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Ibrahim Rugova, for many years the leader of the Kosovo Albanians, and since 2002 the elected president of Kosovo under the interim United Nations protectorate, has been compared to Nelson Mandela in his insistence that Kosovo Albanians achieve liberation only through peaceful means. The militant and sometimes terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army thought otherwise, but eventually Rugova's policy prevailed and gained his people international sympathy and support in the harsh years of Serbian oppression under Slobodan Milosevic.

Physically, he was the exact opposite of what one would expect an Albanian freedom fighter to be: For better or worse, Albanians have the image of wild, uncouth mountain people. Rugova looked a bit like a Jewish intellectual from interwar Warsaw - soft-spoken, with sad and wise eyes, never raising his voice. A graduate of the Sorbonne and professor of Albanian literature in Pristina, he certainly looked professorial with his heavy glasses, ill-fitting suits and trademark wool scarf. Yet it was this apparently meek intellectual who succeeded in reining in his people.

I met Rugova for the first time in 1990 in Cavtat, near Dubrovnik, when the Washington-based National Democratic Institute made one of the last attempts to bring together politicians, writers and intellectuals from the various ethnic groups in rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. I came away from the conference convinced that the train had already left the station and the various groups were going their own way - and were violently committed to this. Yet listening to the harsh voices of Serbs and Croats, I was struck by the mellowness of Rugova: Here was a leader of a group that has been victimized more than others, yet there was no bitterness, no invective, no hatred.

Rugova also had ample personal reasons to be unforgiving: Both his father and grandfather were killed by Tito's communists in the civil strife after 1945. Hearing I was from Israel, he wanted to know how Israel maintained a democratic system while under war and siege; he was also impressed by the country's record of nation-building, of welding disparate groups together into a nation-state. He gave me a book he wrote (in Albanian) about the 17th-century Albanian philosopher Pjeter Bogdani, who wrote a tractate in Latin called Cuneus Prophetarum ("The Wedge of the Prophets"), and pointed out a chapter on the Zohar and the kabbalistic Sephirot. He then scribbled, in French, a gracious personal dedication to me, ending with: "Our nations have the same historical destiny." When I visited him in the mid-1990s in his home in Pristina, he presented me with a rare mineral, hewed out, he explained, from "our mountains."

When other groups in the former Yugoslavia were using violence to carve out their nation-states, Rugova led his people in a peaceful boycott of all Yugoslav institutions. On a voluntary basis, and aided by contributions from Diaspora Kosovars, Rugova led his people in creating institutions of a state-in-the-making: an unofficial elected assembly, a voluntary system of taxation, schools in Albanian, a network of hospitals and clinics. The example of Yishuv in Palestine was part of his inspiration.

The willingness of the United States and others in 1999 to intervene militarily on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians and prevent Milosevic's ethnic cleansing and near-genocidal policies owes much to the way Rugova was able to present his case to western democracies. In this Rugova also helped set a benchmark for the justification of humanitarian intervention.

After being liberated from Serbian rule, Rugova insisted on independence on the basis of self-determination. He respected the Serbs' historical links to Kosovo, yet it was human liberty, not territorial claims, that was foremost in his mind: Over time, he succeeded in convincing many in the international community that Kosovars - more than 90 percent in the region - deserve their place in the sun.

Reflecting on this unusual, patriotic and non-violent person, one cannot refrain from thinking how different our Middle Eastern scene would have been if the Palestinians had a leader like him. The road to Kosovo's independence is still rocky, but - with some unpleasant exceptions - it has not been strewn with terrorism, violence and suicide bombers. His people - and the world - have to thank Ibrahim Rugova for this: In his meekness there was steel.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.