Stages in the Life of the Presidnet

Safad… A Quest In Pursuit of Identity


I was born in 1935 in the north of Palestine in the mountaintop city of Safad. My father worked in trade, dealing with the Bedouin tribes who had their dwelling places on the outskirts of the city. Their tents were strewed across the land up to the Syrian borders and living in such close proximity to them I took in their sense of simplicity.


Safad, as I recollect, resembles a minaret; it towers over its surroundings, unveiling every high and low in all directions. It looks over Jabal Al-Shaykh (Mount Hermon) to the North, Lake Tiberias to the East, and the lofty Jarmak Mountain (Mount Meron) with its villages, farmsteads, and winding roads to the West.


The seasons of the year in Safad are well marked. Winter, for instance, is cold and snowy. Spring is bright and blossoming, with the earth and mountains carpeted by a multicolored layer reminiscent of a handcrafted Persian silk rug.  Summer is hot, but the city enjoys an invigorating fresh breeze making it a summer attraction for tourists and vacationers. Fall, with its brisk winds, rolls in stripping the trees of their leaves and ushering them into winter with a new garment. I spent my childhood in Safad with my parents and my brothers and sisters. I was the middle child but two of my brothers and sisters died before our exodus. 


I studied in the city of Safad until the beginning of the seventh grade. I liked school and was dedicated to studying. My childhood was enjoyable – outside of school, my days were spent with my classmates playing and exploring Safad’s mountainous peaks. It never occurred to us that we would be expelled from our homes until one day the nearby village of Ein al-Zeitun was taken over by the “Haganah” gangs. After this, the western, and then only entrance to the city, was closed. Safad’s residents started to consider sending women and children away in fear of potential massacres. My father decided at that time to relocate the children, of whom I was the oldest. My two adult brothers remained in the city with their guns, and my mother insisted to stay with them.


As we were leaving the city along its eastern border, I felt an overpowering urge to turn and cast a glance backwards, as if to cement Safad’s familiar details in my mind.  I had a strange feeling, even though I only knew life in Safad, I felt that I might not see it again. The eastern road was dangerous due to the settlements built alongside it. But with the help of Bedouins, we made it to the Palestinian Syrian border safely. That quick look backwards was indeed the last time I would see Safad.  


We arrived first at the Syrian village of Al-Butayha and from there we headed on to Damascus where we had no relatives or acquaintances. Next we moved on to Jordan. We traveled to Irbid where my father had a relative who hosted us for a month until all the members of my family were reunited. We then made our way to Syria again where we stayed in the village of Al-Tall near Damascus. The citizens of that village lent us homes, schools, and mosques. A few months later, when we ran out of money, we moved to Damascus. We all had to look for work to earn a living and make ends meet.


We knew then that we were embarking on a long journey of distress and affliction, a journey that we would share with many other Palestinians forced out of their homeland. You cannot recognize the value of your homeland until it’s gone, until you’ve lost it.  A home is not simply a piece of land, a house, a garden and a job; a home is life, identity, loyalty and safety. We felt everywhere as guests who overstayed their welcome.  We were citizens nowhere, we had nothing at all.


We rented a two-room house in the Akrad neighborhood of Damascus where most of the populace lived in abject poverty. We lived with our parents in one room and in the other lived my older brother with his wife and children.  All of us, with no exception, started to search for jobs. We had to have jobs to eat and to pay rent.  But when it came to clothes, we often shared.


Our neighbor, who was a tile installation contractor, offered me and my youngest brother work. We gleefully accepted the jobs and started to work every day from sunrise to sundown carrying tiles and mixing cement and sand. Our daily pay was 1 Syrian pound for me and 75 piasters for my brother.


At noon we used to sit on the roof and have our daily lunch, one or two loaves of bread and a bowl of molasses. We had the same meal every day. At that time, I watched sorely as kids my age went to school.  Sometimes I recognized some students who had gone to school with me in Safad and my heart broke in sorrow and grief over what had happened to me. I often lamented that I didn't get to go to school like others my age.  But inside, a part of me was well aware that earning a living was far more important than getting an education at this particular point. I kept my dreams and aspirations about getting an education to myself, while inside I was sometimes distressed about the topic. Our work in the tile business lasted a little longer than six months.


