When I began seeing e-mails with the name “Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi” in the subject line, I figured he must be speaking somewhere. In August 2002, I saw him speak at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. I remember thinking how sharp his analysis was. It was so sharp, I forgot how old he was (he was born in 1919).
|Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi|
In the talk, he called for a Palestinian unity government in order to make the most of the new intifada and the growing power of different factions. It was necessary to represent all the voices of the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority moved a little in that direction, but ultimately failed. It was due to the constellation of U.S.-Israeli pressure, PA corruptibility, and HAMAS’s lack of clarity of purpose. Today, we witness what Abdel Shafi was warning against in that talk, the “disarray” that results from disunity.
I did not open any of the e-mails, at first. I was working on a tribute to the late Edward Said, the intellectual powerhouse who was one of the most prominent voices on Palestine in the United States. The day the e-mails about Abdel Shafi came in was the fourth anniversary of Said’s passing. I was astonished to finally find out that Abdel Shafi also departed us. It was on the same calendar day we lost Edward Said, September 25.
This date, September 25, can join a Palestinian calendar rife with other tragic moments. The death of scholar-activists is not more important than the many who die daily, on the ground. However, the loss of these two public figures stands for something much bigger than them. It represents the passing of an era.
Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi was a Gazan, a physician, a leader, and often, a voice of reason. Like Edward Said, he helped herald in the phase of negotiations, which began in the Madrid conference in 1991. Abdel Shafi was there as a representative. Said supported their spirit with his pen and voice.
With the same sharp foresight I witnessed in 2002, Dr. Abdel Shafi thanked and warned the American and European sponsors. They “dared to stir up hopes.” He praised them for that, but he warned them against failing to fulfill these hopes.
“We do not stand before you as supplicants,” he said. “Therein lies the strength of the Palestinian people today, for we have scaled the walls of fear and reticence and we wish to speak out with the courage and dignity that our narrative and history deserve.”
According to the United Palestinian Appeal, “his public statements, though soft-spoken, were always principled.”
Like Edward Said, he soon turned to criticize what he once supported. Some call this hypocrisy. But, it was not them who changed. They saw what was happening with the negotiations. What began as Israel-American openness and good faith quickly devolved to a power-driven series of orders in the disguise of negotiations. While it was assumed the Palestinians were getting the territories, it quickly became obvious the U.S. and Israel intended on returning a portion of the land, and the state they get would still be subject to Israeli control.
Dr. Abdel Shafi resigned as chief Palestinian negotiator to protest the flawed aims of the Oslo peace process. Soon, Edward Said’s critiques opened the eyes of many to the inherent pro-Israeli bias built in to the process. Palestinian leaders who stayed on out of a self-delusional “pragmatism,” stood to benefit, and played the game Abdel Shafi and Said both saw as doomed to fail.
When it did, these two were not vindicated. They stayed the path of outside critics, while the benefactors of the so-called peace process carried forward with the myth of “peace.” Israel’s intensification of violence and continued settlement-building did little to convince those in charge.
The political similarities between the two are not exact. Edward Said went on to articulate a vision of a one-state solution based on legalized equality between both peoples and the abandonment of Palestinian and Israeli nationalism. Abdel Shafi, while welcoming debate, stayed with the nation of unity government and a Palestinian national life based on pluralism, or the involvement of many voices.
Both visions are clearly preferable to what we have today.
What we do not have today is such dissent. The loss of these two giants has left us with a new era of petty, divisive politics. The Palestine we were promised has turned into a failed non-state ruled by failed quasi-dictators. The Palestinian people are more divided, cynical, and desperate than ever.
While Said and Abdel Shafi embraced secular ideals, they did so with a respectability towards faith that bridged the gap. Now in Palestine, there are two extremes: religious purists espousing unworkable ideals of statehood, on one hand, and ultra-materialist, banana republicans who worship power and the false promises they get from Israel and the West, on the other.
On September 25th, the anniversary of Said and Abdel Shafi’s passing, I mourned the disappearance of constructive, thoughtful, and visionary dissent from Palestinian politics.