In a smoke-filled café on the Gaza shoreline, Dr. Tholfikar Swairjo, official spokesman of the Gazan branch of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), sat down for an interview with VICE News and was immediately greeted by a complimentary cigar. "Who is this from?" Swairjo asked.
"The owner," the waiter replied.
The organization Swairjo represents is a secular, Marxist group that was once a commanding political force in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Over the past decades, however, the PFLP's influence has waned, due to factors such as rising religiosity and the collapse of its main financer, the Soviet Union. Considering the political climate in the region, life as a communist in Gaza, according to Swairjo, isn't easy.
"I cannot say frankly, 'I am a communist,'" Swairjo confided as he lit his cigar. "We cannot approach the situation in this way."
This hasn't always been the case. The PFLP were once the second most popular group in Palestine. They made plane hijackings infamous in the 1970s, and they drew massive international support from Europe and Japan. After the October 17, 2001 assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi, the ultra-right-wing Israeli tourism minister, they became the only Palestinians to have ever assassinated the head of an Israeli ministry.
Swairjo completed his studies in Greece, and uses his understanding of Greek to find words with Hellenistic origins in the Koran, which Muslims consider to be entirely Arabic, in order to challenge their view of the holy book. Challenging Gaza's pervasive religiosity, this is one of the methods members of the PFLP use to encourage their fellow Palestinians to view the decades-long conflict with Israel in a different light.
This resistance to faith is institutionalized within the PFLP. Swairjo has five daughters, and his friends and colleagues often say he should take a second wife to try for a son. "Little do they know, if I were to take a second wife, I would be expelled from the Executive Committee of the PFLP," he said, referencing the central governing body of the organization in the Gaza Strip. "Things like this are not permitted."
Dr. Rabah Mohanna, the 66-year-old head of the Political Bureau of the PFLP in Gaza, further stressed this separation. "Tomorrow, I have a meeting with the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad," he said. "When they go to pray, I stay behind. They tell me they want me to join them in paradise, but I say that paradise is in this life, not the next. In private they respect my decision, but in public they would never do so."
The relationship between Hamas, the Islamist political and militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip, and the secular PFLP is, at best, strained. When asked about these relations, Mohanna recounted a time when the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-vilified group that won the first democratic elections in Egypt but was ousted in a 2013 coup d'état, tried to assassinate him. "It was 1986, and a convoy of Muslim Brotherhood members pulled up to my car. They dragged me out, and attempted to choke me with wire," he recounted, calmly. His bodyguards foiled the attempt.
"The men who wanted me dead are [now] the leadership of Hamas," Mohanna continued, referring to the fact that Hamas originated as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. "Neither of us have forgotten this."
Speaking on the current role of the diminished PFLP, Mohanna said that the group "plays a reasonable role, according to our means." They number nearly 8,000 in Gaza, and Mohanna says that close to 40,000 identify with the group's ideology.
'When [the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad] go to pray, I stay behind. They tell me they want me to join them in paradise, but I say that paradise is in this life, not the next.'
The PFLP always rejected the two-state solution, instead opting for one democratic state for everyone living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River— as long as it's not called "Israel"— and religion has never been a factor in their philosophy. In 1993, when Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, the agreement between Israel and the PLO that was meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state, the PFLP would not recognize it.
"We have suffered since then, it was near the same time when the Soviet Union collapsed, and then we were also denied money from the PLO," Mohanna said. When asked how the financially beleaguered PFLP fills its coffers, Mohanna responded, "I will tell you honestly, Iran funds us, as much as they are able. We also receive money from wealthy Palestinians, those who haven't given up on the right of return." The right of return is the notion, backed up by UN Resolution 194, that all Palestinians made refugees as a result of conflict with Israel be allowed to return to their homes or compensated for their loss.
