I first met Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi and his wife, Huda, after June, 1967, through N., a friend who had studied with him in Beirut. When she spoke of him, a special light shone in her very beautiful eyes - the same distant gaze that comes when speaking of an old love. We quickly became friends, a friendship that deepened over the years. When we first met I already had the feeling - one that’s never let me down - that we had sprung from the same earth (that’s my private way of describing the feeling I had). In other words, I am speaking of a person (a subject) who is political active, secular, rational and generous. There is an immediate understanding with such people, you’re fond of them, feel that you share with them a common language. I know men and women like that, not many, but they can be found everywhere: in Tel Aviv, in Ramallah, in Gaza, in New York, in Boston, in Europe and in China. These people have usually been communists at some point in their lives, or held such beliefs.
When the first Intifada erupted, in December, 1987, even before it had been given that name, I called my friends in Gaza, Haidar and the late Marie Khass, not only because I was worried about their safety and that of Gaza’s residents, but also because I wanted to know what was really happening there, since it wasn’t possible to obtain a reliable picture of events in Gaza from the Israeli media. Haidar, with his customary generosity, agreed immediately to guarantee the safety and security of eleven people who would accompany me to Gaza. And so it was.
Eleven physicians took the trip, and we saw Gaza misery. Shops closed, frightened people, armed soldiers everywhere. It looked very bad. Worst of all was what we saw at “Shifah”, the governmental hospital. We saw boys, mostly, but girls as well, and many young men filling the beds of this terribly wretched hospital, most of them suffering from multiple fractures of their arms and legs. There were some youngsters with head injuries from beatings. The sparse, outdated medical equipment, the neglect and filth, the sewage overflowing inside the hospital shocked us, we Israelis, accustomed to clean hospitals equipped with the best medical equipment. The Palestine Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip, established by Dr. Haidar in 1972, which administered first aid and provided transportation to the hospitals during the first months of the Intifada, was on the verge of collapse.
The eleven doctors who traveled to Gaza in January, 1988, formed the nucleus with which I established the organization that was called at the time, “Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights.” That day in Gaza we met Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj and others, with whom we continue to work to this day. As Physicians for Human Rights, our first obligation is to combat the evil, the destruction, the torture and the death that people inflict on their fellows. Our medical activity, combating disease, comes next. The fight against human evil requires us to oppose the Israeli occupation in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues. Our opposition to evil-made-by-man is deep and all-encompassing, and applies throughout the world – but first of all in our own backyard, the Occupied Palestinian Territory. After a few years we extended our struggle to include that against the discrimination and evils affecting migrant workers, trafficked women, and Bedouin citizens living in unrecognized villages in the Negev desert, Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Israeli disempowered population.
Let me expand a bit about Gaza’s ambulances. The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), headed by Dr. Haidar, suffered greatly at the hands of the Israeli authorities, and was threatened with closure. Contributions to the PRCS were delayed, or not authorized at all. The donation or purchase of ambulances equipped for resuscitation was forbidden and communication equipment couldn’t be installed in the ambulances that were then in use. This was before the era of cellular phones. The ambulances were, in fact, white vans bearing the symbol of the PRCS, but empty of life-saving medical equipment. Dr. Haidar told me how Hamas, the religious group, was able, on the one hand – almost without any difficulty – to transfer funds with the permission of the Israeli military authorities, while on the other hand the authorities were restricting the work of the PRCS. His words, always spoken in a restrained, pleasant tone, also carried a clear and unambiguous political message. He understood the actions of the occupation authorities and foresaw what would happen. Few grasped his clear-sighted vision at the time, or agreed with his analysis that Israel was “grooming” Hamas as a counterweight to the secular, left-wing Palestinian organizations.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR-I) joined the struggle of the Palestine Red Crescent Society to obtain authorization to install communication equipment in ambulances, and to increase the number of ambulances operating in Gaza. Our efforts had no practical results – essentially, we failed. The number of ambulances didn’t increase significantly, and the prohibition on communication equipment remained in force. But there was one important success: building trust and mutual respect between Palestinian individuals and organizations and PHR-I, relationships that grew of a joint struggle against the occupation, a struggle based on solidarity and not on arrogance or patronage.
