The Lost Battle of Ahmad Jibril

by October 2021
PFLP-GC members in front of their flag during a rally in Shatila, Beirut. Photo credit: Karine Pierre / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

On July 7, 2021, a few hundred Palestinians gathered to attend a funeral at Yarmouk refugee camp cemetery, on the outskirts of Damascus. They came to say their farewells to Ahmad Jibril, the notorious secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a man who embodied throughout his life a fruitless effort of Palestinian terrorist organizations to break or weaken Israel. In a symbolic fashion, his passing marked the end of an era.

>> A Profile in Policy: Read more from Ksenia Svetlova

Jibril opposed the very existence of Israel. He rejected the idea of negotiating with Israel and never accepted the idea of recognizing Israel. During two decades—the ‘70s and ‘80s—he planned and orchestrated multiple plane hijackings and attacks on Israeli civilians, which he described as “heroic.” Years before Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were established, Jibril was the innovator and trendsetter among other terrorist organizations. His PFLP-GC was the first to use “living bombs” and to find a justification for suicide bombings in Muslim jurisprudence. In 1982 his organization demanded the release of 1,182 Palestinian and international prisoners in exchange for captured Israelis, setting a precedent that came to haunt Israel more than once since then. Who was this man who had dedicated his life to Israel’s extermination but ended up with the shadowy remnants of his once-proud organization fighting with Bashar Assad’s army against other Palestinians in Yarmouk camp and dying an old man—of natural reasons, not in battle—with his purpose being as unattainable as ever?

Living in the Past 

At the end of June 2006, I was sitting in a deep leather armchair in a small office based in Yarmouk refugee camp, waiting for an interview with Ahmad Jibril. The emblems of the PFLP-GC and its flag—a green patch of land that included Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza with rifles and the words “struggle, return, liberation” on its sides—were everywhere. A man with white hair and a moustache had entered the room. No bodyguards were present, even though this man had long starred on the list of most wanted terrorists of both Israel and US (Israel once intercepted a Syrian executive plane hoping to capture Jibril, but it turned out to be an embarrassing case of mistaken identity). A few years later a high-ranking Israeli military official told me that there were times when Israel sought Jibril’s photo in order to develop his full profile and couldn’t get it. By 2006 Jibril was feeling safe enough (or irrelevant enough) to receive foreign journalists in his office. Not that many of them came here; since the days of the Oslo Accords, Jibril’s organization was mostly popular in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, Fatah and Hamas came to dominate the PA areas. Still, the general secretary of the PFLP-GC was happy to talk about the “good old days,” when the name of his organization evoked fear and anxiety in Israel and around the globe.

He was born in the town of Yazur (today Israel’s Azur) in 1938 (according to other sources he was born in Ramle in 1935) to a Palestinian mother and Syrian father. When the war of 1948 began, his family moved to Syria, where he was raised in Homs and served in the Syrian army, until he got expelled for sympathizing with the Communists. He later abandoned Marxist ideologies and broke with the Palestinian left doctrinaire for the sake of militant Palestinian nationalism. 

After a decade of involvement with the PFLP and playing a role in Arafat’s takeover of the PLO, in 1968 Jibril splintered off and formed a radical pro-Syrian faction, the PFLP-GC. During the 1970s, when Palestinian terrorist organizations were operating freely from South Lebanon, Jibril’s organization—believing that the PLO leadership was “too soft”—had committed several massacres, notably the Avivim school bus massacre in 1970 and the Kiryat Shmona massacre in 1974. During that interview in Damascus in 2006, Jibril’s eyes practically lit when he spoke of the Kiryat Shmona “operation” (the terrorists who arrived from South Lebanon had entered a residential building and massacred 18 men, women, and children). 

The Palestinian public chooses not to play into the hands of their Iranian sponsors.
Ahmad Jibril at a meeting of Palestinian factions in Tehran, 2010. Photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

“Resistance is the natural right of our people against the cruel occupier. At one point we decided in the organization that during the ‘operations,’ it is forbidden to waste time on planning escape routes to save our people, but we do not call it suicide, because it is not suicide but rather a sacrifice. There were those who criticized us, because in Islam suicide is forbidden—but we found a reference to the fact that heroic actions, such as the action our heroes performed in Kiryat Shmona, are not considered suicide but istishad (self-sacrifice for the sake of Allah). Our heroes are martyrs and not suicides. Then other organizations adopted our path as well,” Jibril said proudly, and I felt a freezing chill despite the choking summer heat. 

There was no need, nor any chance to pose another question, as this angry old man continued to talk vigorously about the past, attacking Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas for abandoning the path of armed resistance, and praising his own heroism and determination. He was looking at me, but it seemed as if in his imagination he had returned to the past, when he was young, powerful, and dangerous.

