Haidar Abdel Shafi

Palestinian nationalist leader
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The Independent Online

Haidar Abdel Shafi, politician and medical practitioner: born Gaza 10 June 1919; Director of Medical Services, Gaza Strip 1957-60; Speaker, Palestinian Parliament in Gaza 1962-64; Director, Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza 1972-2005; Member for Gaza, Palestinian Legislative Council 1996-97; married 1957 Hoda Khalidi (three sons, one daughter); died Gaza 25 September 2007.

Haidar Abdel Shafi, a secular Palestinian nationalist who broke with Yasser Arafat over the 1993 Oslo Accords, was one of the last survivors of the Jerusalem congress which founded the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1964.

On his home ground in Gaza, the austere physician with the steel-wool eyebrows was respected as a rare Palestinian leader who was above faction and free of corruption.

Abdel Shafi won a * international audience as the eloquent head of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which broke the taboo on Arab states, Israel and Palestinians meeting in public, and also to the narrower Washington negotiations that followed it.

Ghassan Khatib, a future minister in the Palestinian Authority who served under him in Washington, said:

Dr Abdel Shafi was probably the only leader who enjoyed the confidence of the competing factions throughout the different phases of the recent history of the Palestinian people. When Arafat wanted the Palestinians to participate in the Madrid conference, the only way to ensure public support for this very controversial step was by appointing Abdel Shafi to head the delegation.

In his opening statement to the conference, Abdel Shafi committed himself to a two-state solution, but insisted that Israelis and Palestinians must live side by side as equal partners.

"Mutuality and reciprocity," he contended, "must replace domination and hostility." In that spirit, he tried to drive a hard bargain in the Washington talks. He insisted that any interim agreement had to include an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion. The settlement process, he argued, was incompatible with the peace process. Settlement building was about consolidating the occupation, while the peace process was about ending the occupation. He also wanted all the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, to be treated the same. Above all, he demanded that an interim agreement be linked to a specific final-status solution.

Behind his back, the Israelis preferred the secret track that led to the Oslo Accords. Arafat yielded on all three of Abdel Shafi's sticking points. Israel continued expanding settlements; it ceded security control in some places, but retained it in others; and the final status was left for future negotiations to decide.

That was not the only reason that Oslo failed, but most Israeli and Palestinian negotiators now agree that they have to define the endgame if they want to resolve the conflict. Their efforts are still hamstrung by the sprawling West Bank settlements.

Haidar Abdel Shafi was born in Gaza in 1919. His father, Sheikh Muheiddin Abdel Shafi, was a senior official of the Higher Islamic Council. Haidar went to school in Jerusalem and, briefly, in Hebron, where his father served as custodian of Muslim holy places. He remembered Hebron Jewish neighbours calling him on the Sabbath to light their paraffin lamps. He studied medicine at the American University of Beirut, where he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement, and also studied surgery in Dayton, Ohio. In 1944 he joined the British Desert Army, but never left Palestine. At the end of the Second World War, he returned to Gaza and set up in private practice.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he provided emergency treatment for Palestinian fighters. When the strip's Egyptian rulers returned in 1957 after a short Israeli occupation, they appointed Abdel Shafi Director of Medical Services, a post he held for three years. "As a doctor," he told an interviewer in 1992, "I used to meet a lot of refugees, and it was the situation of the Palestinian people that drew me to public work. A doctor lives the problems and the hardships of the people."

When a Palestinian parliament was elected in Gaza in 1962, he was appointed speaker. He represented Gaza at the all-Palestinian conference in Jerusalem in 1964 that established the PLO. Using the health system as his political base, Abdel Shafi was Gaza's leading PLO figure before the 1967 war, which brought Israel back to the strip. He was identified with the left, but remained independent. After he refused to co-operate with the occupying power, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Defence Minister, expelled him in 1969 for three months to a remote village in the Sinai desert. A year later, he was deported briefly to Lebanon. Back in Gaza, he founded and directed the local branch of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which provides free medical care and a cultural forum.

During the first intifada, which broke out in December 1987, he used his authority to bring together the rival factions in a unified leadership. In May 1988, he participated in ABC Television's town hall meeting in Jerusalem for the Nightline programme, hailed as the first time Palestinians had directly addressed an Israeli and Western audience. But his influence waned after the abortive Washington talks and his estrangement from Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

He was elected to the new legislative council in 1996, but resigned the following year and walked out of a session of the wider Palestinian National Congress in protest at Arafat's proposal to recognise Israel. The Jewish presence, he argued, was "a reality to be acknowledged", but recognition had to be reciprocal. To the end, he remained a man of uncompromising principles.

Eric Silver

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