The PLO Is His Life's Work

"I don't feel that the Palestinians in the territories are my society; I don't feel that the Arabs in Israel are my society. I don't feel that the Jews in Israel are my society. So go define me."

"I don't feel that the Palestinians in the territories are my society; I don't feel that the Arabs in Israel are my society. I don't feel that the Jews in Israel are my society. So go define me. After 40 years sitting on the line, you want to change things now? I should change? Is it possible to change? I've already gotten past that stage."

Still were there some way to define Sabri Jiryis, it would be with the concepts of internal conflict. On the outside, he looks confident, a man with a presence. His voice roars melodiously, his style is articulate and penetrating. He may not look like a man of two minds, but when it comes to internal conflict, he has a lot to say.

Some of his conflicts are embodied in symbolic or tangible form: struggles between the Palestinian diasporas, between organizations in the territories or armed groups in Fatah, between citizens of Israel, between Arab and Hebrew cultures, between Israelis and Palestinians. "I deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an entity in its own right. It is very much a part of me, but for me it is seemingly disconnected from the individuals that people it, that give it existence," he said last week at a meeting in Haifa.

Jiryis, 66, is first and foremost a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a Palestinian patriot who chose to link his fate with that of Yasser Arafat and the Beirut and Tunis leadership. The PLO is his life's work. He followed it from Israel to Lebanon, Tunisia and then Cyprus, before finally returning to Israel and the West Bank.

He is a researcher who has for 30 years kept track of what is happening in Israel, in the framework of the PLO's research institute. He declares that he reads Hebrew literature for pleasure, and that each morning he skims through four Israeli newspapers.

Jiryis is also a member of the Arab minority in Israel. Since 1994, when he returned to Israel after 24 years of exile, you could say that he is an Arab Israeli once more. But this aspect of his identity is begrudged, taking on almost insulting significance to him.

For the past 10 years, Jiryis has divided his life between the Galilee town of Fassuta, where he lives, and Ramallah, where he continues to run the Institute of Palestinian Studies, located in the Muqata. He is a unique Israeli citizen: a member of the Palestinian National Council, a member of Fatah, a high-ranking Palestinian Authority official who has special status in the office of the late chairman Yasser Arafat, who was his direct boss for 26 years. Earlier this week, after the gunfire in the mourning tent in Gaza from which the successor, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) escaped unhurt, Jiryis said in a telephone conversation from Ramallah that he was praying that the shooters are not Fatah people. That sort of internal rupture would be a tragedy for the Palestinians. In the evening, a group in Fatah calling itself the "Abu Ammar Brigades" (Abu Ammar is the nom de guerre of Yasser Arafat), claimed responsibility for the gunfire that resulted in the deaths of two people.

Jiryis is nevertheless optimistic. He used the conversation in Haifa to send a forceful message to Israelis, against the background of Arafat's death: "You have nothing to worry about, and you have nothing to be happy about. The Palestinian regime has a very strong foundation. It was established over the course of decades, and it has rules of its own. You will never be privileged to see a Palestinian civil war. Forget it. You will never see conflicts that you can exploit to harm Palestinian interests."

He was born in the Christian Arab town of Fassuta in 1938. At age 19, equipped with an exit permit from the village issued by the military government, he enrolled in law school at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His political activity began on the Arab Student Council. He worked initially with the communists, but later on he was part a group that withdrew from the alliance and formed "Al-Arad," the first Arab movement in Israel that subscribed to the idea of Palestinian self-determination (and which was legally banned a few years later). After that, Jiryis was subject to constant surveillance and interrogations.

After completing his studies, he moved to Haifa and worked at a law firm specializing in assisting Arab fellahin in their contacts with the authorities. At the same time, he joined in the struggle against the military government and against the government's attitude toward the Arab minority.

He wrote a memorandum to the UN about the discrimination and published "The Arabs in Israel," a Hebrew-language book that described the situation of Israeli Arabs and the attitude of the authorities toward them. The book was translated into several languages. The struggle bore fruit in 1966, when the military government was abolished. After 1967, the disconnect with the West Bank and Gaza ended, and Jiryis, like a large group of Arabs from Israel, made contact with the Fatah membership.

Voluntary exile

After a long period of time during which the security surveillance of Jiryis was intensified, he reached agreement with the authorities, in accordance with which he left Israel. Jiryis was among a group of young Arabs exiled from their country, essentially voluntarily, who became central activists in the PLO in Lebanon: Mahmoud Darwish, Imad Shakur, Emil Shufani and others.

