July 8th marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani. In this essay we look at his life and work, the impact of his writing as a chronicling of the Palestinian struggle and the relevance of his political thought to this day
di Ricardo Vaz e Raffaele Morgantini – Investig’action
Roma, 5th of August 2017, Nena News – (here the first part) Like George Habash, Ghassan Kanafani’s politics evolved from a “Nasserist” pan-Arabism towards the Marxism-Leninism of the PFLP. This transition to can be explained by the shortcomings of pan-Arabism strategy and ideology. First of all, the attempt of unification between Egypt and Syria (under a unified United Arab Republic) definitively failed in 1961. This fact already influenced the first ANM pronouncements in favour of socialism and Marxism.
Moreover, after the defeats of the 1948 and 1967 wars, but also of the first armed uprisings in the 1920s and 30s under British rule, the idea of entrusting liberation to the Arab countries, and in a way to the pan-Arabist ideology, was discarded, facilitating the transition towards Marxism. The ANM began to identify the Palestinian problem as central for the Middle East as a whole. The analysis of society switched from an ethnic and nationalistic perspective, in which Palestinian society was seen as homogeneous and equally oppressed by Zionism, to a class perspective, in which the Palestinian bourgeoisie (and the Arab one more widely) was seen as part of the problem. In this regard, for the PFLP the anti-colonial struggle for national independence and the struggle for social and economic rights are seen as inextricably linked. This vision is precisely what differentiated the PFLP from Fatah, and still does to this day.
In 1969, in the document “Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine”, the adoption of a Marxist perspective by the PFLP is clear :
“In a real liberation battle waged by the masses to destroy imperialist influence in our homeland, Arab reaction cannot but be on the side of its own interests, the continuation of which depends on the persistence of imperialism, and consequently cannot side with the masses.”
“The classification of Arab reaction as one of the forces of the enemy is of the utmost importance, because failure to recognise this fact means failure to have a clear view before us. In actual practice it means failure to take account of real bases and forces for the enemy camp which are living among us and are capable of playing a diversionary role which disguises the facts of the battle before the masses and which, when the opportunity arises, will take the revolution unawares and deal it a blow leading to defeat.”
For the PFLP, the Arab bourgeoisie is in the enemy camp and as such needs to be confronted in the liberation struggle of Palestine. Also patent in the above statement is a clear positioning against Western imperialism. Kanafani’s lucid analysis tackles Western imperialism as the natural output of the development of the capitalistic system, at a certain point incapable of further maximising the profits of the capital, thus in the need to expand and to gain new spaces and markets through colonialism and/or imperialism. In this regard, he sees the anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world as being connected, as little outbreaks that shall build solidarity and bridges because the imperialist system “wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the World Revolution.”
The PFLP thus adopted an internationalist outlook, openly supporting revolutionary movements such as the one in Vietnam, applying this thinking to the Palestinian cause as well. Kanafani said on this issue that:
“The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”
The PFLP’s open criticism of backward regimes such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as its unwillingness to take part in talks that would just amount to capitulation to the Israel occupier, would often contrast it to other PLO factions, notably Arafat’s Fatah. For his part, Kanafani was arrested in 1971 for “defamation” of the Jordan and Saudi kings in al-Hadaf.
Kanafani’s and the PFLP’s views are quite evident in a recently-surfaced interview with an Australian journalist. Kanafani points out how the framing of the Palestinian cause by western reporters is wrong from the start, and while in the specific case it is the conflict with Jordan (“Black September” of 1970), the same argument holds true in the case of the Israeli occupation.
Also quite patent is his rejection of talks between a liberation movement and a colonial occupier, or a “conversation between the sword and the neck” as he puts it. And when pressed whether capitulating is worth it to stop the death and misery, Kanafani is quite clear
“To us [Palestinians], to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights, is something as essential as life itself.”
In a letter addressed to his son, he explained the meaning of being a Palestinian :
“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then – silence. Afterwards… I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you… I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child… Do you believe that man grows? No, he is born suddenly – a word, a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood onto the ruggedness of the road.”
Martyrs never die
When discussing the issue of (not) recognising the state of Israel, professor As’ad Abukhalil (4) makes the point that the 70 years of Israel’s existence are relatively short when compared to the scale of the lengthy history of the Middle East. As such, in due time, Israel will be no more than a footnote in history books. For his part, Kanafani will merit an entire chapter.
Though his life was cut awfully short, Ghassan Kanafani had a clear understanding of the meaning of self-sacrifice for a revolutionary cause
“Of course death means a lot. The important thing is to know why. Self-sacrifice, within the context of revolutionary action, is an expression of the very highest understanding of life, and of the struggle to make life worthy of a human being. The love of life for a person becomes a love for the life of his people’s masses, and his rejection that their life persists in being full of continuous misery, suffering and hardship. Hence, his understanding of life becomes a social virtue, capable of convincing the militant fighter that self-sacrifice is a redemption of his people’s life. This is a maximum expression of attachment to life.”
Kanafani’s obituary stated that he was “a commando who never fired a gun”, whose “weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena newspaper pages. And he hurt the enemy more than a column of commandos.”. What is clear is that Kanafani’s writings and thought remain current to this day, an inspiration for all progressive and revolutionary movements around the world, and a reference in the struggle for the most just cause of our time, the liberation of Palestine.
“Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause.”
(3) Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, p. 152. Edward Said was a Palestinian intellectual and the author of Orientalism.
(4) As’ad Abukhalil is a professor of Political Science at CSU Stanislaus and the author of the Angry Arab news blog. He recently wrote a very interesting article about Ghassan Kanafani for the Electronic Intifada.