George Habash died today. For me it's like the death of a distant relative with whom I'd had a blood feud for a generation.
My childhood in Lebanon before the war was steeped in the politics of people who agreed with George Habash. He was a Christian Arab, secular and nationalist, and therefore his analysis of events appealed to my own progressive Christian Arab nationalist relatives. His thinking and his social context were so similar to that of my family that the "national" difference of Palestinian vs. Lebanese mattered much less than the political and cultural vision he shared with us: a secular, pluralistic Arab society, with porous borders or none at all, with no sectarian discrimination, with popular power dismantling the oligarchs, and cultural activities like poetry, music and theater blossoming for everyone.
This vision sounds a lot like that of the kibbutzim, and in later years when I found myself in dialogue with Israelis, I discovered that the ones I liked the most were usually kibbutzniks, offspring of socialists and nationalists whose visions for a bright future looked a lot like those of Habash and the other Arab nationalists of my father's generation. Ironic.
However, even as a twelve-year-old listening to the political talk around me in South Lebanon 1974, I felt I could not accept the rejectionist stance of Habash and others. Why not negotiate with Israel for a state? Why keep killing people in lousy terrorist actions that achieve nothing and generally only kill the innocent, not the actual evildoers? Oh, Leila, you are an American, you are swayed by Zionist propaganda, was the argument I usually heard. Probably if I were having this conversation over at the Angry Arab, I would still get this response. I'm just another lily-livered bourgeois liberal, and my bona fides never quite make it in leftist Arab circles.
Update: Dr. As'ad Abu-Khalil, at Angry Arab, writes about Habash and the obituary in the NY Times:
"Shame on John Kifner, who should know better, for this lousy and inaccurate obituary. Notice that nowhere in the article does the author mention that Habash expelled Wadi` Haddad from PFLP over disagreements about hijackings and "international operations." And some of the hijackings mentioned in the article were undertaken by the separate organization set up by Wadi` Haddad and which used its own name (Foreign Operations-PFLP)."
Dr. Abu-Khalil is a political scientist and author of many works of history, including books on the history of modern Lebanon. He is a much more authoritative source on exactly what George Habash was up to than I am. He is not in conversation with me on this, but I take from his statement that my objection to Habash is unfounded; that Habash was against the violent acts that are usually attributed to him.
George Assatta in comments makes the argument that I should not object to violent revolutionary acts because the oppressors are so evil. This argument does not sway me. But Abu-Khalil claims something that, if true, changes my whole essay, which will continue below. Abu-Khalil claims that Habash was not in favor of terrorist acts, killing civilians and so forth.End update.
As the Lebanese civil war worked its way through Lebanon's villages and cantons like a metastatic cancer, my mistrust of those who espouse violent resistance was confirmed. Habash's PFLP was only one of the many violent leftist factions who ended up murdering civilians at random. My grandmother was killed in the sack of Mieh-Mieh 1985 by Palestinian and Lebanese leftist militia, and nobody who was responsible gave a s**t about what any of her offspring thought about Palestine.
Did violent right-wing factions do the same in Lebanon, and worse? Of course, and in the case of Mieh-Mieh, I blame the right-wingers for starting the fight that ended with my grandmother's murder and the pillage of Mieh-Mieh. But. How can I beat my breast and mourn for George Habash when he and his folk turned from rationalizing violence against Israelis to rationalizing violence against Lebanese or anybody else they didn't like that week? Palestinian infighting, including internal assassinations, cut down the best and the brightest of the movement from the 1970s onward.
My position against violent retribution stems from my childhood experiences in Lebanon. I don't believe that such methods work. I do believe that they always tend to backfire and cause suffering to all kinds of people outside the intended victims.
Am I a pacifist? Well, try to attack me or my children and you will see how pacifist I am. My grandfather was a hunter and I know I inherited a certain war-like spirit from him; I am fully capable of murder in self defense (whether I have the physical skill to do it is another matter - I never trained in weapons or martial arts). In the real world at the moment, countries need defenses to keep others from dominating them or stealing their resources. So I am not a pacifist per se.
Still, in my view, military force is never the most intelligent option. Blowing up a fence to open a border, with planning and strategy - now that's an intelligent option. Creating facts on the ground has worked very well for the Israelis in taking over the West Bank - now the Palestinians in Gaza seem to be trying a little of the same medicine. Be strategic in your fight.
Negotiating is always a good option. Just keep talking, even if you don't concede anything for a very long time. Talking is better than killing.
History will show that the violent resistance of the Palestinian movement did little to help their cause. Further, too many people, some of them allies of the Palestinians, suffered because of this violent resistance; and possibly the disarray and corruption of the movement since the 90s could be traced to its violent factions and history. I don't know. That's a sweeping judgment and I have not analyzed the evidence to back it up with "facts." Every government in power on the planet has a violent history, and in the end you cannot find any pure, unsullied leaders whose wisdom and benevolence extended to all humanity - not in power you can't.
History will also show that the horrific violence the Israelis have rained down on Arabs in Palestine and Lebanon will not help Israel in the end. The violence they inflict on others is poisoning their society, and the best of them know it. Ultimately that violence will not prevail. They will have to negotiate, and they will have to make concessions, and they will have to accept Arabs as human beings with rights equal to those of Jews.
My ambivalent history with the Palestinian secular nationalist movement is why you won't see me mourning George Habash as a great hero today. May he rest in peace, and may peaceful means to justice arise from the mistakes of players on all sides of the big heartbreak in Lebanon/Palestine/Israel. Allah 'yrhamu.
By the way, despite my airing of our old family wounds, I still affirm: there will be no peace for anybody in the Levant until the Palestinians have justice and a viable sovereign state. One state or two state - just get a solution.