The Left Has Played a Key Role in the Palestinian Struggle

The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas has dominated Palestinian politics since the 1990s. Yet for many years, the main challenge to Fatah came from the groups of the Palestinian left, which have made a huge contribution to the national movement.

Georges Habash, military leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Amman, Jordan, in 1970. (Genevieve Chauvel / Sygma via Getty Images)

The Palestinian left receives little attention in current discussions about Palestinian politics as its main factions appear marginalized, although they have historically made a huge contribution to the development of the Palestinian national movement. Today’s absence of a progressive option between two conservative nationalist parties, Fatah and Hamas, contributes to the impasse that Palestinians face in terms of political initiative.

To understand the marginalization of the Left, we have to consider not only some of the objective historical factors that undermined its political weight, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of political Islam. The inability to solve long-standing problems such as intraleftist fragmentation or the primacy of nationalism over class also represented key factors in the decline of the Palestinian left.

The PLO and the Left

At the end of the 1960s, Palestinian armed organizations had taken over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and transformed it into the main institutional platform of the modern Palestinian national movement. Yasser Arafat’s Fatah emerged as the dominant Palestinian faction, gaining immense popularity among Palestinian refugees in exile thanks to the introduction of some key political innovations.

Fatah spearheaded the idea that Palestinian nationalism and political agency should be autonomous from Arab patronage and that armed struggle was the key instrument for achieving liberation. Several other factions joined Fatah in the PLO, with those claiming a Marxist identity representing the main opposition to its leadership. By the time the armed organizations were in full control of the PLO in 1969, the Palestinian left was already displaying some of the long-standing problems that would mark its trajectory.

The most important PLO left-wing organization was, and still is, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group led by George Habash, a physician hailing from the town of Lydda, in today’s central Israel. Habash was also known as hakim al-thawra, “the wise man of the revolution” — a nickname that hinted at both his professional background (hakim means doctor in Levantine Arabic) and his charismatic leadership.

The PFLP was founded in 1967 as the Palestinian national section of one of the most important Arab transnational organizations, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN). During the 1960s, the MAN had moved closer to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who championed Arab nationalism and unification. This also entailed a shift to the left from the MAN’s traditional nationalist outlook as Nasser himself leaned more decidedly on the concept of “Arab socialism.”

After the crushing Arab defeat in the June 1967 war against Israel, Nasser’s Pan-Arabism lost its credibility as the major agent of Arab unification and Palestinian liberation. This left more space to factions such as Fatah, who first insisted that Palestinians themselves should lead the struggle for liberation. Habash and his followers understood that the time was ripe for a paradigmatic change in the MAN, and in December of that year, they founded the PFLP.

Splits in the PFLP

However, in its first two years of life, the PFLP suffered major splits. First in 1968, Ahmed Jibril, a former officer in the Syrian army, left the organization shortly after joining it and founded the PFLP–General Command. Jibril argued that he had little interest in the PFLP’s ideological debates and was more interested in organizing armed resistance.

Possibly more painful than Jibril’s breakaway was the decision by the then left wing of the PFLP to leave the organization in 1969 and follow the leadership of Nayef Hawatmeh. Hawatmeh, a Jordanian national, and his followers, who were mostly gathered around the magazine al-Hourriah, contested Habash’s authoritarian leadership, which they viewed as leaning excessively to the right.

However, personal rivalries possibly mattered more than ideological differences in the split, as Hawatmeh resented Habash’s popularity and charismatic aura. After securing protection from Arafat’s Fatah, particularly for his comrades’ offices in Lebanon, Hawatmeh left the PFLP and founded the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (later renamed simply the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or DFLP). The name was intended to highlight the allegedly undemocratic leadership of the mother organization.

Habash was now left with a diminished organization that nonetheless still enjoyed significant popularity and was loyal to its secretary general. In 1969, the PFLP issued its political manifesto and adopted Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology. The PFLP’s ideological and organizational platforms reflected the influence of global Marxism. Maoism and the Vietnamese experience clearly embodied some key role models for Habash and comrades.

