In the early 1970s, three Palestinian intellectuals – Ghassan Kanafani, Majed Abu Sharar and Kamal Nasser – collaborated to form the Palestine Liberation Organization’s information office.
Within a decade, Israeli terrorists managed to kill all three – Kanafani in 1972, Nasser in 1973 and Abu Sharar in 1981.
The Zionist movement has never bothered to distinguish in its killing campaigns between civilians and military targets: in fact, on many occasions the Israeli government (or even the Zionist movement before the establishment of the occupation state) targeted civilians on purpose to create terror among the population. Presumably, Israel wanted to kill Kanafani and silence his voice. Yet the plan did not work as intended.
Forty-five years this month since his assassination, Kanafani’s presence is ubiquitous.
On Arab social media, even among the young generation who are not accustomed to reading books, one notices him everywhere. His image is made the profile picture of countless Arabs, and quotations from his articles fill the social media space. His drawings, posters and designs are quite common these days. They stand as symbols for revolution and Palestine and more.
The publication of his love letters to Syrian writer Ghada Samman (who conveniently never published any of her letters to Kanafani) in 1992 produced a new image of Kanafani. The love letters are quoted widely by Arab women on social media, and his romantic yearnings for Samman are now the stuff of love legends, in the same league of Romeo and Juliet – or Qays and Layla among the Arabs.
I never knew Ghassan Kanafani: he was murdered when I was only 12. Yet I heard about him from an early age; I don’t remember when I did not recognize his name. My uncle, Naji AbuKhalil, worked with Kanafani at Huriyyah, the mouthpiece of the Arab Nationalist Movement. The magazine was the headquarters of avant-garde intellectuals who spoke of arts, literature and politics. Those were the people who introduced Arab readers to French leftist writers and who spoke of the Palestinian cause in peculiarly Marxist language – a language which was sharply demarcated from the stale and archaic language of orthodox Arab Marxists who never recovered from their subservient approval of Soviet support for the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine.
Concerned with liberation of Palestine
I remember how fondly my uncle would talk about Kanafani, and how much his one-sided love story with Samman bothered his friends. Kanafani was very popular among men and women, and yet he was fixated on Samman. His friends would urge him to end his fixation to no avail: Samman occupied Kanafani’s heart but not his mind, which was filled with concerns with the larger project of the liberation of Palestine. Kanafani was also seen as vulnerable: he suffered from diabetes and would have to inject himself daily with insulin. Sometimes he would faint, and had to be fed sweets.
Kanafani was known among the café society of Lebanon and had a sense of humor. He and my uncle once conspired to mock the new “free verse movement,” which was championed by right-wing Lebanese who were associated with Shi’r (Poetry) magazine. Once, Kanafani and my uncle (among others, if I remember correctly) sat together and patched various disconnected sentences and sent it to a publication. Sure enough, the poem was published with high praise for the new talent of a person (using a fictitious name of the conspirators).
But Kanafani was also known to us and others as a prolific Lebanese columnist and journalist. He was essential in the life of major publications at the time. He edited the Filastin (Palestine) supplement to the highly popular al-Muharrir newspaper (al-Muharrir was an Arab nationalist newspaper which represented the counter-current to the right-wing An-Nahar, which expressed the views of US and Gulf policies). Al-Muharrir was essential in disabusing many young Lebanese of the various Lebanese nationalist myths, and also in inculcating us with strong convictions about Palestine.
Kanafani also wrote in al-Hawadeth magazine and also in Al Anwar newspaper. At Al Anwar, Kanafani started the cultural weekly supplement. He also wrote in al-Hawadeth using the name Rabie Matar and used the name Faris Faris at Al Anwar. But his mainstream and very successful Lebanese media role came to an end after 1967.
In the wake of the defeat of the 1967 War, the various branches of the Arab Nationalist Movement were to transform into country-specific Marxist-Leninist organizations. The Palestinian branch would emerge as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in late 1967. Unbeknownst to many, the idea of the magazine which came to personify him was not his own idea. It is still not known that the man who launched Al-Hadaf magazine, the mouthpiece to this day of the PFLP, was none other than Wadie Haddad.
Haddad had a great media sense and knew that information was part of the Palestinian struggle. He was also concerned that most of the left-leaning intellectuals of the Arab Nationalist Movement were gravitating toward Nayef Hawatmeh, the arch-rival of George Habash, Haddad’s closest comrade and friend. Haddad allocated the money and assigned Kanafani to launch the project, which came about in 1969.
