When news reports alleged that the two cousins behind the Jerusalem synagogue attack on 18 November were affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a level of confusion reigned. Why the PFLP? Why now?
The attack killed five Israelis and wounded others. It was, to a degree, an expected addition to a violent episode caused by police-sanctioned right-wing violence and abuse targeting the Palestinian population of the illegally occupied East Jerusalem. Much of the violence targeting Palestinians is systematic, involving severe restrictions on Palestinian movement, targeting houses of worship, and nightly attacks by Jewish mobs assailing Arabs, or anyone who may be suspected of being one. It also included the hanging, lynching and burning alive of Jerusalem Arab residents.
Palestinians responded in kind. But most of their violent responses seemed to be confined to individual acts, compelled by despair, perhaps, but certainly removed from the organized nature of armed-resistance.
Then, Ghassa and Odai Abu Jamal attacked the synagogue. The initial assumption was that the attack was also the work of individuals, before reports began linking them to the PFLP.
Suddenly, the discussion shifted, from the relevance of the attack to the difficult situation in Jerusalem (both cousins were Jerusalemites) to something entirely different pertaining to the Marxist group’s current standing between two dominant forces: a Fatah-led government in Ramallah, whose leadership has long-abandoned armed struggle, and an Islamic-dominated resistance groups led by Hamas in Gaza. Is the PFLP carving a new place for itself in anticipation of a third intifada? Or was the attack an anomaly? Was it ordered by the group’s core leadership? And where is the PFLP heading anyway?
To begin with, there can be no easy answers. In fact, the PFLP’s own muddled responses suggest an existing tussle within the group, if not politically, at least intellectually. Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the movement’s militant arm, issued a fiery statement, but refrained from taking responsibility.
It was a clear attempt at walking a fine line between revolutionary language and a politically cautious discourse. It neither took responsibility for the attack, nor did it declare the attackers to be its members. Instead, it merely conveyed the Israeli accusation that the assailants were affiliated with the PFLP. Another statement declared the attackers as heroes, yet still took no responsibility.
There is more than one context through which this issue can be discussed, but most urgent among them is PFLP’s own identity, incessant decline in political relevance and the unavoidable intellectual conflict which has dogged the group since its formation by Marxist Arab nationalist Christian leader Dr. George Habash in 1967. What was an expected soul-searching of one of Palestine’s most progressive political movements starting in the 1960s throughout the 80s, became a political crisis necessitated by the decline of its strongest supporters, the Soviet Union and the East European bloc, and the signing of the Oslo accords a few years later.
The inception of the PFLP formed from several progressive Arab nationalist groups in 1967, was a necessary retort to the failure of traditional Arab armies to fight Israel. The resounding Arab defeat in the 1967 war (known as Naksa, or the setback) ushered in the rise of an exclusively Palestinian political narrative, with, at times, desperate militant tactics to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.
The PFLP, which later declared itself a Marxist-Leninist organisation, was still committed to pan-Arabism. It linked the liberation of Palestine to the loftier goal of liberating oppressed classes throughout the Arab world from corrupt, oppressive regimes.
Although it can be argued that the PFLP’s political ambitions by far exceeded its popularity on the ground, it has enjoyed disproportionate influence over the resistance discourse, partly because of the notable intellect and foresight of its founder, but also because of its early attempts at armed struggle outside the confines of Arab governments.
Although the PFLP is often referenced in international media for its aircraft hijackings, mostly to free Palestinian political prisoners, its impact on the current course of armed resistance is much more profound. In the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, it made its presence felt in Gaza, at a time that Fatah was failing to establish a stronghold in the crowded and impoverished strip. Many of its members were killed fighting or assassinated, and others were captured to be imprisoned indefinitely.
However, with time, disconnect grew between the group’s striking rhetoric and the harsh reality in Palestine. While Arab nationalism was waning, the socialist bloc was quickly collapsing, leaving the PFLP to face difficult questions. And when Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo accords, the PFLP’s dilemma grew more complicated.
By then, the PFLP was no longer the second most influential Palestinian party, as has been the case for many years. Hamas, although operating outside the structure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), offered more relatable language and enjoyed a more comprehensive grassroots presence.
Like Hamas, but certainly unlike Fatah, PFLP remained largely immune from open internal conflicts, at least since the early splits it suffered in the late 1960s. In 2000, Habash gracefully stepped down, and Abu Ali Mustafa took over. The new leader returned to Ramallah with the understanding that the PFLP had changed its stance regarding its advocacy of a one state solution and its subtle agreement to the phased liberation model offered by Fatah.
Abu Ali Mustafa, himself another erudite intellectual, was assassinated by Israel in August 2001, soon after his return. The new leader, Ahmad Sa’adat spent 4 years in a Palestinian Authority prison, before being kidnapped by Israeli forces in 2006 to be held in solitary confinement in Israel.
Since then, the two-state solution discourse was abandoned, and occasional return to arms by PFLP fighters is registered somewhere in the West Bank. However, the only consistent and organised PFLP militant action persisted in Gaza.
For years, the PFLP remained hostage to far-reaching ambition and radical language on one hand, and a reality that forced its members to adjust to an unpleasant status quo and disorganised action on the other. In 2006, the group won four percent of the popular vote in Palestine, merely three of the legislative council’s 132 seats. It refused to enter into a coalition government with Hamas, which could have arguably reduced the isolation of the elected government, and it failed, although it tried, to construct a left-wing bloc involving other socialist and communist groups.
Without strong backers outside Palestine, and fragmented political discourse that is divided between dominant Hamas and Fatah factions, the PFLP continues to be caught in own internal struggle.
It matters little whether the cousins who attacked the synagogue in Jerusalem were affiliated with the PFLP or not; the repeated muddled statements by the group – justifying the attack, explaining it, owning it and disowning it all at once – matters more. This confusion is becoming symbiotic of the PFLP following the signing of Oslo. And while there are those who employ clever language to maintain the group’s radical status, NGO perks and socialist prestige, others expect a more serious discussion of what the PFLP is and what it stands for after two decades of political failure, of which the PFLP, like Fatah and Hamas, should also be held accountable.