Bourguiba and the Palestine

This article is also available in: Italiano

One of the most interesting chapters in the whole Tunisian history. The approach of President Habib Bourguiba was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most interesting ever made for the Palestinian question, years later, his ideas appear increasingly as prophecies.

The speech of 1946: colonialist Israel

The link between Tunisia and Palestine has very ancient origins, the one that connects Bourguiba to Palestine, however, has a very precise date: 1946. In fact, in that year, the future Tunisian president is in Egypt, looking for both support for his own cause and, in general, for the Arab one. At that time, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians intensified, leading the future leader to expose himself for the first time on the issue.


The approach that Borguiba will use will be of rare sagacity, leading for the first time the Arab countries to be truly against the type of problem they faced. The Tunisian will in fact be the first to illustrate the deep link between Israel and the other colonizing countries, highlighting techniques and thought. This will be crucial for the whole future of the conflict, thus building analogies between the struggle for the liberation of the Arab countries and that for the Palestinian independence. Without this logical passage, in fact, it would have been almost impossible to fight an enemy who, until then, identified himself as a simple military invader. Also by virtue of these considerations, Habib Bourguiba will acquire ever greater fame in the Islamic world, showing himself one of the leaders most interested in the Palestinian cause; however, this will not change until 19 years later.

Jericho’s speech and the clash with Nasser

In 1965, now already leader of independent Tunisia, he will organize a conference in Jericho, where he will present new revolutionary ideas, this time poorly digested. In fact, since the birth of Israel in 1948, the Arab states had always opposed the armed struggle, refusing any attempt to dialogue with the Zionist state. Bourguiba was the first to categorically oppose these modalities which, according to him, would have done nothing but facilitate the government of Tel Aviv itself internationally. It was necessary, in fact, that public opinion really knew who the attacker was, aiming immediately to show himself as an injured party and not as an aggressive and unreasonable one.

Nasser and Bourguiba

The Tunisian had in fact long understood the power relations at stake, understanding that the only truly effective way would have been to recognize Israel and force it to respect the ancient treaties, the first and fundamental step in a peace process. The decision was strongly opposed by Gamal Nasser, Egyptian president, who, as a soldier, saw in armed struggle the only real way to make the Palestinians triumph. The verbal confrontation will last a long time, leading the Cairo leader to repeatedly consider Bourguiba as in the pay of the Zionists themselves, except, in the last years of his life, to prove him right, exonerating him from previous accusations. In reality, Jericho’s speech will also frighten Israel itself, which saw with terror a failed Arab attack, as it would have definitively lost its legitimacy to defend itself.

Operation wooden leg

In 1982, following the Lebanese Civil War, the PLO headquarters were moved from Beirut to Hammam Chott, near Tunis. In reality, the choice was largely due to the first lady Wassila Bourguiba, who exercised a very strong ascendancy over a large part of Palestinian politics, thus facilitating their transfer. In addition, the country has long had very strong ties to the US and this was seen as an additional safety factor for Arafat’s men, unfortunately wrongly.

An image of the attack

In fact, in 1985, officially following a Palestinian attack, the Israeli Air Force sent 10 F-15 fighters to destroy the PLO base, regretting the absence of Arafat, the real target of the operation. The attack was obviously seen as something crazy and criminal, invading any law regarding territorial sovereignty and once again showing the world the aggression and fascism of Zionist methods; fortunately, however, the action will not go unpunished. Tunisia will be able to compensate for the losses, leading the US for the first time to refrain from vetoing the Israeli attack, a result never achieved before. Only 2 years later, Bourguiba will be forced to resign because of his health condition; this can be considered his last public intervention in favor of the Palestinian cause.

Given the deep friendship that bound Arafat and Craxi, there is no doubt that the socialist leader also saw Tunisia as a friendly country, given that, in those days, the Sigonella Crisis occurred, an event in which Craxi, like Bourguiba, defended Palestinians and national sovereignty.

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