The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a far-left group and the second-largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is considered the official “voice” of the Palestinian people and whose chairman is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. While the PFLP’s influence over the Palestinian people has ebbed and flowed, its armed wing is experiencing a rapid revival predominantly due to Iranian support.
Since its inception, the PFLP has orchestrated several attacks globally as well as many targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers, and has thus been designated as a terror group by Israel (1986), the United States (1997), the European Union (2002), Canada (2013) and several other countries.
The organization has repeatedly rejected calls to disarm in the context of peace negotiations with the Jewish state.
The History of the PFLP
Various organizations merged to form The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. The driving force behind the move was George Habash, who, on December 11, 1967, announced that his Arab Nationalist Movement was joining forces under one umbrella with the Heroes of the Return, the Palestinian Liberation Front, the Youth Organization for Vengeance and “several other Palestinian groups on the homeland.”
Initially, the PFLP received support from countries like the Soviet Union, Syria and China. It also maintained close ties with fellow far-left terror groups like the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the Italian Brigate Rosse and the French Action Directe.
After the collapse of the USSR, the PFLP sought other sponsors. Now, the historically secular terror group has found a new patron in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Soon after its founding, several factions split from the PFLP.
For example, the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC) broke away in 1968 in order to focus more squarely on terrorism. That group, headed by Ahmed Jibril, carried out numerous attacks on Israeli targets. The PFLP-GC has received support from Tehran and Damascus.
A year later, other dissatisfied PFLP members, led by Nayef Hawatmeh, formed the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is best known for the 1974 Ma’alot massacre in which 22 high school students and four adults were murdered in Israel.
Meanwhile, George Habash served as secretary-general of the PFLP until 2000. His successor, Abu Ali Mustafa, was killed in an Israeli airstrike shortly after assuming the position. The group’s military wing, initially called the Red Eagles, was thereafter renamed after Mustafa. The PFLP’s current leader, Ahmad Sa’adat, is serving a 30-year prison sentence in Israel for ordering and directing several attacks.
A ‘People’s War’: the PFLP’s Ideology
The PFLP combines secular Arab nationalism with traditional far-left revolutionary ideology. Habash viewed “the Zionist enemy” as a neocolonialist project conceived by Western powers. According to its 1969 platform, the PFLP views terrorism against Israel “first of all” through the lens of a class struggle.
As such, the platform attacks not only Zionism but also denounces the “Arab bourgeoisie” for engaging in peace talks with a view to creating a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. According to the PFLP, any peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would promote Jewish self-determination, which it vehemently rejects anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
To this end, the PFLP’s founding statement calls on all Arabs to pursue armed struggle — that is, terrorism — against Israel. In the eyes of the PFLP, the Six-Day-War disproved the “bourgeois theory” of defeating Israel by conventional warfare. Instead, the organization envisions a “people’s war” using asymmetrical tactics.
“Every citizen has the opportunity to resist occupation by all available means,” Habash has insisted.
The PFLP’s Specialty: International Terrorism
Within months of its inception, the PFLP gained notoriety by orchestrating terror attacks and aircraft hijackings. Yoram Schweitzer, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), suggests the PFLP fundamentally changed the nature of terrorism; first, by attacking global targets with a view to drawing widespread attention to the Palestinian cause, and then by recruiting foreign nationals.
“These innovations enabled the PFLP and its offshoots to execute some of the most dramatic operations seen in the 20th century, setting a trend that would only be broken decades later by the September 11th, 2001, attacks,” Schweitzer wrote in his essay, “Innovation in Terrorist Organizations. The Case of PFLP and its Offshoots.”
Some of the most notable terror attacks in the PFLP’s first years included the only successful hijacking of an Israeli El Al plane; ground attacks on European airports; and the bombing of Israeli and Jewish-owned businesses. Experts have also linked the group to the OPEC siege of December 1975 and the infamous 1976 Air France hijacking.
The PFLP’s armed wing also perpetrated dozens of terrorist acts during the Second Intifada (2000-2005), including several suicide bombings and the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s then-tourism minister. Israeli officials have accused Ahmad Sa’adat of directly ordering Ze’evi’s murder.
After the Second Intifada, the PFLP’s terrorist activities consisted mainly of rocket and mortar fire at Israeli civilians living near the Gaza Strip. PFLP-affiliated units were reportedly also involved in launching explosive balloons at Israeli towns surrounding the Hamas-ruled enclave.
But in 2012, two terrorists with links to the PFLP were convicted for killing five members of the Fogel family in the Israeli town of Itamar. Two years later, the group claimed responsibility for a massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue. In 2019, the group took credit for the terror attack that killed 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb, who was killed by an explosive device while hiking with her family at a popular water spring near Dolev in the West Bank. The bomb also severely injured Rina’s father and brother.
After Israeli security forces arrested members of the PFLP cell responsible, the group hailed the perpetrators as “heroes.”
Following the murder, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) uncovered an extensive network of PFLP operatives planning to carry out “significant” attacks. With Iran’s help, the terrorists acquired large amounts of weapons and bomb-making materials.
“Long regarded as a Cold War fossil, the organization has in recent months reemerged to some modest prominence,” Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer warned in an article last year.
The PFLP’s Links with ‘Human Rights’ Organizations
In his 1967 founding statement, George Habash called for a “total boycott of all economic, civil and political institutions of the enemy [Israel] and a rejection of all ties.” Indeed, Habash viewed isolating Israel by means of an international propaganda campaign as a parallel strategy to terrorism that could ultimately contribute to the country’s demise.
The PFLP is therefore closely involved in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. PFLP operatives are employed as staff by or serve as board members at several NGOs that promote BDS. In other cases, the NGOs themselves were founded by the PFLP.
The Rina Shnerb killing highlights the connection between the PFLP and various so-called human rights organizations. Two employees of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), purportedly an organization that supports Palestinian farmers, admitted to plotting and executing the attack.
Although a 1993 USAID-authorized audit already described the UAWC as the “PFLP’s agricultural organization,” several European countries have continued supporting the group. The Dutch government, one of UAWC’s primary donors, in 2020 admitted to paying part of the salaries of the terrorists that murdered Shnerb. The Netherlands subsequently suspended funding to UAWC pending an investigation.
NGO Monitor has published reports detailing many more NGOs with ties to the PFLP, most of them supported by European governments.
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