Unlike Fatah, the PFLP (as well as the DFLP) did not just seek Palestinian liberation and the creation of a democratic state in the whole of mandatory Palestine. They believed in a wider revolution that would bring about socialism across the region and overthrow “Arab reactionary regimes.” In this perspective, Arab reaction and Zionism were both seen as local pawns of global imperialism, led by the United States.

In the late 1960s, both the PFLP and the DFLP directed their vitriolic rhetoric at the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This was the state where the PLO had its headquarters and Palestinians had the best chance of creating an “Arab Hanoi” to support guerrilla warfare against Israel.

Despite the ideological differences with Fatah, the PFLP still subscribed to the same shared values and practices that formed the core of the PLO charter. By doing so, the PFLP acknowledged the primacy of those ideas that Fatah had first introduced to the national movement, especially Palestinian nationalism.

The PFLP would remain loyal throughout the decades to the PLO framework despite its role of hard-line opposition. The organization consistently reaffirmed the preeminence of the national dimension of its struggle over the socialist, revolutionary line.

From Jordan to Lebanon

The calls for an Arab revolution clearly reflected the Arab nationalist legacy of the MAN but put the PFLP and DFLP at odds with Fatah, whose leaders strove to maintain a balance for the PLO in Jordan. During its revolutionary years, until roughly 1972, the PFLP became renowned in the world for its “external operations” — specifically, the plane hijackings that made the figure of Leila Khaled a global revolutionary icon.

While this strategy achieved its goal of drawing the world’s attention to the Palestinian struggle, it also precipitated a confrontation between the PLO and the Hashemite rulers of Jordan. In September 1970, the PFLP’s landing of three hijacked aircraft at Dawson’s Fields, a former British air base, was the spark for the crisis, as King Hussein ordered the army to move against the Palestinian armed organizations. Following what became known as “Black September,” clashes continued into 1971, and the PLO was eventually forced to relocate its headquarters in Beirut.

Once in Lebanon, the entire PLO entered a new political phase, one where revolution and armed struggle stood alongside diplomacy and institutional development. By 1974, the PLO had adopted this approach as its official line, with the organization declaring its readiness to establish a “combatant Palestinian national authority over any part of liberated land,” foreshadowing the explicit acceptance of a two-state solution. In fact, the DFLP was the first Palestinian faction to propose such a political shift, which Fatah quickly endorsed.

The PFLP was caught in the middle and rejected the new line, deeming it to be a “deviation” from the PLO charter. Habash’s organization faced a significant dilemma, pulled between its loyalty to the PLO framework and its adherence to the role of radical opposition.

Much of the PFLP’s popular support rested on its uncompromising position over Palestinian liberation and its ability to perform its revolutionary role. In Jordan, there had been a real chance for the PFLP to launch a revolutionary transformation, whereas in Lebanon, the balance between its two main political objectives was more difficult to strike.

However, the Lebanese context still offered some revolutionary opportunities to the Palestinian left. The local Lebanese National Movement, led by Kamal Jumblatt, aimed to overcome the traditional confessional system upon which state power rested and saw in the Palestinian armed presence a potential partner. While Fatah tried to avoid being dragged into Lebanese internal confrontations, the PFLP and DFLP saw in Jumblatt’s initiative another chance to bring revolution to an Arab state.

When the civil war broke out in 1975, it was clear that the PLO could not remain uninvolved in the conflict. After all, a shooting incident directed against Palestinian fighters ended up being considered the first episode of the war. The Lebanese militias controlled by conservative factions, particularly Christian Maronites, feared the political and demographic threat that the PLO posed to the status quo.

Palestinian organizations became heavily involved in the war, as their main goal was to protect the sanctuary that they had built in the country. In the second half of the 1970s, solidarity with fellow Palestinians helped the PFLP bridge its gaps with the rest of the national movement. Revolutionary transformation gave way as a goal to national survival.

The second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, after the first had already occupied a portion of south Lebanon in 1978, marked a watershed in the history of the whole PLO and of the Palestinian left specifically. After a summer-long siege, the PLO was forced to leave its Beirut base and relocate to distant Tunis. Meanwhile, the PFLP and the DFLP moved their headquarters to Damascus, where the looming eyes of the regime of Hafez al-Assad imposed a much more restrictive environment on the Palestinian left.

