Rebel from a bygone era

Rebel from a bygone era

“His very name scatters fire through ice,” wrote Byron of an 18th-century revolutionary leader, and so it has always been with the name of that extraordinary Palestinian George Habash. For those in anti-colonial movements across the world who learned and trained under him, his name embodies that inextinguishable human demand for justice and freedom. His exhilarating emancipatory model of resistance to injustice, his radical optimism and, above all, his tight political organization scorched the consciousness of young people across the Arab world, mobilized masses and inspired a huge wave of talented artists and intellectuals.

One doesn”t have to be a Marxist to appreciate the value of his extraordinary force. For 60 years Habash engaged in a non-stop struggle for Arab unity, human progress, women”s rights, liberation and equality. By founding the anti-colonial Arab Nationalist Movement, he lit a fuse throughout the region, from Yemen, where forces he trained and organized liberated the country from British rule, through the battle for Egyptian-Syrian unity, and Kuwait — which only has a parliament thanks to the movement”s impact — to the founding of trade unions across much of the Gulf.

Habash, who founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died last weekend, an impoverished refugee in enforced exile in Amman, Jordan. What can this revolutionary of a bygone area, archetype of the heroic medic with the free clinic in the refugee camp, virtuoso intellectual rhetorician, with his charismatic grin, perpetual cigarette and black leather jacket, give us to address today”s bleak geopolitical predicament? His contribution offers powerful solutions in arenas where the collective imagination is in complete disarray. In an era of unprecedented Arab disunity and reactionary conservatism, and at the zenith of what seems to be unstoppable Israeli expansionism and Palestinian political fragmentation, his model of combining universal principles with popular mobilization remains the key to progress.

Currently portrayed as the architect of the tactic of airplane hijackings, which was never his (and over which he expelled Wadie Haddad from the PFLP), Habash was instead responsible for introducing a much bolder blueprint for international action. From the ANC to the Nicaraguans, he was the pivotal internationalist who made the fight for independence possible: training, encouraging and giving material assistance. This most basic of progressive principles — mobilizing to assist those who are risking all for their freedom against undemocratic tyranny — is never more relevant than today. Citizens who have obtained their political rights understand well that they are a crucial force in pressuring their own governments to help others to achieve theirs, from Pakistan and Burma to Palestine.

A witness to the ethnic cleansing of his home town in 1948, he was transformed for ever by a determination to serve his people, and the lesson for Palestinians is essential. The flourishing of several political parties in the national arena remains not only the guarantor of democracy, but also the proven engine for achieving independence, as long as parties are driven by principle and not simply by desire for power. Just before his death, Habash was told how young Palestinians from a different political party had audaciously destroyed the walls of Gaza, setting free its people. Habash smiled and said: “You see, the day will come when these borders will fall and Arab unity will be achieved.” Lucretius celebrated these unforgettable vitai lampada, the torch-bearers who bring hope in each generation, “like runners passing on the lamp of life.”

Karma Nabulsi is a fellow at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University. This commentary was originally published by The Guardian on 29 January and is republished with the author”s permission.