MotherJones MA93: Hanan Ashrawi

The Palestinians’ tough negotiator is Israel’s best hope for peace.

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Hanan Ashrawi, palestinian spokeswoman for the peace talks with Israel, warmed up instantly at our interview in her home in Ramallah, a town in the occupied West Bank.

“We don’t think the decisive factor should be, ‘This is what you can get now. Grab it or else you have nothing,'” said Ashrawi, taking a drag from a Marlboro Menthol. “We have changed the mentality of our people from the all-or-nothing equation. There are basic rights that no Palestinian will abandon. When they ask us to abandon these rights, they are asking us to negate not just our national rights but our legitimacy, our credibility.”

When Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), made Ashrawi a spokeswoman, the gun-speaking Palestinians finally found a voice. Her success as a woman in a male-dominated region only highlights her uniqueness. She’s exceedingly articulate, speaking in rapid, unambiguous sentences. She masterfully conducts press conferences and interviews, controlling the topics of discussion, dodging uncomfortable issues, cutting off what she considers irrelevant questions. She can be personable, but has no urge to please.

The tape-recorded voice of a muezzin broke through our conversation that fall afternoon, calling believers to one of five daily Muslim prayers. Ashrawi, a non-practicing Anglican, is exempt from the ritual.

But the muezzin’s interruption illustrates what Ashrawi faces. A wealthy, Christian, feminist, ex-Marxist, she is a strange bird in the flock for which she speaks. Critics accuse her of gliding through the struggle that confronts most Palestinians, protected as she is by wealth and middle-class comforts. In fact, the Palestinian delegation that Ashrawi speaks for may not exist much longer. Extremists like Hamas, the Muslim fundamentalist movement in the territories, are gaining power at the expense of the PLO. Hamas does not accept the appearance of a woman in public, let alone her acting as a spokeswoman for the Palestinians. Their resolution to conflict in the Middle East is to destroy the state of Israel. “After Saturday comes Sunday” is a famous Muslim saying, sometimes interpreted to mean that after the fundamentalists finish the Jews, they’ll deal with the Christians.

When Ashrawi speaks of losing “legitimacy” and “credibility,” she is afraid of losing not only her struggle for peace, but also her life.

Ashrawi stopped being a private person in April 1988 when she appeared on ABC’s “Nightline” in a three-hour, live broadcast pitting four Palestinians against four Israelis. Ashrawi participated on the show by chance, and stole it with grace. She began receiving more invitations to speak than she could accept, but her new status only emphasized her confinement under the occupation. When traveling abroad, she was strip-searched at airports and border crossings.

But in August 1992, she and five other unofficial delegates refused to fill out the security forms required for passage to Jordan. When the Israelis didn’t let them pass, they filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department, threatening to boycott the peace talks in Washington. The next day, Ashrawi and her colleagues were whisked through to Jordan, finally establishing their de facto diplomatic status.

Ashrawi had defied the Israelis many times before, most notably by violating what she calls an “illegal law” outlawing private meetings of Israelis with anyone associated with terrorist groups, including the PLO.

For several years, Ashrawi made sure that no cameras were present when she met with Arafat and PLO members in Tunis. Upon her return to Israel, she would deny, to everyone’s satisfaction, that the meetings had taken place. In June 1992 she ended the game, meeting Arafat in Amman in a well-televised meeting. In a famous photograph, she rests her head on Arafat’s shoulder in submission, and perhaps apology.

What many see as Ashrawi’s most critical failure as Palestinian spokeswoman had occurred two months before, in April, when Arafat’s plane had been believed lost in a Libyan sandstorm. Ashrawi said at the time that if he had indeed died, elections should be held in all Palestinian institutions, such as the Palestinian National Council. Opponents interpreted her words as wishful thinking. “She eulogized him when he was still alive,” said Freh Abu Medein, chairman of the Gaza Bar Association. “She should have waited like everybody else to see what happened to him.”

When it became clear that Arafat had survived, critics called for her dismissal. Ashrawi was thankful he was alive but not apologetic to her critics. She blamed the Israeli media for “manufacturing” responses. “The moment they read my interview, people understood what I’d said,” she said. “I think the Israeli interviewers went to Palestinian individuals and told them, ‘Hanan said this, Hanan is calling for elections. What is your reaction?’

“Most people said, ‘We would like to hear what Hanan said; we are not going to react to what you say she said.’ It was a deliberate attempt to discredit me. It wasn’t the first time.”

Hanan Ashrawi is the youngest daughter of the late Daud Mikhail, a wealthy physician, an atheist with a Christian background, and a feminist. Her mother is Anglican, two aunts are Catholic nuns, another is Greek Orthodox, and her uncle is Baptist. Her sister married a Muslim–an act unheard of ten years ago.

Ashrawi was a student at the American University of Beirut when the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967. The Israeli military government implemented a law defining anyone not home at the outbreak of hostilities as an “absentee.” Because absentees did not legally exist, Ashrawi was not allowed to return to Ramallah.

