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Thursday, 4 May, 2000, 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
The Palestinian connection

Most Palestinian groups have given up the armed struggle
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The Lockerbie trial has resurrected the names of players in Palestinian radical politics that have long since ceased to be relevant in the struggle for an independent Palestinian state, a cause which itself has been consigned to the margins.

It was a world veiled in secrecy, where the abundance of splinter groups reflected the fact that internecine rivalry often took the place of liberation as the major occupation of those involved.

Ahmad Jibril has remained staunchly pro-Syrian
Lawyers for the two Libyans on trial for the 1988 airline bombing fingered 11 alleged members of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF), a little-known organisation which is now allied to Palestinian self-rule leader Yasser Arafat in the Israeli-occupied territories.

The more prominent Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), a prime suspect in the immediate aftermath of the Lockerbie atrocity, also had an unspecified number of its members accused.

Both groups have denied involvement, with protestations that, when they were involved in the armed struggle, their operations were directed exclusively against Israel.

Daring attacks

Before the emergence in the late 1980s and 1990s of Hamas and Hezbollah as the major vehicles of militant (Islamic) resistance against Israel, the PFLP-GC, founded by Ahmad Jibril in 1968, took the lead in anti-Israeli attacks.

Mr Arafat's negotiations left radicals out in the cold
The group believed that fighting, not politics, was the key to reversing the establishment of Israel on Arab land, believing that conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli army would mobilise the whole Arab world to crush the "Zionist enemy".

It was a policy doomed to failure, although the group staged dramatic and ingenious operations which shook Israelis, such as the November 1987 suicide mission when fighters crossed from Lebanon into Israel on motorised hang-gliders and killed six Israeli soldiers before being shot down.

Roots in schism

Ahmad Jibril was born in Ramle, in Palestine in 1928, but his family moved to Syria and he became an officer in the Syrian army.

He set up the small Palestinian Liberation Front in 1959, joining forces in 1967 with fellow radical George Habash to found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

His breakaway PFLP-GC was founded after tensions arose between Syria and Mr Habash. Mr Jibril has remained consistently pro-Syrian ever since.

This orientation caused splits with other Palestinian organisations, such as the pro-Iraqi Fatah Revolutionary Council (the Abu Nidal group) in 1978, and the umbrella PLO in the mid-1980s, when Yasser Arafat broke with Damascus over negotiating with Israel for territory.

Foreign sponsors

Mr Jibril's "revolutionary nihilism" - as one rival leader put it - apparently also led him into the arms of similarly inclined states such as Libya and Iran.

Hardly present in Israel and the occupied territories themselves, his group was to be found wherever there were the most hardline opponents of Israel.

US-Syrian relations have improved since 1990
Analysts say there were also PFLP-GC terrorist cells in numerous European cities, which conducted international anti-American and anti-Israeli proxy operations for Syria, Libya and Iran.

West Germany was the main centre for alleged PFLP-GC cells, in association with PPSF cells in Scandinavia.

These are alleged to have been engaged in bomb making and planning attacks on behalf of Iran and Syria, including the Lockerbie bombing.

Tehran's motive, with Syrian backing, could have been revenge for the July 1988 shooting down of an Iranian airliner with the loss of all 270 people on board by a US warship in the Gulf.

Playing politics

The possibility of Libyan sponsorship, to avenge the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi, was also mooted in the aftermath of Lockerbie.

Revenge at Lockerbie: But whose?
The PFLP-GC had been linked to Col Gaddafi, who reportedly arranged training for Mr Jibril's fighters and even recruited them in his war against Chad in the 1980s.

However, there remain many sceptics who believe Washington's identification of Libya as the sole perpetrator of the Lockerbie bombing has much more to do with politics than evidence.

The first US theories put Syria and Iran firmly in the frame, but that changed after Syria joined the alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and shortly thereafter Damascus became a key player in the US-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace process.

But it is in the nature of groups like PFLP-GC, and their relationship with the states which support them, that the whole truth may never come out.

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See also:

04 May 00 | Media reports
World media assesses Lockerbie trial
02 May 00 | Middle East
Libya: From pariah to participant
03 May 00 | World
Waiting ends as trial begins
03 May 00 | World
Lockerbie accused deny murder
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