Rebel from a bygone era

“His very name scatters fire through ice,” wrote Byron of an 18th-century revolutionary leader, and so it has always been with the name of that extraordinary Palestinian, George Habash. Habash died an impoverished refugee in enforced exile in Amman last weekend. What, then, can this revolutionary of a bygone area, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), virtuoso rhetorician, with his charismatic grin, perpetual cigarette and black leather jacket, provide us with now to address today’s bleak geopolitical predicament?

Habash was the archetype of the medic hero, with his free clinic in the Jordan refugee camp, yet his all but forgotten contribution offers a number of powerful lessons to the Middle East today. In an era of unprecedented Arab disunity and reactionary conservatism, and at the zenith of what appears to be an unstoppable juggernaut of Israeli expansionism and accelerating Palestinian defeat and political fragmentation, his model of combining univeralist principle with popular mobilization remains the key to future progress.

For Palestinians, for Arab people in their long anti-colonial struggle against the British and French (and now Americans), and for many anti-colonial movements across the world who learnt and trained under him, his very name embodies that inextinguishable human demand for justice and freedom. His emancipatory model of resistance to injustice, his radical optimism, and above all his tight political organization scorched the consciousness of young people in the Arab world, mobilized masses, created independence movements, trade unions and political parties, and inspired a huge wave of artists, intellectuals and writers from Ghassan Kanafani to Naji el Ali.

One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to measure the enormity of his contribution, nor be devoted to a purist understanding of politics to appreciate the value of his extraordinary force. For 60 years, George Habash engaged in a non-stop struggle for Arab unity, human progress, women’s rights, liberation and equality. Socialist, founder of that great anti-colonial movement of the Arab world, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), his effect throughout the region was electric: from Yemen, where forces he trained and organized liberated the country from British colonial rule, to the battle for Egyptian-Syrian unity, to Kuwait - which only has a parliament today thanks to MAN’s impact - to the founding of the trade union movement across much of the Gulf. His audacious trajectory raised the spirit and encouraged the dispossessed and disenfranchised to change their own fate.

Currently portrayed in obituaries as the architect of the tactic of airplane hijackings that was never his (and over which he expelled his associate Wadie Haddad from the PFLP), Habash was instead responsible for introducing a much bolder blueprint for international action. From the ANC to Nicaragua, he was a pivotal internationalist who helped make their fight for independence possible: training, encouraging and giving material assistance. This most basic of progressive principles — assisting those who are risking all for their freedom against undemocratic tyranny — is never more relevant than today. Citizens in countries who have obtained their political rights well understand that they are a crucial force in pressuring their own governments to help others achieve theirs — from Pakistan, to Burma, to Palestine.

In the refugee camps in Lebanon in the 1970s, the classic Popular Front partisan brought to the rest of the Palestinian body politic a way of working that enhanced the standard of the entirety of the movement: a rigorous analysis of the political problems of the day, a scrupulous courtesy, a fastidiousness about principle and a real commitment, unlike some other Palestinian political parties, to the advancement of women in their ranks. The space and respect the PFLP accorded to Palestinian women in the political sphere had a salutary effect on the more traditional parts of the movement. In the early years of the PLO, when Fatah and the PFLP and the other parties worked together, a democratic dynamism was fostered that strengthened each. The political realm became a place where everyone could contribute, and the majority of Palestinians participated actively in it.

The last time I sat with George Habash three years ago in Damascus, we discussed for hours the issue closest to his heart, the difficult struggle for justice for those Palestinian refugees who had been expelled from their homes in 1948. He talked a great deal about the Nakba and its devastating continual effect. Although he remained as eloquent and intellectually sophisticated as ever, he described it in such simple and humane terms that it revealed something essential about this issue that still unites Palestinians today, whatever their faction or ideology. Habash always understood the importance of holding fast to the most elementary human rights as the basis for political action.

An eyewitness to the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of people from his home town of al-Lydd in July 1948, and who was transformed forever by that unhealed event to serve the cause of his people for six decades, Habash provides an essential lesson to Palestinians today. The flourishing of more than one political party in the national arena remains the guarantor of not only democracy, but the proven engine for achieving independence — as long as those parties are driven by principle and not simply a desire for power. A colleague visiting Habash in hospital shortly before he died told him how young Palestinian men from a different political party had just destroyed the walls of Gaza in an audacious act, setting free its people from their intolerable imprisonment. George Habash smiled cheerfully and said: “You see the day will come when these borders will fall and Arab unity will be achieved.”

Lucretius celebrated these unforgettable vitai lampada, the torchbearers who bring new hope to us in each generation, “like runners passing on the lamp of life.”

Karma Nabulsi is a fellow at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University. This commentary was originally published by The Guardian on 29 January and is republished with the author’s permission.

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