In Beirut, on July 9, 1972 – 50 years ago – Ghassan Kanafani climbed into his Austin 1100 car with his 17 year old niece Lamees, switched on the ignition and triggered a bomb planted by the Israeli Mossad. He and Lamees were killed instantly. But who was Ghassan Kanafani and why was the Israeli state so determined to kill him?
Ghassan was an iconic Palestinian writer, journalist, artist and political activist whose life was inextricably linked to key moments in the Palestinian struggle. At the time of his birth in Akka in 1936, Kanafani’s father was an active participant in what became known as the Palestinian Arab Revolt from 1936 to 1939. Palestinian Arabs were resisting the British Mandate occupation of their land and British complicity in the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. The goal of establishing a “Jewish National Home” had been promised to the Zionists in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. The Arab revolt included a seven-month long general strike and an uprising that was brutally suppressed by the British military. Ghassan’s father, who was a lawyer, was imprisoned by the British on several occasions while Ghassan was still a child.
When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out news of the Deir Yassin Massacre reached the Kanafani family. Zionist militias had murdered 254 villagers on the 9 April 1948, the day that Ghassan turned twelve. He never celebrated his birthday again. The family fled to Lebanon and then Syria joining hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians exiled from their homelands during the Nakba.
The family settled in Damascus where Ghassan completed his secondary education, like many refugee Palestinian children, in an UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school. He gained a teaching certificate in 1952 and was employed as an art teacher for some 1,200 children in the refugee camp. It was at this time that he began writing short stories to help himself, and his students, make sense of their situation. In fact it was Kanafani who later coined the term resistance literature to describe a genre of writing that encouraged its readers to recognise their oppression, to resist and fight together for a better future.
Ghassan’s higher education was at the University of Damascus in the Department of Arabic Literature. However, before he could graduate, he was expelled and exiled to Kuwait for his political ties with the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN), a pan-Arab nationalist organisation inspired by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s ideas of national independence. The Movement of Arab Nationalists was founded by Dr. George Habash in the 1950s and would later, after the 1967 Six Day War, develop into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Ghassan moved to Beirut in 1960 where he deepened his interest in socialist philosophy and revolutionary politics. It was in Lebanon in 1961 where he first met his wife Anni Høver, a Danish journalist who wanted to find out more about the plight of the Palestinian people. She had been given the telephone number of a newspaper editor – Ghassan Kanafani – and was told he would be her best guide to the Palestinian cause. She met with the tall, lean 25 year old Kanafani and asked if she could visit the Palestinian refugee camps. He famously replied, “My people are not animals in a zoo,” adding that, “You must have a good background about them before you go and visit.” Two months later, they were married. Anni began teaching at a kindergarten in a refugee camp and Ghassan continued to write.
The 1967 Six-Day Arab Israeli War, and subsequent Israeli occupation, was a turning point in Ghassan’s writing and political career. Immediately after the war George Habash founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1969, Ghassan became its official spokesperson and editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Al-Hadaf. Although Ghassan was not directly involved in it, the PFLP had a military wing and was committed to armed struggle. Today we have to see this commitment in the context of the shock waves created in the refugee camps by Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. And in the historical context of anti-colonial struggles for national liberation sweeping across the world: including Cuba, Algeria, Mozambique and Vietnam. Even in the West, during the 1960s, there was talk of revolution in the streets of Chicago, Berlin, London, Paris and Tokyo.
The Israeli state saw the Palestinian resistance movement as an existential threat and moved to silence its leaders. It began implementing Operation: God’s Wrath, under the command of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s Special Adviser on Security Affairs, General Aharon Yariv. The aim of the operation aim was to eliminate Palestinians capable of providing leadership to the movement.
Ghassan was close to and wrote several poems and stories for his beloved niece Lamees. The day before his assassination Lamees asked him to concentrate more on writing stories rather than his revolutionary activities. She said to him, “Your stories are so beautiful.” He answered, “Go back to writing stories? I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become empty. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.”
When he died Ghassan was 36 years old, Lamees was just 17. Today, his writings remain among the most influential in modern Arab literature. His works have been translated into 17 languages and published in 20 countries.
Ghassan’s obituary in the Lebanese Daily Star described him as, “…a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”
His wife Anni still lives in Lebanon and heads the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation that runs kindergartens, children’s libraries, centres for children with special needs and other children’s activities in six of the twelve Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
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Baroud, R. (2022, June 29). Palestinians ‘Are not animals in a xoo’: On Kanafani and the need to redefine the role of the ‘victim intellectual’. The Palestine Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.palestinechronicle.com/palestinians-are-not-animals-in-a-zoo-on-kanafani-and-the-need-to-redefine-the-role-of-the-victim-intellectual/
Brehony, L. (2017, September 4). Ghassan Kanafani: Voice of Palestine (1936-1972). The Palestine Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.palestinechronicle.com/ghassan-kanafani-voice-of-palestine-1936-1972/
Haddad, R. (2002, December 2). A legacy of learning. New Internationalist. Retrieved from https://newint.org/columns/letters-from/2002/12/01/legacy
Szeto, H. (2019, July 14). Profile: Ghassan Kanafani: Voice of Palestine (1936-1972). Middle East Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190714-profile-ghassan-kanafani-1936-1972/
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