ONCE AGAIN Palestinians have murdered one of those brave men among their ranks who were not afraid to speak out in favour of a peaceful solution to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. Assad Saftawi, who was assassinated yesterday, was one of the wise old men of the Palestinian community in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. A softly spoken, courteous avuncular headmaster of a UN school in Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza strip, he was a voice of moderation and experience who commanded great personal respect for his principled stand, but had made enemies among the more extreme groups opposed to any accommodation with Israel.
Like two-thirds of the population of the Gaza Strip, he was a refugee from what is now Israel proper. He was born in what Palestinians call Majdal, now subsumed into the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Yet he had come to accept that Israel was here to stay and that he would never recover his former home. He sought practical ways to achieve a negotiated settlement that would achieve a compromise between the national aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis.
He was uniquely placed to bridge the Islamic and nationalist movements. Gaza has always been more inspired by militant Islam than the more cosmopolitan West Bank. Saftawi, an observant Muslim and deeply religious man, flirted in his youth with Islamic politics.
Like Yasser Arafat, he had started his political activity within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, when both were studying at Ain Shams University in Cairo. Like Arafat, he decided that it was within a broader, nationalist movement that the Palestinian cause could best be served. With Arafat, he was a founder member of Fatah, the mainstream movement within the PLO set up in 1965. And he was subsequently scathing about what he regarded as the political immaturity of groups like Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which he felt had no practical programme for achieving their aims of liberating Palestine. He accepted there were ideological differences between Palestinian factions, but believed it was politically unrealistic of Hamas to expect anyone other than the PLO to have the weight to achieve concrete goals.
Saftawi's nationalist credentials were irreproachable. He spent four years in Israeli jails after being convicted in 1973 for handling PLO funds, and later was locked up without charge for political activity.
In 1989, he came up with his own 11-point peace proposal. The then Likud government relaxed travel restrictions so that he could take it to Cairo. In July 1992, he survived an assassination attempt.
He was happy to receive guests in his modest house Beit Lahiya, on the outskirts of Gaza city, serving them tea and - in the hot summer months - refreshing lemon juice brought by one of his daughters. In April, he entertained the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Saftawi's son Emad followed in his father's footsteps, seeking inspiration for the nationalist goal of Palestinian liberation under the banner of Islam. But Emad chose a different path, that of revolutionary Islam, within the small, extremist Islamic Jihad organisation. He was arrested and convicted for the murder of three Israeli civilians. Then, in 1987, Emad achieved fame of a sort when, shortly before the eruption of the Palestinian uprising or intifada, he and other members of Islamic Jihad broke out of an Israeli jail under cover of thick fog. He is still on the run.