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Obituaries / George Habash, 1925 - 2008

Arab nationalist planned hijackings

January 27, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

George Habash, the founder of Arab nationalism and architect of the infamous airline hijackings of the 1960s and '70s that brought the search for a Palestinian homeland terrifyingly close to home for millions around the world, died Saturday in Amman, Jordan.

Bedridden for years and partially paralyzed after two strokes, Habash died of a heart attack in an Amman hospital five days after surgery to implant a stent, his surgeon, Harran Zreiqat, told the Associated Press. He was believed to be 82, but the precise date of his birth could not be confirmed.

His death came at a time of bitter divisions in the Palestinian movement between revolutionaries convinced, as he was, that violence is the only effective way to achieve a Palestinian state, and moderates who favor the diplomatic route.

With a wave of airline hijackings and the headline-grabbing seizure of a French airliner at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) inspired an image of ruthlessness in a Western psyche unattuned to the violent politics of the Middle East.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Habash obituary: The obituary of George Habash, the founder of Arab nationalism, in Sunday's California section referred to Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock as Islam's holiest shrine. In fact, Islam's holiest site is considered to be the Kaaba, which is near the center of the great mosque in Mecca.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supported them, Habash and his radical contemporaries found themselves increasingly marginalized, hidden away in secret offices in Syria while the Palestine Liberation Organization's mainstream moved toward accommodation with Israel and the West.

Habash nonetheless remained an idol to the movement's leftist intellectuals and disenfranchised thousands who inhabit Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

A Marxist physician who dreamed that a united Arab nation could force Israel to give back Palestine, Habash played the revolutionary to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's role of politician, frequently ridiculing Arafat's checkered headdress and military uniform.

His quarreling with Arafat, who died in 2004, defined the Palestinian movement's choices for decades, just as the split between Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's diplomacy-minded successor, and the militant Islamic group Hamas does today.

Accusing Arafat of selling out the Palestinian cause to the United States and Israel, Habash resisted all attempts to arrive at a negotiated resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that did not involve the return of Palestinians to their historic homelands in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa.

For millions of young Arabs, Habash represented the voice that said no to Western intervention in the Middle East and to the Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, that had allowed U.S. interests to dominate the region. He saw the Palestinian cause as part of a global struggle, and defended international terrorism as a way of drawing attention to it.

The son of a Greek Orthodox wheat merchant, Habash reportedly believed that he was prevented from assuming control of the PLO because he was not a Muslim. He was born in 1925 in the village of Lydda, now Lod, the site of Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

The village fell to Israeli control after a fierce bombardment in 1948, and Habash fled to Lebanon after being seized and beaten by Israeli soldiers.

He studied medicine at the American University of Beirut, founding a series of radical student organizations that called for unifying the Arabs' military might to annihilate Israel.

After Israeli forces crushed an Arab assault and moved into the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War, Habash formed the PFLP to continue operations against Israelis. It became the second-largest faction within the PLO, after Arafat's Fatah organization.

In one of its first operations, an Israeli El Al airliner was hijacked to Algiers in July 1968, forcing the Israelis to free 16 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of the plane and its passengers.

Two years later, PFLP guerrillas hijacked four airliners in September 1970, blowing up an American Boeing 747 at Cairo International Airport and holding about 500 passengers from the other three aircraft hostage in Jordan.

"When we hijack a plane, it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle," Habash once said. "For decades, world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world's talking about us now."

The hijackings prompted Jordan's King Hussein to expel the Palestinians. Habash publicly renounced hijackings in the early 1970s.

But the terror did not stop. In May 1972, the PFLP used Japanese Red Army guerrillas to conduct a machine-gun attack on the Tel Aviv airport's terminal building, resulting in the deaths of 27 civilians. Two years later, PFLP operatives threw hand grenades into a Tel Aviv theater, killing three and injuring 54.

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