9 February 2008

What happened to the revolutionaries?

By Juliette Harkin

Obituaries have been reflecting on the life of the Palestinian revolutionary George Habash, who died in exile in Amman last weekend. David Hirst, writing in the Guardian, described how he had become "the conscience of the Palestine revolution".

His achievements over a 60 year period were celebrated in the Arab media and in Palestine three days of mourning were observed. Habash wanted a just solution for the Palestinians and felt, rightly or wrongly, that an armed struggle was the only "means to regain our usurped rights".

Palestinian academic and Oxford University Fellow, Karma Nabulsi writing for the Guardian, described him as someone who had "engaged in a non-stop struggle for Arab unity, human progress, women’s liberation and equality".

In 1948, Habash witnessed the forced expulsion of the inhabitants of his hometown as thousands fled in terror during the Arab-Israeli war. He believed that only Arab Unity would serve the Palestinian cause and he established the Arab Nationalist Movement. When it seemed that only armed struggle would deliver justice for the Palestinians he founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967.

Yet, to many of us in the 'West' he was a man of terror responsible for the infamous plane hijackings of the 1970's. Karma Nabulsi explains that Habash expelled the man responsible for the international plane hijacks from the PFLP.

How can there be two such oppositional views? George Habash was not a terrorist. He was struggling to make the voice of the Palestinians heard. Just as Palestinians struggle today to ensure that the world does not forget the occupation.

The advent of mass media played its role. Television brings us immediate and emotive images of distraught hostages or bomb victims. There were no images to bear witness to the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine. Now, it seems, we have been conditioned to think of the Palestinian or Arab in a negative light.

There is a reluctance to consider that there is actually, still, an immense injustice that has been and is being committed on a scale of the Apartheid disgrace in South Africa and Britain’s darkest days as a colonial ruler.

The history of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is of course inextricably linked. They have even used the same radical means, or terror, to achieve political ends.

Respected Israeli historian Professor Noah Lucas documents details of the Zionist forces operating in Palestine. In 1946 the King David hotel in Jerusalem was bombed in an attempt to drive out the British military. Nearly 100 were killed. The Irgun were ostracised as an anomaly, acting out of step with the commanders of the Jewish forces, but they surely succeeded, with other Jewish forces, in helping to drive out the British army and then the Palestinians. Irgun leader, Menahem Begin, who was responsible for the bombing, and many others, went on to become a prime minister in Israel.

Begin was from Poland. George Habash, was from the Arab town of Lydda in what is now Israel, but he did not live to lead his people in their native homeland, despite his own life-long commitment to armed resistance and his dissent against a foreign occupation.

As the new Israeli state attempted to deny the existence of the Palestinian people, the PFLP wanted to ensure that the cause of the Palestinian people did not fall off the international agenda.

In an interview in 1998 for the Journal of Palestinian Studies Habash was asked what he thought of terrorism and the plane hijacks that were carried out by elements within the PFLP branches, a generation earlier. He responded with a question: "Why am I here (in exile) instead of in Lydda? Because I was expelled through terrorism".

Revolutionaries fight in unequal wars, when the weight of an occupation or colonial power crushes the basic rights of native inhabitants and leaves them without a voice, suppresses their history and takes their land. We don't seem to have revolutionaries any more and we do not differentiate between the freedom fighters and those bent on killing for the sake of it.

George Habash was opposed to the Oslo peace accords because he knew, and he was right, that they would not result in a just peace for the Palestinians. The PFLP, along with other Palestinian parties, rejected Oslo. The decades of the so-called peace process that followed have brought nothing but injustice for the inhabitants of what was historic Palestine and is now home to an apartheid state.