Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

views updated May 21 2018

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

LEADER: Ahmed Sadaat


USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Syria; Lebanon; Israel; West Bank; Gaza Strip

U.S. TERRORIST EXCLUSION LIST DESIGNEE: The U.S. Department of State first designated the PFLP a terrorist organization in October 1997


The Marxist-Leninist PFLP emerged from the Arab Nationalist Movement in 1967. It viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict not as a religious struggle nor even particularly nationalistic but as part of a broader revolution against Western imperialism. During the so-called heyday of Palestinian terrorism in the early 1970s, the PFLP gained a reputation for spectacular attacks, particularly aircraft hijackings. In the recent past, its most notorious act was the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, in October 2001.


The roots of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) lie as far back as 1953 with the formation of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) by the Palestinian-Christian, Dr. George Habash in Beirut. Habash identified the Palestinian fight for independence as part of a wider struggle within the Arab world against Western imperialism. He saw that the Arab people were inherently weak because of a lack of education and unity when compared to their Western "enemy," and in order to progress and shake off its colonial shackles, Arab society had to be rebuilt and a new breed of man emerge.

Habash's ideas were similar to those of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his emergent Ba'ath movement, in that they both propagated a kind of anti-imperialist, secular pan-Arabism. However, Habash was a Marxist-Leninist doctrinaire and his worldview was framed by socialism. Later, he liked to compare himself to the Cuban revolutionaries.

The ANM formed underground branches throughout the Middle East, including Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and several Gulf States. It also formed a commando group, Youth for Revenge (or Youth Avengers) in 1964, which began carrying out attacks in Israel that year. In 1967, shortly after the devastating Six Day War, Youth for Revenge merged with two other groups, the Syrian-backed Palestine Liberation Front, and Heroes of the Return, a paramilitary group set up in Lebanon in 1966, which already had strong links to the ANM. This new coalition was named the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and would retain strong links to the ANM.

Like the ANM, the PFLP combined militant nationalism and violence, explained and justified in Marxist rhetoric. For instance, it considered itself "a progressive vanguard organization of the Palestinian working class [dedicated] to liberating all of Palestine and establishing a democratic socialist Palestinian state." Essentially, like all Palestinian liberation groups, it was committed to the elimination of Israel, but only as part of a global communist revolution.

Habash, a particularly uncompromising individual, was, from the outset, in conflict with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement over various issues of principle but also power and representation in the PLO. He refused to join the PLO in 1968, a position he maintained until 1972, although following Jordan's "Black September" crackdown on Palestinian groups in 1970, the PFLP agreed to take part in the Palestinian National Council and some other PLO institutions.

Nor was it just Arafat that Habash fell out with. A power struggle between Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front element of the PFLP coalition, and Habash bubbled over in spring 1968. The two disagreed on the principle of state sponsorship, with Jibril believing that the Palestinian struggle could not succeed without outside sponsorship. Habash, fearing Syrian domination and for his own position against a Damascus-backed rival, disagreed, and the two rival factions went their separate ways. Jibril founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) with his followers in December 1968, leading it from Damascus. Habash returned to Lebanon, leading a diminished PFLP.

Nevertheless, Habash's faction quickly made a name for itself with a series of spectacular terrorist attacks. In July 1968, PFLP terrorists forced an El Al plane flying from Rome to Tel Aviv to land in Algeria. The flight had been targeted because the PFLP incorrectly believed the Israeli general, Ariel Sharon, to be on board. At Algiers, twenty-one passengers and eleven crew members were held hostage for thirty-nine days. This marked the first in a series of plane hijackings orchestrated by the organization (and the only time an El Al flight has been successfully hijacked).

Like the Abu Nidal Organization after it, the PFLP showed a remarkable ability to conduct terrorist attacks from a variety of locations. Gunmen opened fire on an El Al flight leaving Athens for New York in December 1968, killing one passenger. (In accordance with a policy of holding Arab governments responsible for fedayeen terrorism, Israel responded with a commando mission on Beirut Airport, which destroyed thirteen Lebanese passenger jets valued at $100 million and nearly plunged the region into war.) In a repeat attack at the Zurich airport, on February 18, 1969, PFLP opened fire on an El Al passenger jet taxiing for take off. In August that year, a PFLP cell, led by Leila Khaled (who would emerge as the PFLP's most glamorous and iconic member), hijacked a TWA flight from Los Angeles to Damascus and held two Israeli passengers hostage for forty-four days. In September, it simultaneously carried out grenade attacks on the Israeli embassies in The Hague, Bonn, and El Al's Brussels office.