She supported herself in Beirut, then studied for a doctorate in medieval literature at the University of Virginia. In September 1973, one month before the Yom Kippur War, the military governor granted a permit for her to resettle indefinitely in Ramallah. Many assume that, like the rest of his class, Daud Mikhail tacitly cooperated with the military government to save his property and business interests–and to bring Hanan home.

Returning to Israel in 1973 at the age of twenty-six, Ashrawi was offered a plum: chairwoman of the English Studies department at the old Anglican Teacher’s College in Bir Zeit. Ashrawi headed a department that was authorized to grant doctoral degrees even though she did not receive her own until years later.

She immersed herself in the budding Palestinian revolution. She spoke, she marched, she did political theater, and she attended parties at which nationalism flowed as freely as arak. She had promised to behave as a condition of her return, but she could not resist demonstrating. She was detained, tried, and made to choose between six months in prison and a $120 fine. Her college faculty paid the fine. Others paid much stiffer penalties, but she would use the incident to prove that she, too, had suffered.

Ashrawi’s greatest admirer is her husband Emil, a burly, bearded, forty-two-year-old–four years younger than she and her exact opposite. The ninth son of a poor family and barely a high school graduate, his speech is soft, slow, and melodic. Unlike his wife, he often breaks into hearty laughter. A photographer with the United Nations headquarters in Jerusalem, he picks up their daughters, Amal and Zina, from school. When Hanan is traveling, the girls stay tuned to the television, hoping to see their mother on the news.

Emil and Hanan met at a party shortly after her 1973 trial. He recalls “this beautiful girl in a miniskirt, with short hair falling over her shoulders, who was talking to everybody.” He was intimidated by her education and reputation, but she told him that she had cried at a rock concert in which he’d played drums. They talked all night. In August 1975, they married at the Anglican Cathedral of Jerusalem. For years, she recited Greek poems to him before going to bed. But as time went by, he realized that she was married less to him than to her people’s cause.

Twenty miles from Ashrawi’s comfortable Ramallah home, in the Dheishe refugee camp, Na’im Abu-Akar was marking the second anniversary of the death of his son. At seventeen, Mohammad had been shot in an incident with Israeli soldiers. His struggle to live had lasted twenty-six months.

Abu-Akar lost a son, but gained respect as the father of a shahid, a martyr. Mohammad, his father said, wanted liberty and hated the occupation. He was in love with peace, died for peace. The Palestinian people also want peace, he said, but they don’t see it coming.

Abu-Akar blamed the failure of the peace talks on the Palestinian delegation. But what do you expect from people so removed from daily hardships, he asked. “Did Hanan Ashrawi suffer? Was her daughter arrested, imprisoned, killed? Was she ever here in Dheishe? Was [head of the Palestinian delegation] Faisal al-Husseini here? They did not hurt enough, did not suffer enough to represent the noble Palestinians.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians emphasize Ashrawi’s lack of popular support. “If elections were held today,” a good friend of hers said, “Hanan would not be elected.” This is one reason for the lack of progress in the peace talks.

There are other reasons. Ashrawi blames the Israelis for reneging on their promises. Israelis blame the Palestinians for demanding too much, thus missing an opportunity for agreement. Both sides ignore other aspects of the conflict.

For many Israelis on the Left, Hanan Ashrawi is the embodiment of the Good Arab. Other Israelis view her as an exception, because for them an Arab is Muslim, not Christian. Muslim Palestinians similarly express the view that Ashrawi is an inorganic product of the Palestinian revolution, regardless of her family’s old roots in the land. Ashrawi dismisses such observations, but does admit to being an “outsider.”

For whom, then, does Ashrawi speak? She was appointed by Arafat, who likes her personally, but as the April 1992 fiasco demonstrated, her power base is thin. When the fear of losing legitimacy leaves her little room for maneuvering, and when Israelis are reminded daily that most Palestinians are not like Ashrawi, there is no practical motive to embrace peace.

Peace will indeed be costly to both sides. The Palestinians and Israelis who cooperate and work for peace are negligible minorities in their nations.

The Israeli Left, which represents few workers and is made up largely of urban intellectuals, has little popular support. Social divisions among Israelis are obvious. Forty-five years of independence, $100 billion in financial assistance, and a very high tax rate have not produced the enlightened society that has been envisioned since Biblical times. There are too many poor and undereducated people in Israel. The prospects for bridging the gap and creating a more equal society seem bleak as another year of occupation goes by, bringing more fear of social unrest.

This is important when one considers that peace is impossible without a national consensus. When each side comes to the negotiating table afraid of losing what legitimacy it has, it cannot afford to be generous.

Israelis believe that once they pull their forces from the territories, Palestinians will settle old scores among themselves with destruction and assassinations. It’s a fear that Palestinians express as well. On both sides, relative unity is maintained by the struggle against the opponent. Both sides seem to be afraid of peace; perhaps both need the conflict to survive.

I couldn’t help but ask Ashrawi the obvious question at the end of our interview: Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?

“In the moment that I give up hope, I will not be in the peace process,” Ashrawi answered patiently, as if lecturing to a class of rowdy kids. “If we lose faith, there will be no peaceful solution to the conflict. Peace will be very difficult and very painful, but I think we have to do it.”

Israel Amrani is a free-lance writer living in California.


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