"The Grand Old Man of Gaza"

His life was inextricably linked with the history of Palestine over the past century, from the end of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine to the collapse of the Middle East peace talks. Haidar Abdel Shafi died on 25 September. An obituary by Alexandra Senfft

The doctor and politician Haidar Abdel Shafi was born in 1919. He was one of six children born into a family that had lived in Gaza for many, many years. His father was a respected representative of the Islamic High Council.

As a young man, Abdel Shafi left his native home for a few years to study medicine in Lebanon and the USA. He had become politically active during the first Arab-Israeli war and worked to improve the health and social conditions of Palestinians. In 1947, he was one of the few people to support the UN partition plan for Palestine. He understood that the Jews would stay in the country and he accepted this as a fact. In public, he spoke out in favour of co-existence. This was long before either Palestinian or Israeli society had ever begun considering such a move.

Although Abdel Shafi was of the opinion that the Palestinians would have to fight for their rights, he condemned suicide bomb attacks. One of the founders of the PLO, he was initially considered to be part of the organisation's left wing. Abdel Shafi was not a man to mince his words. In the early 1960s, for example, he was deported from the country on two occasions for his resistance to Israeli occupation.

In 1972 he founded the Palestinian Red Crescent, the Arab counterpart to the Red Cross. He remained director of this organisation until shortly before his death. By this time he had distanced himself from the PLO, preferring to remain true to his own, independent opinions.

Consistency, openness, tolerance

Haidar Abdel Shafi impressed others with his consistency, his unpolitical manner, his openness and his tolerance. He was also known for his sense of humour. In 1988 he, Hanan Ashrawi, and Saeb Erekat went on American television to address both the Israelis and the western public and to explain Palestinian concerns to them. In 1991, he gave a moving address at the opening of the Madrid Conference, where he acted as head of the Palestinian delegation:

"From Madrid, we launch this quest for peace," he said in his legendary speech, which was broadcast around the world. "In the name of the Palestinian people, we wish to directly address the Israeli people with whom we have had a prolonged exchange of pain: Let us share hope, instead. We are willing to live side by side on the land […] Sharing, however, requires two partners, willing to share as equals."

Abdel Shafi led the Palestinian delegation in the protracted negotiations in Washington before resigning from the post in 1993. He was convinced that there was an imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians and that the American brokers were tipping that balance in Israel's favour.

Above all, however, he criticised the forced, undiminished construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory. He felt that they were a breach of the negotiation agreements and were not suitable for forging trust, let alone peace.

Respected by a wide band of people

Three years later, Abdel Shafi joined the Palestinian Legislative Council, earning more votes than any other candidate. He often clinched with the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, because he untiringly highlighted Arafat's undemocratic style of leadership, the corruption in the autonomous authority, and the alleged sell-out of Palestinian rights.

Nevertheless, Arafat never dared to sanction, interrogate, or arrest Abdel Shafi as he did other critics. Abdel Shafi was popular in Gaza and many felt that his judgement and experience would have made him a good president.

Having resigned from the council in 1998, he acted as a broker between the enemy factions within Palestine in an attempt to establish national unity. Despite the fact that he was not religious, he was respected by a wide band of people including supporters of Islamist groupings.

Like no-one else before or since, Haidar Abdel Shafi was the face of an isolated Gaza Strip and an important voice for Palestinians. "The Grand old man of Gaza" died of cancer on 25 September with his family at his side.

Alexandra Senfft

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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