Yet, the PFLP saved its most notorious attack for the following year. On September 6, 1970, the PFLP simultaneously hijacked three passenger jets: a TWA flight from Frankfurt; a Swissair flight traveling between Zurich and New York; and a Pan Am flight from Amsterdam. A fourth attempt to hijack an El Al flight led by Leila Khaled was thwarted, and the plane took an emergency landing at London. The TWA and Swissair flights were taken to Dawson's Field in Jordan; the Pan Am flight, which had been more spontaneous and carried out by two PFLP members denied passage on Khaled's flight, was taken to Cario via Beirut. There, it was blown up as a sign of the PFLP's disgust at Nasser for agreeing to Middle East peace negotiations.

Concerned that they might not have enough British nationals to trade for Khaled's release, four days later a PFLP team hijacked a London-bound BOAC flight shortly after its takeoff from Bahrain. The VC-10, carrying 105 passengers and a crew of ten, was ordered by two gunmen to land at Dawson's Field (renamed by the terrorists as "Revolution Airstrip") beside the two other hijacked aircraft.

Meanwhile, the PLFP, with worldwide attention focused on them and their cause, held regular press conferences at which they extolled their demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Europe and Israel, also giving publicity to the cause of Palestinian liberation. The hostage takers draped banners on the airliners' open doors and even painted the Popular Front's name in large Arabic letters across the fuselage of two of the crafts. They also provided ambulance rides for child hostages, helped older passengers climb down onto the tarmac for daily exercise, and brought in a doctor to attend to medical problems. Hostages would later joke of the congenial atmosphere that predominated, with one stewardess likening it to a "six day pajama party."

Concerns, however, that U.S. or Israeli commandos were preparing a raid on the hostage takers led them to evacuate the jets and blow them up, thus bringing an end to the dramatic hostage crisis.

King Hussein of Jordan, however, disliked the global attention the crisis had brought on his country, and, fearing an uprising from the 25,000 Palestinian fedayeen in his country, used it as a pretext to crackdown on militants. These events became known as "Black September," and forced the Palestinians out of Jordan at a cost of thousands of lives.

In turn, Black September was to have a unifying effect on the PLO, which would lessen the PFLP's violence. Moves towards membership of the PLO were instigated immediately after Black September, with full membership following in 1972. Throughout the 1970s, the PFLP would exist as the second largest group within the PLO, although it rejected Arafat's attempts to engineer a settlement with Israel, and in September 1976 left the PLO Executive in protest at such attempts.

Moves towards politicization were not, however, always without internal conflicts. Habash came to have little faith in the pursuit of terrorism and did not believe that it would further the Palestinian cause. Wadi Haddad, the mastermind behind the PFLP's litany of attacks, by contrast, was a staunch supporter in taking the armed struggle to the world.

At the Third Congress of the PFLP in March 1972, Habash persuaded the majority of delegates to reject "operations outside Palestine," but Haddad refused to accept the decision. In May 1972, he used PFLP allies from the Japanese Red Army (a left wing Japanese terror group) to stage what became known as the "Deir Yassin Operation." Posing as tourists, the Red Army operatives bypassed Israeli security officials at Lod Airport, before opening fire with automatic weapons: twenty-five Israelis were killed and seventy-eight wounded.

Haddad continued to utilize overseas contacts to engage in terror. On June 27, 1976, two Haddad operatives, along with two members of the West German Baader-Meinhof Gang posing as German tourists, hijacked an Air France jet in Athens and took it to Entebbe in Uganda, via Libya, where it held the passengers and crew hostage. Israeli commandos ended the crisis with a daring raid, which killed all the terrorists and liberated all but one of the hostages. The following October, another PFLP/Baader-Meinhof team hijacked a Lufthansa plane to Mogadishu, where West German paramilitaries eventually freed the aircraft.

The outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 saw the PFLP return to Syria, where the Syrian President Assad sought to curtail its extremism. From thereon, the militancy of the PLFP was severely limited, and it followed a Fatah pledge in 1988 not to engage in terrorism outside Gaza and the West Bank. The decline and fall of the USSR, on which it was reliant for financial, military, moral, and political support, also weakened the organization. Its opposition to the Oslo Accords in 1993 also precluded it from returning to the Occupied Territories and playing a part in the Palestinian Authority, until it accepted an invitation from the PA to join it in 1999.

George Habash's retirement in 2000 and the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada later on that year saw a shift in strategy. Israel accused the PFLP of carrying out several bomb attacks in Jerusalem, and in August 2001 assassinated Habash's successor Abu Ali Mustafa, a killing that prompted worldwide outrage. In reprisal, the PLFP killed Israel's hard-line Tourist Minister Ramavah Ze'evi two months later.

Under pressure from Israel, the Palestinian Authority subsequently arrested a number of PFLP leaders, including its new leader, Ahmed Sadaat. Nevertheless, the organization has continued to show glimpses of its deadly potential. For instance, in April 2002, Israeli officials claimed to have foiled an attempt to blow up a Tel Aviv skyscraper (this has also been linked to the PFLP-GC), and it has been linked to a number of subsequent suicide bombings in Israel.


The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is a Marxist-Leninist organization committed to the liberation of Palestine and creation of a new world order based on socialism. Its founder and long-term leader, George Habash, often compared the Palestinian struggle to that of the Cuban revolutionaries, and its central tenet is a commitment to socialism as opposed to nationalism (like Fatah) or religion (like Hamas). It is committed to the destruction of Israel as a way of creating a Palestinian homeland, and it opposed the PLO's efforts to reach a political settlement in the 1970s and 1980s, likewise the Oslo Accords of 1993.

In its early stages, Habash sought to model the PFLP on the Cuban revolutionaries, building up a small, highly educated and ideologically motivated organization. Given its physical limitations, it used international terrorism as a way of bringing world attention to the Palestinian problem, particularly through the use of aircraft hijackings. Casualties in these attacks and waged frequent press conferences to publicize their cause. In particular, Leila Khaled, became an iconic figure through such publicity.



The PFLP's Secretary-General, Ahmed Sadaat, currently languishes in a jail in the West Bank City of Jericho, having been the highest ranked Palestinian arrested by the Palestinian Authority, in January 2002. This followed Israeli pressure in the wake of the assassination of its tourism minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, three months earlier.

Originally trained as a mathematics teacher, Sadaat became a well-known militant, coming to prominence during the first Palestinian intifada. He was known as one of the PFLP's insiders, having chosen to stay in the occupied territories rather than take exile abroad, spending a total of ten years in Israeli jails on eight separate occasions.

When he was elected as General-Secretary of the PFLP in October 2001, following the assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa, Sadaat was seen as a more radical leader and more loyal to the "original" principles of George Habash. At his inaugural press conference, he demanded, "Our right of return, and our independence, with Jerusalem as the capital." He also vowed to avenge the assassination of Abu Ali.

His arrest in January 2002 polarized his supporters and the PLO, with PFLP members accusing the PLO of "Zionist capitulation."

From the late 1970s, the PFLP was hamstrung by its Syrian hosts and was thus limited in its extremist activities. Its return to Palestine in 1999 and the retirement of Habash a year later has seen attempts to switch the PFLP's focus to being a mainstream secular alternative to Fatah, although only with limited success. Terrorist activities since then have consisted of attacks on Israeli civilians, as well as accusations of suicide bombings and the assassination of a senior Israeli politician.


In the wake of the PFLP's quadruple hijacking in September 1970, Time magazine hinted at some of the global outrage caused by such audacity. "Skyjackers are the greatest threat to travel since bandits roamed the Old West, " it asserted. "With astonishing impunity, the pirates of the skies are able to take over the swift vehicles that represent the most advanced developments of modern technological civilization. Less and less often are the culprits misfits and former mental patients seeking psychic as well as physical escape. Increasingly, they are dedicated, vicious political fanatics, who have discovered that one of the most vulnerable points of the developed world is a jetliner at an altitude of 30,000 ft."

