Donald Trump has brought fire and fury to the streets of Palestine. His announcement last week that the United States would become the first country to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has brought not only the city that Palestinians refer to as al-Quds, but every town and village in the West Bank to the brink of a new major confrontation with their occupier. The epic of David vs. Goliath continues to maintain its relevance as youth hurl stones at Israeli soldiers armed with the most advanced of weaponry supplied by billions of dollars in U.S. ‘aid’. The humble resistance of the colonized may mean that they are lightly armed in contrast to their foes, but it is the willpower of the oppressed that history has shown will the decisive factor in their eventual liberation.
Today was supposed to be a day of celebration for tens of thousands of Palestinians who count themselves as supporters of the second largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, due to the gravity of the concrete situation unfolding in this new chapter of struggle against oppression, that celebration has been transformed into a march of rage and anger against the Zionist state. In some ways, there isn’t a more apt way for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to mark its 50th anniversary than to be at the forefront of what could very well constitute a new Intifada.
Origins of a Marxist Revolutionary Party
For the past half century, the PFLP has maintained a consistent approach to the Palestinian national liberation struggle. Its history is one of a steadfast movement with a principled ideological framework, as well as adherence to the dictum that the only language the colonizer understands is one of armed struggle and self-defence.
The PFLP’s founding in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 that saw the West Bank occupied by Israel after almost two decades under the control of Jordan was deemed a necessity in the face of what was seen as the inability of the Arab states to mount any kind of effective resistance to the occupation of Palestine. The Arab League had convened three years earlier and had founded the Palestine Liberation Organization as a vehicle for armed struggle against Israel. However, the organization was viewed by many Palestinian revolutionaries as insufficient for this historical task.
For Palestinian Marxists inspired by the anti-colonial revolutions being waged across the so-called Third World by figures such as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in Cuba and Bolivia, as well as the likes of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, the PLO didn’t have the necessary worldview that could lead it to victory. The lack of a genuine socialist perspective meant that the PLO would be confined to the ideology of bourgeois Arabism, which couldn’t fundamentally break the Palestinian people free from the sources of their misery and tragic exile.
Initially, the founding of the Popular Front didn’t mean the creation of a democratic centralist party. It was intended to be, as the name implies, a front – in other words, a grouping of several organizations that coordinated their activities under the same umbrella. The initial front meant the merger of the Arab Nationalist Movement of George Habash with the Palestine Liberation Front which was headquartered in Syria, as well as a group called the Youth for Revenge. However, the tentative unity that prevailed wasn’t to last long, as splits soon began to manifest over tactics and ideology.
After the PFLP joined the PLO in 1968, the organization aimed to consolidate its program. With the adoption of its landmark document the Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine in 1969, the Front had effectively turned itself into a fighting Leninist Party.
The Enemies of the Palestinian Cause
In its founding document, the PFLP gave ample attention the question of who constituted the enemies of Palestinian liberation. Needless to say, the State of Israel was declared to the be the principle enemy force. However, contrary to some other Palestinian factions, their analysis didn’t stop here, but saw the creation of Israel as a project inextricably linked to imperialism, headed by the United States. As the document spells out:
Our enemy then is not Israel alone. It is Israel, Zionism, imperialism, and unless we have a clear scientific knowledge of our enemy we cannot hope to triumph over it. The opinion which attempts to “neutralise” the Palestinian question on the international level by contending; “Why not try to win America to our side in the battle instead of allowing it to remain on Israel’s side?” is an erroneous and dangerous opinion because it is unscientific, unrealistic and far from being accurate. It is dangerous because it camouflages the truth about the enemy facing us and leads to erroneous calculations during the battle.
This reality has been confirmed by half a century of continuous support for the murder and subjugation of the Palestinian people by the U.S. war machine. Even the most ‘liberal’ of American administrations has still maintained strong support for Israel including massive military assistance despite the occasional renunciation of settlement building and concern for ‘human rights’.
As I’ve already alluded to, one of the central reasons for the founding of the PFLP was the necessity of a Palestinian Marxist formation to take up the leadership of the struggle for national liberation. This not only meant the right of return for around three quarter of a million Arabs who were expelled from their homeland during the founding of the State of Israel (what Palestinians refer to as the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe), but the consideration of the fact that Palestinian liberation couldn’t be achieved by constructing capitalism in the place of colonialism.
It also meant waging an ideological battle against not only other Palestinian factions, including those such as Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the largest faction in the PLO which became almost synonymous with the organization as a whole, but Arab governments that had been incapable of defeating Israel on the battlefield in 1967.
The document looks at the role played by what the PFLP calls ‘Arab reaction’:
The millionaires of the Arab world, including merchants, bankers, feudal lords, owners of large estates, kings, emirs and sheikhs, have in fact acquired their millions by virtue of their co-operation with world capitalism. They have amassed this wealth because they are commercial agents for goods produced by foreign capital, or secondary shareholders in foreign banking establishments or insurance companies, or they are sheikhs, emirs and kings at the head of regimes which defend and protect colonial interests and strike at any mass movement aiming at freeing our economy from this exploiting influence.
The correctness of this position can be seen today as governments such as the Saudi monarchy move in the direction of an overt relationship with Israel to counter the increased regional role of Iran. While the Saudis have condemned the announcement by Trump of the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and continue to pay lip service to their ‘brothers in Palestine’, the reality of collaboration with Israel hints at a much different dynamic. This also holds true for the other regional states such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others who may not officially recognize Israel, but are such an important component of the world imperialist system that they ultimately can play no role of any significance in bringing about Palestinian freedom.
