April 28, 2000, 05:56 PM
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - George Habash’s days at the helm of the opposition Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine may be numbered, but his passionate struggle against Israel will ensure his legacy lives on. Habash, now a white-haired 73-year-old with a halting step, has battled the Israeli occupation to Palestine for almost 50 years. But for the last decade, his opposition has been mostly rhetorical.
The secretary general of the PFLP, which he founded in 1968, firmly believes there can be no peace in the Middle East unless Israel is destroyed.
PFLP spokesman Maher Al-Taher said Habash planned to offer his resignation at a meeting of the group that opened in Damascus on Thursday. Taher said the conference would decide whether or not to accept the resignation.
Habash is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the PFLP and has repeatedly expressed a desire to resign to "allow new blood into the organisation".
Last year, he spearheaded a rally of Palestinian groups opposed to President Yasser Arafat's peace deals with Israel and has sworn not to meet the Palestinian leader unless he revises the PLO charter to call for the demolition of the Jewish state.
His fiery words and radical stance pale beside the airline hijackings and kidnappings the PFLP carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s to highlight the Palestinian struggle.
But Habash, who has had several brushes with death and a limp arm from a stroke, insists "revolutionary violence" is the only way to deal with the Israeli occupation.
"We must escalate our struggle, by diplomatic and military means, as this is the only way to regain our national rights and to force Israel to end its occupation," the physician-turned- revolutionary told a PFLP anniversary rally in December.
Habash’s belief in the Marxist-Leninist dogma began with the 1948 creation of Israel, which transformed his wealthy Christian family and thousands of other Palestinians into refugees.
PLO's no.2 power
Fuelled by a firm conviction that he had a right to return to his land, Habash built the PFLP into a powerhouse second only in importance to Arafat's Fatah faction.
The group split from the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation after Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo peace agreement with the Jewish state, an agreement Habash has repeatedly decried as a sell-out.
In the 1970s, the group became known for its daring commando attacks against Israel which it launched from Arab countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan.
Matters came to a head in September 1970 when the PFLP hijacked and destroyed three Western airliners simultaneously, which led Jordan's King Hussein to crack down on the guerrillas.
Habash, and other PLO leaders, then moved to Beirut where he lived until Israel's 1982 invasion to root out the Palestinians.
He has been living in Syria since then.
Although the PFLP leader, often called The Doctor out of respect, says his members are continuing the "intifada" -- the Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation that began in 1987 -- he can do little except watch.
© 2000 Reuters