Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command
|Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command
الجبهة الشعبية لتحرير فلسطين- القيادة العامة
|General Secretary||Ahmed Jibril|
|Paramilitary wings||Jihad Jibril Brigades|
|International affiliation||Linked to the Syrian Government|
|Politics of Palestine
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (الجبهة الشعبية لتحرير فلسطين - القيادة العامة) or PFLP-GC is a small Palestinian nationalist militant organization based in Syria. It was founded in 1968 by Ahmed Jibril after splitting from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In the 1970s and 1980s it was involved in the Palestinian insurgency in South Lebanon and launched a number of attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians; including the Avivim school bus massacre (1970), the bombing of Swissair Flight 330 (1970), the Kiryat Shmona massacre (1974) and the Night of the Gliders (1987). Since the late 1980s it has been largely inactive, but during the Syrian civil war it fought for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
It is sometimes called the Popular Liberation Front of Palestine – General Command (PLFP-GC).
The group has a paramilitary wing called the Jihad Jibril Brigades.
Jibril joined with George Habash in 1967 as more or less an equal partner in the PFLP leadership. When he quickly tired of the group's lack of field initiative, he was therefore still able to leave while retaining a significant retainer of his previous supporters. One of his most hated enemies within the group, Naif Hawatmeh, unintentionally provided him with the pretext: While Jibril wrestled with Habash over why the Popular Front was so dependent on theoretical discussion rather than armed struggle, Hawatmeh tried to influence the PFLP in the direction of an ideology as leftist as possible.
Jibril decided that Hawatmeh's theorizing was chafing the PFLP and producing an organization of impotent intellectuals, and declared as such when he formed the General Command. Habash, he stated, had become a puppet to the professors of the exile, the elite among the refugees who were well-educated and wealthy, yet preached class revolution to the masses in the camps.
The PFLP-GC was founded in 1968 as a Syrian-backed splinter group from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It was - and still is - headed by Secretary-General Ahmed Jibril, also known by the kunya "Abu Jihad" (not to be confused with Khalil al-Wazir, the head of Fatah's armed wing who used the same nom de guerre), a former military officer in the Syrian Army who had been one of the PFLP's early leaders. The PFLP-GC declared that its primary focus would be military, not political, complaining that the PFLP had been devoting too much time and resources to Marxist philosophizing.
Although the group was initially a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it always opposed Yasser Arafat and opposes any political settlement with Israel; for this reason, it has never participated in the peace process. The PFLP-GC left the PLO in 1974 to join the Rejectionist Front, protesting what they saw as the PLO's move towards an accommodation with Israel in the Arafat-backed Ten Point Program of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Unlike most of the organizations involved in the Rejectionist Front, the PFLP-GC never resumed its role within the PLO.
From the start, the PFLP-GC was more concentrated on means than ends. They never depended on a political platform; most of their recruits were young, exiled, poor, illiterate, and angry. The General Command promised a gun in every hand, and the means to write their own narrative rather than read and praise those of others as the better off exiles did in universities in Europe.
Jibril still used iron discipline to keep his fighters loyal and professional, and the General Command's insurgents were as a result for decades considered the best trained of any of the Palestinian guerrilla groups. What may have helped Jibril was Hawatmeh's own 1969 defection from the PFLP to form the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP, later without the "Popular"), after Habash tried to compensate for some of the problems that had caused Jibril's exit.
1970s and 1980s
In the 1970s and 1980s, the group carried out a number of attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, and gained notoriety for using spectacular means. After 1969 Habash could no longer claim that he was the head of the true organization, as all three of the group's original triumvirate were now separate. Nevertheless, due to the PFLP's spectacular successes, including the Dawson's Field hijackings (September 1970), Lod Airport Massacre (1971), and coordination with the Fatah-backed Black September group in the Munich Olympic killings (September 5–6, 1972), Habash continued to be the first among equals among the Rejectionist Front, the groups that refused any permanent settlement in a framework other than military victory.
From 1970-73, the group targeted a number of aircraft; typically having members seduce single young women and promise them a life of adventure and love - often while getting them addicted to drugs - before asking them to carry some cash and a mysterious package onto a flight to Tel Aviv. While the girls assumed they were helping their "boyfriends" pass drugs, they were unknowingly carrying explosives.
