Biography

George Habash

Politicians

George Habash

1925, Lydda, Palestine
26 January 2008, Amman, Jordan

George Habash was born in the town of Lydda in Palestine, to a rich Arab Christian Orthodox family that owned agricultural lands and commercial stores. His father was Nicholas Habash, a well-known businessman; his mother’s name was Tuhfa. He had six siblings: Rizq, Phoutine, Elaine, Angele, Najah, and Salwa. His wife, Hilda Habash, was his cousin; she accompanied him throughout his career and was his lifelong comrade at all stages of his of struggle. He had two children, Maysa and Lama.

First Phase, 1925–54: Upbringing, Education, Early Thinking, and Political Activity

Habash completed his elementary education in Lydda and then moved to the National Orthodox College in Jaffa for his secondary education; he received his matriculation certificate at Terra Sancta College in Jerusalem.

Habash returned to Jaffa where he worked as a teacher. He was then barely sixteen years old. The general atmosphere in Palestine was charged with anger and fear due to the policies of the British Mandate and the increasing acts of terrorism by Zionist gangs like the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern.

In 1944 Habash was admitted to the medical school of the American University of Beirut. He was an exceptional student who divided his university years between his study and his numerous hobbies such as athletics, art, and music in addition to cultural and political activities. The latter assumed growing importance especially in light of events in Palestine and the UN Partition Resolution issued in November 1947.

The dominant influence on his thought and nationalist identity came from contact with the thought and teachings of Arab history professor Constantine Zurayk. Dr. Zurayk was a secular Arab unionist, nationalist, and liberal thinker. During this period the university was full of Arab students from all the Arab countries who carried with them their national concerns and dreams. Their meeting place was the cultural student society al-‘Urwa al-wuthqa. Zurayk was its spiritual father, and Habash was elected its general secretary for the academic year 1949–50.

The real turning point in Habash’s life during his university years was the Nakba of 1948, as one Palestinian city, town, and village after another fell to the Zionist forces and its inhabitants were expelled. Habash cut short his medical studies and in June 1948 went to Lydda, his hometown, where he joined a medical clinic and acted as an assistant to the surgeon who was treating the wounded civilians and defenders of the town. Lydda and neighboring Ramla fell to the Zionists on 11 July 1948. Its inhabitants (some sixty thousand) were expelled and forced under gunfire to walk toward the interior of the country. Habash, his parents, and his siblings were among those expelled. He treated the old, the women, and the children who fell by the wayside.

Habash returned to Beirut in October 1948 to resume his medical studies. He graduated from medical school in 1951 and then joined a research group as assistant to the professor of histology, but this failed to capture his interest. What totally dominated his thought and feelings was the tragedy of Palestine. So he devoted his efforts organizing street demonstrations by students, which led to his being arrested a number of times, and establishing a nationalist and progressive youth organization.

In 1952 he left Beirut for Amman where he set up a free medical clinic in partnership with his lifelong friend, Dr. Wadi Haddad, to treat refugees and the poor, all the while mobilizing youth and organizing mass demonstrations against military pacts that supported western colonialist states. This led to his being sought by the Jordanian security authorities, and he was forced to go underground for two years. In 1954 he moved to Damascus.

Second Phase, 1954–61: Founding the Arab Nationalist Movement  and Affiliation with the Egyptian Revolutionary Nasserist Current

In the Arab states of the Mashriq, the angry reaction to the Zionist takeover of most of Palestine and the defeat of all Arab regular armies took the form of military coups against existing regimes, assassination of senior officials, and the rise of revolutionary young parties. In Greater Syria the most important parties that emerged were the Arab Ba‘th Party in Damascus and the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), announced by George Habash at a general congress held in Amman in 1956. The other founders were Wadi Haddad (Palestine), Salih Shibl (Palestine), Hamid Jabburi (Iraq), Ahmad al-Khatib (Kuwait), and Hani al-Hindi (Syria). Its ideology, secular and unionist, was inspired by the teachings of Constantine Zurayk and Sati al-Husari. It adopted the slogan “Unity, Liberation, Revenge”— unity of Arab countries and liberation from western imperialism as a prelude to the recovery of Palestine. It carefully distinguished between Judaism and Zionism.

In Egypt the reaction had taken the form of abolishing royalty and establishing a republic under the leadership of the Free Officers movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser soon captivated the Arab masses from the Gulf to the Atlantic as he defied western imperialism and Israel, adopted a unionist ideology, and encouraged independence movements.  Thus a spontaneous affinity arose between the ANM and Cairo, reinforced by personal contacts between the two sides. This gave the ANM a lot of impetus, allowing it to spread to include Jordan, Syria, the Gulf countries, Libya, North Africa, and Yemen. This culminated in the union of Egypt and Syria in 1958 in which the ANM played an important role. The union lasted until 1961.

Habash had been living in Jordan before the union, and he had  been pursued by the conservative royalist regime in Jordan for his activism. All political parties were proscribed in the wake of the British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. He was forced to go into hiding and to work in secret until he moved to Damascus following the 1958 union.

