A mother of war striving for peace: In the home of a martyr in Gaza, Sarah Helm finds a woman with a mission to build a Palestinian state
Monday 11 July 1994
As Umm Jihad (mother of holy war), now Minister of Social Affairs in the new Palestinian authority, she quietly welcomes well- wishers. It is almost as if her husband has just died - as if his body, riddled with bullets by Israeli commandoes six years ago - has only just been buried. Like a shrine to a new martyr, the house is emblazoned with freshly- painted emblems. From the roof, a giant portrait of Abu Jihad stares out over the self-rule enclave of Gaza, his blue cap set square, and his strong features in familiar defiant pose.
For some Palestinians, Abu Jihad's death might well have been yesterday. Before Yasser Arafat arrived in Gaza, rumours circulated that he would 'bring someone with him' who would stun the world. 'We think it will be Abu Jihad,' they said, persuading themselves that their hero was not assassinated after all.
It was as if the Palestinians of Gaza wanted to heighten their excitement about the long-awaited Arafat 'home-coming.' They knew that Mr Arafat, and the compromise peace he was bringing with him, would not be enough to stir up the streets. A myth of Abu Jihad's rebirth - and with it the myth of a glorious and triumphant armed struggle - were spun from nothing to fuel expectation. So powerful was the myth that when Umm Jihad's car crossed the border with Egypt into Gaza the crowds stared inside the windows to see if her husband was with her. Later some Palestinians actually challenged Mr Arafat to explain why he not bought the hero of the revolution home with him. Umm Jihad cried when she heard these questions, for she had witnessed her husband being killed on April 6, 1988. The killing was approved by the present Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in revenge for guerrilla attacks.
On arrival in Gaza she saw pictures of her husband hanging from every wall, strung across every street. Her eyes glisten with tears as she describes her emotions at the time. 'I knew the people loved him,' she says. 'And I was happy to see this love. I knew the Palestinians keep him alive in their minds and hearts. They know he was behind all their struggles, and behind the intifada.'
To listen to Umm Jihad talk of the Palestinian struggle is to tune into history. At 16 she joined Mr Arafat's Fatah movement. Abu Jihad, a refugee from Ramleh, now in Israel proper, was Mr Arafat's chief lieutenant, and fell in love with the young Intisar while training her Gaza cell. 'We thought then the revolution would reach the point where we could take our rights and return to our homeland. We believed in the end we would succeed,' she says.
The home-coming has been hard for Umm Jihad. She has accepted a peace deal offered to the PLO by the same Israeli leaders who once backed the decision to kill her husband. She has shaken hands with Israeli ministers, and accepted the protection of Israeli forces on her arrival. 'We killed theirs and they killed ours,' she says. 'But now we must look to the future. I cannot forgive or forget, but if we want to make peace we must think about our children and their children. We face a big challenge to rebuild our homeland.'
Umm Jihad is the only woman on Mr Arafat's new authority, and is determined to exercise her undoubted influence. For one thing she will oppose any attempt by Islamic extremists to curb womens's rights. She walks the streets of Gaza unveiled, a direct challenge to Islamic law which is almost universally observed here. 'We must be a democracy. We must have our freedoms,' she insists. The days of armed struggle now past, she has adapted to her new role with enthusiasm, talking of job creation, social welfare, and fund raising to build the new state.
But Umm Jihad clearly wants to keep alive the memories of those who were sacrificed along the way. It was she who prompted Mr Arafat during his visit to Gaza to recall 'the children of the stones, the heroes of the stones.' And she talks persistently of the need to win a right of return for all refugees to their homeland. 'It is only Gaza and Jericho first,' she says, stressing the first. 'We must move on to build a Palestinian state.'
Umm Jihad says that had her husband lived, he would have accepted a negotiated peace. He accepted a 'two-state solution' in 1974 when the PLO's ruling council passed its landmark decision to agree to establish a Palestinian state on 'any part of liberated Palestine'. At the same time, it must be clear to Intisar Wazir that had her husband been alive today, he would not have been greeted as the hero of all Palestinian dreams.
As the hard task of securing a negotiated peace continues, Mr Arafat will find himself often overshadowed by his former friend. The truth is, however, that only in his grave can Abu Jihad's reputation as conscience of the revolution survive intact.
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