Although not an Arab government, the same can be said of the increasingly fascistic Turkish government headed by President Erdogan. Not only does it reek of intense hypocrisy for Erdogan to proclaim that Israel is a terrorist state while Turkey is engaged in a genocidal war against the Kurdish population, but it obscures the historically deep relationship between Erdogan’s AKP government and the Israeli state in both trade and military cooperation.
Struggle Within the PLO
The anti-imperialism of the PFLP meant that the Front would have to endure tenuous relations with the other factions inside of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This relationship can be described as being one of unity at times, and deep struggle and disagreement at others.
On the one hand, the PFLP decided to participate within the PLO, evidently to attempt to reorient it more to the left. However, several disagreements would at times prove too irreconcilable. One of these occasions was in 1974 when it left the PLO executive committee over the organization’s adoption of the Ten Point Platform which hinted at the liberation of Palestine perhaps being ‘partial’ and being undertaken by other means other than armed confrontation and struggle. This was unacceptable to the PFLP leadership of George Habash, which continued to advocate a single, democratic Palestine in all of its historic territory. Compromise on this issue was seen as a rejection of the liberation struggle in its entirety.
As renowned PFLP leader, author, and novelist Ghassan Khanfani said in an interview with Australian television in Beirut before his untimely assassination in 1972:
Q: ‘Why won’t your organization engage in peace talks with the Israelis?’
A: ‘You don’t mean exactly “peace talks”. You mean capitulation. Surrendering.
Q: ‘Why not just talk?’
A: ‘Talk to whom?’
Q: ‘Talk to the Israeli leaders.’
A: ‘That is kind of a conversation between the sword and the neck, you mean?’
Q: ‘Well, if there are no swords and no guns in the room, you could still talk.’
A: ‘No. I have never seen any talk between a colonialist and a national liberation movement.’
Q: ‘But despite this, why not talk?’
A: ‘Talk about what?’
Q: ‘Talk about the possibility of not fighting.’
A: ‘Not fighting for what?’
Q: ‘No fighting at all. No matter what for.’
A: ‘People usually fight for something. And they stop fighting for something. So you can’t even tell me why we should speak about what. Why should we talk about stopping to fight?’
The Fall of the Soviet Union and Revival of Marxism
In 1988, Yasser Arafat declared the establishment of the State of Palestine in a statement written by prestigious poet Mahmoud Darwish. Although a ‘declaration of independence’, it was in fact a historic compromise that effectively recognized Israel and threw the prospect of a right of return to the wind. Five years later, the Oslo agreement was signed between Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and U.S. President Bill Clinton. This was supposed to create the framework for peace negotiations that would at last resolve the Palestine-Israel ‘dispute’ and lead to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As has been seen over the nearly quarter of century since the signing of the agreement, even the strongest Palestinian advocates of the Oslo agreement have lost faith in the desire of the Israeli state – and certainly the U.S. government – to take peace with any semblance of justice seriously. The recent announcement by Trump only helps to solidify the view among the mainstream Palestinian leadership of Fatah that the U.S. can no longer be a broker to the peace process.
It’s important to understand that during the historic period between 1988 and 1993 that started with the ‘historic compromise’ and ended with the Oslo agreement, the world was rapidly changing. Despite the fact that Fatah didn’t have the Leninist credentials of the PFLP, Arafat’s struggle for Palestinian liberation made him not only an honoured guest in socialist countries from the Soviet Union to East Germany, but his movement received political and military support from the socialist bloc. Yet, with the dismemberment of the socialist camp and the return of capitalism to the former USSR and eastern Europe, it appeared as if the writing was on the wall for the anti-colonial movements worldwide. They would need to compromise with imperialism, and attempt to get the best deal possible for their peoples now that there was no prospect of support from a super-power. The new U.S.-dominated hegemonic world was here. Socialism was dead, or at least it was supposed to be according to the mainstream pundits.
This put the PFLP in an extremely difficult position at the beginning of the 1990s. While Fatah could say that it advocated a type of ‘socialism’ which perhaps wasn’t necessarily synonymous with the Leninism of the socialist bloc, for the Popular Front this was a luxury it didn’t have. The question was what direction the Front would go in. Communist parties across the region and the world were ‘reforming’ themselves into social democratic organizations. The crisis of Marxism led others to simply disband.
However, the PFLP maintained its core convictions and principles in the most difficult of periods. It emerged from the downturn in the world revolutionary movement as a smaller organization, but one that still retains considerable clout and respect in the Palestinian struggle. After George Habash’s death in 2000, the Israelis attempted to put a nail in the coffin of the Party by assassinating its new Secretary General Abu Ali Mustafa. The PFLP responded by naming its military wing after Mustafa. The Front is still the second largest faction in the PLO today, even with its leader Ahmad Sa’adat locked behind bars.
The PFLP Marches Forward After 50 Years
Today, with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority becoming even more conciliatory in their views toward Israel and the occupation, and even Hamas now hinting at recognition of Israel, the PFLP in many ways stands alone as one of the major factions still maintaining its core argument that a united, democratic Palestine should still be sought. Whether Trump’s decision will force Hamas and Fatah toward more militant positions remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the revival of radical leftism across the region and the world means that the PFLP is now in a historically advantageous position to reaffirm its leadership position in the Palestinian movement, as the ideas of its founder George Habash and the examples of cadres such as Leila Khaled are increasingly popular with the youth. The vision of the right of return for the Palestinian people, of a socialist Palestine for Arabs, Jews, and other nationalities retains its validity as the PFLP celebrates 50 years of struggle.