islamic Jihad were established. Apart from "specializing" in airplane hijackings, the organization was also behind the assassination of moderate Arab and Palestinian figures. One of the PFLP's victims was Thafer al-Masri, the popular mayor of Nablus who was assassinated by the PFLP in 1986 because he had been appointed by Israel. In November 2001, PFLP members assassinated then-tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem. The organization said then that it carried out the killing in response to the death of its leader, Abu Ali Mustapha, who was killed in an IAF attack on his office in Ramallah. Abu Ali Mustapha had just succeeded Habash as secretary-general of the PFLP after the latter retired in 2000 due to health problems. Habash's departure from the scene then paved the way for rapprochement between the PFLP and Fatah. The present PFLP leader, Ahmed Saadat, is currently on trial in Israel for his role in Ze'evi's assassination. At the request of Yasser Arafat, Israel permitted Abu Ali Mustapha to move from Syria to Ramallah. Arafat was hoping that by embracing Habash's successor, he would distance the PFLP from its radical ideology and the influence of Syria. Since then, the PFLP's power has only been declining. The organization participated in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006, only to win 4.2 percent of the vote. Israel's crackdown on the PFLP in the aftermath of the assassination of Ze'evi also contributed to the organization's weakness.