 Tile work was physically arduous; it was too strenuous for our bodies which were still those of young children. I became very sick and the doctor told me I had to change my job. So I started to work for a contracting company and then for a real-estate company-- in both cases, my work was low-paid. For a while, I bounced from one job to another. Then, I eventually settled to work as a waiter in a restaurant, with shifts from early morning to midnight. Days had gone by and my ambition to go back to school had slowly withered away.


Then one day - a year and a half later - I applied to school to continue my studies.  In the fall of 1951, I completed my middle school education– a unique and extraordinary accomplishment at that time. I was hired to teach in al-Ktiefia elementary school which was located about 40 kilometers to the north of Damascus. I made four times the salary that I earned working in all previous jobs: 126.5 Syrian pounds, enough money at the time to afford a decent life for a family. So, I supported my family this way.


After obtaining my middle school education I decided to work and study at the same time. In 1953, I completed my high school education in the scientific stream as a homeschool student. Education for our people was the only way ahead in life; we had no land to nurture, no industry to flourish and no trade to prosper. Education was therefore the only path available to us to face up to the challenges that life handed to us.


My dream was to become an engineer.  But pursuing a course of engineering study was a costly dream, requiring fulltime commitment and much money. This meant that I would have to give up my job which would leave my family without financial support.  I couldn’t do this so I dismissed my dream. I took solace though in the fact that my brother and eventually my nephews and nieces became engineers. We got to accumulate over 15 engineers in our small family.


After high school, I continued to work as a teacher.  I began to mull over engaging in national action and returning home. I set out to weigh all happenings and events in my surroundings, carefully sifting through possible and viable means by which I might actually serve my homeland. My lack of experience and practice did not keep me from perceiving the uselessness of the then mainstream factions. I realized that purely Palestinian efforts needed to be exerted—efforts that would be beyond any ideologies and the then prevalent traditional mindsets.


 Palestinians were barred from exercising any political activity at that time. So, myself and a group of friends began operating in secret, founding the first Palestinian secret group in 1954 and operating covertly. We were driven by the belief that if Arabs were planning to liberate Palestine then we should not just sit back and wait for them to hand it over to us on a silver platter; we had to make a substantial contribution as Palestinians. In order to be able to participate, we had to be trained. Therefore we espoused the slogan: "Compulsory Conscription of Palestinians" and we called for allowing them to enroll into military schools.


In late 1954, I joined law school and continued to work as an elementary school teacher. I was regularly attending the meetings of our secret organization. At the same time I developed a passion for music which propelled me to learn how to play the Oud. I started to take some private lessons only to give it all up just shortly after; my father was infuriated at the sight of an Oud at home. Facing his reprimands, I decided to drop it. I also had an inclination to delve deeper into literature and poetry. But I relinquished this interest as well; at the time, my entire life centered around my career, the secret organization and college education.  And, I managed to complete university successfully.


In 1956, the Syrian government agreed to allow Palestinians to join military schools. This came as a result of our organization’s efforts.  We had met frequently with a number of senior Syrian government officials, including state ministers, lawmakers and military leaders. Members of our organization – around twenty at the time - convened to discuss the decision and we resolved that we should be the first to enroll in military schools. Yet, the majority of members declined study at military school; only three of us accepted, myself and two others.  I quit my job and dropped out of college in the third year.


I joined the military academy in the city of Homs for three months. Then one day the academy director called me in and said that i was not fit for the academy and had to leave. I went back to my old normal life again, working as a teacher and studying in college.


On September 13, 1957, I got a teaching job in Qatar and moved there where I met the late Kamal Adwan, Muhammad al-Najar and Suleiman Al-Shurafa.  Together we initiated a new organization building on what we started in Damascus. I was delighted to learn that my brothers who came all the way from Gaza shared the same ideas, views, aspirations and dreams that I did.  When we met, it was almost as if we understood each other without talking; we found ourselves to be in harmony and unison.


