Civil Fights: What George Habash understood

Other groups will not stay blind to lessons of Palestinian success.

Habash 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Habash 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
You have to admire George Habash. Granted, he was a mass murderer. But, as the muted response to recent protests in Tibet underscores, his understanding of both human nature and international politics was unsurpassed. Habash, who died in January, founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small terrorist group that grabbed world attention in the 1960s and 1970s with high-profile airline hijackings and bombings. Other Palestinian groups soon followed suit. Given the outrage and horror that greeted these attacks, people without Habash's sophisticated understanding of how the world works might have thought them counterproductive. But Habash knew better. As he explained to the German magazine Der Stern in 1970: "For decades, world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world is talking about us now." Habash understood two things: First, people generally prefer to ignore problems, so only by making it impossible for them to do so comfortably could he force them to take action. And second, once forced to respond, people generally prefer appeasement to fighting, since that is less costly in the short term. And indeed, once the world could no longer comfortably ignore the Palestinians, appeasement swiftly followed. In 1975, for instance, the UN created the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. No other group seeking self-determination ever merited its own UN committee. By the late 1980s, the PLO (a Palestinian umbrella organization to which Habash's PFLP belonged) had embassies worldwide, including UN observer status. Again, that is unique: Neither Tibetans, Kurds, Basques nor any other stateless groups have embassies or UN status. In 1993, Israel recognized the PLO and began giving it land - something else groups such as Tibetans, Kurds and Basques never achieved. AND SINCE then, despite continuing Palestinian terror, support for the Palestinian cause has only grown. Massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations take place worldwide. International aid pours into Palestinian coffers. World leaders raise the Palestinian issue at every opportunity and organize international conferences on it. Palestinian leaders are feted in world capitals. These, too, are achievements unparalleled by other groups: World leaders almost never talk about Kurds, Tibetans or Basques, much less give them financial aid; nor are there international demonstrations on their behalf. Tibetans, however, are unique, because they alone tried a different tactic for gaining world attention. Kurds and Basques, for instance, also used terrorism; their mistake was confining their attacks to Turkey and Spain, respectively, thereby enabling the rest of the world to comfortably ignore them - whereas Habash, who targeted airlines worldwide, left nobody free to comfortably ignore him. To the Dalai Lama, however, nonviolence is a cardinal principle: When Tibetan demonstrators turned violent earlier this month, he threatened to resign as head of Tibet's government in exile unless the violence stopped. And Tibet has several advantages that make it a strong test case for nonviolence. First, the Dalai Lama is internationally revered; no other stateless group has a leader of comparable stature. Second, Tibet seeks only autonomy, which is less provocative than full independence. Third, an independent Tibet actually existed before China overran it in 1951, making Tibet's right to self-determination indisputable under international law; Palestinians, Kurds and Basques, in contrast, all seek to create new states that never before existed, making their cases less legally clear-cut. International law is fuzzy on when a particular ethnic group has the right to create a state, which is why so many people can simultaneously support statehood for Palestinians and Kosovars, who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from neighboring Jordan and Albania, respectively, while opposing it for Kurds and Basques, who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically unique. YET AFTER 57 years of occupation, Tibetan self-determination remains a distant dream. The recent Tibetan protests sparked no worldwide demonstrations against the Chinese occupation. Tibet has no international embassies or UN status. It receives no international aid. And for all the reverence accorded its leader, even he is unwelcome in most world capitals: Angela Merkel's meeting with him last fall made headlines precisely because it was an exception to the rule. The Palestinian cause, in contrast, is of far more recent vintage. When Israel captured the territories in 1967, world opinion merely wanted them returned to Jordan and Egypt (which had seized them in 1948); UN Security Council Resolution 242 does not even mention Palestinian statehood. Yet today, a Palestinian state tops the international agenda. Indeed, one would already exist had Yasser Arafat not refused a 2001 offer and launched a terrorist war against Israel instead. Admittedly, pressuring Israel is much easier than pressuring a powerhouse like China. Yet that alone can explain neither the international apathy toward Tibetan self-determination nor the overwhelming support for its Palestinian equivalent. After all, world opinion has challenged superpowers before: See the massive worldwide demonstrations against America's invasion of Iraq, or the international Soviet Jewry campaign. And it has ignored self-determination claims against countries no stronger than Israel, like Tamil demands for independence from tiny Sri Lanka. The only explanation for the gulf between the world's treatment of Tibetans, or numerous other national groups, and Palestinians is what Habash understood so long ago: By choosing the path of nonviolence, Tibetans enabled the world to ignore them comfortably. By limiting their terrorist campaigns to a single country, Basques, Kurds, Tamils and others similarly enabled the world to ignore them comfortably. But Palestinians, by launching a campaign of truly international terror, made it impossible for the world to ignore them comfortably. And, as Habash predicted, the world responded by trying to appease them. BUT IN an increasingly interconnected world, other groups will not remain blind to the lessons of Palestinian success forever. By appeasing Palestinian terror while ignoring the claims of other national groups, the world has provided a powerful incentive for Kurds, Basques, Tibetans and others to launch international terror campaigns of their own, as the best way of gaining international support. Thus if it wishes to avert this outcome, the international community must reverse course - by rewarding Tibetan nonviolence, and by punishing rather than appeasing Palestinian terror.