The group and its leader pioneered the tactic of hijacking aeroplanes, to try to achieve political objectives.
For many years the PFLP was very influential within the PLO, second only to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
George Habash was born into a Christian family in Lydda (present-day Lod) in Palestine around 1926. His family fled their home in 1948, when Israel was founded. Soon afterwards George Habash enrolled at the American University of Beirut where he studied medicine.
However, from an early age politics was Dr Habash’s passion. He was an Arab nationalist and was active in the “Youth of Vengeance” group, which advocated violent attacks on traditional Arab governments.
Inspired by the pan-Arab message of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, George Habash believed for many years that unity between Arab states could bring about the “liberation of Palestine”.
Within the year the PFLP had delivered on its threat of violence. In July 1968 the group hijacked an El Al aeroplane en route from Rome to Tel Aviv.
A new tactic in the Palestinian “resistance” had been born.
Over the next decade the PFLP would carry out some of the defining attacks of the era. These catapulted the Palestinian cause onto the international news agenda, but did not always generate sympathy for the Palestinians.
Many people in Israel and the West thought that George Habash was a terrorist. For many Palestinians and Arabs he was a patriot.
In September 1970 four Western jets were hijacked by the PFLP. Three of them landed at a Jordanian airstrip – an act that triggered a civil war in the country and led to Dr Habash, and the rest of the Palestinian leadership, fleeing Jordan.
From its new base in Lebanon, and later Syria, the PFLP remained an active militant group.
It was also at the forefront of the internationalization of the tactics of terror. In May 1972 George Habash brought together members of the Irish Republican Army, the Baader Meinhof Group, and the Japanese Red Army for a meeting at a refugee camp in Lebanon.
In the same month members of the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people at Israel’s international airport in Lod.
In 1976 the PFLP and the Baader-Meinhof Gang hijacked an Air France flight bound for Tel Aviv, landing the plane in Entebbe, Uganda. The siege only ended when Israeli commandos stormed the plane.
Opposition to Oslo
George Habash and Yasser Arafat had a long-standing rivalry. The tensions between them are cited as one of the reasons why Dr Habash founded the PFLP.
When Fatah, which was led by Yasser Arafat, attempted to build support for the Palestinian cause amongst Arab states in the 1970s, the PFLP turned to Russia and China. By the 1990s Yasser Arafat was negotiating with the Israelis. The PFLP rejected political compromise with Israel and continued to promise to replace it with a secular, democratic Palestinian state.
George Habash was vehemently against the Oslo Accords that were signed by Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin in1993.
After Oslo Dr Habash refused to go to the Palestinian territories, even though he was given clearance by Israel to travel there for a meeting in 1996. He believed that if he set foot in the territories he would be legitimizing the Oslo process.
By the time George Habash resigned his leadership of the PFLP in April 2000 the group had been marginalised. The secular Marxist militant group was losing ground to radicals of an altogether different type – Islamist groups like Hamas.
After years of fighting for a Palestinian state George Habash died in the Jordanian capital. Shortly after his death his wife said that he had been watching the latest news from Gaza closely.
“While he was suffering, the doctors used to tell him, you are feeling pain with the people of Gaza”, Hilda Habash said.