The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – PFLP

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – PFLP

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The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was founded in July 1967.  Its origins can be traced to the Palestine Section within the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), which, since the early 1960s, had started to encourage members to enroll in military colleges in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. The Palestine Section launched its military operations in late 1964 and lost its first martyr, Khalid Abu Aysha, on 12 November 1964. Then, it started to carry out its military operations through small units called Heroes of Return, which included fighters from the ANM and the Palestine Liberation Army, or through the fedayee [commando] organization set up by the Palestine Section under the name Revenge Youth. However, these operations remained limited in scope and were usually not publicized to avoid dragging Egypt and Syria into a war with Israel that they were not ready for, in accordance with the slogan “more than zero and less than entanglement.”


In the aftermath of the June 1967 war, the executive committee of the ANM decided that the Palestine Section should move toward armed struggle. So, from early August, the group commenced military operations in the Gaza Strip as part of “the Vanguard of Popular Resistance,” while in the West Bank five local military commands were established. These were linked to a central field command in Ramallah, headed by Mustafa al-Zibri (Abu Ali Mustafa). On 11 December, three commando groups merged—the Revenge Youth, Heroes of Return, and the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) —to announce the founding of the PFLP. (The PLF had been founded in 1964 under the command of Ahmad Jibril, a Palestinian who had previously been an officer in the Syrian army.) A group of Jordanian Nasserist army officers, headed by Ahmad Zaarour, and some unaffiliated figures were also instrumental in the PFLP’s founding. The primary objective of its leadership was to make the PFLP the nucleus of a broad “national front.” Instead, when the commando factions wrested control of the PLO, the PFLP leadership decide to abandon this objective and join the PLO.

The progress of the front as a coalition quickly faltered due to political differences, particularly between the Arab nationalist wing, led by George Habash, Wadie Haddad, Mustafa al-Zibri, and Ahmad al-Yamani, which was leaning toward the left, and the wing of the PLF, led by Ahmad Jibril, who, in October 1968, decided to withdraw and form a separate group named the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Then, in February 1969, a number of PFLP leaders, headed by Nayif Hawatmah, declared that it was impossible for “a petit-bourgeois group to turn into a Marxist-Leninist one” and decided to form a new organization, called the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In August 1970 a group of Nasserist Jordanian army officers led by Ahmad Zaarour also split from the PFLP to form the Arab Palestine Organization. (It later merged with Fatah.) In March 1972, a significant number of the front’s “left-wing” cadre split to form the Popular Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was short-lived.

The PFLP’s Ideological Underpinnings

In its founding manifesto, the PFLP argued that the defeat of the Arab armies in June 1967 represented “the beginning of a new stage of revolutionary work in which the masses would assume responsibility for leading the fight against imperialism and Zionism through revolutionary violence.” The Front was clearly moving slowly toward the left and ascribing a social character to the struggle for national liberation. This leftward turn was confirmed at the convening of its first conference in August 1968, when its alignment with “proletarian ideology” was clearly declared. In its second conference, held in February 1969, the front adopted “a form” of “Asian Marxism” based on the writings of Mao Tse-Tung and Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, which focused on the primacy of armed struggle over political activism. It identified the enemies of the Palestinian revolution as “Israel, the world Zionist movement, global imperialism and Arab reactionaries.” It stressed that the struggle for Palestine was intertwined with the broader struggle for Arab liberation and called for the Palestinian revolution to ally with the national liberation movement in Vietnam, the revolutionary “situation” in Cuba and North Korea, and all other anti-imperialist national liberation movements. It considered itself to be “an advanced vanguard faction of the Palestinian working class and wage laborers in general, fighting alongside other leftist and democratic Palestinian factions to build the party of the working class that shall perform its historic role in liberating the Palestinian masses from national and class subjugation.” At the same time, it specified the strategic goal of the Palestinian struggle to be “the liberation of Palestine from the colonialist Zionist occupation, and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state on the entire land of historic Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Development of the PFLP’s Political Positions and Approaches to Struggle

After the 1967 defeat, the PFLP strove to build support bases from which to conduct armed struggle inside the West Bank. Through its armed units led by Muhammad al-Aswad (often referred to by Palestinians as the Guevara of Gaza), it helped to make the Gaza Strip an arena of daily resistance to Israeli forces, until late 1971. Starting from 23 July 1968, the PFLP’s “foreign operations branch,” chaired by Wadie Haddad, began a series of operations under the slogan “Pursue the enemy everywhere.” An armed group belonging to this branch hijacked a flight of the Israeli El Al airline that was flying from Rome to Lydd airport and forced it to land in Algiers. This branch also carried out a number of military strikes at “imperialist” assets, such as the operation to blow up the oil pipeline that ran through the Golan Heights and the operation to strike the Coral Sea oil tanker, among others.