Third Phase, 1961–65: The Shock of the Union’s Break-up and Its Aftermath

The harmony between the ANM and Nasserism reached its peak during the Syria-Egypt union of 1958–61. Some ANM leaders joined the union government, and Habash paid particular attention to the situation in South Yemen, where the ANM leadership played a decisive role in resisting the British military presence in Aden.

The period following the break-up of the union was one of the hardest phases in Habash’s militant life. He and his colleagues were subject to pursuit and detention as well as assassination by the forces that carried out the break-up. The Ba‘th nationalists who managed to take over power in Syria through a coup in March 1963 also repressed Habash and his companions due to differences between the Ba‘thists and the Nasserists. The latter in turn attempted a coup in 1963, which failed. In response, the Ba‘th government carried out a wave of arrests, trials, and executions. Habash was among those sentenced to death after having been charged with complicity in the failed Nasserist coup. What added to Habash’s personal difficulties was the fact that, at about the time these events were unfolding, he got married, had his first daughter Maysa, and was forced to hide, then to move secretly to Beirut in 1964 to continue his political work from that city.

Fourth Phase, 1965–71: Rise of the PLO, Defeat of June 1967, Founding of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Move to Marxism, and Clash with the Jordanian Regime

In the mid-sixties, the PLO, led by Ahmad al-Shuqairi, was established with  the support of most Arab regimes. Habash adopted a cautious attitude toward Shuqairi, unsure of his ability to achieve his aims. The most traumatic event in this period was the defeat of June 1967, with the loss of what remained of Palestine west of the River Jordan, including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights in Syria, and the Sinai in Egypt. This catastrophe, the third decisive turning point in the formation of Habash’s political thinking (the other two being the Nakba of 1948 and the break-up of the union in 1963), drove him to reexamine the ideology of the ANM and to move in the direction of Marxism-Leninism. Thus, in December 1967, he founded a new organization to replace the ANM, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose aim was the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. Habash saw no contradiction between this ideological shift and his national identity. In this regard, he considered  there was a perfect harmony between “my Arab nationalism, my being Christian, my Islamic culture and my progressive Marxism … I am a Marxist, leftist by culture, the Islamic heritage is an essential part of my thought structure, Islam is the most important component of Arab nationalism, and Arab nationalism is an essential part of my being.” He considered dialectical materialism to be the essence of Marxism.

In 1968 Habash received an invitation from the Syrian authorities, which turned out to be a trap. He was arrested and charged with forming paramilitary cells. He spent 10 months in the worst prison in Syria, the Shaykh Hasan prison, where he suffered considerable mental torture. In prison, he devoted his time to reading the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao, gaining deeper insights into Marxism. He was sprung out of prison by his comrade Wadi Haddad, who organized an escape that was startling in its boldness.

In 1969, Habash moved secretly to Jordan to join the resistance groups taking shape there in guerrilla bases following the defeat of the regular armies in 1967. In the years that followed, guerrilla activity from Jordan against the occupying forces inside Palestine steadily increased.

Under Wadi Haddad’s supervision, the PFLP adopted, in addition to armed struggle, the tactic of hijacking Israeli and western airliners (while attempting not to harm passengers) as a means to draw world attention to the two tragedies of 1948 and 1967 and to place the suffering of the Palestinian people squarely on the agenda of pro-Israeli western capitals and the international fora.

Soon, escalating guerrilla activities, violent Israeli reactions, and the irresponsible behavior of some Palestinian factions led to increased tension between the Palestinian armed groups and Jordanian security forces. In 1970, Dr. Haddad organized the hijacking of three western jumbo jet airliners; they were landed in a desert airfield in Jordan, the passengers and crew were evacuated, and the planes were blown up. This incident led to armed clashes between the Jordanian army and security forces and the Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan. Fighting moved from Amman to the forests of Jarash, where battles raged until the end of 1971. Thereafter the Palestinian fighters and their commanders withdrew to Lebanon.

Fifth Phase, 1972–82: The PFLP in Lebanon

Habash spent most of this decade in Lebanon.

On the personal level Habash suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1972 and a severe brain hemorrhage in 1980 with which he coped through strength of will. In 1972 the Israeli Mossad murdered his close friend, the novelist and PFLP spokesman, Ghassan Kanafani, by placing a bomb beneath his car seat in Beirut and in 1978 the Mossad used poison to murder his lifelong friend and comrade Wadi Haddad. These two events traumatized Habash, who barely escaped assassination himself: in 1979 the Mossad hijacked a Middle East Airlines plane on which Habash was a scheduled passenger but did not board because of a last minute precautionary security measure. 