In 1988, the first year of the Intifada, I often traveled to Gaza in order to prepare a report on medical and health conditions there. I needed the help of medical personnel in Gaza to obtain data and to verify information. Most of the work could only be done through face-to-face conversations with Gaza physicians. There were no computers, no e-mail and no cellular phones. There were few phone lines, those that existed were overburdened, and it often required two hours of dialing in order to complete a single call. The journey from Tel Aviv to Gaza took an hour at the most, so I preferred to make the trip. I told Haidar about the many difficulties involved in the preparing the report, and about additional difficulties because of fear and suspicion on the part of many Palestinian doctors who didn’t know me, someone who came from the occupiers’ side. How could they know I wasn’t working for the Israeli Shin-Bet (security services)? In one of our talks, I told him that an aboriginal woman once said something that seemed to be correct and to the point: “If you have come to help me, please go home. However, if you have come because your liberation is tied with my own, then let’s work together.” (With thanks to Neve Gordon for this wonderful statement). Haidar smiled and promised to help. Work on the report then proceeded quickly, and it appeared in three languages - Hebrew, Arabic and English.
In February, 1988, Mordechai Avi Shaul died. He was 90. He had been an exemplary translator from German to Hebrew, an activist on the left, a human rights activist and a friend for many years of Haidar and his family. Dr. Haidar was confined to Gaza by order of Yitzhak Rabin, then the Minister of Defense, and was not permitted to attend Mordechai Avi Shaul’s funeral, or the traditional seven-day mourning period that followed. Pleas and intercessions were no help. Palestinian peace activists, those who supported non-violent opposition to the occupation, in particular if they were known leftists, who were in contact with Israelis, were considered dangerous and undesirable - while tens of thousands of workers and businessmen entered Israel daily from Gaza.
Dr. Haidar headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference, in October 1991. In his speech he said: “From Madrid we launch this quest for peace, a quest to place the sanctity of human life at the center of our world and to redirect our energies and resources from the pursuit of mutual destruction to the pursuit of joint prosperity, progress, and happiness“.
The sanctity of human life, or, in other words - human rights - is what is missing from the bulky document, 400 pages long, produced in Oslo two years later, when Dr. Haidar was no longer a member of the delegation. Not only his person was absent – also missing were his spirit and his understanding of the process that was to develop between the two peoples. Dr. Haidar resigned from the Palestinian delegation to the peace conference when his demand that Israeli settlement in the occupied territories must cease was rejected.
As far back as 1947, Haidar had favored a solution involving two states for two peoples, a solution involving the establishment of a secular, democratic Palestinian state. That’s why he couldn’t agree to his homeland being torn up by the settlements, and saw even then how confiscation of land, dispossession and the continued occupation would transform the peace talks into an empty vessel, and make dead letters of the agreements.
His deep belief in the possibility of peace placed him in a position in which personal and political relationships with Jewish Israelis were part of his public life and behavior, not only while he held an important and influential position, but also when he relinquished it.
On September 13, 1993, the day of the famous handshakes by the three leaders in Washington when the Oslo agreements were signed, I was in Gaza. Among other things, I visited Haidar and Huda in their beautiful home in the Rimal neighborhood. Haidar said: “This agreement is a recipe for disaster for the Palestinians.” Almost everyone I knew, including my friend N., were angry at him, accused him of stubbornness and an “absolutist” approach, couldn’t understand how he failed to see what they saw - a new beginning, one that promised the benefits of peace and an independent Palestinian state. Everyone wanted so much to hope that it blinded us all, but Haidar saw and understood the difficult reality they faced at that time, and viewed the future as absolutely terrible.
Haidar’s greatness was that he knew and understood from the depths of his soul that a just and stable peace would not be achieved by groveling. Palestinian national interests obligate its emissaries and elected representatives not to grovel or to surrender, even to forces stronger than they. Haidar openly said to Israelis as well as to his leader, Yasser Arafat that true cooperation and the correct solution to the conflict cannot come in the form of an agreement to surrender. Such an agreement would not only be wrong; it would not endure. A true partner must be dignified and equal, not one that is defeated and humiliated.
Even the Zionist left at the time didn’t choose Haidar as a partner for discussions - not, at least, as their preferred partner. They gave precedence to Arafat’s people, who were good and worthy, but were neither independent thinkers nor persons who, like Haidar, were far-seeing. They frequently spoke and met with Sartawi, Hammami, Hisham Sharabi and other members of Arafat’s circle. Haidar didn’t overturn any tables. He maintained personal and political connections with Israelis as he had always done, but did not abandon his view that no compromise was possible on the important issues: settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return and a solution to the refugee problem. And above all - the end of the occupation that began in 1967. He was aware of what this cost him personally: He was no longer included in the first ranks among the founders of the PLO in 1964, but was relegated to the place reserved for independent individuals, the few, the honest, the unbending.
