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George Habash: Palestinian terrorist leader

George Habash, political leader: born Lydda, Palestine 2 August 1925; Secretary-General, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine 1967-2000; married (two daughters);died Amman 26 January 2008

For more than 30 years, the Palestinian militant leader George Habash was one of the best-known, most public, of all international terrorists, but during that time he was imprisoned just once – by the Syrians. In the West, in the years before al-Qa'ida, he was ranked second only to Abu Nidal in the demonology of terrorism, yet in the Arab world and among the extreme left of many countries, he was regarded much more as an ideologue and theorist than as the action man feared by airlines and security services.

Habash became an international figure in 1970, when he was credited with organising the mass hijacking of planes bound for New York to a remote airstrip in Jordan. Guerrillas of Habash's movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, simultaneously seized Swiss, American and Israeli aircraft. The hijackers forced the Swiss and American planes to fly to Dawson's Field in Jordan, but Israeli guards foiled the hijack of El Al flight 219 from Amsterdam, killing a South American hijacker working for the PFLP and capturing Leila Khaled, who was arrested – after some dispute with her captors – by the British at Heathrow Airport.

Within the next few days a second American plane was seized, flown to Cairo and blown up, while a British plane with a number of schoolchildren going on their holidays was forced to join the other two in Jordan to be used to press the British for the release of Leila Khaled. She was in fact set free, and later took part in other terrorist operations (and is now a senior political figure in the PFLP).

This mass hijacking, which led directly to the war in Jordan in which King Hussein's Bedouin troops defeated the Palestinians who had established their state within a state in his kingdom, brought Habash the sort of international recognition which until then he had enjoyed only among the Arabs.

Habash, who trained as a doctor, was then a white-haired, chain-smoking figure who exerted a tremendous fascination on all those he met. Before the war in Jordan, he would hold open house at his offices in Amman, conducting non-stop seminars with any who went to see him. So strong was his personality, so great his charm, that many an impressionable young man or woman would have been quite ready to plant bombs on his behalf if he had asked. But, for all his reputation, Habash was not the mastermind of terror that he was made out to be.

It was the man who joined him in founding the Arab Nationalist Movement, the precursor of the PFLP, who was the real architect of what was done. Wadi Haddad, who died mysteriously in 1978, was as self-effacing and publicity-shy as Habash was keen to be seen and to explain. It was Haddad who was the brains behind the terrorism, with his own group within the organisation, and his own friends and backers.

George Habash came from a Greek Orthodox family in Lydda, Palestine, and was seared by his experiences in the 1948 war, when he was forced out of his home, later going back to organise help for the thousands of refugees. Returning to the American University of Beirut, he founded the Arab Nationalist Movement in 1951 with Hani al Hindi, and soon established guerrilla groups to attack Israeli targets. In 1954 the Lebanese authorities expelled the activists, who were given a home and a warm welcome by Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt.

Habash now set out to form a mass Arab movement, but succeeded only in far-off South Yemen, where he helped the nationalists to force the British out. Then came years of internal wrangling and the kind of splits and amalgamations and conspiracies for which Arab politics are famous, until Habash emerged as the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The group pioneered hijacking in the Palestinian cause when in 1968 it seized an El Al airliner and flew it to Algiers, where the hijackers were able to force Israel to release some prisoners. A second hijack that year met a sterner Israeli response: after an attack on an El Al plane at Athens, an Israeli commando unit landed at Beirut airport and blew up 13 Arab planes parked there.

After the mass hijackings of 1970 – about which Habash certainly knew in advance, though he did not organise them – a powerful faction within the PFLP rebelled against Haddad's ''external operations'', and with Habash, turned once again to Arab politics. But it was a maverick course they took, opposing the policies of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organisation, and joining Syria and Libya in the ''rejection front'', dedicated to preventing any partial solution to the Middle East crisis. The Syrians and Libyans were playing politics, but Habash, still something of a dreamer, apparently believed it would be possible to bring about the end of Israel and set up an Arab state in the whole disputed territory.

In 1980 Habash suffered the first of the massive strokes which was to leave him partly paralysed. He recovered, but was never again able to exert the same influence as he had in earlier times.

Yet Habash's influence, for all the brief period in which he was personally active, had far-reaching and lasting consequences. His ideas, based on Marxist-Leminist theory, provided the one counter-weight to the ideas of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Habash preached that ''the road to Jerusalem runs through Amman'' – or any other Arab capital he regarded as reactionary. He still saw the one hope of success for the Palestinians as a mass movement of all the Arabs, rather than as a Palestinian struggle.

Even when he was severely affected by ill health, he remained a charismatic figure, drawing huge and enthusiastic crowds when in 1988 he was at last allowed to return to Amman for a meeting of the Palestine National Council – for all his opposition to Arafat's policies, Habash was more often than not a member of that umbrella group, needed by Arafat to quiet the left wing, and needing Arafat to give his splinter group some weight.

Habash never commanded more than a thousand or so guerrillas, yet his influence permeated the whole Palestinian movement. His idealism, his refusal to bother with the day-to-day affairs of politics, endeared him to a whole generation of young Arabs – and influenced many Western radicals as well. He was always happier sitting arguing in an office than out with his men in the field – on the one occasion he tried to fight with them, in northern Jordan after the ''Black September'' of 1970, his senior commanders had to tell him that starry-eyed idealism was no substitute for military realism. In Beirut in 1982, too, he was all for fighting to the death, when Arafat and more hard-headed leaders were already negotiating a way out for the Palestininan fighters.

In later years, Habash was marginalised by the rise of Islamist movements and the Oslo peace process, which he persistently opposed. Attempts at a reconciliation with Arafat in 1999 failed and Habash resigned from the PFLP leadership in 2000.

George Habash was not responsible for the reign of terror with which he was credited in the West, though he did inspire others to carry out the operations devised by Wadi Haddad, and created the climate which made them possible. For all his fearsome reputation, he was a gentle man more at home with ideas than action. And always choosing the wrong side in any real political dilemma.

John Bulloch