On February 21, 1970, the group used its first barometric triggers to detonate two in-flight airliners nearly simultaneously. A Swissair flight to Tel Aviv that fell in Aargau Canton, killing 41, and an Austrian Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, which actually failed to destroy the aircraft, which made an emergency landing. The PFLP-GC was also responsible for the Avivim school bus massacre in 1970 and the Kiryat Shmona massacre in 1974.
Jibril focused on carving out a stake of the PLO recruitment in Lebanese refugee camps. While Fatah absorbed enormous casualties in the 1982 Lebanon War, the General Command succeeded in surviving, and at the end retained most of its previous manpower.
In one of its most famous attacks, a PFLP-GC guerrilla landed a motorized hang glider (apparently supplied by Libya) near an Israeli army camp near Kiryat Shemona in Northern Israel on 25 November 1987. He succeeded to kill six soldiers and wounded several others, before being shot dead himself. The action has been seen by some as providing the catalyst for the eruption of the First Intifada.
1990s and 2000s
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Following the rise of Hamas in the 1987-91 First Intifada among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jibril found an able ally in resisting the trend started by Fatah leader Yasser Arafat toward a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By that time, the Rejectionist Front was composed primarily of leftist groups, among them the PFLP, DFLP, General Command, PLF, and numerous other small factions. However, the members of these PLO groups were limited in their ability to confront Fatah, which never lost its supremacy within the umbrella organization. The only group that waged uninterrupted attrition against Arafat was the Fatah Revolutionary Council led by maverick hardliner Sabri al-Banna (better known as Abu Nidal), who was viewed by other Palestinian organizations as not so much a guerrilla as a pure criminal with no higher goal than deposing the moderates at the head of the PLO.
Though many Palestinians still were opposed to compromising on the principle of defeating Israel by armed struggle,[according to whom?] the existing groups could not channel their desires, as many of them were led by the elite among the exile population, who were detached from the reality of the refugee camps, be they in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan. Many leaders of Palestinian groups lived in luxurious accommodations throughout the Eastern Bloc, Europe, or various Arab states, especially Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Jibril uniquely insisted on living in a specially designed security bunker in the Lebanon mountains, a hilly terrain that was more attuned to the image of a guerrilla leader than Arafat's mansions in Tunis.
With the emergence of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad throughout the 1980s, Jibril proved more able to cope than Habash and his other allies in the Rejectionist Front. This was enabled by a factor that had nothing to do with his abilities or beliefs: While Habash was a Greek Orthodox and Hawatmeh a Greek Catholic Christian, Jibril was a Muslim.
Throughout the 1980s the General Command actively cooperated with the nascent Hezbollah paramilitary group (made mostly of Shia Muslims) dedicated to armed struggle against Israel, as well as with Syria and Iran, both of whom fund and arm Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In the mid-1990s, Jibril held conferences with these groups in Tehran and Damascus in order to achieve tighter coordination of activities, though his organization remained small and its own actions were more concerned with aiding Hezbollah and achieving an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The Israelis never forgot Jibril's spectacular exploits, especially the Night of the Hang Gliders, and used a variety of operations to try and kill him, none successfully, although his son and heir Jihad Ahmed Jibril was assassinated by a car bomb on May 20, 2002, with the identity of the assassins unknown. Due to these activities, the General Command is regarded as the most hard-line of the old insurgent groups, and currently resists the Oslo Accords from its bases in Syria and Lebanon.
Syrian civil war
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the PFLP-GC was an ally of the Ba'ath Party government of Syria, led by the Al-Assad family. The PFLP-GC was based in Yarmouk Camp – a district of Damascus that is home to the biggest community of Palestnian refugees in Syria. Several members of the PFLP-GC's central committee opposed this alliance with the Assad government and resigned in protest. During the war, it helped the Syrian Army to fight the Syrian rebels in and around Yarmouk.
At the beginning of the war, tensions arose in Yarmouk between the PFLP-GC and anti-Assad Palestinian residents. On 5 June 2011, a number of Yarmouk residents were shot dead while protesting at the Israeli border. Allegedly angered by the PFLP-GC's refusal to take part in the protests, thousands of mourners burnt-down its headquarters in Yarmouk. PFLP-GC members opened-fire on the crowd, killing 14 Palestinians and wounding 43.
On 3 August 2012, 21 civilians were killed when the Syrian Army shelled Yarmouk. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Syrian Army for shelling the camp and chided the PFLP-GC for dragging Palestinians into the conflict.
