As Israel reaches its 50th birthday, one voice above all will remind us of the Palestinian tragedy: Edward Said. Stephen Howe profiles the scholar-militant
This year is the 50th anniversary of Israel's independence. It will be marked in all kinds of ways, from simple celebration to bitter debate on the victories and tragedies of five decades of Jewish statehood. Everywhere those debates are held, though, some will try to interrupt the story with another narrative; the Palestinian one. Edward Said will surely be the most widely heeded of those who tell a different tale, as ubiquitous a spectre at the feast as his health (he has been battling leukaemia for several years) will allow.

Said reminds anyone who'll listen that the achievements of Israel's statehood and its democracy, however impressive in their own terms, are only fully valid if we think Palestinians don't count. The descendants of the 1947- 8 refugees mark this year the anniversary not of democratic triumph or nation-building, but of what they call al-nakbah, the Catastrophe. For them 1948 meant absolute loss, and the "peace process" since 1993 has offered little hope. For those who remained, in Gaza and the West Bank, Yasser Arafat's rule is already marked by human-rights abuses, a bloated security apparatus, endemic corruption. Even the Arabs of Israel proper, within its pre-1967 borders, remain far less than equal citizens.

For international and especially English-language audiences, Edward Said is the voice of Palestine. Probably only Arafat is better known. And in many ways Said is the chairman's antithesis - elegant as against Arafat's calculatedly bristly unkemptness, massively fluent as against Arafat's inarticulacy in English, a civilised aesthete in contrast to Arafat's bloody past and shifty present. For those who dislike Said or his message, his very charm and urbanity are dangerous: far too unlike their stereotypes of "the Arab". Some critics even seem to hold Said's good looks against him.

And Said is no mere propagandist. He has been a literature professor since the Sixties at Columbia University in New York, an apex of the American - and the American-Jewish - intellectual hierarchy. That status gave him access to newspapers and prime-time TV. No one less established would have been able so prominently to press so unrespectable a case as the Palestinian one, in America's overwhelmingly pro-Israeli media mainstream. He has since reproduced the role internationally, not least in Britain.

Said is a plutocrat of cultural capital, accumulating resources in one field, reinvesting them in others. The transfer has worked in the opposite direction too: Said's political prominence has given his literary writings a public profile and a breadth of readership no "pure" critic could match.

This, though, is too cynical a description. Said has not just been an intellectual entrepreneur; rather, all his best work has been a very special mixture of aesthetics and politics. Most famously he has insisted, in his 1978 Orientalism and 1993 Culture and Imperialism, on the ubiquitous intertwining of literature and empire: that a vast range of cultural products, from Jane Austen or Verdi to almost all contemporary writing about the Middle East, is deeply implicated in the histories of European and US racial arrogance. The argument still has the capacity to make fans of Austen and Verdi, as well as political conservatives, quite astonishingly angry. Ironically, Said also loves those artists, and cheerfully insists that he, too, is something of a cultural conservative, disliking television and bemused by his children's musical tastes.

Said's early book Beginnings, first published back in 1975 and now finally receiving its first British issue (pounds 12.99 from Granta, which publishes Said's autobiography next year), is much less obviously political, and much less engaged with non-Atlantic worlds. It drops in an allusion or two to Arab literature, and one of its prime examples of how authors, in creating a story, also recreate themselves, is T E Lawrence. But very little in this, the work of an erudite, ambitious young professor, anticipates the angry older man, the scourge of colonialism and Zionism. It's also less easily accessible than Said's later writing. Back then he was one of the pioneers of literary theory as a heavyweight enterprise, and Beginnings is dense with references to such thinkers as Nietzsche, Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Foucault.

There are, still, close connections across the different phases of Said's work: not least in the idea of beginning itself. He has always been interested in the notion of politics as an affair of rival narratives, with each movement trying to validate its picture of the world by telling a tale about its own birth and origin. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a classic example. He has often noted that presenting the Palestinian case in the world media means having to keep retelling the story from the start, insisting that there is a story.

Said has also often lamented the unusual difficulty of producing a coherent Palestinian narrative, given the people's scattered and fragmentary condition, and the strength of the forces that have tried to deny its very existence. A younger Palestinian scholar, Yezid Sayigh, shows by contrast that the political narrative can be constructed. Sayigh's monumental new history of the Palestinian national movement, Armed Struggle and the Search for State (Oxford, at an exorbitant pounds 70), does this in all its bewilderingly intricate detail. Sayigh's work forms a valuable counterpoint to Said's. Said is a moralist, condemning both Israeli misdeeds and - ever more harshly - Palestinian ones. Sayigh instead sees the repeated disasters as products of harsh circumstances. The tendencies to autocracy and corruption in PLO politics, and the long fixation on often brutal armed struggle, are to be explained by wider structural pressures. To understand what has happened to the Palestinians, and to the Israelis, we need both Said's and Sayigh's versions of the story, structural explanations and moral judgements.

Yet another kind of tale is told by a book just published in honour of Said himself. Cultural Readings of Imperialism, edited by Keith Ansell Pearson, Benita Parry and Judith Squires (Lawrence & Wishart, pounds 14.99), testifies to the sheer breadth of his influence. In spite of some very stimulating contributions, it's a stale affair; several of the chapters have been published elsewhere, some more than once as academics recycle the same ideas. Indeed, Ella Shohat deserves a wooden-spoon award for shameless repetition. Versions of the same paper have appeared in five publications since 1992.

Such examples of academia's awful habits underline how much Said's own writing has gained from not being locked inside the university system. His constant blurring of roles and genres - scholar, political activist, and freewheeling critic, as well as being both Arab and American, analyst and advocate - has got him into all kinds of trouble over the years. It has, though, meant at least that he is hardly ever boring or self-important.