Hanan Ashrawi broke on to the global scene in 1988 during an interview between Israelis and Palestinians on ABCs Nightline. Brilliant, articulate, pragmatic, and Christian - she surprised the world. Ashrawis father was a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She has been active in Palestinian leadership circles all her life.
Ashrawi is an Anglican, a feminist, an author, a poet, a diplomat, and a brave proponent of nonviolent resistance in one of the most violent and enduring conflicts in the world, between Israel and Palestine.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., in September 2004, she was asked about her family, and her response reveals the painful, textured complexity known as the "politics of the Middle East." Ashrawi was born in the city of Nablus in the region of Tiberias in 1946, two years before the formation of the state of Israel. Her family was forced to relocate to Ramallah during the subsequent reconfiguring of Palestine - what Palestinians call "Al Nakba," or "the Disaster."
"When I was very young we became refugees from Tiberias," Ashrawi said. But they were lucky because they had resources. "My father was a medical doctor, an intellectual," she said. "He was a writer, an advocate of womens rights quite progressive. He was Greek Orthodox. My mother was very much a believer and practiced her own faith as an Anglican Episcopalian. When they married it was in the Anglican church. Thats where we were born and baptized."
Ashrawis father, Daoud Mikhael, was a fearless advocate for human rights. He spent four years in an Israeli jail. "I learned not to accept limitations placed on me by others," recalled Ashrawi. "My father said we raised you not to feel in any way that you are handicapped by your gender or your upbringing, so do not accept to be defined or limited by others. To be daring. To be courageous. To speak out. To stand up. To do things on issues of justice and what you believe in."
The depth of her parents commitment to the human community was brought home to Ashrawi when she learned that her father had treated Jewish prisoners of war when he was an army physician in British Mandate Palestine. As Ashrawi tells it, she returned from studying in Beirut and found Jewish Israelis with her father. "I said, What?! You are receiving Israelis in our house! To me, at that time, it was traitorous. There was absolutely no fraternizing with the enemy and the occupiers." Her father invited her to hear what these Israeli Jews had to say. "They had come to thank my father for the way he treated them and for being so human and considerate to them in the midst of that war." She also learned that when her family had to escape from Tiberias, a Jewish doctor and friend of her father got them a truck. "My father kept saying there are no different values to human life. Human lives are equal. That has remained with me for a long time."
IN 1991, AFTER she completed a doctorate in medieval literature at the University of Virginia and served as chair of the English department of Bir Zeit University, Yasser Arafat appointed Ashrawi as the official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Process in Madrid, hosted by then-President George Bush. Ashrawi caused political pundits to take notice when she unequivocally trounced her debate partner on the issue of Palestinian independence. Her counterpart in that debate was Benjamin Netanyahu, who would soon become Israels prime minister.
"Truth is not a popular commodity," stated Ashrawi. "The Palestinians tell me that even if what I say isnt happy or positive or what they want to hear, they respect the fact that I tell them the truth. I tell them the truth no matter how painful. Palestinians deserve truth. And I believe [the] world needs to hear the truth. We need to challenge the prevailing version that is often quite erroneous, misleading, fabricated, and often racist when it comes to the Palestinians."
THIS COMMITMENT to truth-telling brought Ashrawi to a breaking point with Arafats leadership. In 1998, she resigned from the Palestinian Authority in protest against political corruption and Arafats resistance to shared democratic power. Though breaking party ranks may very well have put her out of favor with many Palestinians, the opposite seems to have occurred. She gained greater respect both at home and abroad for her integrity, and she is sought after for her wisdom and pragmatism to mentor the younger, more progressive generation of Palestinian leaders.
"Personally," said Ashrawi, "I believe in empowering the young, the women, and all the democratic forces in Palestine. We are paying the price for a very simplistic polarization - a Palestinian Authority perceived as corrupt or abusive and an opposition that is perceived as violent and terrorist. The majority of Palestinians are human beings who just want to live in peace and dignity and freedom. To support this we need to have elections. We need to see new leadership emerge, with a legitimacy of a constituency that has elected them and therefore can hold them accountable. This means working with the young and with the women and the disenfranchised and the weak in order to help with the evolution of the Palestinian political culture.
"Theres deliberate daily cruelty that the ordinary Palestinian must endure, and no one recognizes that. At least," said Ashrawi, "give us commiseration. Basic compassion is missing. Ive never seen such vulnerability on the one hand or cruelty on the other. And yet there is this deliberate bashing, exclusion, and distortion of the Palestinians. Thats what drives people to desperation sometimes."
