The Tragic Life of Ghassan Kanafani

In a new book, journalist Danny Rubinstein looks at life of Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, a voice for the refugees who was assassinated – most likely by Israel – for his role in the Lod Airport massacre

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Kanafani, seated left, at a press conference in Amman in 1970.
Kanafani, seated left, at a press conference in Amman in 1970.Credit: Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

Saturday, July 8, 1972 in Beirut was a particularly hot, humid day. Many of the residents of the bourgeois suburb of Hazmieh to the southeast of the city went to spend the weekend in the villages and towns of the Lebanese mountains, but Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian author who lived in the neighborhood, had other plans. He went with his 17-year-old niece Lamees Najim to register at the offices of the American University in Beirut. He planned to continue from there to his office at the weekly Al Hadaf, a magazine he edited that was published by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Shortly before 10:30 A.M. the neighborhood was rocked by an explosion when a bomb placed in Kanafani’s gray Austin went off, killing him and his niece immediately. The concierge of a nearby building who rushed to extinguish the flames witnessed the horror. The body of the girl was thrown several meters away, while Kanafani’s body was completely incinerated.

The media in the Arab world reported extensively on Kanafani’s assassination and noted his literary works. He was described as the author who told the story of the Palestinian people, thanks to his writing about the refugees who had been uprooted from their land and the tragedy they suffered in the Nakba. An obituary in The Daily Star read, “He was a commander who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena the newspaper pages.” Ghassan Tueni, editor of the most widely circulated paper in Lebanon, An Nahar, wrote, “Kanafani’s death ends an era in the annals of the Palestinian revolution. There will not be another Ghassan Kanafani.”

Victims of the terror attack at Lod Airport being evacuated, 1972.Credit: AFP

Kanafani’s death resonated in Israel as well. It was claimed he was assassinated in response to the massacre at Lod Airport in May 1972, in which 24 people were murdered by three Japanese terrorists. The headline in Haaretz on July 9, 1972 read: “PFLP No. 3 Kanafani assassinated – one of heads of PFLP in Lebanon and among planners of Lod massacre, killed when bomb explodes in his car.” Maariv also noted that “Kanafani was among those who planned the recruitment of the Japanese to conduct the suicide mission at Lod.”

Kanafani’s name was associated with the Lod massacre for decades. “In Israel, he’s considered first and foremost a terrorist,” says journalist and researcher Danny Rubinstein. “Few are familiar with his works, but he is a symbol in the Arab world and among the Palestinian people of a Palestinian entity that emerged after the Nakba, and is known as an important author.” Rubinstein sets out Kanafani’s biography in his new book (in Hebrew), “Why Didn’t You Bang the Sides of the Tank?” He focuses on the historical and political events that influenced his writing and made him into a cultural and national symbol. The title of the book is a quote from Kanafani’s famous work “Men in the Sun.”

“I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of the Palestinian generation that grew up at the same time as the Israeli generation. Kanafani was two years older than me. I see him as a member of my generation. As a journalist over the years, I have understood his value in the Arab world in general and among the Palestinian people in particular. His value has only increased with time. His writing remains relevant to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Danny Rubinstein. 'Kanafani is the representative of the Palestinian refugee camp generation.'Credit: Emil Salman

Rubinstein, 85, was a journalist for Davar, for Haaretz as Arab affairs commentator (1990-2008) and the economic daily Calcalist. He won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature in 2019 for his book “Battle on the Kastel: 24 Hours that Changed the Course of the 1948 War between Palestinians and Israelis.” He also wrote books about Yasser Arafat and about the right of return. In his new book, he invites the reader into Kanafani’s personal, political and literary world.

“Kanafani is the representative of the Palestinian refugee camp generation, and his parents belong to the generation that fought and lost against Israel in its War of Independence,” he says. “He saw with his own eyes the suffering of the Palestinians in the camps. He was the first to be a voice for the hundreds of thousands who left their homes in the Nakba and became people of no place. Reading his writings exposes the human truth behind the Palestinian national slogans, a truth that remains relevant.”