When he understood, with sorrow, that he could no longer have an influence on events, he resigned. He resigned as the head of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid in 1991, and years later, in 1998, from the Palestine Legislative Council. On the eve of his resignation from the Council, again by chance, I was a guest in Haidar’s home. We met for a talk, but we said little. One phone call followed another. It seemed as if the whole world was calling him. Most of the callers attempted to convince him to remain a member of the Council, not to resign. Huda, wearing tailored slacks, her hair uncovered as usual, passed through the rooms wearing a certain smile. She, who knew Haidar better than all of them, knew he wouldn’t change his mind. His brother, Dr. Mustafa Abd A-Shafi, was also there and supported his decision, as did Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, from Ramallah, his friend and political follower.
Both of us are from here, Haidar from Gaza, I from Jerusalem. We could have left, but preferred to remain. We have much more than that in common - medicine, ceaseless political activity, a profound secular viewpoint. That is why Dr. Haidar could think and feel like a communist, however, his fundamental lack of religiosity prevented him from being a party member, not even of a party he supported, be it the Communist party or the Popular Front.
And perhaps we have something else in common that comes from the traditional medical education both of us received, that the role of the physician is to mend, not to dismantle. A good doctor should be concerned with the patient’s life, bodily and soul integrity and independence. Collaborators are interested only in anesthetizing the system, in silencing it, and in maximum conformity. Haidar was wary of dismantling systems, and even more wary of destroying them. When his view (which turned out to be correct) wasn’t accepted, he moved aside or resigned. He did nothing that was destructive to the PLO or to the Palestine Legislative Council, or that could have helped tear them apart. That’s another similarity I found between his political path and mine.
Haidar visited my home in Tel Aviv, I don’t remember in what year. The jasmine was in bloom and its strong fragrance was everywhere. He said: this wonderful fragrance reminds me of Beirut. Every house had a jasmine bush.
The glance from Tel Aviv casts light on Haidar’s life from a particular direction, the Israeli-Palestinian direction. This glance prevents seeing other aspects of his life and character. But all one can see from here is what’s visible from here. The Israeli-Palestinian conflicts casts such a long shadow that it seems nothing else exists.
If a person like Haidar had been in charge of this region, it would have been better for us all. His wise and sober vision, usually ahead of its time (for which he paid a heavy price), could have allowed all of us here to live honorable, prosperous and culturally rich lives.
When Dr. Haidar died his nephew, Dr. Omar Abd A-Shafi, needed a permit to travel from East Jerusalem to Gaza in order to attend his uncle’s funeral. As usual, a request like this was met with a refusal and with impassible administrative obstacles. Omar contacted Physicians for Human Rights-Israel for help. Naomi Mark and Miri Weingarten, from PHR-Israel, contacted the military liaison offices. No one there knew who Dr. Haidar Abd A-Shafi was. After great effort, Dr. Omar Abd A-Shafi received a transit permit to Gaza that was valid for one day only. An entire generation knows nothing about the Palestinians who dedicated the best years of their lives to creating the possibility of cooperation and peace between the two peoples.
It was still possible in Haidar’s generation for Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews to study together, in the same university - for example, in Beirut. Even in the next generation, my generation, Arab and Jewish children could have played together in the same neighborhood. People ate together, worked together and did business with one another. But people are no longer acquainted with each other that way. Whoever was born following the establishment of the state of Israel grew up in a different world, a world in which equality, in the simple, everyday meaning of the word, does not exist. Before Gaza was closed off and transformed into a cage, we employed Palestinians. We permitted them to come and work for us. For many years, Israel has not been even willing to employ them. There is no human contact at all. Personal friendships, which are also political, have become more and more rare. PHR-Israel, Anarchists Against the Wall and a handful of feminist women are among the few maintaining human contacts between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Haidar, born in Gaza just after the close of the Ottoman period (1919), came of age during the British Mandate, lived through the period of Egyptian rule, and went to his final rest in Gaza under the control of the Israeli occupation.
Haidar wanted a democratic, secular, socialist, democratic Palestinian state, free of corruption. I wonder whether he realized how much the state he hoped to see would have been formed in his image.
To my great regret, I was not able to enter Gaza, to be together with Huda and their children, and mourn together with them.