Habash, George (1925–)

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Habash, George

Palestinian resistance leader George Habash (also known as "al-Hakim," the Doctor) has played a significant role in Palestinian politics since helping to found the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) in 1951. He went on to found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967.


Habash was born 26 August 1925 in al-Lidd (also called Lydda or, in Hebrew, Lod), Palestine, a medium-sized city in the coastal area east of Jaffa. Habash grew up in a Palestinian Greek Orthodox family; his father was a storeowner. Al-Lidd was a largely Arab city with both Muslim and Christian inhabitants. The British Mandate census estimates from 1944 give the total population as 16,780, of whom 14,910 were Muslim, 1,840 were Christian, 20 were Jewish, and 10 were other religions. During the 1948 War, al-Lidd and its sister city al-Ramla were occupied and their inhabitants expelled by Israeli forces on 13-14 July 1948 (during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting); the citizens were force-marched eastward to the highlands near Ramallah, then under Jordanian control. The Israeli forces were led by yitzhak rabin, who later became prime minister of Israel. Al-Lidd is now the Israeli city of Lod, which houses both Israeli Jews and an impoverished Israeli Arab (Palestinian) population, and is the site of Israel's international airport.

Habash studied in schools in al-Lidd, Jaffa, and finally at the Terra Sancta School in Jerusalem. He worked as a teacher in Jaffa after finishing his secondary education. In 1944 he enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the faculty of medicine, from which he graduated in 1951. While in Beirut he was drawn to Arab nationalism in seminars led by Constantine Zurayk, an AUB professor and exponent of secular pan-Arabism. In June 1948, during the university's summer holidays, Habash returned to al-Lidd against the wishes of his parents and assisted Dr. Mustafa Zahlan at the al-Lidd Hospital during the fighting that had engulfed Palestine. During the attack on the city on 13 July 1948, Habash's older sister was killed and he and his family were expelled. While fleeing, a neighbor's son, named Amin Hanhan, refused to let the Israeli soldiers search him, and was shot dead in front of Habash and the young man's family. Habash said in an interview after telling these stories, "You wonder why I have chosen this road, why I became an Arab nationalist. This is what Zionism is about. After all this, they talk about peace. This was the Zionism that I knew, that I saw with my own eyes" (Soueid, 1998, p. 89). Habash's family took refuge in Amman, Jordan, and Habash returned to Beirut to continue his studies.


While at AUB, Habash and his fellow students Hani al-Hindi, a Syrian; Ahmad al-Khatib, a Kuwaiti; Jihad Dahi, a Syrian; and Husayn Tawfiq, an Egyptian; among others, founded the Arab Commando Battalions. This group was fascistic and anti-Semitic, and attacked targets that they thought belonged to Zionist or British agents. They later expressed awareness that they were being used by other groups, and thus they decided to form a political movement instead. Deciding that they were not going to liberate Palestine without first achieving Arab unity, a core group that included Habash, al-Hindi, and Wadi Haddad, a Palestinian doctor, basing itself on the writings of Zurayk and Sati al-Husari, an Iraqi and leading thinker on Arab nationalism, began forming the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) in 1951. Habash and Haddad went to Amman around this time and started a "people's clinic" that provided free medical treatment, which lasted until 1957. Habash said that "later it occurred to us that we had to make the movement our full-time occupation and that no sacrifice would be too great" (Soueid, 1998, p. 90).

After this early stage of organizing, from the early 1950s to 1967 the ANM worked closely with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who also advocated pan-Arab and socialist policies. The short-lived Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic (U.A.R.) (1958–1961) was inspirational to many in the ANM. Socialism, Arab nationalism, and the recovery of Palestine became the leading ideological aims of the ANM and spurred debates about action and strategy among the membership, which included Arabs from many countries and all religions and denominations. In 1957 Habash was accused, by Palestinian members of Jordan's National Guard, of being part of an attempted coup against the Jordanian monarchy and was convicted in absentia, having fled to Syria. In response to this and other coup attempts in 1956–1957, King hussein proclaimed martial law and banned all political parties.


Name: George Habash

Birth: 1925, al-Lidd, Palestine

Family: Wife, Hilda; two daughters

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: M.D., American University of Beirut, 1951


  • 1948: Expelled with family from al-Lidd to Jordanian-held West Bank
  • 1951: Founds (with others) Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM)
  • 1967: Founds (with others) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)
  • 1967–2000: Secretary general of the PFLP

Habash moved to Beirut in 1963. At this juncture the ANM's understanding of the difference between Judaism and Zionism became more sophisticated and it reformulated its positions, rejecting Zionism but not Jews and Judaism, under the guidance of ANM member Muhsin Ibrahim. In the years leading up to 1967, Habash was part of a reorganization within the ANM that formed "Palestinian chapters" to carry out armed struggle against Israel. In a 1997 interview he assessed what he might have done differently in the 1950s: "I would introduce democracy as a basic motto, starting in the family and at school, in clubs and associations, all the way to democracy in political activities, organizations, parties, and state institutions. Thus, in addition to recovering Palestine, I would add the issue of democracy" (Soueid, 1998, p. 90).