Jibril’s Cul-de-Sac   

Even when Ahmad Jibril’s organization was at its prime, it had always remained a more violent and militant opposition to mainstream Palestinian politics. “The rebellious youth in the Gaza Strip and in all cities of the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem, will continue all forms of popular resistance until the occupation responds to the demands of the Palestinian people,” Khaled al-Batsh, a member of the Political Bureau of the Islamic Jihad movement said, eulogizing Ahmad Jibril. The common denominator between al-Batsh, one of the leaders of Islamic Jihad, and Jibril’s PFLP-GC is that Iran has supported and financed both organizations. This close affiliation with Tehran and Damascus was never accepted and understood by the Palestinian street, even by those who believed that armed resistance is the only path to freedom. “We, the Palestinians, are alone in this world. So if Syria and Iran want to help us—we will tell them ‘ahlan wa sahlan,’ you are welcome,” he told me back then in 2006. 

As Jibril was fantasizing about “Iranian soldiers marching all the way to Jerusalem” (in an interview to the Lebanese TV station Al Mayadeen in 2017), he clearly separated himself from the vast majority of the Palestinians who never expressed any interest in Iran’s help or support for their cause and resented the idea of being marionettes for someone else’s struggle. 

“A sworn enemy of Israel and of the Syrian revolution,” is how the Qatari Al Jazeera described the leader of PFLP-GC in its obituary piece. Looking for sponsors and supporters, Palestinian organizations often became a tool for foreign states and intelligence organizations, at times fighting for foreign causes and against fellow Palestinians. The USSR, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Iran all exploited the Palestinian cause for their own benefit and played the Palestinian card against other states in the grand geopolitical game. However, in recent years, it was Ahmad Jibril who completely aligned himself with Assad’s regime, which was slaughtering fellow Palestinians at Yarmouk camp and praised the controversial Iranian involvement in Palestinian affairs. 

The good old days” for Jibril’s PFLP-GC. The Avivim school bus massacre in 1970. Photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Spending his whole life away from Palestine and fighting on behalf of other people (although he had a chance to go back after the Oslo agreements as Arafat and his comrades did), Jibril no longer was receptive to the actual hopes and aspirations of Palestinian people, who were dreaming of freedom but also of normal life and prosperity. During the last 25 years, despite the disappointment of Oslo and the distrust of the other side, the majority of Palestinians still express significant support for a two-state solution, although the numbers are gradually diminishing due to the political impasse and dissatisfaction with the PA.

Despite the many attempts of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to ignite a new intifada in the West Bank, the Palestinian public—time and again—chooses not to play into the hands of their Iranian sponsors, who are only interested in creating another hotspot in the Middle East and in projecting their influence. 

While listening to Jibril’s bragging about his organization’s “innovations,” such as the suicide bombers or use of gliders (in 1987 PFLP-GC terrorists used gliders to cross the border from Lebanon), I was thinking that this old man, who had dedicated his life and the lives of his many supporters to death and killing, had lost the battle miserably. While he was busy producing advanced terror techniques and footing the bill to the Syrian regime, Israel was busy generating real innovations, in medicine, science, and high tech. His political and military career had reached a cul-de-sac as his violent operations—terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens and plane hijackings—never gained him massive support even among the Palestinian public and did not promote the Palestinian cause of liberation and the establishment of an independent state even by one inch. His violent activity did not weaken Israel, and today the Jewish state is much more powerful—and accepted by much of the Arab world—than it was a few decades ago, when the PFLP-GC committed massacres. Jibril died in Damascus, forgotten by the majority of the Palestinian public, who was put off by his cooperation with Iran and Assad’s regime and by his legacy, which was nothing but blood and suffering. 

Ahmad Jibril’s radical variant of secular nationalist violence died or withered well before him. Other offshoots of George Habash’s original PFLP are now small and marginal as well, although they are still capable of occasional acts of terror. It is today Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which took up a different, essentially religious justification for terrorism, who promote the values of “fighting till doomsday” and maintain the bulk of violent activities. All opinion polls show, however, that support for the groups drops when there is a hope for a political settlement for the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Ahmad Jibril bet on violence. It’s up to Israel, the Palestinian leadership, the moderate Arab countries, and the US to promote the other way through diplomacy and offer the Palestinians the prospect of a better life.

>> A Profile in Policy: Read more from Ksenia Svetlova

Ksenia Svetlova
Columnist
Ksenia Svetlova is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) and a director of the program on Israel–Middle East relations at Mitvim institute. She is a former Knesset member. @KseniaSvetlova
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