After the phenomenon of commando operations subsided in the occupied Palestinian territories, the PFLP planned for Jordan to be the external base for the armed Palestinian resistance and floated the idea of turning Amman into the “Arab Hanoi.” It also opposed the ratification of the Rogers Plan by Egypt and Jordan in June 1970. Between 6–9 September of the same year, it hijacked three Swiss and American airplanes and forced them to land in an airfield near Zarqa in Jordan that it named “Revolution Airport,” after which it blew them up on 12 September. Consequently, the PLO’s central committee froze the PFLP’s membership in the committee. 

After the expulsion of the Palestinian resistance forces from Jordan, the PFLP believed that one of the biggest mistakes of the revolution had been its focus on its “Palestinian” narrow nature and its positioning as “the complete alternative to the Jordanian national movement.” It believed that this had been due to the resistance leadership, which “broadly speaking” represented the “alliance of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie.” 

After moving most of its fighters to Lebanon, the PFLP emphasized that the aim of the resistance in Lebanon specifically aimed to ensure “its presence and to freely engage in all forms of combat against the Israeli enemy.” Wadie Haddad was also able to operate a network of alliances for the foreign operations branch with a number of radical organizations such as the Japanese Red Army, the German Baader-Meinhof Group, and the Italian Red Brigades. In late May 1972, this branch’s fighters carried out an attack on Lydd airport in collaboration with a cell of the Japanese Red Army that resulted in dozens killed and injured. According to a statement given by George Habash in Beirut on 14 March 1972, a decision had been taken by the PFLP’s executive committee during its meeting on 5 November 1970 to stop airplane hijackings. However, Wadie Haddad insisted on continuing these operations and subsequently masterminded the hijacking of a French airliner in June 1976, which he redirected to Entebbe airport in Uganda, which forced the PFLP leadership to expel him, along with all the other members of the external operations branch. 

After the October 1973 war, the PFLP opposed the participation of the PLO in any efforts to reach a peace agreement; in its view, the goal of these efforts was to liquidate the armed struggle and to establish a Palestinian state that would not be “a nationalist state,” nor would it form a basis for continuing the struggle. After the conclusion of the twelfth session of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in June 1974, in which the Interim Political Program (the Ten-Point Program) was adopted, the front withdrew its delegate from the PLO’s executive committee on 26 September 1974. Then, in partnership with three other commando organizations, it participated in the founding of the Palestinian Rejectionist Front against Surrender Solutions on 15 October 1974, which opposed the PLO’s interim program.

When the Lebanese civil war broke out in mid-April 1975, the PFLP entered the war on the side of the Lebanese National Movement, like the other factions in the PLO. Then, when Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat visited Jerusalem on 19 November 1977, the PFLP held all proponents of “a political settlement” responsible for “Sadat’s treacherous initiative,” including the PLO leadership. It joined a broad national Palestinian consensus in condemning the Camp David accords and the self-government scheme for the occupied territories in September 1978. 

The PFLP’s shift toward the “phasist” approach began during the fourteenth session of the PNC in Damascus, held 15–22 September 1979, which adopted “the political and organizational program for national unity.” This program reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people “to establish their democratic state on the entirety of historic Palestine” and its “right to return and to self-determination on its land without foreign interference and to establish its independent state on its national soil without condition or restriction.” This move was entrenched during the front’s fourth conference, convened in April 1981, whose manifesto indicated that during struggle, “parts of Palestine may be liberated by the revolution, and it would be natural for it to establish a state on those parts it has control over.” It also reversed its previous critical stance on the Soviet Union and now emphasized the necessity of allying with it “so as to make the forging of ties between the Palestinian national revolution and the worldwide revolution possible,” and confirmed the front’s intent “to build deeper, more secure relationships with the Arab communist parties.”