After 1967

After the 1967 War, in which Israel occupied what remained of historic Palestine (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip), along with the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, Habash led the transformation of the ANM into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on 11 December 1967. Other members included Nayif Hawatma, Wadi Haddad, and the members of the Arab Liberation Front, founded in 1965 by Ahmad Jibril. Habash became the secretary general of the PFLP, a post he retained until 2000. In March 1968, he was imprisoned in Syria for political reasons. He credits this time as deepening his understanding of and commitment to Marxism because, while in solitary confinement for nine months, he read the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, V. I. Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong. He was sprung from jail in November 1968 by a PFLP commando raid and escaped to Jordan.

After this time, the PFLP consolidated its leftist ideologies, maintaining the ANM's emphasis on the need for a united Arab world to confront Israel. The PFLP position at this time was that there must be a Palestinian state within the historic borders of Palestine, no negotiations or compromises with Israel, and the elimination of the Israeli state (often referred to at this time as the "Zionist entity"). Habash maintained that armed struggle came out of the defeat of 1967–"it was a popular and organized reaction to the loss of homeland and new forcible exile and occupation at a time when the remnants of other colonial ventures elsewhere in the world were being dismantled" (Soueid, 1998, p. 94). The PFLP formed the second-largest Palestinian political group after Fatah, yasir arafat's party, until the founding of Hamas in 1988.

In the vacuum of leadership left by Habash's imprisonment in 1968, Ahmad Jibril split from the group and formed the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC). In 1969 the PFLP split again, and a more left-leaning faction formed by Nayif Hawatma and Yasser Abd Rabbo named itself the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPFLP), which later became the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).


Nayif Hawatma (1935?–) was a founding and active member of the Arab Nationalist Movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Born in al-Salt, Jordan to a Greek Orthodox Jordanian Arab family, he studied medicine, politics, and economics in Amman, Cairo, and Beirut, and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in Moscow. Hawatma was a leftist political activist with the ANM in Iraq (1958–1963) and South Yemen (1963–1967), during which time he was exiled from Jordan. In 1967 he was one of the founders of the PFLP with George Habash. In 1969 Hawatma and Yasser Abd Rabbo split from the PFLP to create the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPFLP; later the DFLP). Since that time Hawatma has served as DFLP chairman as well as the main representative to the PNC and the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee. The DFLP has always been one of the smallest groups in the PLO, but one whose importance within Palestinian politics has been significant. Hawatma is known for offering a "Transitional National Program" to the PLO in 1973, calling for a two-state solution based on United Nations resolutions and negotiations with the Israelis. He began early on to contact and work with Israeli leftist groups, one of the first PLO leaders to do so. He was denied entry to the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Israelis in 1999, and caused some controversy by shaking the hand of Israeli president Ezer Weizman during the funeral of King Hussein in February 1999. More recently, Hawatma, who resides in Damascus, has been involved in intra-Palestinian dialogue and has been writing extensively on the Palestinian cause.

A PFLP hijacking of two planes to the Jordanian desert and a third to Cairo in September 1970 led to the beginning of the repression of Palestinian political groups in Jordan, through military assault by the Jordanian army. Known as Black September, the fighting amounted to a virtual civil war, and four thousand people, both Palestinian and Jordanian, were reported to have died. Ten days after the fighting began, President Nasser of Egypt was able to negotiate a truce, which held until July 1971, when the Jordanians expelled all Palestinian organizations from Jordan (they then took up residence in Lebanon). The PFLP ceased all kidnapping and hijacking attacks in 1972, although the splinter factions, most notably the PFLP-External Operations led by Haddad, continued to carry out international attacks, including the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, causing him to be formally expelled from the PFLP.

The PLO Proposes the Two-State Solution

Habash continued to lead the PFLP, although he suffered from ill health and had a debilitating stroke in 1980. In 1974 the Palestine National Council (PNC), which called itself the parliament-in-exile of the Palestinian people and which founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), publicly suggested a two-state solution (Israeli and Palestinian states in historic Palestine) and adopted a resolution to that effect, which prompted the PFLP to withdraw from the PLO and to join the Iraqi-backed Rejectionist Front. As the leader of the most prominent and largest of the opposition groups and one of the more sophisticated thinkers, Habash had a large role in creating opposition to the more centrist policies of the PLO, which was dominated by Fatah and led by Arafat. After many of the PFLP forces were killed in 1975–1976 during the Lebanese Civil War by Syrian forces and the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia, Habash worked for a rapprochement with Fatah in order to oppose Syrian intervention in Lebanon. Rejoining the PLO in 1977 in shared opposition to the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, the PFLP tried to remain neutral in regard to the internal struggles taking place within Fatah at this time. As a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian political organizations withdrew; Fatah and the PLO went to Tunis and the PFLP and Habash moved to Damascus. The PFLP and DFLP rejoined the PLO once again in April 1987, after an off-and-on relationship since 1977, for the express purpose of promoting Palestinian political unity. Habash's illnesses limited his activities, and thus struggles within the PFLP for leadership arose.