Time then went on to suggest that such acts did little to further the Palestinian cause. "If the world has become a global village … the Palestinians have become its most troubled ghetto minority," it stated. "Evicted from their ancient homeland by the influx of Jews after World War II, the Palestinians were driven into the squalid misery of refugee camps on the Jordanian desert. The Arab governments, which could have helped them, preferred to allow the refugees to remain in the camps as living symbols of the Israeli usurpation. The Israelis were unwilling to accept large numbers of Palestinians inside their own borders and thus risk becoming a minority within their own state. Gradually, the Palestinians honed their hostility. From the sons and daughters of the original refugees have sprung thousands of guerrilla fighters whose fury intimidates even the Arab governments."

In a 1974 essay on guerilla warfare, Walter Lacquer traced back two centuries of guerilla movements all the way through to the Palestinians. While hijackings and suchlike might provoke outrage and consternation, it kept the Palestinian cause alive. "Despite all their setbacks, the Palestinian terrorist organizations have succeeded in their main aim, which is to keep the Palestinian issue alive," he wrote. "Their failure to establish an effective resistance movement inside Israel was regarded by the Israelis as a decisive defeat, but with guerrilla warfare in the generally accepted meaning of the term impossible inside Israel, the Palestinians found by trial and error that there were other ways of carrying on the struggle, and that publicity was the decisive weapon in this particular fight. Hence the decision to hijack planes, the attacks against foreign ambassadors in Khartoum, the Munich massacre, and similar operations.


PLFP forms as an amalgamation of three paramilitary organizations: Palestine Liberation Front, Heroes of the Return, and Youth for Revenge. It splits with the PLF element that forms the PFLP-GC.
PLFP hijack an El Al fight between Rome and Tel Aviv, forcing it to land in Algiers.
Swissair flight 330 is blown up, killing forty-seven on board.
PFLP simultaneously hijacks four planes (one unsuccessfully) and later captures a fifth; the crisis prompts Black September.
Habash renounces violence; although Wadi Haddad vows to continue armed struggle.
Joint PFLP/Baader-Meinhof hijacking of Air France jet.
PFLP reject Oslo Accords.
PFLP accept invitation to join Palestinian Authority.
Habash steps down as PFLP leader.
Israeli special forces assassinate Habash's successor Abu Ali Mustafa.
PFLP murders Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
Arrest of PFLP leader Ahmed Sadaat.

"These actions were widely condemned, but what was infinitely more important, they were given a great deal of publicity. The Israelis, it was said, had driven the Arab refugees to these acts of despair, and there would be no peace in the Middle East unless justice were done to the Palestinian cause. It remains doubtful whether this strategy would have succeeded but for the growing dependence of the industrialized countries on Arab oil, but there was an auspicious international constellation and the Palestinians made the most of it. Confidence has risen dramatically in recent months. The Zionist state, as the Palestinian terrorists see it, is in a condition of advanced decay; a few more determined pushes and it will collapse altogether. 'We believed the struggle would last a hundred years, now we think it will last only ten,' one of the Palestinian leaders in Beirut was quoted as saying the other day."


Following the retirement of a charismatic leader, PFLP has struggled to carve a niche in the post-Oslo political era, created by a peace deal that it steadfastly rejected. Attacks linked to it in the al-Aqsa intifada at best seem to be exaggerated attempts to grab some of the limelight, and it looks as if the PFLP's heyday passed with its last skyjacking nearly three decades ago.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)


Formerly a part of the PLO, the Marxist-Leninist PFLP was founded by George Habash when it broke away from the Arab Nationalist Movement in 1967. The PFLP does not view the Palestinian struggle as religious, seeing it instead as a broader revolution against Western imperialism. The group earned a reputation for spectacular international attacks, including airline hijackings, that have killed at least twenty US citizens.


The PFLP committed numerous international terrorist attacks during the 1970s. Since 1978, the group has conducted attacks against Israeli or moderate Arab targets, including killing a settler and her son in December 1996. The PFLP has stepped up its operational activity since the start of the current intifadah, highlighted by at least two suicide bombings since 2003, multiple joint operations with other Palestinian terrorist groups, and assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minster in 2001 to avenge Israel's killing of the PFLP Secretary General earlier that year.




Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.


Receives safe haven and some logistical assistance from Syria.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.



Khaled, Leila. My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.

Savigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993. England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Web sites

Red Pepper Magazine. "Interview with Leila Khaled." 〈http://www.redpepper.org.uk/intarch/x-khaled.html〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

Time Magazine. "Habash: 'Israel Will Fall.'" 〈http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,945844,00.html〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).


Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC)

Abu Nidal Organization

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

views updated May 21 2018


Palestinian movement (al-Jabha al-Shaʿbiya li-Tahrir Filastin, in Arabic) created in December 1967, in the wake of the Arab defeat in the Arab-Israel War (1967), by Dr. George Habash (b. 1925), Nayif Hawatma, and Ahmad Jibril. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was formed from the merger of Habash's Nasserist Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) and Jibril's Palestine Liberation Front (PLF, 1965), and was more radical

than either. It also attracted the dissidents of the groups Heroes of the Return of Fayiz Jabir and Revenge of Youth. Like the ANM advocating pan-Arabism, the PFLP opposed any negotiated solution with Israel. It espoused a strategy of mobilizing workers and peasants in a revolutionary grass-roots war of liberation. The second largest Palestinian movement after Yasir Arafat's al-Fatah, the PFLP established its headquarters in Damascus and affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In March 1968, Habash was jailed in Damascus, and returned to Jordan in early 1969. During his absence, Jibril quit the movement to create his own organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP–GC). In February 1969, a second break, initiated by Nayif Hawatima, gave rise to the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), which later became the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). The PFLP engaged in hundreds of armed actions, mainly in the Gaza Strip, and became widely known for airplane hijackings.

On 30 August 1969, a Front commando led by Leila Khaled hijacked a TWA airliner en route from Rome to Tel Aviv via Athens. The commandos forced the plane to land near Damascus. In exchange for the passengers they obtained the release of thirteen Palestinians jailed in Israel; they also exploded a bomb in the cockpit of the aircraft. Khalid became a heroine of the Palestinian resistance. The PFLP moved from Syria to Jordan and played a critical role creating confrontations against the government of King Hussein. At the beginning of August 1970, coming out against the position of al-Fatah, Habash advocated the establishment of a "national democratic government" in Jordan. The PFLP multiplied provocations, meant to push the Jordanian forces toward confrontation. On 6–9 September 1970, PFLP commandos hijacked three Western airliners to a remote airstrip in the Jordanian desert, destroying them after the passengers were evacuated. On 16 September the king formed a military government and the next day launched an attack against Palestinian refugee camps, beginning a campaign of violent repression of Palestinian organizations. This was the beginning of Black September 1970. On 27 September, after ten days of fighting that caused nearly 4,000 Palestinian deaths, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, at the behest of the Arab League, arranged a cease-fire. When fighting broke out again the following summer, the PLO was expelled from the country, from which it moved to Lebanon. The following year the PFLP mounted joint operations with the Japanese Red Army (JRA).

In 1972 the PFLP renounced operations outside Palestine. It also adopted a Marxist orientation and a more comprehensive social program. In 1974 when the PLO adopted the idea of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the PFLP quit the PLO's executive committee and became the major force behind the creation of the Rejection Front. During the early period of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–1990, the PFLP joined with al-Fatah against the Syrians, who at that point were supporting the Lebanese government. After Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat launched his peace offensive toward Israel, breaking the Arab consensus, Syria and the PLO were reconciled. The PFLP rejoined the PLO executive committee in 1981. When the PLO was expelled from Lebanon in 1982, the PFLP moved to Damascus. In June 1983 the PFLP and the DFLP announced the creation of a common military and political command to coordinate the actions of the Palestinian resistance. In 1984, in order to counter the policies of Yasir Arafat, which were tending toward dialogue with Israel, the movement joined with the DFLP and the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF, 1977), in constituting the "Democratic Alliance," which lasted only around fifteen months because of personality conflicts.

In 1987, after the abrogation of the Jordanian-Palestinian Accord, the PFLP, along with the DFLP and the Palestine Communist Party (PCP), rejoined the Executive Committee of the PLO. In February 1993, there was radicalization of the movement at the PFLP congress; and following the signature of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords of 1993, the PFLP and the DFLP resigned once more from the Executive Committee of the PLO, joining with the Palestinian opposition front, the Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF). In August 1994, in an effort to consolidate its common position against the Oslo Accords, the PFLP and the DFLP again announced the constitution of a common military command. In December 1994, the PFLP was the impetus behind the creation, at Amman, of a movement meant to unite opponents of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Assembly, under the leadership of Bassam al-Shaqʾa. This entity, whose activities were very sparse, lasted only a few weeks. On 1 July 1996, the leadership of the PFLP announced it was withdrawing from the Central Council of the PLO.

