Habash, Prominent PLO Figure, Dies at 81 George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died this weekend. His radical PLO faction gained notoriety after the simultaneous hijackings of four Western airliners in 1970 and the seizure of an Air France flight to Uganda.
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Habash, Prominent PLO Figure, Dies at 81

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Habash, Prominent PLO Figure, Dies at 81

Habash, Prominent PLO Figure, Dies at 81

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George Habash died this weekend. Habash was the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was the mastermind of a campaign of airline hijackings and other terrorist attacks in the 1960s and '70s.

One scholar who followed his career is Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

Thank you for joining me, Professor Khalidi.

Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Director, Middle East Institute, Columbia University): You're most welcome.

SEABROOK: What made George Habash so important?

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, he was the founder - before he founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he was the co-founder of a group called the Arab Nationalist Movement or the Movement of Arab Nationalists, which was one of the first Palestinian groups to arise after the defeat of 1948. So it played an enormously important role in the resurrection of Palestinian nationalism.

The second reason was that he was quite charismatic. He won people over with the persuasiveness of his rhetoric rather than by tubthumping. I guess the last reason he was important is that he was associated with people like Wadih Haddad, who was the actual mastermind of the hijackings that brought notoriety to the PFLP and the Palestinians.

SEABROOK: He was a Marxist.

Prof. KHALIDI: He was, indeed, later on in his career. When he started out, he was a nationalist.

SEABROOK: What was his relationship later with Yasser Arafat and others in the Palestinian movement? It wasn't a comfy one.

Prof. KHALIDI: No, it was quite contentious. They were rivals. And in the early years, really, I would argue that Habash, with the support of the Egyptian government, was probably more popular in many ways than Arafat and Fatah, and it was only in the late '60s that Fatah became ascendant in Palestinian politics.

SEABROOK: George Habash died in Amman, Jordan this weekend, but didn't Jordan expel Habash's Palestinian guerrillas back in 1970 after...

Prof. KHALIDI: '71.


Prof. KHALIDI: Absolutely, yes, after Black September. In September 1970, there was a terrible battle between the Jordanian army and the Palestinians dug in in the refugee camps with very heavy casualties among the refugees. In the following spring, the Jordanian army closed in and expelled the PLO and all of the factions of the PLO, including Habash's. He was allowed to return much later. He had left leadership of the PFLP in 2000. He was old and infirm, much respected in his old age, and the Jordanian government considered him harmless.

SEABROOK: I just want to tick through a few of the things that at least partial responsibility...

Prof. KHALIDI: Mm-hmm.

SEABROOK: ...lay with George Habash - the 1968 hijacking of an El Al airplane.

Prof. KHALIDI: The first major Palestinian hijacking was carried out by the PFLP.

SEABROOK: A 1969 bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket. And 1970, you spoke of hijacking three Western jets to an airstrip outside Amman...

Prof. KHALIDI: Yup.

SEABROOK: ...holding hostages...

Prof. KHALIDI: That was an action, if I can interrupt, that was an action that was much criticized by other Palestinians because it provoked the Jordanian army into its crackdown in Black September.

SEABROOK: 1972 machine gun attack by Japanese Red Army on Tel Aviv airport, 1976 hijack of Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda. That may be the one most people remember.

Prof. KHALIDI: Mm-hmm. There are many others, actually. Those were the most prominent, I think. In all of these, there was deep division especially after Black September. There was enormous criticism, mainly from other groups but also from within the PFLP, of what was seen as the adventurism and the irresponsibility of Habash and his closest comrade Wadie Haddad, who was really the operational mastermind of these attacks. And later on, the PFLP split in 1972 over just these opportunistic operations, which Habash had criticized eventually. He came around to agreeing with his critics within the PFLP but secretly he and Haddad continued them until, as you say, Entebbe in '76.

There's one other thing that I think should be said about Habash, which is that he was a fierce secularist. It's interesting to go back and look at the degree to which he and his comrades in the PFLP argued for the separation of religion and politics and the degree to which in effect, I think, it has to be argued, sort of Cold War imperatives led these secular Marxist leftist radical groups to be seen as enemies by people like Israeli intelligence and American intelligence services who in the case of the Israelis cultivated their Islamic rivals, giving us later on groups like Hamas.

SEABROOK: Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. He's also the author of "The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood."

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Prof. KHALIDI: A pleasure.

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