The First Intifada

After 1982, the left groups appeared to have been deprived of any room for revolutionary initiative. Armed struggle, as practiced until then, did achieve international recognition for the wider national movement but had delivered neither liberation nor revolution in the Arab world. Fatah and the PLO leadership now bet everything on diplomacy and sought to gain US recognition as a fundamental, preliminary step to enter direct negotiations with Israel.

For its part, the PFLP could not accept this further turn toward diplomacy but was unable to propose an alternative vision. In addition, George Habash was unable to exert his strong leadership in the way that he had done before after suffering a stroke in 1980 that significantly weakened his ability to work.

The outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 represented a golden opportunity to find a way out of the political deadlock that had been restricting the capacity for Palestinian initiative. The broad civil uprising in the occupied territories shifted the PLO’s balance from the diaspora to the homeland. For the PLO leadership, it was an occasion to find more leverage for its diplomatic efforts. For the PFLP and the Left, on the other hand, it was a chance to close the gap with Fatah and renew their revolutionary credentials.

However, the First Intifada also saw the birth of the first Palestinian organization outside of the PLO framework to gain wide popular support. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, was established soon after the eruption of the uprisings and rapidly presented itself as the new radical Palestinian option. This not only threatened the status of the PLO but also jeopardized the role of the Palestinian left, particularly the PFLP, which still positioned itself as the hard-line opposition to Fatah’s deviations.

Several other prominent factors emerged during the early 1990s that placed the whole left and particularly the PFLP in a critical situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 undermined the credibility of Marxist parties on a global level. At the Palestinian level, this event did not prompt major transformations in the ideological and organizational outlook of left-wing organizations. Only the Palestinian Communist Party rebranded itself as the Palestine People’s Party and adopted a social democratic profile.

The PFLP appeared particularly inactive in the face of this major global challenge as well as the changed situation that the Intifada had resulted in for Palestinian factions. At its fifth national congress in 1993, the PFLP failed to update its vision for socialist transformation and restated its adherence to the 1969 ideological statement. At the same time, the traditional leadership did not allow the new leaders from Palestine who had emerged during the Intifada to gain adequate representation in the organization.

After Oslo

In late summer of that year, the PLO leadership and the Israeli government declared the achievement of a framework for a peace process, part of the so-called Oslo Accords. This turn of events caught the Palestinian left off-guard. The PFLP and the DFLP, alongside Hamas, rejected the secret deal that had been reached in the Norwegian capital, although a small group in the DFLP left the organization and founded the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) to lend their support to Arafat’s initiative.

As the ostensible Israeli-Palestinian peace process progressed and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was established, the PFLP and DFLP strove to build a coalition in opposition to it with Hamas and other rejectionist factions. This initiative proved to be short-lived as leftists and Islamists found little common ground and could not overcome mutual distrust. In the 1990s, both the PFLP and the DFLP gradually came to terms with the new reality. While officially maintaining their rejection of the Oslo framework, they pragmatically looked for a way to influence the new reality.

Party members were allowed to join the lower ranks of the PNA bureaucracy, while top leaders considered returning to Palestine in the context of the peace process. In 1999, for instance, Abu Ali Mustafa, deputy secretary general of the PFLP, was allowed to return to the West Bank to organize the resistance in the occupied territories, as official statements maintained.

At the same time, however, many left-wing activists abandoned their faction to join the mushrooming sector of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Left looked at civil society as the new bulwark of resistance against both the occupation and the PNA’s growing authoritarianism. Yet dependence on Western funding and the conditions that came with it deprived the NGOs of much of their progressive potential. Within the framework of NGO work, social activism was professionalized, and a single-issue approach became prominent.

In stark contrast, Hamas widened its social base during this period through a large network of popular organizations that did not depend on external finance and were thus able to mobilize popular support for the party’s line and ethos. Leftist factions had been losing membership and their opposition appeared toothless as both the PFLP and DFLP had practically reconciled with Fatah and accepted the Oslo framework.

The Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000, sealed the marginalization of the Palestinian left. In the context of a militarized uprising, the PFLP and DFLP’s armed branches could not match the strength of Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades or Fatah’s Martyrs of Al-Aqsa.