He arrived in Beirut with his wife and was given a job in the PLO's Institute for Palestine Studies as a researcher in the Israeli department. He aligned himself with a moderate camp within the PLO that supported recognition of Israel and a partition of the country. He was part of the mainstream group headed by Arafat, Abu Mazen, Abu Jihad and others, which gradually accepted the idea of two states.

Jiryis moved on to become head of the Israeli department, and then, in 1978, became director of the institute, a position he still holds. All through these years, he was a quasi advisor to Arafat on Israeli affairs, and was in constant contact with him: "We'd see each other every day, every week," Jiryis says. The institute, he emphasizes, is not an intelligence body, but a public body. Its employees engage in documentation of articles, newspapers and books. Jiryis also edited the PLO's monthly journal and has published countless reports and several books focusing on Israel and Zionism. Right now, he says, the disengagement plan is at the top of his agenda. When the PLO abandoned Lebanon, Jiryis remained in Beirut with his wife and two children and continued to direct the institute. In 1983, his wife was killed in a bomb blast that was apparently meant for him. The PLO claimed that a Christian militia was responsible for the attack. Jiryis moved to Tunis, married his wife's sister and subsequently settled in Nicosia with his family.

For 10 years, he directed the institute from Cyprus, and in 1994, after Arafat's arrival in Gaza following the Oslo accords, Jiryis decided that the chapter of exile in his life was over. He went to the Israeli embassy in Cyprus, introduced himself and received a laissez-passer. Back in Israel, his citizenship was restored. He transferred the institute to the office of the PLO chairman, and has been an employee of the Palestinian Authority ever since.

Jiryis recounts that he often heard Arafat express his admiration for the Arabs in Israel. "He always said `sha'buna' (our people); he enjoyed the fact that they were part of our people. Whenever he heard of an Arab who'd made accomplishments in science, medicine, art or literature, he would express satisfaction and say, `sha'buna.' That is what he said after Bnei Sakhnin won the football championship cup," says Jiryis. But when Jiryis himself speaks about the Arabs in Israel, it is hard to overlook the sudden chill in the air.

Do you have anything against the Arab public in Israel?

"Israelization has affected this public in many senses. It changed thought patterns, lifestyle patterns. It goes very deep. I have the feeling, for instance, that the first thing that a student at the University of Haifa aspires to is being integrated in Israel. For his age peer in Bir Zeit, the first thing is to fight the occupation. There are differences between the parts of this people. The Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and also the Palestinians in Israel have unique characteristics. The Arabs here have their unique traits. The thing is that it helps to split up the people and helps to develop conspiracy theories."

To be more specific?

"Some people say that this division is what the Zionists wanted. Practically speaking, the division exists. I'm not fond of Jordanization, either. Historically, the enemies of the Palestinians are the Zionists and the Hashemites. In the end, the Palestinian question, in a nutshell, is the conspiracy between the Zionists and the Hashemites to divide Palestine between them, including the people on the land. It isn't merely a slogan, it found expression in 1938 in the partition plan and continued until 1988, when Jordan disengaged from the West Bank. Fifty years of Jordanian-Zionist conspiracy."

Since returning to Israel, Jiryis has on two occasions taken advantage of his right to vote. He relates that his friends in Ramallah tease him for returning to Israel instead of to the territories. "Sometimes they laugh at my expense and say: `In the end, you went back to Israel,'" he says. "I answer them that I realized my right of return, and returned to the village in which I was born."

How is your Israeli citizenship expressed? After all, you, as opposed to many others, chose it.

"I don't look at my Israeli citizenship as anything important. I have become Israeli. To the best of my recollection, when there was a census in 1949, I was not asked if I wanted to be Israeli. It turned out that the village was located in Israel. But I have to say that I am a pretty good Israeli citizen. I think that I am okay when it comes to my attitude to the state, its laws, and its public order. I think I'm okay." Jiryis adds that since returning to Israel, he has voted in two general elections, in 1996 and in 1999, and that he would not do so again.

At a time of violent conflict, don't you find a contradiction between your different loyalties as a member of Fatah and as an Israeli citizen?

"Maybe it would be correct to say that all of us are suffering from the aggressiveness of Sharon and his companions? I want to remind you: In spite of everything that people say, the Oslo Accords, and their mutual recognition of the two sides, remain in effect and will never be abolished. These are two entities that recognize one another but are at conflict. There is no war between Israel and Palestinians. There isn't. The situation of official hostility between the two sides will not persist. So where's the contradiction? For certain, I'm a very good person, because I am concerned for both sides."