PLO Figure George Habash Dies at 81; Founded Faction Known for Hijackings

Associated Press
Sunday, January 27, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan, Jan. 26 -- George Habash, whose radical PLO faction gained notoriety after the simultaneous hijackings of four Western airliners in 1970 and the seizure of an Air France flight to Entebbe, Uganda, died Saturday in Jordan. He was 81.

The former guerrilla leader, whose rivalry with Yasser Arafat spurred him to start the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died of a heart attack in Amman, said Leila Khaled, a longtime PFLP member.

Habash, born to a Christian Arab family, was opposed to Arab-Israeli peace talks. His group was the second-largest in the PLO after Fatah, the faction of Arafat and current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas called Habash a "historic leader," declared a three-day mourning period and ordered flags to fly at half-staff.

Habash and his group gained notoriety for the 1970 hijackings of airliners over the United States, Europe, the Far East and the Persian Gulf. The aircraft were blown up in the Middle East after passengers and crews disembarked.

Habash pressed the Palestinian cause through terrorist attacks in the 1970s, including the hijacking of an Air France airliner to Entebbe, where four civilians were killed during a rescue operation by Israeli paratroopers.

The group also was responsible for gunning down 27 people at Israel's Lod airport in May 1972. And it was behind what is considered one of the first Palestinian hijackings, of an Israeli El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1968. PFLP gunmen ordered it flown to Algeria; no one was hurt.

Habash did not mastermind the attacks, but he became a prime target for Israel's secret service.

An uncompromising revolutionary, particularly after the Arabs' catastrophic defeat by Israel in 1967, he refused to ally himself unconditionally with any Arab government, unlike many of his contemporaries.

Habash fled his home town of Lydda, in what is now Israel, in 1948 and graduated first in his 1951 class at the American University of Beirut. He launched the Popular Front in December 1967, six months after the Arabs lost the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights to Israel.

Habash opposed interim peace agreements with Israel, in part because they did not require Israel to stop settlement construction. Throughout his life, he supported the use of violence against Israel, arguing that Israel would not make the concessions required for a peace agreement.

However, since the early 1980s, he came to support the PLO platform, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories and a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.

Habash frequently criticized Arafat, particularly during his attempts to negotiate with Israel. It was the PFLP's hijackings that did much to shape the image of the PLO as a terrorist organization. Israel refused to negotiate with it as a result.

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