After the exit of the PLO forces from Beirut, the PFLP moved its headquarters to Damascus. It also started giving increasingly higher priority to strengthening its presence in the Palestinian occupied territories, by concentrating on developing mass organizations for youth, workers, women and students. After the split that occurred within Fatah, and Yasir Arafat’s visit to Cairo in December 1983, it participated in the formation of the Democratic Alliance in March 1984, which allied it with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Communist Party, and the PLF. Then, after the signing of the Palestinian-Jordanian Joint Action Agreement between Arafat and King Hussein in February 1985, the front took part in the formation of the Palestinian National Salvation Front, meant as “a temporary coalition to work toward bringing back the PLO to the path of national liberation.” However, when the Palestinian-Jordanian agreement collapsed in February 1986, the PNC convened a reunification meeting in April 1987 in Algiers, with the participation of the PFLP.

After the first intifada broke out in December 1987, the PFLP became active in it and was also one of the groups in the Intifada’s “unified national leadership.” It welcomed the “declaration of independence” statement during the nineteenth session of the PNC, convened in Algiers in November 1988, which announced Palestine as an independent state based on UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), but voiced its reservations to the council’s statement that contained its approval of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. In October 1991, it was one of ten Palestinian organizations (along with the Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad) that put out a statement opposing on principle Palestinian participation in the Madrid peace conference. Then, as part of the same Ten Organizations Coalition, it condemned the Oslo Agreement in September 1993. Since then, the front has maintained its opposition to the strategy of the PLO that led to Oslo, while emphasizing the importance of preserving the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and opposing any plans to create an alternative to it.

The PFLP has held seven general conferences since its first one in August 1968, the most recent of which was held 28 November–3 December 2013. In it, the PFLP re-asserted “the continuation of our people’s struggle, which the PFLP is a part of, to achieve our strategic goal—the liberation of every inch of Palestine from the colonial Zionist occupation and to establish the Palestinian state on the entire Palestinian soil,” and called for “working towards building and reinforcing the unity of the Palestinian people—its most powerful weapon in its struggle for national liberation and to do whatever is needed to break the vicious cycle of internal infighting,” which began in June 2007 between Fatah and Hamas. 

George Habash had served as general secretary of the National Front’s central committee since its establishment and decided to step down in 2000. During the PFLP’s sixth general conference, held in July 2000, Abu Ali Mustafa was elected to succeed him. Israeli occupation forces assassinated Abu Ali Mustafa on 27 August 2001, in a targeted strike on his office in al-Bireh after he and several other senior PFLP members and party cadres had returned to settle in the West Bank or Gaza. Then on 3 October 2001, the central committee elected Ahmad Saadat as the new general secretary. However, Saadat was soon arrested in mid-January 2002 by the Palestinian Authority’s security forces after the organization’s armed wing, the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, assassinated extremist Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi on 17 October 2001, and held him first at Arafat’s headquarters, and on 1 May 2002, in Jericho under American and British guard. In March 2006, Israeli special forces stormed the prison where he was being held and kidnapped him, along with a group of other Palestinian prisoners, and imprisoned them in Ofer prison. 

The overall decline in the influence of all left-wing groups in Palestinian politics since the 1990s, and the entrenched rift between Fatah and Hamas, has affected the PFLP as well. Nevertheless, the PFLP remains the most powerful presence among the leftist organizations.

Selected Bibliography: 

Bröning, Michael. Political Parties in Palestine: Leadership and Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Habash, Georges. Les révolutionnaires ne meurent jamais; conversations avec Georges Malbrunot. Paris: Fayard, c2008.

Habash, Georges. We Shall Be Victorious. Beirut: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Information Department, 1973.

Historical Documents of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine at pflp-documents.org

Itayyem, Mashhur Sirhan. The Palestine National Struggle: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Transformation of Ideology. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1977.

Kazziha, Walid W. Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and his Comrades from Nationalism to Marxism. London: C. Knight, 1975.

The Military Strategy of the P.F.L.P. Beirut: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Information Department, 1970.

Palestine: Towards a Democratic Solution. Beirut: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Information Department, 1970.

Palestine Lives: Interviews with Leaders of the Resistance: Khaled al-Hassan, Fateh, Abu Iyad, Fateh, George Habash, PFLP, Nayef Hawatmeh, PDFLP, Sami al-Attari, Sa'iqa, A.W. Sa'id, Arab Liberation Front. Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization, Research Center, 1973.

Saadat. Ahmad. “Leading from Prison, Ending Negotiations, and Rebuilding the Resistance” (Interview). Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 86-101.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the Search for State: the Palestine National Movement, 1949-1993. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.