In 2000, Habash resigned his position, and Abu Ali Mustafa became secretary general of the PFLP, underscoring the importance that the PFLP ascribed to reorganizing resistance in the occupied territories. However, an Israeli air strike on his office in Al-Bireh assassinated the new PFLP leader in August 2001.

While the Intifada raged on, the PFLP elected Ahmad Sa’adat, a leader of the PFLP’s West Bank branch, as new secretary general. However, Sa’adat too would shortly afterward be incapacitated in his leading role. First the PNA arrested him in 2002 because of his role in the killing of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze’evi as revenge for Mustafa’s death. The Israeli army subsequently took Sa’adat from the PNA jail to one of its own prisons, where he remains to this day.

The Palestinian Left Today

The Second Intifada would come to an end in 2005, leaving the PFLP leadership in a bad shape. As for the DFLP, an aging Hawatmeh continued to occupy the position of secretary general, but he was based in Damascus, far away from the territories. In the hectic years that followed the Second Intifada and Arafat’s death in 2004, the Palestinian left appeared squeezed between the rising opposition of Hamas and a fragmented Fatah that nonetheless still embodied the PNA’s ruling party.

The scattered participation of the left-wing factions in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PNA parliament, testified to their inability to play a meaningful role in the growing polarization of Palestinian politics. The PFLP won three seats out of 132 with a little over 4 percent of the vote. The DFLP ran a joint list with the People’s Party and FIDA that called itself the Alternative; it took two seats with just under 3 percent. The Palestinian National Initiative of Mustafa Barghouti, a former People’s Party leader who had stood against Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 presidential election, also won two seats.

Hamas was the overall victor, and its rivalry with Fatah eventually resulted in full-blown conflict between the two groups. As this was unfolding, the Palestinian left sought to play a mediating role but was unable to influence the course of events. The entire left condemned the 2007 takeover of Gaza by Hamas, while acknowledging the responsibilities of Fatah for escalating the crisis.

In the years that followed, Palestinian leftist factions continued to focus on reconciliation efforts. Their membership kept declining along with their impact on Palestinian society.  For instance, left-wing students’ groups affiliated to the main parties have not been performing well in university elections.

Some prominent figures in Palestinian politics kept rising from the ranks of the Left, such as the PFLP’s Khalida Jarrar. However, against the background of worsening economic conditions in the occupied territories and growing authoritarianism by both Palestinian administrations in Gaza and the West Bank under the weight of a crushing occupation, the left factions have been unable to propose an alternative view for liberation and mobilize popular support accordingly.

Ideological and organizational renewal continues to elude the major groups. For example, the PFLP has continued reelecting Sa’adat as secretary general in his prison cell, underscoring its inability to find a new leader who could oversee party affairs from outside prison.

More broadly, the inability of the Left to renew its vision for Palestinian liberation remains a central problem. Left parties, much like the other Palestinian organizations, remain tied to traditional views that emerged during the 1960s. They have failed to elaborate an alternative that might depart from the historical paradigms of Palestinian nationalism and focus more precisely on the core contradictions of the question of Palestine and of the Palestinian national movement.

How to rebuild an institutional platform that might provide legitimate and comprehensive political representation to the Palestinian people? How to elaborate a vision for self-determination detached from an impossible two-state solution? How to provide an analysis and a political response to the colonial relations of power existing not only in the occupied territories but throughout Israel/Palestine? How to return political representation and involvement to Palestinian refugees in exile?

While the brutal Israeli war in Gaza continues with no end in sight, pondering these questions might appear irrelevant. Nonetheless, from a longer-term perspective, the absence of a viable Palestinian political platform is a vital missing piece in the struggle to achieve equality and self-determination for Palestinians.

The Palestinian left in all its diversity could draw upon its historical and intellectual legacy within the national movement to provide fresh perspectives on the major problems of the Palestinian question. Yet the traditional organizations appear to have exhausted most of their political credibility and show little interest in meaningful renewal. The outstanding question then remains as to whether left-wing ideas and practices can find an effective vehicle in the existing frameworks or will have to seek new institutional channels.