Between 1996 and 1998, the PFLP strove to unify a new movement of credible opposition, principally with its main ally, the DFLP. During this time, the armed branch of the PFLP carried out some anti-Israel attacks, of which several were coordinated with the PFLP–GC. At the beginning of 1999, two currents surfaced in the PFLP: one led by Mustafa Zibri (Abu Ali Mustafa) and Abdul Rahim Malluh, which favored a rapprochement with the Palestinian Authority; the other, opposed to this rapprochement, was led by George Habash. The following June, the political bureau of the PFLP threw its support behind the project of unifying the Palestinian forces of the left, for the purpose of defending Palestinian interests, in negotiations on a final status for the Palestinian territories. In August, leaders of the PFLP, the DFLP, and al-Fatah met in Cairo to discuss reconciliation between the partisans and opponents of the Oslo Accords. In mid-February 2000, the political bureau of the PFLP rejoined the Executive Committee of the PLO. In April, Habash resigned as head of the movement, replaced three months later by al-Zabri, who had been residing in the Palestinian territories since the previous September. In November, while the al-Aqsa Intifada was raging in the Palestinian territories, the PFLP decided to become more involved in armed action against the Israelis. On 27 August 2001, al-Zabri was killed in his office in Ramallah by Israeli missiles in a "targeted killing," or assassination. On 3 October, Ahmad Saʿadat was chosen to head the PFLP, seconded by Abdul Rahim Malluh. Fourteen days later, in order to avenge the death of al-Zabri, a PFLP member assassinated Rehavam Zeʾevi, Israeli minister of tourism. In 2004, Habash, who is in poor health, lives in Damascus.

SEE ALSO Alliance of Palestinian Forces;Aqsa Intifada, al-;Arab Nationalist Movement;Black September 1970;Fatah, al-;Habash, George;Hawatma, Nayif;Japanese Red Army;Jibril, Ahmad;Oslo Accords;Palestine Liberation Front (1965);Palestine Liberation Front (1977);Palestine Liberation Organization;Palestinian Authority;Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command;Rejection Front;West Bank.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

views updated May 21 2018


Radical, left-wing Palestinian guerrilla organization.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (also known as the PFLP, al-Jabha al-Shaʿbiyya li-Tahrir Filastin, al-Jabha al-Shaʿbiyya, and the Red Eagles) is a Marxist-oriented group established by George Habash, a Christian Palestinian, after the June 1967 ArabIsrael War. Habash created the PFLP after successfully uniting three groups: Heroes of the Return, the National Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Independent Palestine Liberation Front. In 1968 the group joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and was second in importance and influence among the Arab Palestinians only to Arafat's al-Fatah movement.

The group's ideology is based on three principles: Palestinian national sovereignty (wataniyya), Arab unity (qawmiyya), and Marxist-Leninist ideology. The PFLP has sought to unite Palestinian efforts within a secular governing framework, and it has modeled some of its operative activities and strategies on Cuban leader Fidel Castro's revolutionary guerrilla methods. Central to the group's understanding of wataniyya is a strict opposition to the State of Israel, an interest in restoring Arab unity in the region, and criticism of pro-Western Arab states.

In 1970 internal conflict split the PFLP into three separate groups: the PFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of PalestineGeneral Command (PFLP-GC). Habash remained at the head of the PFLP and forged ties with other leftist groups outside Palestine such as the German Baader-Meinhoff group, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Japanese Red Army. The PFLP began operating in Europe and elsewhere, claiming responsibility for such events as an attack at Lod Airport in 1972 and the hijacking of an Air France airbus to Entebbe in 1976. In the Arab world, they are associated with hijacking and the destruction of four international airplanes in Jordan in 1970. These acts of terrorism led to their being banned in Jordan, where they had originally been based. When Jordan's King Hussein expelled the organization, they relocated in Lebanon.

