Mohammed Abul-Haija: “All the Arab countries refused to host us, fearing the Israeli reaction. Only Syria welcomed us,”

Mohammed Abul-Haija: Believing in Armed Struggle

Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser intervened in the negotiations for their release.

 By: Anas Zarzar

Published Monday, October 1, 2012
Palestinian freedom fighter Mohammed Abul-Haija has dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause, but despite losing his home and many of his comrades in arms, he still believes that the liberation of his homeland can only be achieved through armed resistance.

Abul-Haija was three years old in 1948 when he and his family were driven out of Haifa, eventually landing in Syria by way of Jenin in the West Bank and Jordan.

“My father worked as a farmer in the city of Daraa [southern Syria],” Abul-Haija recalls. “Then we moved to Dummar in western Damascus. After that my older brothers found work in quarries and finally we moved to old Damascus when my father and brothers started working in the Hashimia Printing Press.”

As a child, Abul-Haija would sell kaak bread in the streets and alleyways of Old Damascus before school.

“I still remember al-Ballour Cafe in Bab Touma. I used to spend hours wandering between its tables selling kaak,” he says.

Ghassan Kanafani: In Our Memory

He remembers meeting Ghassan Kanafani at the Palestine Institute when he was a high school student. The famous Palestinian writer then taught Abul-Haija and his friends after they graduated.

“We learned from the martyr Ghassan the real meaning of the Palestinian cause,” Abul-Haija says. Kanafani was assassinated by Israeli intelligence in Beirut in 1972. “He instilled in us refugee children the notions of resistance and armed struggle.”

Years later, Abul-Haija would meet Kanafani again in Beirut where they would work together in the resistance movement alongside Wadih Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Abul-Haija was deeply influenced by Kanafani, who encouraged him and his friends to go out and protest in the streets of Damascus.

“I still remember his words to us to this day. We used to shut down roads, schools and markets with our protests,” he tells Al-Akhbar.

At the age of 15, Abul-Haija was driven by his revolutionary fervor to join the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), and insisted on becoming a full-fledged member despite not being 18 yet.

When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was launched and raised the banner of armed struggle, he volunteered in the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA). He continued his political work with the ANM until the PFLP was founded, then was among the first to join it.

“I met the martyr Wadih Haddad secretly in Daraa,” he says. “He was wanted by the Syrian intelligence and he asked me to accompany him.”

After the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, his meetings with Haddad became more frequent. The latter tried to control the young fighter’s impulsiveness and Abul-Haija resented his teacher because he was excluded from the hijacking of the Israeli plane that was rerouted to Algeria in 1968.

“This operation took me by surprise. I was angry at Haddad for not including me. So I decided to carry out a similar operation,” he remembers.

He goes on to describe the resistance operations he carried out in Palestine with such enthusiasm and emotion, he appears as if he just came back from Bissan or the Tubas-Jenin road.

Eventually, he received the instructions he had been waiting for: It was a letter from Haddad asking him to come to Beirut, and christening him with the nom de guerre Adnan.

After months of training, Abul-Haija carried out an attack on an Israeli El Al plane at an airport in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1969.

“The purpose of the operation was to let the world know the truth about the Palestinian cause during the trial [that would follow their arrest],” he says. “Haddad’s instructions were clear. He warned us against harming any of the civilians on the plane.”

Abul-Haija was arrested along with his comrades Ibrahim Tawfik and Amina Dahbour, while Abdul-Mohsen Hassan was killed by an Israeli security guard.

“The hardest moment in the operation was when the zionist Mordechai Rakhamim from El Al’s security fired three shots at Hassan after he had handed his weapon to the Swiss security,” Abul-Haija says.

“I agreed with my comrades to boycott the trial and not to recognize its legitimacy because we have a political cause and we demanded to be treated as political prisoners,” he explains. “The judge refused a blank check to release us while he released Rakhamim on bail.”

Abul-Haija and his comrades were sentenced to 12 years. While in prison they received thousands of letters expressing solidarity with them. The operation had achieved its goal after all by highlighting the plight of the Palestinians.

“Before the operation, no one in Switzerland or Europe knew the real meaning of the word Palestine, but during and after the trial the whole world came to know the Palestinian cause,” he says.

During his imprisonment, which did not last more than a year and few months, Abul-Haija remained in contact with PFLP founder George Habash, as well as Kanafani and Haddad.

“They used to always ask me if detention still had the desired publicity effect or whether it had lost its glimmer,” he says.

In 1970, the PFLP carried out a number of hijacking operations, taking the planes to the “revolution airport” in Jordan. One of their demands was the release of Abul-Haija and his friends.

Even former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser intervened in the negotiations for their release.

“I finally arrived with my comrades in Cairo accompanied by a high-ranking German officer in a military plane to protect us,” Abul-Haija remembers. “I did not attend Abdul-Nasser’s funeral. He died hours before my release from prison.”

After a short stay in Cairo, he headed to Syria to resume his activism.

“All the Arab countries refused to host us, fearing the Israeli reaction. Only Syria welcomed us,” he says.

He remembers the details of the reception he received in the Yarmouk camp and his emotional reunion with his family, wife and daughter.

But the call of resistance quickly led him to the PFLP offices in Beirut. He helped Haddad with special military training and preparing for six militant operations inside occupied Palestine, the most famous of which was the Lod Airport Operation in 1972 in which 26 people were killed by members of the Japanese Red Army.

“I am proud of this operation. I still remember Golda Meir’s face when she cried as she viewed the dead,” Abul-Haija says.

But Israel would have its revenge.

“The Israelis decided to assassinate those responsible for the Lod Airport Operation. Kanafani was assassinated and Bassam Abu Sharif survived,” he says, but denies the popular story that Haddad was killed by poisoned chocolate.

“I knew him well and he did not like chocolate,” he says.

After the Lod Airport Operation, Abul-Haija semi-retired from fighting, and went to the Gulf where he spent many years simply working to support his family. He returned to Syria six years ago to work with his old comrades in the PFLP.

Today, he dreams of carrying out another militant operation in which he would wield his rifle once more in the service of his cause.

“I am certain of the inevitability of the Palestinian people’s victory,” he says, “but this victory will come through the barrel of a gun, with bullets and resistance, not through political solutions.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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