AMMAN, Jordan – George Habash, whose radical PLO faction gained notoriety after the simultaneous hijackings of four Western airliners in 1970 and the seizure of an Air France flight to Entebbe, Uganda, died Saturday. He was 81.
The former guerrilla leader, whose rivalry with Yasser Arafat spurred him to start the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died of a heart attack in Amman, said Leila Khaled, a longtime PFLP member.
Born to a Christian Arab family, Habash opposed Arab-Israeli peace talks. His group was the second-largest in the PLO after Fatah, the faction of Arafat and current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas called Habash a “historic leader,” declared a three-day mourning period and ordered flags to fly at half-staff. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said Habash “spent his life defending Palestine.”
Habash and his group gained notoriety for the 1970 hijackings of four Western airliners over the United States, Europe, the Far East and the Persian Gulf. The aircraft were blown up in the Middle East after passengers and crews disembarked.
Habash promoted the Palestinian cause through terrorist attacks in the 1970s, including the hijacking of an Air France airliner to Entebbe, Uganda, where four civilians were killed during a rescue operation by Israeli paratroopers.
The group also was responsible for gunning down 27 people at Israel’s Lod airport in May 1972.
Habash did not mastermind the attacks, but he became a prime target for Israel’s secret service.
He launched the Popular Front in December 1967, six months after the Arabs lost the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights to Israel.
Habash opposed interim peace agreements with Israel, in part because they did not require Israel to stop settlement construction. Throughout his life, he supported the use of violence against Israel, arguing that Israel would not make the concessions required for a peace agreement.
In recent years, Habash was mostly bedridden, with partial paralysis on his right side caused by brain surgery he underwent in France. Last week, he checked into a hospital in Amman, complaining of fatigue. Habash died of a heart attack Saturday, days after he underwent a surgery to implant a stent.