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The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

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The letters P.F.L.P. marked on a hijacked plane in the Jordanian desert. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine emerged from the ashes of the Six Day War. Unable to best Israel on the battlefield, P.F.L.P. guerrillas decided to move the fighting to the new, civilian arena of commercial airliners.

The 1967 Six Day War not only dashed the dream of Palestinian militants that they would have an independent state anytime soon, but it also shattered their confidence in the Arab states who had formed the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 but had been decisively defeated by Israel on the battlefield. As the P.L.O. moved towards greater independence from those Arab states, a number of new militant groups were formed that operated loosely under the P.L.O. umbrella. The P.F.L.P. was founded on December 11, 1967, by George Habash, a 42-year-old doctor and Palestinian of Greek Orthodox background whose family had been forced to flee their home during the 1948 war. One thing that distinguished the P.F.L.P. was its Marxist ideology; the group viewed the push for Palestinian independence as part of a class struggle against global imperialism, including those Western powers that backed Israel. As the P.F.L.P. declared, "The fact that imperialist interests are linked with the existence of Israel will make our struggle against Israel, a struggle against imperialism." The P.F.L.P. sought common cause with other left-wing militant groups, such as Italy's Red Brigade, Germany's Baader-Meinhof group, Japan's Red Army, and Spain's E.T.A.; in one operation P.F.L.P. members referred to themselves as the "Che Guevara Commando Unit of P.F.L.P."

Not all members shared the organization's Marxist mantra; some were drawn by the P.F.L.P.'s willingness to take the fight against Israel to new battlefields. To that point, Palestinian militants had mostly concentrated on attacks within Israel, but infiltrators from Jordan, where the P.L.O. was based, had little success against superior Israeli forces. P.F.L.P. co-founder Wadia Haddad had a different vision; he proposed a series of high visibility attacks outside Israel that would bring the Palestinian cause to the world's attention. Haddad's first suggestion, the hijacking of an El Al airplane, was carried out on July 23, 1968, just over a year after the end of the Six Day War. It netted the release of Arab prisoners from Israel, as did an August 29, 1969, skyjacking of a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. The Israelis subsequently refused to negotiate with hijackers, but the P.F.L.P. found other nations still willing to deal: a July 22, 1970, skyjacking secured the release of seven P.F.L.P. members imprisoned in Greece. From the P.F.L.P.'s perspective, American and European airlines were acceptable targets because their governments supported Israel, and in the September 1970 hijackings, only one of the five attacked airplanes belonged to El Al. Its series of skyjackings brought the P.F.L.P. worldwide notoriety and thousands of new recruits, but the September 1970 operation also precipitated a bloody confrontation with the Jordanian government that would result in the P.L.O. and its subgroups being expelled from that country.

After Black September
The years after what Palestinians would dub "Black September" were difficult for the P.F.L.P. Habash publicly disavowed further hijackings, but the P.F.L.P. was linked to a February 1972 Lufthansa skyjack that netted a $5,000,000 ransom, as well as an attack three months later on Israel's Lod airport that killed 27 people. In 1974 the P.F.L.P. left the P.L.O. in protest over Yasser Arafat's perceived willingness to soften his stand on the destruction of Israel, only to return a few years later. Numerous splinter groups broke away from the P.F.L.P., and its influence waned. Beset by failing health, Habash resigned as General Secretary of the P.F.L.P. in 2000; what is left of the organization now operates in Syria and areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

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