On 5 December 2012, fighting erupted in Yarmouk between the Syrian Army and PFLP-GC on one side, and Syrian rebels on the other. The rebels included the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a group made up of Palestinians, called Liwa al-Asifa or Storm Brigade. By 17 December, the rebels had won control of Yarmouk. Afterwards, Government and rebel representatives agreed that all armed groups should withdraw from Yarmouk and leave it as a neutral zone. The agreement also said that the PFLP-GC should be dismantled and its weapons surrendered. However, a spokesman for the pro-rebel Palestine Refugee Camp Network said, "the implementation of the truce has been problematic" because of "intermittent" government shelling of Yarmouk and clashes on its outskirts.
Many PFLP-GC fighters reportedly defected to the rebels. One PFLP-GC commander said "I felt that we became soldiers for the Assad regime, not guards for the camps, so I decided to defect". He claimed that government forces stood by and watched as the PFLP-GC fought the rebels, without helping the Palestinians. Ahmed Jibril reportedly fled Damascus for the Mediterranean city of Tartous. Palestinian left-wing groups—including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the biggest Palestinian leftist group—berated Jibril and the PFLP-GC. One PFLP official said "Everyone knows the true size of PFLP-GC. They are not representative of the Palestinians". Another said that Jibril "does not even belong to the Palestinian Left. He is closer to the extremist right-wing groups than to revolutionary leftist ones". On 18 December, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) denounced Jibril, saying it would expel him over his role in the conflict.
International relations of PFLP-GC
PFLP-GC is considered very close to Syria, and has in effect acted as a Syrian proxy force in Lebanon both during the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), and after the Syrian occupation of Lebanon after the war. In 1976, after the PFLP-GC supported Syrian attacks on the PLO, an anti-Jibril faction defected from the organization, and created the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF).
The PFLP-GC in Lebanon
The group has limited influence in Palestinian politics, but is still influential in the Palestinian refugee camps of Syria, where it is based, and Lebanon, where Syrian support added to its importance. Its role in Lebanon after Syria left the country in 2005 (see Cedar Revolution) is uncertain, and it has been involved in a number of clashes with Lebanese security forces. In late October 2005, the Lebanese Army surrounded camps of the PFLP-GC in a tense standoff, after Lebanese authorities claimed that the PFLP-GC was receiving Syrian arms across the border. The group has come under fierce criticism within Lebanon, accused of acting on Syria's behalf to stir up unrest.
Designations of PFLP-GC as a terrorist organization
- Syrian rebels take over Palestinian camp in Damascus
- "PFLP-GC divided on Syria stance". Ma'an News Agency, 9 August 2012. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
- Katz, Samuel M. (2002). Relentless Pursuit: The DSS and the manhunt for the al-Qaeda terrorists.
- "Sponsoring Terrorism: Syria and the PFLP-GC" (September 2002)
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- Die linke Opposition in der PLO und in den besetzten Gebiete
- The German Connection, Emerson & Duffy, New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1990
- "Ahmad Jibril to be expelled from the PLO". Al Akhbar (Lebanon), 18 December 2012.
- "Report: 14 Palestinians killed in Syria camp". Ma'an News Agency, 8 June 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
- "Mass shooting reported in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria - video". The Electronic Intifada, 6 June 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
- "At least 21 killed in shelling on Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria: NGO". Al Arabiya, 3 August 2012.
- 'Capturing Yarmouk camp another Syrian rebel gain'
- "Syrian fight now 'overtly sectarian,' U.N. says". CNN, 20 December 2012.
- A Syrian Airstrike Kills Palestinian Refugees and Costs Assad Support
- Palestinian faction leader Jibril leaves Damascus: rebels
- Ahmed Jibril leaves Damascus after clashes in Yarmouk Palestinian camp
- "PFLP on Defense in Gaza Over Ties to Assad". Al-Monitor, 27 December 2012.
- The Daily Star - Politics - Outrage after PFLP-GC gunmen shoot two
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- PFLP-GC official site
- Terrorism Resources. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) (U.S. Navy) Source: Country Reports on Terrorism, 2004. United States Department of State, April 2005.
- Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) (ICT)
- The International Dimension of PFLP-GC Activity by David Tal. The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. JCSS Project on Low Intensity Warfare & The Jerusalem Post INTER – International Terrorism in 1989 (pp. 61–77) Tel-Aviv, 1990
- Collection of PFLP-GC posters
Further Reading Katz, Samuel M.Israel versus Jibril: The Thirty-year War Against a Master Terrorist. New York: Paragon House, 1993.