Kanafani, adds Rubinstein, was not aware of the dangers that lurked. “He did not have bodyguards. He did not change domiciles and travel routes as many Palestinians involved in guerrilla and terrorist actions did. He never imagined that Israel considered him a terrorist. In the Arab and Palestinian world, his death was considered a civilian casualty, one of the innocent victims that the conflict claims every year.”

The cover of Rubinstein's new book, 'Why Didn’t You Bang the Sides of the Tank?'Credit: David Moskowitz and Yosef Berger/Books in the Attic

In an article in Yedioth Ahronoth in 2005, journalist Eitan Haber asserted that Kanafani was erroneously added to the death list. “Today, the Mossad half admits that the decision to create an atmosphere of deterrence and fear among the Palestinian communities in Europe resulted in innocent victims,” Haber wrote. “Kanafani was the most senior and most prominent of those who were sentenced to death by Golda’s ‘court’ even though they had no direct connection to terrorism, or specifically to the Munich massacre.”

A fateful meeting with Habash

Kanafani was born in Acre on April 9, 1936, but spent most of his childhood in Jaffa’s Manshiyeh neighborhood. In March 1948, during the war, his family left Jaffa and never returned. “From all the reports about what happened to the Kanafani family in the spring and summer of 1948. it seems they were relatively lucky,” Rubinstein writes in his book. “The family comfortably resettled in Damascus, a different fate altogether to the suffering experienced by the majority of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees.” Rubinstein notes that Kanafani once said that, “he began writing about the lives of Palestinians before he formed a political opinion. What moved him was the Nakba, and, later, the stories of children in the refugee camps in Lebanon, where he taught.”

Sabri Jiryis, 84, a former senior PLO official and an advisor on Israeli affairs to Yasser Arafat, knew Kanafani. “We both experienced the deportations,” he tells Haaretz. He met Kanafani for the first time in Beirut, but the first time he sat and spoke with him was in Kuwait at a conference of the Palestinian Writers Association, a year before Kanafani was assassinated. “His personality was extraordinary. He was an angry man, he was angry at everything,” he recalls. “He smoked incessantly and had a piercing look. He walked around with a constant feeling that the Palestinian issue was a burden on his shoulders. He was a well-thought-of author in the Arab world and believed in the path of the PFLP and armed resistance.”

Dr. Basilius Bawardi

A significant turning point in Kanafani’s life came when he was 18 and met George Habash, the founder of the PFLP, at a printer’s shop in Damascus. At the time, Habash had established in 1951 Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-Arab, the Arab Nationalist Movement. “The meeting between the two led to a strong friendship. From that day, Habash set Kanafani on his life path, which in the end led to the explosion in his car and his death,” says Rubinstein. “Over time, Kanafani became Habash’s confidant. He edited newspapers for the movement, served as the spokesman for the PFLP, and his writing was influenced by Habash’s impressions of the Nakba in Lod, where he was born, and by the exile of its humiliated residents. In that way, he also managed to influence tens of thousands of youngsters residing in the refugee camps, who initiated the Palestinian awakening and the establishment of the groups that were the genesis of the PLO.”

Kanafani speaks to reporters in 1970.

Until 1965, Kanafani opposed armed struggle against the occupation, because he believed in the power of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. He saw in Nasser a savior of the Palestinian people and the unifier of the Arab nation. But the resounding Arab defeat in the Six-Day War changed his political perceptions and his writing. “Kanafani understood that this wasn’t just a severe military blow to the Arab countries and their leaders. After the defeat, he and many Palestinians realized that the Arab nations didn’t know how to defend themselves, and therefore there was no way they would defend the Palestinians,” says Rubinstein. It was at this point, according to Rubinstein, that Kanafani established the literature of resistance – political writing, exhorting a Palestinian uprising. He called on his people not to rely on Arab countries, to stop crying for the lost homeland and to shake off their helplessness and take their fate into their own hands.”

A metaphor for the Palestinian struggle

Kanafani didn’t just write about the exile and the suffering of children in the refugee camps. He also criticized Arab countries and even accused the elder generation of Palestinians of not fighting as they should have for the homeland. “He understood later that the tears of the elder generation wouldn’t help, and that the time had come to rise up. This was very noticeable in his book ‘Men in the Sun,’” says Rubinstein.

