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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Yasser Arafat, Christmas, and the PFLP

Filed under: Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 13    December 25, 2001

Just one day before Yasser Arafat hoped to attend Bethlehem’s Christmas-eve celebrations, Israel arrested an operative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Haifa, who was planning a terrorist attack in the heart of the city. The two events were not unlinked, for the Israeli government had conditioned Arafat’s participation in the Midnight Mass at Bethlehem’s St. Catherine’s Church upon his arrest of the PFLP leadership in Ramallah who were responsible for the murder last October of Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi, the Minister of Tourism of Israel.

While considerable international concerns have been focused since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington on the fact that the Palestinian Authority harbors Islamic militant organizations, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, little attention has been paid to the involvement in terrorism of the PFLP, a secular Marxist Palestinian movement that is also the second largest constituent organization in the PLO, after Fatah. Yet the PFLP lays at the heart of Israel’s current dispute with Arafat over his planned Christmas visit to Bethlehem and its international repercussions

PFLP – The Initiator of Airplane Hijacking

  • The PFLP was founded on December 11, 1967, by Dr. George Habash, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian. The organization quickly specialized in showcase, large-scale terrorist operations beginning on July 23, 1968, with a hijacking to Algeria of an El Al flight on route from Rome to Tel Aviv. The PFLP quickly switched to non-Israeli carriers, including the simultaneous triple hijacking of TWA, Swissair, and Pan-Am aircraft to Jordan on September 6, 1970. The PFLP forged international relationships, even on the operational level, with the Japanese Red Army (Lod Airport Attack – May 30, 1972) and with the German Baader Meinhof (Air France hijacking to Entebbe in 1976).


PFLP Operations Emanating from the Palestinian Authority’s Area of Jurisdiction

  • Shortly after Habash’s death, Mustafa Zubaydi (whose nomme de guerre was Abu Ali Mustafa) was elected head of the PFLP in July 2000. Mustafa had been Habash’s right-hand man since 1969. The Barak government permitted Mustafa to return to the West Bank already in September 1999, under the condition that the Palestinian Authority would make sure that he would not revert to terrorism. He based himself in Ramallah, which under the Oslo Agreements was designated Area A and hence was under the full security jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

  • Like the early PFLP, Mustafa preferred showcase terrorist attacks, so he built up the PFLP’s operational infrastructure to specialize in car-bomb attacks. After Yasser Arafat initiated the intifada of September 2000, PFLP operations became more prominent, particularly in the Jerusalem area. Mustafa was not just a political leader of the PFLP but also was personally involved in its military planning.

  • With the capture and interrogation of a six-man PFLP squad in August-September 2001, it became clear that Abu Ali Mustafa’s PFLP was planning to bomb Israeli schools in Jerusalem around the opening day of the school year. Other targets included a restaurant in Ein Kerem, the Rav Chen movie theatre complex in the Talpiot industrial area, the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, and the Kupat Holim clinic on Strauss Street (Yediot Ahronot, September 4, 2001).

  • Given the failure of the Palestinian Authority to prevent these attacks and dismantle the operational infrastructure of the PFLP, Israel launched a helicopter attack on Mustafa’s Ramallah office on August 27, 2001, eliminating the leader of the PFLP before his September attacks could be executed.

The PFLP’s Murder of Rehavam Ze’evi

  • Mustafa’s successor to head the PFLP was Ahmad Sa’adat, who planned and ordered the murder of Israel’s Minister of Tourism in Jerusalem on October 17, 2001. Israel demanded that the Palestinian Authority arrest and transfer to it the suspects in Ze’evi’s assassination.

  • Two days later, the Palestinian Authority reportedly outlawed all military wings of Palestinian political factions, including the PFLP – a move that was welcomed by Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2001). Yet according to WAFA, the Palestinian News Agency, the Palestinian Authority had only outlawed using the name “Abu Ali Mustafa” for organizations engaging in militant operations (IMRA, October 22, 2001).

  • Regardless of the Palestinian Authority’s declarations, Ze’evi’s murderers continue to benefit from sanctuary in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and the PFLP did not halt its armed operations against Israeli civilians. Like Abu Ali Mustafa, Ahmad Sa’adat is based in Ramallah, not far from the offices of Yasser Arafat.

Unfulfilled Palestinian Obligations to Combat Terrorism

  • Israel’s recognition of the PLO as a partner in the peace process, as stated in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s letter to Yasser Arafat on September 9, 1993, was based on PLO commitments to Israel that appeared in a preceding Arafat letter to Rabin, signed on the same date. According to Arafat’s letter, “the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations, and discipline violators.”

  • The PFLP is an unquestionable component of the PLO. Arafat’s readiness to use his own Force-17 Presidential Guard and Fatah-Tanzim against Israeli civilians is already a violation of the exchange of letters that led to Israeli recognition of the PLO before the Oslo Agreement was signed. But Arafat’s failure to discipline the PFLP is an additional violation of his obligations to Rabin that underpinned the entire Oslo process.

Yasser Arafat and Christian Interests in Bethlehem

  • Yasser Arafat attended Christmas services in Bethlehem since 1995 not as a religious act (he is a Muslim), but rather as a virtual head of state hosting a major religious ceremony in his own domain.

  • Moreover, Arafat has sought to present himself as a defender of Christianity, even though Christian interests in Bethlehem and its environs have suffered under the period of Palestinian rule. Anti-Christian graffiti is not uncommon in Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Sahur, proclaiming: “First the Saturday people (the Jews), then the Sunday people (the Christians)” (New York Times Magazine, December 24, 1995).

  • In the intifada, Arafat’s Tanzim gunmen took up positions in Christian homes in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jalla to fire on Jerusalem, thereby exposing its Palestinian Christian residents to Israeli counter-fire. A disproportionate number of Palestinian Christians have emigrated from Bethlehem, as Islamist groups with Palestinian Authority backing have gained increasing influence (Tsimhoni, in Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2001). During his visit to Bethlehem, Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to urge Palestinian Christians in March 2000: “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.”

Given the wall-to-wall international consensus since September 11, 2001, against governments that provide shelter to international terrorist organizations, as encapsulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1373, Yasser Arafat’s continuing protection of the PFLP not only violates his Oslo obligations but also the most widely accepted international norms. Unfortunately, Israel alone has been left to declare that it is unfitting for Yasser Arafat to sit as a head of government hosting a Christmas service in Bethlehem. European governments and Christian churches should have voiced similar views by themselves.