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.
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.
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’.
The PFLP also knew it had to wage 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 as a Leninist organization in an extremely difficult position at the beginning of the 1990s. 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.