Outsiders Among Their Own: Silencing Moderate Voices in Palestine

We need more moderate and courageous leaders who can make painful compromises without being intimidated by extremists.

palestine-moderate-voicesWhen Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi took his students to the Nazi concentration death camps in Auschwitz in March 2014, he sought to teach them about empathy, tolerance and reconciliation.

However, back home he was met with angry outrage and even death threats by his fellow Palestinians. The uproar that took place in Palestinian society after Professor Dajani had organized this trip should not be taken likely.

History is replete with such instances of extremists attempting to silence moderates in Palestine. This article will reflect on why the voices of moderation among Palestinians are silent and why aren’t they loud enough?

This article will focus on four notable fallen Palestinian moderates: Hassan Sidqi Dajani, Saeed Hamami, Issam Sartawi, and Zafer Masri. It will explore the longstanding tradition of silencing voices of moderation in Palestine to honor the memory of these courageous men who took a stand to break the silence imposed by extremists on the Palestinian community through violence and terror.

Hassan Sidqi Omar al-Dajani

dajaniHassan Sidqi Omar al-Dajani (1890–1938) was a soft-spoken journalist, shrewd lawyer, and moderate politician who graduated from the University of Cambridge with a law degree. In 1919, he established Al-Muntada al-Adabi (The Cultural Forum), and in 1920, he began publishing a newspaper called Al-Quds al-Sherif (Holy Jerusalem).

He became a member of the Hizb al-Difa’ al-Watani (the National Defense Party) and was one of the leading figures of the Dajani-Nashashibi faction, which opposed the Husseini clan in the struggle for leadership of Palestinian politics.

In 1930, he helped found Hizb al-Ahrar (the Liberal Party). In 1936, he published the newspaper Al-Liwa’ (The Standard), and is the author of two books in Arabic, Fi Sabil al-Islam wa al-Arab (For the Sake of Islam and the Arabs) and Tafsil Zalamat Filastin (Explaining the Case for Palestine).

He also translated into Arabic the Turkish novel Hizar (Beware) by Turkish novelist Nameq Kamal. Like most of the Dajani notables, he held moderate views on Palestinian politics and was strongly opposed to the oppressive leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Palestine.

In 1938, Dajani planned to testify before the Woodhead Commission, which had come to Palestine to determine the prospects of implementing the Peel partition plan of 1937. According to Hillel Cohen, in his book, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 ( 2008), once Haj Amin al-Husseini learned of this he sent Dajani a letter stating, “those who go to meet the partition commission should take their shrouds with them,” making Dajani change his mind.

Nevertheless, Dajani was assassinated by extremists in Ramallah in mid-October of 1938. On October 12, 1938, Dajani was invited to a meeting. On his way back to Jerusalem from Ramallah, armed men stopped his car. His body was found the next day, with both hands broken and two bullet holes in his forehead. Many people attended his funeral, demonstrating that he was a revered and popular man. His death signified an escalation regarding the lengths extremists would go in order to silence moderates and homogenize Palestinian political opinion.

Said Hammami

hammamiSaid Hammami (1941-1978) was a Palestinian journalist and diplomat. As a university student, he joined the Arab Ba’th Party. The Ba’th Party considered Israel an imperialist implantation in the heart of the Arab world that must be eradicated for Palestine to be liberated.

He later became a member of the Palestinian National Council and in 1973 was appointed to be the head of the first diplomatic delegation of the PLO to the United Kingdom.

In London, in his interviews to journalists and in a series of articles in The London Times, he called for reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine emerging as the first Palestinian official to call openly for “mutual recognition” between Israel and the Palestinians.

In addition, he was also one of the earliest Palestinian advocates of direct contacts with Israelis. He established contacts with Israeli peace activists, most notably Uri Avnery, who wrote about Mr. Hammami in his book My Friend, the Enemy. Hammami was assassinated in his London office by the radical Fatah Revolutionary Council, led by Sabri al-Banna (also known as Abu Nidal) on January 4, 1978, and was buried in Amman, Jordan.

Issam Sartawi

sartawiIssam Sartawi (1935-1983) took over the banner of moderation from Said Hamami. He was one of the first Palestinian officials to meet with Israelis and discuss the prospects of peace and reconciliation in the early 1970s. He was also among the first to call for the recognition of Israel by the PLO.

Sartawi began his career believing that the Palestine problem could only be solved through armed struggle and the destruction of Israel.