Al-Hadaf was not like any other magazine before or since. It would leave its imprint on revolutionary media worldwide. From the offices of Al-Hadaf on Corniche al-Mazraa in Beirut, Kanafani designed and produced some of the most spectacular posters of the Palestinian revolution.
He made Arab Marxist revolutionary ideas cool and trendy, unlike the boring media of the Lebanese Communist Party. He combined art with literature and information, all for the purpose of the liberation of Palestine. The magazine was also keen on transparency: it published all the financial contributions it received from around the world. Sometimes they were money transfers from Arab students in Western countries (before that was banned as an act of terrorism) to donations in kind from poor residents of the Palestinian refugee camps.
The magazine, and Kanafani personally, were the first to bring attention to the status of Arab poets (especially Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and Tawfiq Zayyad) to larger Arab audiences. He broke with a silly taboo that looked with suspicion at those Arabs who stayed behind living under the rule of the Israeli occupation state.
Al-Hadaf was the banner of the PFLP, and people from around the globe flocked there to meet Kanafani and also to join the organization. Kanafani’s open-door policy was a weakness and many enemy intelligence operatives were able to study him up close and follow him. In the weeks before his assassination, workers at Al-Hadaf noticed that a more than usual number of Western women were visiting Al-Hadaf, always posing as journalists.
Kanafani never tired of explaining the Palestinian cause to anyone who asked. His English was not fluent but he managed to express himself clearly and strongly (in this interview, for example, Kanafani is sharp and does not concede one point to a journalist speaking from a mainstream Western perspective).
Some dogmatic hardliners would sneer at Kanafani for spending time with Western reporters and he would always answer by explaining that he would not stomach outbidding or one-upmanship from people who did not understand his work for the Palestinian cause. He would explain how he left a secure job at Al Anwar, which paid him 2,000 Lebanese pounds, to work for a job with the PFLP which paid him 700 pounds (Kanafani would add that Al Anwar also paid him a bonus month’s salary in addition to various benefits).
Habash and Haddad both greatly admired Kanafani. Haddad would interrogate him about the international situation before he planned or executed any operation. Kanafani would also share with both men latest debates in the West about the Palestinian cause. Habash considered him his closest friend and would say upon his death: I lost half of me. Some would say that Habash was never the same after the assassination of Kanafani. When the PFLP held its Third National Congress in 1972, Habash assigned Kanafani to write the political report famously known as “Tasks of the New Stage.”
It was clear that the Israelis knew the talents of someone like Kanafani and his services to the Palestinian cause, even if he never played any military role in the movement. Israel would rather have people like Mahmoud Abbas, Muhammad Dahlan, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Jibril Rajoub around. Those people continue to damage the Palestinian revolution while Kanafani served the cause every single day of his life.
Declassified American archival reports show keen interest in the case of Ghassan Kanafani. The Americans and the Israelis were bothered by Kanafani’s media role, and some US documents would make specific references to press conferences he held. Weeks before his assassination, Kanafani was roughed up by thugs in West Beirut. An-Nahar published the story and mocked the claim by Kanafani. When Wadie Haddad heard of this, he was troubled. His associates would say: but if this was the Mossad, they would have killed him instantly. Haddad said at the time: not necessarily. Not necessarily. Haddad’s hunch was right.
It is not clear what the incident had to do with the assassination which came weeks later. Kanafani never took security precautions. He had a routine and it was known where he went: to Al-Hadaf and to the various coffee shops frequented by journalists at the time. He also spent his Sundays with his family. His enemies found it easy to track him, especially as he lived (uncharacteristically) in East Beirut, a stronghold of Lebanese right-wing, anti-Palestinian parties.
Israel has never had to justify its killing of an artist, poet, calligrapher and journalist. Israel (and the Zionist movement before it) never bothered to explain the pattern of killing, of targeting, Arab civilians. People in the West said of Israeli murder: but Kanafani was a politburo member of the PFLP at the time of his death. The truth – rarely revealed – is that Kanafani was posthumously made a member of the politburo. Kanafani in his life had no patience for the life of a member of an organization which is consumed with long and boring meetings.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kanafani’s legacy is enjoying a rebirth as he is discovered by a new generation of Arabs. Various websites are dedicated to him, and his books are published in various editions (and pirated in various editions). Who would believe that a man who was only 36 when he died would have such a lasting influence? Count that as yet another Zionist miscalculation.
As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.