“Men in the Sun,” published in 1963, was considered one of the most prominent books of Palestinian literature and made Kanafani a noted author in the Arab world. At the center of the plot are three Palestinian men who leave their refugee camp in Lebanon to find work as laborers in Kuwaiti oil fields. At the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, they hide in an empty water tanker at the height of the midday heat. When the driver reaches his destination and opens the tanker, he finds the three dead. Kanafani ends the story with the question, “Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank?” – a metaphor for the Palestinian struggle and criticism of the Arab world and its attitudes toward the Palestinians.

George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).Credit: Vaetan/AP

Prof. Yehouda Shenhav-Shahrabani, a sociologist, tells Haaretz that “Men in the Sun” is a book that awakens in the reader a sense of revolt and a desire to defend the Palestinians. “For Kanafani, the fate of the three men to die in the tanker, to be cast away in the desert was sealed because they didn’t rise up and knock on the sides of the tank,” he says. “One has to remember that Kanafani was also the spokesman for the PFLP and his ideological goal in his writing was nationalist. He understood that you cannot create a homeland without literature, and that there was a need for the canon to be expanded. Shenhav-Shahrabani adds, “Kanafani believed that resistance literature has the power to resurrect the homeland and to spur the Palestinians to get back up on their feet despite their defeat.”

Indeed, says Rubinstein, the story spoke to the hearts of both many Palestinians and wide swaths of the Arab left, who were captivated by its charms and were fighting the traditional leadership, which, in their opinion, alienated the refugees. “The question, ‘Why didn’t you bang on the side of the tank?’ became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle and a call for uprising.”

Prof. Mohammed Dajani, head of the Institute for American Studies at Al Quds University, knew Kanafani and lived in Beirut at the time he was assassinated. “It is difficult to differentiate between Ghassan the Palestinian author and Ghassan the PFLP fighter,” he tells Haaretz. “There was a large ideological gap that divided us. I belonged to Fatah and he to the PFLP. But his book ‘Men in the Sun’ greatly influence my thinking about the suffering of Palestinian men looking to make a living. Today as well, we are witnessing the many tragedies of men and women who die looking for work in various areas of the world. That’s what makes Kanafani a thinker who is relevant in every time and space.”

Kanafani was influenced by Palestinian authors and poets who lived in Israel after the establishment of the state, such as Tawfiq Ziad, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim. He saw them as resistance poets, as opposed to the Palestinian poets living in the diaspora, says Dr. Basilius Bawardi, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and a researcher of modern Arab literature. “He saw in their writing a daring call for an uprising for the Palestinian homeland. That was very different from the Palestinian poets and authors who lived in exile and whose writing was characterized by romanticism, yearning, and self-pity. That is also what is scary about Kanafani’s writing, that he does not project self-pity – on the contrary, he calls for uprising.”

Who killed Layla Al Hayek?

In 1969, Kanfani published the novel “Return to Haifa,” which awakened great interest not only among Palestinians but also in Israeli literary circles because it dealt with highly charged issues in the conflict. The story recounts a meeting between Palestinian refugees returning to their home in Haifa after the Six Day War and a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors living in their former home. The Palestinian couple’s son wants to join the fedayun – a group of youngsters who streamed to the training camps of Fatah, the left-wing groups, and other Palestinian organizations after the Six Day War. Rubinstein says that Kanafani “is insinuating that the younger generation that grew up in the refugee camps is different from that of their parents. They are a generation bringing change.” The Palestinian literary critic Faisal Darraj wrote of the book that “from Kanafani’s perspective, Palestinians will be worthy of Palestine when their fight for Palestine is equal to the fight of the Zionists that led to its conquest. In other words, when the Palestinians become like Zionists.”

A July 9, 1972 Haaretz front page reports Kanafani's death.

Shenhav-Shahrabani says: “The tremendous resonance in the media of ‘Return to Haifa’ established Kanafani’s status at the apex of Palestinian and Arab culture. Despite his critical position towards the Jews, he sees them in the story; he speaks with Jews and gives them agency. That was the book’s innovation, later influencing others.