At the organizational level, the PFLP announced in 1972 that it had abandoned the tactic of hijacking planes; by then it, like other Palestinian groups, became increasingly mired in Lebanese politics. A game of alliances and balancing among the political forces in Lebanon led to a split into two major camps, the one supporting and the other opposing guerrilla activities against Israel. In 1975, a vicious civil war erupted in Lebanon. Israel very quickly exploited the new situation and worked to fan the flames, using the opportunity provided by its interim agreement with Egypt (Sinai II Agreement, September 1975) and then by the Peace Treaty (March 1979). Egyptian-Israeli relations, in particular the separate peace, constituted by far the most important regional developments in that period, because it removed the strongest Arab military power from the Arab-Israeli equation. Together with other nationalist groups, the PFLP forcefully opposed these developments.

The Egyptian move greatly contributed to Israel’s decision in 1982 to invade Lebanon and lay the siege to Beirut. The siege, a first for an Arab capital, lasted eighty-eight days during which the city was bombarded continuously by land, sea, and air. It ended when the international community intervened, resulting in the withdrawal of the Palestinian military forces, administrative cadres, and leadership from Lebanon.

Sixth Phase, 1982–2000: Departure from Beirut and Resignation from His Post as General Secretary of the PFLP

Habash left Beirut with the PLO led by Yasir Arafat, but, instead of joining Arafat in Tunis, he headed to Syria, convinced of the need to continue the struggle against the Israeli occupiers from a front-line state, irrespective of the challenges involved. So he sailed from Beirut with the other fighters but left the ship at the Syrian port of Tartus and from there headed to Damascus. He chose Damascus as his residence and as the headquarters of the PFLP throughout the eighties, making e a number of trips to Arab and foreign capitals. During that decade, he took active part in the meetings of the Palestine National Council held in Algiers—the sixteenth (1983), the eighteenth (1987) and nineteenth sessions (1988) —where he urged continued resistance.

During this period Habash was once again the subject of another hijacking attempt by the Israelis. In February 1986, Israel’s air force intercepted a private jet bound from Tripoli (Libya) to Damascus. Habash, scheduled to fly on that plane, had cancelled his reservation at the very last minute.

During the second Gulf War in 1990, the PFLP expressed support for Saddam Hussein. Habash visited Baghdad before the start of US military operations and in that same year moved from Damascus to Amman, which he had left some twenty years earlier. In Amman he took part in the Popular Congress held that same year to express support for Iraq.

In 1992, Habash’s health deteriorated; he travelled to France for treatment after securing the French government’s approval. The visit quickly turned into a major political issue when thousands of supporters of    Israel demonstrated in the hospital’s courtyard, demanding his arrest. His hosts were inclined to give in to the Zionist lobby’s pressure and to arrest their guest on terrorism charges, but Arab governments intervened; Algeria sent a presidential plane to take him out of the country. His wife Hilda showed immense courage throughout the crisis by standing up to the French interrogators and shielding her sick husband from them.

Habash and the PFLP strongly opposed the PLO’s indirect participation in the Madrid peace conference and the Washington talks that led to secret negotiations between the PLO and Israel, which in turn led to the Oslo Accords of 1993, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and the return of Arafat to Palestine, and opened the way to the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994. Habash’s position on these developments were based on his conviction that these accords did not secure even minimum Palestinian rights—not the right of return for Palestinian refugees, or the right to form a fully sovereign state, or the right to protect the land itself from continued settlement and expropriation. Habash linked his own return to Palestine to the return of the refugees.

From Amman he moved back to Damascus where he spent the remainder of the 1990s. He resigned as Secretary General of the PFLP in 2000.

Seventh Phase, 2000–2008: Post-PFLP Activities

Habash continued to perform his national role especially as the second intifada erupted in 2000. He remained in close touch with the various nationalist leaders and factions and with Arab governments. Of note is the fact that he devoted the last years of his life to founding the Al-Ghad Center for Strategic Studies; he urged Arabs and Palestinians to fully understand the causes of Arab failure to stand up to the Zionist project. He published several political and intellectual studies during this period, including the basic documents of the PFLP and resolutions of its congresses. He also published Les révolutionnaires ne meurent jamais (in 2008; the Arabic version appeared in 2009). The book, an autobiography, was based on 100 hours of interviews conducted by the French journalist Georges Malbrunot.

Habash remained in Damascus until the end of 2007 but often visited Amman to see his two daughters and his grandchildren. He died of a heart attack in Amman on 26 January 2008 and was buried there.

Even his opponents in the Palestinian movement saw in Habash a resolute and incorruptible leader who exhibited patience in adversity and devoted his entire life to his homeland.

 

Sources

حبش، جورج. "الثوريون لا يموتون أبداً: حوار مع جورج مالبرينو". بيروت: دار الساقي، 2009.

سويد، محمود. "التجربة النضالية الفلسطينية: حوار شامل مع جورج حبش". بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 1998.

مطر، فؤاد. "حكيم الثورة: قصة حياة الدكتور جورج حبش". لندن: منشورات هاي لايت، 1984.

Habache, Georges. Les révolutionnaires ne meurent jamais: Conversations avec Georges Malbrunot. Paris: Fayard, 2008.