The PFLP: an incoming tide?

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Much has changed since an 18-year-old Ali Jeddah planted a bomb on Strauss Street in West Jerusalem, injuring nine Israelis. That was in 1968, just one year after Israel won the June 1967 War and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and several months after the establishment of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ali was one of its newest and most loyal followers – a role for which he would pay a heavy price.

Ali was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his actions. He was released 17 years later in the prisoner exchange of 1985 between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command under Ahmad Jibril, who was holding three Israeli soldiers hostage.

From its beginnings, the PFLP had high ambitions. Adopting a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, it praised the working class, socialism, class struggle and above all, armed struggle against the Zionist enemy. Like all Palestinian factions at the time, including the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mainstream Fateh movement, it called for the liberation of all of historical Palestine é “from the river to the sea” – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

In 1968, the PFLP carried out its first major operation. Commandos from the Front hijacked an Israeli El Al 707 aircraft en route from Rome to Tel Aviv, forcing it to land in Algiers. The passengers were taken hostage and the hijackers called in their ransom. The PFLP demanded that 16 Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails be released in exchange for the hostages’ freedom. Only a month later did Israel acquiesce, marking a sweeping victory for the Front and a humiliating defeat for Israel.

Since then, the Popular Front has been a bothersome thorn in Israel’s side. Based out of Damascus and under the command of the distinguished white-haired physician George Habash, better-known as “Al Hakeem,” the PFLP kept its hard-line philosophy of liberation, maintaining a large enough stronghold inside the occupied Palestinian territories and the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Following the November, 1988 declaration of Palestinian statehood in Algiers on only 22 percent of historic Palestine é i.e. the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem é the PFLP, along with other marginal leftist factions and Islamic movements, rose to the forefront of the Palestinian opposition. Up until the early 90s, just prior to the Oslo Accords, the leftist faction second only in the Palestine Liberation Organization to Yasser Arafat’s Fateh was able to maintain a respectable seven to eight percent of student council votes in most West Bank universities, the microcosm of Palestinian political representation.

In one exceptional year é 1993 é the PFLP coupled with the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in the Birzeit University student council elections. The victory was a tremendous blow to Fateh, which traditionally wins the presidency and most of the 51 seats. But the fact that the PFLP had to team up with a movement nearly antithetical to its ideological beliefs was a sign of waning confidence.

“Until 1989, the PFLP was still active,” explains Jeddah, in reference to the front’s armed struggle against Israel. “But after 1989, it began to drop – especially since the Oslo Accords.”

The 1994 Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO marked a drastic turning point in the history of the Palestinian liberation movement. Not only had the leadership recognized Israel’s right to exist, it had now signed an ambiguous agreement that might – at best – promise the Palestinians a state.

“I think one of the most serious and negative results of the Oslo Accords was that there was a re-collapse of the entire national liberation movement,” says Jeddah.

No doubt, the Popular Front was deeply affected. Jeddah says the entire front was “struck by a thunder bolt” when the accords were signed. Even George Habash would reportedly sit with his closest confidantes back in Damascus expressing his shock over Arafat’s actions. “Imagine that if such a leader é with such a rich history and experience é had been hit so hard, what do you think was the case for the average person?” Jeddah asks.

Professor of political science at Birzeit University Ali Jarbawi attributes the Front’s decline in popularity and in action to other internal and external factors.

“All the Palestinian leftist movements lost rank following the collapse of the Soviet Union and later, after the negotiations process began,” he says. These two factors, he contends, combined with the Front’s ideology calling for the liberation of all of Palestine were what led to the sharp decrease in its support, especially inside the occupied Palestinian territories.

“The demands of the people inside were [for the] minimum,” he explains, referring to the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. “They wanted an end to the occupation, a state, and they were ready to concede to Israel.”

He says it is this contrast between these people “who had a lot to lose” and the leadership of the Front outside of Palestine “who had nothing to lose and were therefore more radical” that caused a growing distance between the two. “People just didn’t buy it anymore,” Jarbawi says of the PFLP’s ideology.

Jeddah maintains that the problem lies more with the leadership inside – i.e. the Palestinian Authority – and the people with whom they have fallen out of trust. He says this overall mistrust is what is damaging the strength of the revolution as a whole.

“I go to the Balou area in Al Bireh [City Inn junction] often. The leaders go [and] each one sends his men to call one of the television crews to make declarations and then they leave those youngsters to be shot.”

But the real turning point in the PFLP’s history was the return of its then deputy secretary-general Mustapha Al Zibri, or Abu Ali Mustapha in 1999. One year later he was elected secretary general when the ailing Habash resigned.

Mustapha was well-known throughout the Palestinian territories and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria as Habash’s second-hand man and a PFLP loyalist. As such, his return to the autonomous Palestinian territories at the request of President Arafat was seen by many as a shocking comedown.

Jeddah is wary of making harsh statements about the move, especially in light of Israel’s recent assassination of the leftist leader. But it is clear that he, like many other PFLP members, were far from pleased.

“I had my own criticisms,” he says carefully, dragging heavily on his cigarette. “Even to the last day of the mourning period I would say that my only criticism is that Abu Ali Mustapha came back because he came back under the umbrella of the Oslo Accords.”

Jeddah, however, does not believe that the return é which was certainly coordinated with the PFLP’s Damascus leadership é caused a major split in the movement. “I know as a fact, that although a lot of young comrades did not like the way that Abu Ali Mustapha came back, they stayed and went on to become members of the PFLP.”

So, why then did Israel choose to assassinate him? Other than participation in popular demonstrations and a series of car bombs in the past few months in which no Israelis were killed or injured, the PFLP and its leader have kept a relatively low profile.

Both Jeddah and Jarbawi have similar views as to why Israel decided to hit the Front where it would hurt the most. “The Israelis are not stupid,” says Jeddah. “They realized that the PFLP was like a pyramid that was on the edge of collapsing.” Mustapha was, to them and most likely also to the Front, the man who came to save this pyramid from falling.

“After he became the secretary-general,” says Jarbawi, “it seems he began to organize the PFLP from inside and move it more towards the radical wing of the Front.”

The activist and the political analyst are in agreementé as is most of the Palestinian street é that Mustapha’s assassination was a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Palestinian leadership. “They wanted to send a political message, especially to [President] Arafat that the level of the confrontation has been raised to the leadership level and that no one is immune,” says Jarbawi.

No doubt the message was received. The PFLP leader was struck by two laser-guided missiles launched from Apache helicopters as they hovered over the Ramallah skies. His body é decapitated é was shrouded in the Palestinian flag and an estimated 50,000 Palestinians marched in his funeral calling for a continuation of the Intifada and revenge for the death of their leader.

The question remains as to whether the Front – already struggling to keep its head above water – will be able to pick itself up after this staggering blow.

Jarbawi says the most important urgent factor is whether the PFLP can maintain its cohesion and prevent an internal split. If so, he says that the Front has a lot to work with.

“There is a lot of sympathy with the PFLP right now,” he says. “If they take advantage of this, they can benefit tremendously.” He also says that if the Front chooses to resume its operations outside of Palestine – reminiscent of activities in the 1960s and 70s, they will find a wide popular platform in the territories that support them.

Still, he cautions, the Popular Front should never expect to regain its past glory. “Like I said, the entire Palestinian left was delivered a blow and the Front did not allow for internal reform in terms of its ideology.”

Palestinians may yet get a taste of what the Popular Front might have offered if only the winds of change had blown in its direction.

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