Text size

A year ago, Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi was diagnosed with a malignant growth in his stomach. Born in 1919, Abdel Shafi had been one of the founders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964, the head of the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991 and one of Yasser Arafat's harshest critics. He was advised to seek medical treatment abroad or in Israel - his name gained him an exit visa without delay. Abdel Shafi, the surgeon who had studied medicine in Beirut and worked as a physician in Jaffa until 1948, rejected the suggestions and said he trusted the doctors in Gaza.

A year ago Abdel Shafi was already too weak to engage in political activity. His short-term memory sometimes betrayed him. But he gave the Gaza doctors a vote of confidence and underwent surgery in the city of his birth, unlike other Palestinian VIPs who go abroad when they need medical treatment. It wasn't his intention, but people interpreted his choice as another example of the principled, critical and dissident opinions that characterized his long political career.

Last week he died in his own bed at home in Gaza at the age of 88. His wife Hoda, his daughter - also a physician - and his three sons were at his side. His death came as no surprise; doctors had also found a tumor in his lungs, and in recent weeks he had stopped eating. He wanted to die.

He was always identified with the Palestinian left, although he was not an official member of any of its organizations. In 1947 he was among the few Palestinians who supported the United Nations partition plan, understanding the reality of the Jewish presence. After 1948 he devoted himself to work among the many Palestinian refugees who had been expelled to the Gaza Strip. After 1967 he was among the first to initiate open political contacts with Israelis, at a time when this was considered taboo. He supported a two-state solution.

At the start of the 1970s, Israel exiled him twice for short periods; once to Sinai, once to Beirut. When he returned, he founded the Palestinian Red Crescent in the Gaza Strip. As a leftist, he was a target for attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the 1980s enjoyed freedom of action granted by the Israeli occupation authorities.

In the talks that led to the Oslo Accords, which took place without Abdel Shafi's knowledge, current Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) and Yasser Arafat agreed to what he had vehemently refused to do: postpone discussion of the settlements in the territories with the Israelis. He warned that this would allow the Jewish settlements to expand and the Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands to continue.

The concessions the Palestinians made at Oslo, he said, transformed the occupied territories in the world's eyes into simply "contested territories," with both sides seemingly having the right to ownership. In his later years he lived in deep frustration because his warnings had been right.