They also refused to give up armed struggle, further limiting donations. The PFLP shares this view with another secular Marxist organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). The DFLP split from the PFLP in 1969, due to differences in opinion about the importance of military and civil organization. In recent years, the groups have grown closer in Gaza, due to increased isolation. Swairjo told VICE News that the groups are in constant contact on matters of national importance, and that "there must be the same level of coordination between the armed wings of our groups, as well."
In an olive grove on the outskirts of Gaza City, members of the DFLP's National Resistance Brigades allowed VICE News to observe one of their training sessions. Close to a dozen men wearing black facemasks and red headbands paraded through the grove, engaging in different military formations under the midday sun. The reason the site was chosen was to block the heat-sensing view of the Israeli drones flying overhead. At night, this wouldn't be possible, as human bodies are too warm not to be noticed.
The group paraded their Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, AK-47s, corresponding banana clips, handheld grenades and what appeared to be armor-piercing shells for other heavy weaponry through the trees. The dings and scratches confirmed the weapons to be battle-worn, and the commander's ability to guide his fighters with a few hand motions attested to their own battleground experience. The snipers got into the prone position, belly-down, to help stabilize their aim. The men holding assault rifles set rally points and followed the leader. Those with heavier weapons stayed behind to provide cover.
After the session ended, Abu Khaled, a leader in the National Resistance Brigades, sat down for an interview. "Yes, we lost some men, you lose comrades in every conflict," he said, speaking about the effect of Operation Protective Edge. "But the resistance is back at full strength…and our compass is pointed towards Jerusalem."
When asked if he believed that a secular group still had a place in the increasingly religious landscape of Middle East conflict, the leader of the DFLP's armed wing responded that the "Palestinian resistance doesn't involve itself with other Arab issues; our only enemy is the Israeli occupation."
A few days later, VICE News met with Abu Ghassan, a 42-year-old member of the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the armed wing of the PFLP, to discuss the conduct and motivations behind the PFLP's insistence on continuing armed struggle.
"We don't choose to fight, we don't like to die, but we have to," Abu Ghassan began. "Even the minimum, the basic requirements of life, are not provided to us. We're not fighting just for the sake of bloodshed. It's because of oppression."
Abu Ghassan joined the PFLP in during the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that began in late 1987. "I decided to join the PFLP because I felt like it was what fit me the best, ideologically. They're the most honest and courageous about their statements," the fighter explained.
The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades were active in many of the major battles in the past summer's Operation Protective Edge, including Khuzaa, Rafah, and Bet Hanoun. Abu Ghassan would not go into specifics about where he fought, but he said that when he leaves, he doesn't gve his wife or five children a definite goodbye. "What gives me relief is my wife. The fact that she's there, and she's going to be there, gives me comfort. I owe her everything."
The Marxist combatant revealed that while he doesn't bring the PFLP's ideology home — "My kids are children, I don't expect them to have the same mentality as I do" — he does store the aforementioned "work-related" items in and around his house, as was exhibited when the door to his kitchen closed and a grenade launcher was suddenly revealed.
Abu Ghassan's wife first discovered that her husband was a fighter when a smoke bomb he had stashed under their home went off. The ensuing smoke alarmed her, and she quickly realized what it meant.
While it wasn't the way Abu Ghassan wanted his wife to discover his role in the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, he felt fortunate that his family suffered no bodily harm. "Luckily I kept the smoke bomb away from the rest of the 'worked-related' things I had stored," he said.
"When I get things for my work, I carry them with other things, like groceries, then I put them underground" he explained. With a troubled look, Abu Ghassan expressed conflict concerning his actions. "I don't want my kids to live with anxiety, or anything that might cause them to worry."
However, he continues to juggle family and "work," refusing to give up the PFLP's beliefs. "Life is resistance," he concluded.
Back in the café, Mohanna was also determined that Marxism was the answer. He sees the recent gains of leftist parties in austerity-stricken Europe, and firmly established leftist governments in Latin America, as indicators that Marxism still holds political currency.
"I won't see it in my lifetime," he concluded, optimistically, "but the future is ours."
All images by Dylan Collins.
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