The challenges Ashrawi faces are real, but her faith and passion for justice are equal to the task. "Its a real challenge to struggle for truth and peace in the middle of violence when your whole people are traumatized, when they are held captive. They are really sitting ducks, targets, to an occupation army that uses a no-holds-barred approach to Palestinians."
ASHRAWI HAS SERVED in several highly influential positions within the movement, including as Palestinian Minister of Higher Education and Research and as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Jerusalem. In the late 1990s she founded an independent human rights organization called the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). From this base she travels the world, educating people on the realities of Palestinians, the politics of the Middle East, and how a values-based peace with justice in the region might be achieved.
The politics of the United States are of particular concern to Ashrawi. "The one thing the United States should not be," said Ashrawi, "is complicit with Israel. The United States is perceived as being complicit in the occupationnot just in terms of the funding and weapons that are used to kill and to shell Palestinians, but also in terms of the blanket protection that the United States gives to Israel to avoid any kind of accountability or blame.
"The greatest liability to the United States is Israel and Israeli policies and the Israeli occupation," Ashrawi continued. She advocates an end to the transitional phases of the peace process, which Ashrawi believes only benefit Israel. "We must move directly to permanent recognition status for Palestine," she said. "There must be decisive action in holding Israel accountable for her actions. There must be multinational forces on the ground to monitor agreements. The United States must not take its cue from Israel for developing policy toward Iran, Syria, and Iraq."
On her Washington visit, Ashrawi addressed the Council for the National Interest, a research group that advocates for the independence of Palestine, saying that it is in the national interest of the United States to broker a just peace in the Middle East. "Peace cannot be an artificially imposed quiet held in place by subjugation and suffering," she said. "There is no peace based on the weakness of the victim. Everyone knows what kind of war the U.S. can make. We long to see what kind of peace the U.S. can make."
WHILE SOME BELIEVE that the way to stabilize the Israel/Palestinian situation is by encouraging democratic forces in other states in the Middle East, Ashrawi believes this thinking is backward. "People do not understand that the key to the stability and peace of the region is Palestine," she said. "They do not understand that the U.S. has always been measured, in terms of its standing and integrity, by how it treats the Palestinians."
Ashrawis faith and compassion have not withered in the harsh caldron of politics and suffering. When asked how people of faith could help her work, the answer was simple. "Caritas. Charity. Show us basic human compassion in our suffering," she said. "Bear witness and speak out."
"Bearing witness" is something many Christians are doing as a matter of discipleship and faith. They are traveling to Palestine to accompany, rather than occupy. They live with, work with, support, and offer unarmed protection to Palestinians. "Ive seen many come in solidarity," Ashrawi noted. "Where governments have failed, the people have succeeded, particularly individuals who came with the International Solidarity Movement and the grassroots international movement for protection for the Palestinian people. We are seeing tremendous courage and the potential of the human spirit."
Rachel Corrie was a young American woman who was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier on a bulldozer while she was protecting a Palestinians house. When her name was mentioned, Ashrawis eyes filled with tears. "I can never think of Rachel without crying," she said. "She was just a remarkable young woman who paid with her life. I met her parents and I told them what I felt, but its very hard. Many people have died for what they believed in. I dont want people to die - I want people to live for what they believe in. Rachel stood up to the Israeli bulldozer and affirmed life - and the human spirit and will - in the face of destruction, and she paid with her life."
IT IS DIFFICULT to know the future of the Palestinian independence movement after the death of Yasser Arafat. According to Ashrawi the majority of Palestinians are committed to peace. Between 70 and 80 percent want a negotiated settlement and a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel.
"Within civil society there are organizations and institutions that continue to articulate an agenda for peace based on active nonviolent resistance," Ashrawi reflected, "even though many people are saying Israel understands only the language of violence and the language of power, because thats the language it uses against us. There is a broad trend among Palestinians to reclaim our right to peaceful, active - I would say proactive, intrusive - nonviolent resistance. At the same time, this [faces] Israels use of military violence against the captive and largely defenseless population. Its not easy, given the conditions."
Ashrawi reminded the audience at the Council for National Interest gathering about the protest where Palestinians placed olive branches in the tanks and guns of Israeli soldiers. "We can do that again," said Ashrawi, "but they have to stop shooting at us first."
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. To learn more about Hanan Ashrawi visit www.miftah.org.