While Habash remained in Damascus, the PFLP was active in the first intifada, which started in late 1987 in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, and was a member of the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) that guided the activities of the intifada through publication of leaflets and declarations of strikes and demonstrations. In 1990 Habash and Hawatma went to Amman and were received by King Hussein, indicating an end of the animosity that had existed between them since Black September.

Following the Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accords) between the Israelis and the Palestinians (in actuality, Fatah acting alone) in 1993, Habash and Hawatma resigned from the PLO Executive Committee. In 1994 the PFLP announced its resignation from the PLO Central Council. The PFLP was one of ten groups that rejected Oslo and set up the Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF) based in Damascus, and whose membership included Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among others. However, the PFLP's willingness to engage in dialogue with the Palestinian Authority (PA) created by Oslo to govern parts of the Occupied Territories created friction over the PFLP's membership in the APF. Habash was given permission by the Israelis to enter the Palestinian self-rule area to attend a meeting of the Palestine National Council in 1996, but he chose not to. After a reconciliation in Cairo in August 1999 between Fatah and Arafat and both the PFLP and the DFLP, the APF ejected both organizations from membership. Habash resigned from the leadership of the PFLP in April 2000 for health reasons.


The PFLP under the leadership of Habash is best known on the world stage for its militancy in the 1970s, when it committed a number of notorious kidnappings and hijackings and was known as one of the more radical Palestinian organizations. Its actions were inspiring for many struggling for national liberation around the world, and Habash was seen as a leader of a Marxist revolutionary action and a man of principles, especially among Palestinians and Arabs. Habash maintained in an interview that Wadi Haddad proposed the idea of hijacking airplanes as a strategy to attract world attention, but that Haddad "repeatedly used to instruct those carrying out the operations not to hurt anyone in any way" (Soueid, 1998, p. 93). These dramatic events, which were usually bloodless, did succeed at their proposed goal: "When we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle," Habash told the German publication 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" (Halsell, 1998). Habash was seen as a Palestinian leader willing to go to extremes to capture the attention of the world and focus it on the Palestinian cause.


Habash has remained an anti-imperialist, secular Arab and Palestinian nationalist throughout his life. When asked about the role of the United States in the continued struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, Habash blamed Americans, particularly the Christians: "The Israelis could not have done what they did without the support of American Christians. They are responsible for those sitting in the camps today" (Halsell, 1998). His commitment to Marxism and socialism remain the hallmark of his political action and ideology. In assessing Habash's legacy, one scholar maintains that "while one cannot point to any original ideas of Habash in the realm of revolutionary theory, and while his writings … were never more than transcripts of his speeches and statements, he has left an enduring imprint on Palestinian and Arab politics. His charisma served as a magnet for attracting members to [the ANM] and later to the PFLP…. This brilliant medical student was able to inspire people from widely differing socioeconomic and national backgrounds and to get people of different ideologies and orientations to work together" (AbuKhalil, 1999, pp. 93-94).


AbuKhalil, As'ad. "George Habash and the Movement of Arab Nationalists: Neither Unity nor Liberation." Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 91-103.

Bannoura, Saed. "PFLP Will Not Participate in the Coming Government, DFLP and PPP to Weigh Up Their Participation." International Middle East Media Center, IMEMC News. Available from http://www.imemc.org.

Halsell, Grace. "A Visit with George Habash: Still the Prophet of Arab Nationalism and Armed Struggle against Israel." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (September 1998). Available from http://www.wrmea.com.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine official Web site. Available from http://www.pflp.ps.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Soueid, Mahmoud. "Taking Stock: An Interview with George Habash." Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 1 (Autumn 1998): 86-101.

Strindberg, Anders. "The Damascus-Based Alliance of Palestinian Forces: A Primer." Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no. 3 (Spring 2000).

                                            Rochelle Anne Davis


The corruption and co-optation of the Palestinian masses by Fatah constitutes a calamity that boggles the mind. Those same masses that had survived all the wars and the attempts to marginalize and defeat them, that had withstood the Zionist military machine inside and outside the occupied territories are now, after thirty years, despairing and despondent under their bourgeois leadership, due to the undermining of their nationalist achievements and institutions and the stifling of democracy by the repressive state apparatuses. Mafias are on the rise, and connections with the occupying power are being exploited to secure monopolies on daily necessities.

Still, although I lay the basic blame for the current state of affairs on the Palestinian Authority team, I do not exempt the opposition, which has not risen to the challenge or been true to its declared objectives and programs…. With the intifada, I felt for the first time that it was possible to achieve freedom and independence in some part of Palestine…. Whether or not one adopts armed struggle is determined not by matters of conscience but by the nature and practices of the enemy. It is also determined by the objectives of the Palestinian people—objectives that cannot be achieved by diplomatic action alone but that require a comprehensive struggle in which revolutionary violence, in its various manifestations, has a special place. There is no contradiction between this and other forms of struggle, such as the political, cultural, and economic.