In the early 1960’s he went to the United States for specialized training in heart surgery at Ohio University. When he returned to Amman in 1968, he established the short-lived Action Organization for the Liberation of Palestine (AOLP) which aimed at destroying Israel.

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After the Jordanian army routed the Palestinian guerrilla organizations presence in Jordan in September 1970, Sartawi disbanded his organization in 1971 and joined Fatah. Later, he moved to reside in Vienna where he developed a friendly relationship with the Austrian Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. The Chancellor succeeded in convincing Sartawi of the need for Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state that lives side-by-side with a Palestinian state.

Consequently, Sartawi’s views began to change and eventually he became a leading advocate for the recognition of Israel. He sought dialogue with moderate Israelis in hopes of reaching a peaceful settlement. There was little sympathy among Palestinians and Israelis for his views and the official Israeli and Palestinian policies remained uncompromising.

As a result, Sartawi faced harsh criticism by PLO hard-liners. In February 1979, the hard-liners threatened to force him out of the PLO if he accepted a prize awarded jointly by Chancellor Kreisky to him and Israeli peace campaigner Arie Eliav.

Sartawi accepted the award regardless. When members of the PLO continued to criticize him, he resigned in 1981. However, Arafat refused to accept his resignation. At the time, Sartawi disagreed with Arafat’s rejection of Ronald Reagan’s peace plan proposal of September 1982, which would have allowed Palestinians to govern themselves for a five-year period and then initiated negotiations with Israel for military withdrawal and the formation of a Palestinian-Jordanian state.

Sartawi thought that rejecting Reagan’s proposal was unrealistic and thought it harbored many exciting possibilities for Palestine. But, few others thought this way, and when Arafat banned him from speaking before the PNC, Sartawi again attempted to resign. But, again Arafat refused.

In April 1983, Arafat asked Sartawi to serve as the PLO representative at the Congress of the Socialist International in Albufeira, Portugal. Many expected the conference to promote peace in the Middle East because both the PLO and the Israeli Labor Party would be in attendance. However on April 10, 1983, Sartawi was assassinated in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was held by the hard-line Fatah Revolutionary Council organization (the Abu Nidal group).

Through this tragic act, Abu Nidal was warning other Palestinian moderates of the consequences of seeking a negotiated settlement with Israel. Chillingly, it also raised the question of whether any Palestinian leader who calls for recognition of Israel and a peace agreement can survive. The same question came up after the assassination of Rabin; people wondered whether any Israeli leader who calls for the recognition of the State of Palestine could survive either.

Zafer Masri

zaferZafer Masri (1941-1986), a graduate of the prestigious American University in Beirut, became head of the Chamber of Commerce in Nablus in 1972 and was the youngest member to ever hold this post. In 1976, he was elected Deputy Mayor of Nablus.

He served both posts until 1982, when the Israeli government dissolved the municipalities and removed most elected mayors in favor of appointing other Palestinians with no PLO connections. The offer was rejected by Palestinians who insisted on the return of their elected officials or, alternatively, new elections.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce took over the management of the city until new elections could be held. Consequently, Zafer Masri became the Mayor of Nablus. When he accepted this position in January 1986, he became a likely target for assassination, even though his appointment was supported by the PLO and the Jordanian government.

On March 2, 1986, he was assassinated by the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine due to his acceptance of the mayoral position. More than 200 thousand people attended his funeral, making it a landmark event in the history of Nablus. Zafer Masri’s untimely demise highlighted the dreadful vulnerability of moderates in Palestinian politics and the vulnerability of those working for peace and reconciliation.


So, what lessons can be learned?

First, we need more moderate and courageous leaders who can make painful compromises without being intimidated by extremists.

Second, we need moderate leaders voices’, from both Palestine and Israel, to speak their minds with the public. However, this can only happen when they organize together, not as individuals.

Third, moderates’ voices should become prominent in their communities and in this way inspire the majority who keep silent due to fear of retaliation.

Those moderates prefer to keep silent rather than express what they are thinking of because they fear being unpatriotic for the collective cause and the love of homeland or for fear of being accused to be brainwashed by the West.

But the question remains: Should fear silence our voices and keep us silent bystanders or should we voice our thoughts and our minds to share in the decision-making on the path of peace and reconciliation? What would serve us best, peace or conflict?

Zeina M. Barakat is a PhD student and lecturer at Freidrich Schiller University at Jena, Germany.