The world’s TV audiences could not keep their eyes off of the woman who with eloquence and directness was making them listen to a message many did not want to hear. Hanan Ashrawi vividly described what the Israeli occupation did to “our children, to friends and neighbors and relatives.” As spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation at the first Middle East Peace talks in 1991 in Madrid, she talked about Palestinian fear and humiliation. She showed the world that the people she represented were not just “terrorists” nor “stone throwers,” but a repressed people with legitimate concerns.
Hanan Ashrawi was used to being in the spotlight. Political activism had been part of her life since childhood. She was born in 1947 in the West Bank of Ramallah when it was still under Jordanian rule. Ashrawi’s father, a doctor who plotted to liberate the region from Jordan, was imprisoned when she was a child. Hanan remembers visiting him in the ugly cinder block prison that sat directly across from their comfortable three-story home.
Hanan was the last in a family of five girls. Hers was a family that respected women, and encouraged them to participate in family affairs. Ashrawi says that she therefore married a husband who also believed the same way.
As a Christian, Ashrawi was sent to a Quaker school in Ramallah. She later attended the University of Lebanon, taking a degree in physics in 1970. While she was at the university, Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank. This momentous event changed the course of Ashrawi’s life. Like many of her classmates, she immediately joined the growing Palestinian revolution. In 1969 she met Yasser Arafat.
Since Ashrawi was forbidden to return to her home in the occupied territories, she went to the United States and earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Virginia. Because of a general amnesty, Ashrawi finally was allowed to return to Ramallah. There she joined the faculty of the University of Bir Zeit, eventually becoming head of the English Department.
Life at Bir Zeit was not calm. Palestinian unrest about conditions in the occupied territories exploded, and Ashrawi found herself in the middle of student demonstrations. In 1974, she established a committee to provide legal defense for demonstrating students. She learned her negotiating skills from fending off Israeli troops who chased demonstrating students back to the university. Sometimes Ashrawi herself was arrested.
At Bir Zeit, Ashrawi also started a feminist study group. With others she decided that the time had come to reach out to like-minded Israeli women, to “explore uncharted terrain, armed with a map of joint gender concerns and a dedication to save rather than to sacrifice lives.” The women met in Brussels in 1988. Later they created the Palestinian-Israeli Women’s Network, and mounted a series of public demonstrations calling for freedom from the “bondage of violence.” In one, a human chain of women from around the world formed an unbroken ring around Jerusalem. For actions such as these Ashrawi incurred the hatred of Israeli and Arab extremist groups. Her life in danger, she often worried about the strain on her husband and two daughters.
Eventually Palestinians decided to, as Ashrawi says, “reach the world not just by confronting Israeli soldiers with our stones of defiance but by confronting the world with our reality. And so, we started a campaign of information.” In charge of this effort, Ashrawi created a pool of speakers who participated in conferences and seminars all over the world. Using contacts she had made in the United States, she began to appear on American TV. Most notable was the historic debate she held with Israeli spokespersons on Ted Koppel’s show, Nightline.
The leadership of the PLO was prevented from meeting with the Israelis, so it was people like Hanan Ashrawi who were asked by Yasser Arafat to join the peace delegation for the Madrid talks in 1991. Ashrawi was worried about the unrealistic expectations for success that most Palestinians felt. She was determined, however, to make sure that the “authentic voice” and concerns of the Palestinians were heard.
At Madrid, and later during the continuation of talks in Washington, D.C., Ashrawi did more than make speeches and arrange media coverage. She wrote proposals, immersed herself in countless meetings, and became the prime organizer for the group. Meanwhile, secret meetings directly between PLO officials and the Israeli government were held, which resulted in the Oslo Peace Agreement. Ashrawi was deeply disappointed with the agreement. “It’s clear that the ones who initiated it have not lived under occupation,” she said. Most troubling to her was that it postponed the issue of Jewish settlements, and did not address human rights nor the fate of Jerusalem, “the core of Palestinian existence.”
Given her opposition to the conditions of the agreement, Ashrawi felt it would not be honest to take a position in the new Palestinian National Authority. Instead she established the Palestine Independent Commission for Human Rights, the first legally constituted watchdog authority in the Arab world. Often the commission dealt with the unjust treatment of Palestinians by their own security force. “Nobody is above the law,” Ashrawi said.
Most recently, Ashrawi entered politics again to run as an independent candidate in the new Palestinian parliament. In 1996 she joined the cabinet as minister of higher education, only to resign in opposition to the continuation of what she saw as corruption within the Palestinian Authority. It is hard for this principled crusader to remain optimistic about genuine change and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis. Yet, as she writes in her autobiography, This Side of Peace, she and the Palestinians will confront the future “unrepentant and untamed, but armed with the knowledge of our own sorrow and in possession of the full potential of a joy yet to come.”
Time Line: Palestine
1948 With creation of the State of Israel, fighting erupts between Arabs and Israelis. Palestinians who used to live in the region are displaced, many placed in refugee camps.
1967 June 5. Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Israel occupies Palestinian West Bank (taken from Jordan) and Gaza Strip (taken from Egypt). An Israeli Military Occupation administers the Occupied Territories. Displaced Palestinians begin to rely more on their own liberation organization, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).
1973 War in which Israel defeats Egypt and wins Sinai peninsula.
1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon. PLO leadership in exile in Tunis.
1987 December. Beginning of Palestinian intifada. Largely civil disobedience, actions involve throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and strikes in occupied territories.
1988 November 15. Palestine National Council, in exile, declares statehood; adopts a resolution calling for a “two-state solution”—Palestine alongside Israel. They call for negotiations through a U.N.-sponsored international conference.
1991 January. Gulf War. President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker take the initiative to reorder the region to protect American interests and secure its allies. The Palestinians, as a major cause of instability in the region, are now brought into the peace process.
1991 October 30. Madrid Peace Conference. Arranged by the U.S. and Russia, the talks include face-to-face meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, officially launching the struggle for peace.
1993 September 13. Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles, worked out in secret in Oslo, are signed on the White House lawn. The agreement allows PLO leadership to return to the Gaza Strip and town of Jericho in the West Bank. These areas are now ruled by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
Unresolved issues: 1. The settlements, new Jewish communities established by Israel in the occupied territories, and considered by Israel to be part of their own country. 2. The question of what parts of Jerusalem Palestine might get. For example, should East Jerusalem become capital of a Palestinian state? 3. Crossing points: Who would control the right of Palestinian access to parts of Israel? 4. The status of refugees still in the camps. 5. The return of political prisoners from both sides.
We recommend reading this text along with the text about Shulamit Aloni.