Bawardi notes that Kanafani also had another literary side. Among other things, he was a pioneer of Arab literary detective stories, like the novel “The Other Thing: Who Killed Layla Al Hayek” – which was published posthumously in 1982. The fictional tale following the murder of the eponymous victim “raises existential questions about life,” according to Bawardi. “Many ignore the book because it is different in its style, but Kanafani exposes another dimension here other than the literary resistance for which he is known. He does not mention the Palestinian issue, but touches on questions of life and death, marriage, infidelity, and even criticizes the idea of legislation that disconnects man from his feelings.”

Training the Red Army

Kanafani wasn’t just a highly admired intellectual; he was also a media icon. “The battle between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian organizations in Black September led to Palestinian nationalist operations moving to Lebanon, where Arafat and the Fatah leadership settled along with the heads of the PFLP, significantly expanding their military bases. The desk at the Al Hadaf newspaper became a media center,” says Rubinstein. Journalists who interviewed Kanafani at the time, notes Rubinstein, called him a Palestinian media star. “He was handsome thanks to his sharp features, vivid eyes, his mustache, and his combed-back, thick black hair. Anyone who wanted to interview senior PLO, figures, especially in the PFLP, or to hear high-level political analysis turned to the editorial team at Al Hadaf. Foreign journalists knew Kanafani not necessarily as a Palestinian author, but primarily as a central political figure.”

In February 1971, Fusako Shigenobu, leader of the underground Japanese Red Army, came to Beirut with her partner. She made a living from occasional jobs such as translation and tour guiding, but primarily she held meetings to deepen her familiarity with the PFLP activists. In his book, Rubinstein describes the chain of events from then until the Lod Airport massacre that led eventually to the assassination of Kanafani.

Shigenobu and her partner met George Habash, who introduced them to Wadie Haddad. He was in charge of PFLP operations. The Japanese agreed with Haddad that they would conduct a joint action of the PFLP and the Japanese Red Army. After several months, several additional members of the underground Japanese organization came to Beirut. They underwent weapons training with PFLP militants and even took photos together in several places, writes Rubinstein, noting the famous photo of Kanafani and the PFLP’s official announcement, in which it took full responsibility for the massacre. “The wording of the announcement was most likely written by Ghassan Kanafani. In it, he labeled the massacre as the Deir Yassin Operation, naming it for the Palestinian village in western Jerusalem in which a massacre was conducted in April 1948,” he writes. “The announcement stated that the operation was conducted in the heart of occupied Palestine ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Arab defeat of June 1967. This to show the world that the Palestinians are not giving up and can strike the imperialist reactionary enemy anywhere.”

In the two weeks following the massacre, the editions of Kanafani’s Al Hadaf were full of celebratory headlines, articles, and analysis. All of them featured heroic expressions praising the Lod operation and its perpetrators. “Kanafani may have had no choice; as the official PFLP spokesman, he had to give media backing to the massacre,” says Rubinstein. “But at the same time, looking at the content of the articles and analysis in the paper, he did not have a hard time doing so, and did so with great dedication. It was only in later years that George Habash renounced the terror operations of his partner Wadie Haddad. In later writings about Kanafani all his colleagues and friends note that despite his membership in the PFLP Central Committee, he was not partner to the planning and execution of terrorist operations.

Kanafani knew that he was going to die, but not by assassination. In his early 20s, he was diagnosed with severe diabetes. He did not follow his doctor’s orders and was frequently ill. In the last chapter of the book, Rubinstein quotes Kanafani from his 1959 story “My Funeral” about his expected death from the illness: “I am marching now at my funeral. All the wise warnings that I heard over the years seem to me like a bubble of stupid soap. Man is brave as long as he doesn’t need bravery, but he collapses when he in confronted with the real thing, when he has to understand bravery in the context of surrender, in the sense of casting aside everything that is human and sufficing with observing, not doing. I have failed to fulfill my role as a brave hero as requested by my doctor. I decided to be a hero, even if just one time. That I would be one of those whose name appears in stories as someone who stated his position clearly, with bravery, and smites their fate with all their strength.”
Rubinstein concludes: “My long relationship with the Palestinian experience teaches me that Kanafani managed to become a hero. The journalist and author, the artist of the written word, became a foremost Palestinian and Arab cultural hero.”

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