Michael Lavalette remembers the Palestinian revolutionary leader Ghassan Kanafani and his contribution to the struggle for Palestinian liberation 50 years on from his murder by Israeli forces
8 July 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Palestinian resistance leader, Ghassan Kanafani.
In 1972, Kanafani was living in Beirut, Lebanon. He was a leader of the resistance organisation the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and an articulate, principled spokesperson for Palestinian liberation.
He was a journalist and editor of Palestinian newspapers and journals. A novelist who captured the essence of Palestinian refugee experience. A respected historian of the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939. And an artist who designed poster graphics that continue to appear across Palestine48.
On 8 July 1972, he got into his car to travel to the shops with his young niece Lamees. When he turned on the ignition the booby-trapped car exploded, killing them both. In that moment, Kanafani became another martyr for Palestine; assassinated by Mossad and the Israeli state.
In his obituary in the Lebanese Star he was described as ‘a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was the ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.’
So who was Kanafani?
He was born in the port city of Akka (Acre) on 9 April 1936. His birth coincided with the start of al-thawra al-kubra (the Great Revolt) of 1936-39. This was the most important anti-colonial struggle against British rule in the Middle East in the inter-war era.
During the revolt, Acre prison housed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Over 100 Arabs were executed by the British. Kanafani’s father and several relatives were actively involved in the revolt as it spread across the country.
Thus, Kanafani’s early years were immersed in the developing Palestinian struggle for freedom. Indeed, later, he would write a history of the Revolt that would be shaped by his distinctive political approach. “Between 1936 and 1939”, he wrote:
"the Palestinian revolutionary movement suffered a severe setback at the hands of three separate enemies that were to constitute together the principle threat to the nationalist movement in Palestine in all subsequent stages of its struggle: the local reactionary leadership; the regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine; and the imperialist-Zionist enemy."
Kanafani would incorporate these themes – the problem of weak Palestinian leadership, the role of corrupt Arab states turning their back on Palestinians and their own people and the impact of imperial intervention and Zionist colonial settlement on the region – in much of his writing.
Ghassan was the third child to be born into the Kanafani family. The family were comfortably well-off. His father was a lawyer and, like many Palestinian children from his background, Ghassan was sent to a French missionary school – where he was taught in French rather than Arabic.
But like all Palestinians, his life changed as a result of the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba of 1947-48.
In May 1948, the Nakba came to Acre. The city’s main water supply was injected with typhoid germs, by Israeli forces, causing an epidemic in the city. The Israeli Carmeli Brigade then attacked the city with shells and heavy artillery. In the face of the attacks, people started to flee.
Twelve year old Ghassan took to the road with his family. They eventually settled in Damascus.
Like most Palestinian refugees the Kanafanis thought they would return home soon enough. But this was to be a permanent exile: their former comfortable life was replaced with one of poverty and hardship.
The teenage Ghassan started to paint, draw and write notes about his life and what he saw about him amongst Palestinian refugees.
In the mid-1950s, he enrolled at Damascus University to study Arabic literature. University brought him into more directly active political engagement.
He came into contact with George Habash (1926-2008), at the time the leader of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). Habash was to become a significant Palestinian leader and an important influence on Kanafani. Their political relationship developed during the second half of the 1950s, but Kanafani would work closely with Habash throughout the rest of his life.
The ANM was a Pan-Arabist movement. Pan-Arabism was particularly significant in the early Palestinian movement, partly because of the scale of the defeat inflicted on the Palestinians by the Nakba, and the resultant discrediting of the former Palestinian leadership. Together these two elements meant that many activists were drawn to Pan-Arabism as the road to Palestinian liberation; it seemed to offer the prospect of liberation through the combined forces of Arab states and armies, rather than merely relying on the self-activity of Palestinians themselves.
Pan-Arabist themes started to appear in Khanafani’s writings. He became a novelist and short story writer. In pieces like Letter from Gaza, Land of Sad Oranges, and Men in the Sun he captured the horror of Palestinian displacement, oppression and refugee life.
By the mid-1960s the Palestinian political situation was gradually starting to shift. In 1964 the Arab League moved to set up a separate Palestinian entity, which they called the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
A number of Palestinians, including Kanafani, started to look at other Third World anti-colonial, liberation struggles for inspiration. The ideas of Mao started to gain a foothold amongst some activists. Many of these debates were aired in the bi-monthly magazine Filastin which Kanafani was editing at the time.
These debates would eventually result in Kanafani helping to found the PFLP in 1967. In its inaugural statement of 11 December it declared:
The only language which the enemy understands is that of revolutionary violence ... the historic task is ... [to open a fierce struggle against the occupier] thereby turning the occupied territories into an inferno whose fires consume the usurpers.
Kanafani became one of the key leaders of the organisation. The PFLP adopted Marxism, committed itself to the armed struggle and set itself against any solution except the liberation of Palestine48 - ‘from the river to the sea’.
By 1969 Kanafani had moved to Beirut. He was the PFLP media spokesperson and he founded and edited the PFLP journal al-Hadaf (The Goal).
He was also outspoken in his opposition to talks with the Israeli government. Famously, in a 1970 interview broadcast with the Australian broadcaster Richard Carleton, Kanafani described the prospect of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians as a ‘capitulation’ and akin to a conversation between ‘a sword and a neck’.
As a visible, outspoken critic of Israel and a resistance activist Kanafani became a target for Israeli forces. On the 8 July 1972 the Israelis set out to silence him.
The bomb that killed him took away a great Palestinian leader, but the Israelis failed to silence Kanafani, whose works continue to inspire Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora today.
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