Although it is a member of the larger umbrella group of the PLO, the PFLP has often opposed al-Fatah's policies, forming splinter groups in opposition to Arafat's concessions in the Middle East peace process. During the first Intifada in 1987, key PFLP members formed a group called the Red Eagles that carried out attacks on Israel in the West Bank, and later formed a coalition with other opposition groups such as the DFLP and the Damascus Ten. In 1993 the group finally separated from the PLO after it signed the Declaration of Principles. At that time, the PFLP elected a new executive body: George Habash, Abu Ali Mustafa (Mustafa Zibri), Abd al-Rahim Lalluh, Abu Ahmad Fuʾad, Sabir Muhi al-Din, Taysir Kubʿa, and Umar Kutaysh.

With the decline of Soviet support after the dis-integration of the former U.S.S.R., the PFLP became marginal in comparison to emerging Islamist groups such as HAMAS and Islamic Jihad. Although the group disagreed with the provisions set out in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord, it renewed its ties with Arafat's al-Fatah group in 1999. This renewal of ties with the PLO signaled a shift in the PFLP's Marxist doctrine, which has become increasingly focused on socialist democracy. Whereas formerly the PFLP did not recognize Israel as a state, it now accepts the possibility of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital alongside a temporary Israeli state that eventually reverts to an "historic Palestine" after the right of return sees Palestinian refugees repatriated.

Habash retired in 2000 and was succeeded by Abu Ali Mustafa. Mustafa had been a founding member of the PLO and a member of its Executive Committee. After taking over in 2000, he moved PFLP headquarters from Syria to Ramallah in the West Bank and began organizing attacks on Israeli targets there. After learning that Mustafa and the PFLP intended to carry out attacks on Israeli schools and other civilian areas, Israeli authorities bombed his office, killing him and several others. Ahmad Saʿadat then became head of the PFLP; he was associated with the assassination of Rehavam Zeʾevi, Israel's tourism minister, and in April 2002 was sentenced to one year in prison for taking part in the assassination. Although the courts later ruled in favor of his release, continued PFLP attacks have prevented this.

The PFLP's funding comes from a variety of sources. Financial and military support are said to come from Syria and Libya, and in 1999, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami promised to continue Iran's support of not only the PFLP, but also the PFLP-GC, Islamic Jihad, and HAMAS. In addition to outside support, the PFLP has financed its activities from front companies as well as legitimate business activities.

During the al-Aqsa Intifada, the PFLP claimed responsibility for a number of violent incidents within Israel's pre-1967 border areas. Habash maintained his opposition to Arafat's signed accords with Israel. Saʿadat also stood in strong opposition to the Oslo Accords, although the general language of the PFLP has shifted from Marxist-Leninist revolutionary appeals to a focus on democracy and social justice.

see also fatah, al-; habash, george; palestine liberation organization (plo); popular front for the liberation of palestinegeneral command.


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mouin rabbani
updated by maria f. curtis

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

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Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

At one time affiliated with the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1967 by George Habash. The PFLP joined the Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF) to oppose the Declaration of Principles signed in 1993 and suspended participation in the PLO. The PFLP broke away from the APF, along with the DFLP, in 1996 over ideological differences. PFLP officers took part in meetings with Arafat's Fatah party and PLO representatives in 1999 to discuss national unity and the reinvigoration of the PLO but the PFLP continues to oppose current negotiations with Israel.

PFLP committed numerous international terrorist attacks during the 1970s. Since 1978, PFLP has conducted attacks against Israeli or moderate Arab targets, including killing a settler and her son in December 1996. The PFLP increased operational activity in 2001, highlighted by the shooting death of the Israeli tourism minister in alleged retaliation for Israel's killing of a PFLP leader.

The PFLP is estimated to have approximately 800 members, and has operated in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. They receive safe haven and logistical assistance from Syria.



Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook, 2002. <http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/> (April 16, 2003).

Taylor, Francis X. U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001. Annual Report: On the Record Briefing. May 21, 2002. <http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/rm/10367.htm> (April 17, 2003).

U.S. Department of State. Annual reports. <http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/annual_reports.html> (April 16, 2003).


Terrorism, Philosophical and Ideological Origins
Terrorist and Para-State Organizations
Terrorist Organization List, United States
Terrorist Organizations, Freezing of Assets

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Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

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