The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was established as a Marxist-Leninist organization on December 11, 1967, six months after the end of the Six Day War. PFLP’s founder and General Secretary was George Habash, a socialist who was formerly a member of the group “Oppose to Political Settlement with Israel.” Habash viewed the destruction of Israel (which he termed the “liberation of Palestine”) as an integral part of the world Communist revolution. Habash’s leadership of PFLP was supplemented by Wadi’ Haddad. Both men were medical doctors who helped found the Arab Nationalist Movement, a Pan Arab and Arab Socialist initiative seeking to destroy Israel and to create, in its stead, a secular, socialist Palestinian nation. In its fledgling stage, PFLP enjoyed the support of then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
PFLP was formed as an amalgamation of three smaller organizations:
(a) The Young Avengers, the Palestinian military branch of the Arab Nationalist Movement;
(b) The Heroes of the Return, a Lebanese organization largely controlled by The Young Avengers; and
(c) The Palestinian Liberation Front, which was established by Palestinian officers in the Syrian army, and which possessed military bases in Syria as well as a network of operatives in the West Bank.
In 1968, PFLP joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and quickly became its second-largest faction (behind Yasser Arafat‘s Fatah faction); but unlike Fatah, which sought support from Arab nations, PFLP looked to Russia and China for assistance.
Blending Palestinian nationalism with Marxist ideology, PFLP describes itself as “a progressive vanguard organization of the Palestinian working class [dedicated] to liberating all of Palestine and establishing a democratic socialist Palestinian state.” It views the destruction of Israel as a prerequisite to its ultimate goal of eliminating all Western influences from the Middle East and sparking a global Communist revolution. PFLP also opposes Arab regimes that it deems friendly to Israel, the United States, and capitalism — and seeks to replace those regimes with Marxist-Leninist governments. In addition, PFLP counts the “Arab bourgeoisie” among its enemies, on grounds that it “us[es] the Palestinian problem in order to distract the Arab masses from their own interests. … The bourgeoisie claims to aspire to a peaceful solution with Israel, but its real objective is to benefit from its role as mediator between the imperialist and domestic markets. … The Arab bourgeoisie is prepared to provide limited aid to the national struggle, such as Saudi Arabia’s aid to Fatah.”
PFLP’s political ideology and strategy is outlined in one of its seminal documents, The Military Thinking of the Front, which reads: “A basic condition for a true, radical revolution in our times is a revolutionary party, whose function is to orchestrate a national liberation war and lead it to victory. … The structural basis of the revolutionary party is the revolutionary doctrine it espouses. … A revolutionary doctrine that scientifically confronts the problems of the times is Marxism. … A revolutionary understanding of Marxism means seeing Marxism as a guide to action, rather than as a rigid and stagnant ideology. … The Popular Front therefore adopts Marxism-Leninism as the basic strategic line for building a revolutionary party predicated on a solid, theoretical structure. … It is essential [to] adopt the path of the popular liberation war and establish alliances with all revolutionary forces worldwide, in order to defeat the enemy’s technological superiority. … On the basis of this international strategy, we shall be able to encircle Israel, Zionism and Imperialism, and recruit all global revolutionary forces to support us in the battle.”
PFLP has carried out innumerable terrorist attacks during its history, many of them of a spectacular, high-profile nature. In November 1968, for example, the organization hijacked an El Al plane en route from Rome to Tel Aviv and forced it to land in Algeria. The following month, it attacked an Israeli aircraft at Athens airport and demanded that Israel release Palestinian terrorists from prison. (Israel refused, retaliating by attacking Beirut airport and destroying thirteen parked aircraft.) Over a six-day period in September 1970, PFLP succeeded in four out of five attempted hijacks of Western and Israeli passenger airliners; three of the planes were diverted to Jordan and one to Egypt; all four were blown up on the ground after the passengers had been evacuated.
This prompted King Hussein of Jordan to expel Palestinian organizations from his country, declare war on the PLO, and impose martial law. Armed conflict between PLO supporters and Hussein’s forces persisted until July 1971 and resulted in some 3,000 deaths. At that point, in a peace agreement brokered by the Arab League and Egyptian President Nasser, the PLO moved its headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, PFLP’s influence began to wane and was surpassed by that of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which enjoyed growing support in the Palestinian Territories. In 1993, in protest to the Oslo Peace Accords, PFLP broke from its affiliation with the PLO and joined the Alliance of Palestinian Forces. Three years later, however, PFLP split from the APF over ideological differences.
PFLP reestablished ties to the PLO in 1999, when Abu Ali Mustafa, a veteran of the PLO and the designated successor of George Habash, traveled to Cairo to initiate renewed dialogue with Arafat and to concede acceptance of the latter’s Palestinian Authority.
In May 2000, George Habash resigned as PFLP’s General Secretary because of failing health and was succeeded by Mustafa, who rejected all peace initiatives with Israel and directed a renewed campaign of terror (including car bombings and suicide attacks) against the Jewish state. Mustafa was killed in a targeted attack by Israel on August 21, 2001. He was replaced by Ahmad Sadat, who similarly supported the continuation of armed struggle against Israel. Sadat has directed most of PFLP’s terrorist activities during the current Intifada, most notablythe October 17, 2001 assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism. In response to Israeli and international pressure, the Palestinian Authority arrested Sadat and currently holds him in nominal “custody” in Jericho.
PFLP was also responsible for a February 2002 suicide bombing in the village of Karnei Shomrom, which left 3 Israelis dead and another 25 wounded; and a suicide bombing attack at a bus station at the Geha junction in Tel Aviv on Christmas Day 2003, which killed 3 Israelis.
In 2011, two PFLP members murdered a family (which included a 3-month-old infant) in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. In 2014, PFLP terrorists in West Jerusalem carried out an attack that killed five people and wounded eight.
PFLP’s membership today stands at about 800. Headquartered in Syria, the organization is also active in Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.
In November 2016, Jonathan Schanzer (vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies) and research analyst Kate Havard wrote: “While it is still believed to be the second largest faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the PFLP is no longer as influential as it once was. But the PFLP remains active in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not to mention Palestinian refugee camps around the Middle East. And its commitment to violence has not changed.”
In November 2016 as well, Schanzer and Havard wrote: “Recently, the PFLP sent its most famous member, the first woman hijacker in history, Leila Khaled, on speaking tours worldwide. In April 2016, she visited the German organization Falestin Beytona, the Offices of the Communist Party of Sweden in Gothenburg, and the Austrian-Arab Cultural Center (OKAZ) in Vienna – all organizations that support BDS [the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement].”
Khaled’s ties to BDS are deep and passionate. In 2015 she was a guest of the BDS movement of South Africa. In a 2015 op-ed, Khaled wrote that BDS “sustains our resistance and our revolution.” But “refusing to buy products in a store or cancelling a corporate contract will not liberate Palestine,” she added. “Nothing but the Palestinian struggle and resistance in all of its forms, from refusing the orders of an occupation soldier to marching in protests to armed struggle, will liberate Palestine.”