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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare
Overview

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a Marxist–Leninist organization founded in 1967 that seeks to create a socialist state for Palestinians. The PFLP has always been opposed to the existence of Israel and has committed numerous terrorist attacks since 1968, focusing on Israeli and moderate Arab targets. Founded by George Habash on December 11, 1967, just after the Six-Day War, the PFLP arose from the merger of the Arab Nationalist Movement, which Habash had founded in 1953, with the Palestine Liberation Front and Youth for Revenge. Habash created the PFLP to represent the Palestinian working class and stated that its goal was the creation of a democratic socialist Palestinian state and the elimination of Israel. Habash saw the elimination of Israel as a necessary step in purging the Middle East from Western capitalist influences. He also claimed after the 1967 Arab defeat that it would be necessary to combat the Arab regimes before that could be accomplished. Although Habash was himself a Palestinian Christian, he wanted the PFLP to be an entirely secular organization based on Marxist principles and socialism and positioned on the vanguard of a world socialist revolution.

Terrorist Background

The PFLP quickly spread into other Arab countries and acquired financial backing from Syria and Jordan. The group joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1968 and immediately generated two splinter factions, the terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP–GC) and the orthodox Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Most members of the PFLP were trained as guerrillas. The group soon became known for its terrorist activities, especially its airliner hijackings, many of which targeted the Israeli airline El Al. Most of the early attacks were coordinated by Wadi' Haddad, known as "The Master." On July 23, 1968, the PFLP commandeered an El Al airplane on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv and landed it in Algeria, mistakenly believing that Major General Ariel Sharon, later to become an Israeli prime minister, was on board. The group held the passengers and crew captive until August 31 of the same year.

Other hijackings and attacks followed. On December 26, 1968, PFLP guerrillas shot at an El Al jet about to leave Athens for Paris, killing one passenger. On February 18, 1969, its members attacked another El Al jet in Zurich, killing the copilot. Two days later they bombed a supermarket in Jerusalem. That August, the PFLP hijacked a TWA flight flying from Rome to Tel Aviv and forced it to land in Damascus. One of the leaders of this attack was Leila Khaled, who had joined the Arab Nationalist Movement in 1958 at the age of 14. She was arrested in Damascus but was quickly released. On September 9, 1969, six Palestinians threw grenades at Iraqi embassies in Bonn and The Hague and at the El Al office in Brussels. The PFLP also attacked a bus at the Munich airport on February 10, 1970. On February 21, 1970, the group detonated a barometric pressure device on Swissair Flight 330, flying from Zurich to Tel Aviv. The bomb damaged the plane sufficiently that the pilots were unable to return to the Zurich airport. The jet crashed and killed all on board, including 38 passengers and nine crew members.

On September 6, 1970, the PFLP launched its most ambitious hijacking scheme yet. Group members simultaneously hijacked jets in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Zurich and forced them to fly to Cairo or Zarqa, Jordan. The group hijacked a fourth plane three days later. They blew up the three aircraft in Zarqa on September 12. The PFLP announced that the hijackings were intended to teach the Americans a lesson and to punish them for supporting Israel. On September 16, 1970, King Hussein of Jordan formed a military government and began attacking Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan. He ultimately expelled the PLO from the country. This crisis, which became known as Black September, reinforced Habash's claim that Arab regimes were inhibiting the Palestinian guerrilla movement.

Khaled, who had undergone six months of cosmetic surgery to disguise her appearance, and her colleague Patrick Arguello attempted to hijack a fourth aircraft departing from Amsterdam on September 6. They failed in this task. Arguello was shot, and Khaled was overpowered and then imprisoned in London. This arrest provoked the PLFP to seize five more civilian airplanes in an effort to persuade British authorities to release Khaled. She was released after 28 days in exchange for 56 Western hostages.

Operations in the Middle East

In 1973 Habash agreed that the PFLP would cease terrorist activities abroad, on the advice of the Palestinian National Council. Thereafter he restricted his terrorist activity to Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. On May 30, 1972, the PFLP attacked Lod Airport in Israel, killing 24 people. Two months later on July 9, 1972, Israelis killed PFLP member and creative writer Ghassan Kanafani. Throughout the 1970s the group attacked numerous Israeli targets. The PFLP withdrew from the PLO in 1974, complaining that the PLO was no longer interested in destroying Israel completely and seemed instead to be willing to compromise.

When the First Intifada began on December 8, 1987, elements of the PFLP organized terrorist attacks in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In 1990 the Jordanian branch of the PFLP was converted into an actual political party, the Jordanian Popular Democratic Party. Habash stepped down as leader on April 27, 2000, and was replaced by Abu Ali Mustafa, who was killed by Israeli commandos on August 27, 2001. The PFLP retaliated on October 17, 2001, by killing Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli minister of tourism. Ahmed Sadat became general secretary of the organization on October 3, 2001, a post he continued to hold as of 2014. The armed militia of this group continued its terrorist activity in the early 2000s, using car bombs and other small-scale bombing techniques and sometimes simply shooting targets. Sadat was subsequently arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and held in Jericho. He has been imprisoned ever since. The PFLP opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords, partially because of its resentment of Fatah control over the PLO and subsequently the PA. The group has maintained its Marxist–Leninist beliefs, and this has always contributed to its smaller size and led to its decline as Islamism became much more influential.

The PFLP continues to press for a one-state solution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict and has gone on record as opposing the Fatah–Hamas split, which began in 2006. That feud was seemingly ended in June 2014, when the two groups agreed to a unity government, but a renewed Hamas–Israeli conflict in Gaza in July 2014 unraveled it. In 2013, however, the PFLP seemed to be siding with Hamas, when it termed the group as "vital" to the Palestinian national movement. Nevertheless, the group has boycotted participation in the PLO's executive committee because it does not recognize Fatah's governance in the West Bank or Hamas's governance in the Gaza Strip. It claims that the failure to hold parliamentary elections makes both governments illegitimate.

After 2004, bombings and suicide attacks attributed to the PFLP fell significantly, at least for a time, perhaps a reflection of the organization's loss of Sadat as its day-to-day leader. However, the group was reportedly responsible for two attacks in 2012 against Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In November 2014, the PFLP claimed responsibility for an attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem in which five civilians and an Israeli police officer were killed. In July 2015, the group claimed responsibility for an assault on a car in which three Israelis were injured and a fourth killed.

"The Master." "vital"
Amy Hackney Blackwell
Amy Hackney Blackwell is the author of The Essential Law Dictionary (Sphinx Publishing, 2008) and the co-author of The Myths, Legends, and Lore of Ireland (Adams Media, 2011) with Ryan Hackney. She received a master's degree in early modern European history from Vanderbilt University and a law degree from University of Virginia School of Law. She is pursuing her PhD in plant and environmental sciences at Clemson University.

Further Reading

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner, 1992; PFLP. A Radical Voice from Palestine: Recent Documents from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Oakland, CA: Abraham Guillen Press, 2002; Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

MLA Citation

Blackwell, Amy Hackney. "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: Arab-Israeli Wars." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldatwar.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/758515. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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