In 1958, I was certified to practice law and I got married the same year. I left teaching to work as a manager of personnel affairs for a governmental oil company. This position offered me for the first time the opportunity to acquire a hands-on practical legal experience in defending the interests and rights of workers. I found myself lucky beyond my own belief as I won the trust of my employers and the workers.


After working for one year for that company, I worked as a personnel affairs manager at the Ministry of Education, where I tailored a unique social solidarity system for the staff. The system is in use until this day and has no match in other organizations.


We kept working for the independent organization we founded in Doha with a limited number of people. We were also very keen to maintain contact with other organizations operating across the Arab world, particularly in Kuwait. We found out that a number of individuals in our organization who were with us in Damascus had joined the Fatah movement in Kuwait. Therefore we faced no difficulty working together under one umbrella, pushing ahead in a serious effort to launch the revolution.


My wife and I had our three children between 1960 and 1966. My wife did a great job raising our children and managing our home, while I juggled between my job and national activities, which fully occupied my time.


When the PLO was founded in the summer of 1964, we as leaders of the Fatah Movement met to explore the possibility of launching the revolution. Deliberations lasted for a month and a half from early July till mid August, with clear disparity of opinions between two even sides: one advocating full and complete readiness prior to any launching, the other believing that we could start with what was present and then build on it further. I was on the second side-- the side that won by one vote. Accordingly, the launching date for the revolution was approved as September 1, 1964. Yasser Arafat was tasked with preparing the groundwork for the launch and he pledged full commitment to that goal.  But the launch did not take place as scheduled. Nonetheless, we decided to give it another try on January 1, 1965 and that’s when the revolution was officially launched.


In 1969 I resigned from my job in Qatar to join my brothers in  the revolution in Amman and I lived there with my family for a while. I was responsible for mobilization and organization. In the wake of Black September in 1970 I moved back to Damascus.  My Colleagues had gone to Lebanon, but I remained in Damascus and didn’t join them.


By this point, I had dedicated all of my time to my public and professional life to the point where I didn’t have a personal life. The same went for my companions and many of my peers; most of them lived a very busy life similar to mine. We were born during the al-Qassam revolution era, grew up in the midst of World War II and suffered the plight of exodus. During the fifties, we found ourselves adrift in struggle and in a state of bewilderment. Having devoted our lives to the revolution since the early sixties, we could not lead a normal family life like other people did. We had to thoroughly and carefully calculate every single move and decision; it was virtually like living in a prison utterly cut off from normal social life.


Unlike Beirut, the atmosphere in Damascus was relatively calm which allowed me to become engrossed in reading publications and information about Israel. I had dedicated a great deal of my time to becoming acquainted with Israeli society. It had been a commonplace feature across the revolutionary community and leadership not to attend to the composition of the entity we planned to go to war with. The same also applied to other Arab societies.


Owing to the knowledge I acquired from my extensive readings, I authored a number of books including, Zionism: the Beginning and the End in which I addressed Jewish immigration and ethnic groups present in   Israeli society. I also published The Cause: New Prospects which focused on Israeli factions and Between Understatement and Overstatement which discusses the Arab view of Israel. My other writings include Israel is America's Bridge of Evil, The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement and Arab Keren Haysod Wanted, as well as other publications that address a range of issues pertaining to the Israeli society.


In 1977 I called for the return of Arab Jews to their respective countries of origin. My call was well received on the theoretical, official, and legal levels. Despite some Palestinian opposition, I had garnered the approval of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan.


Later in 1978, I called for the twinning of Palestinian cities with cities in other Arab countries. The idea received resounding success with twinning initiatives carried out successfully between sixteen Palestinian cities and a matching number of Arab cities in Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Libya. The outcome from this was highly significant and transformational; Palestinian municipalities were able to collect 80 million dollars allocated to vital projects such as schools, roads, health, water, and electricity.  


In 1980, I was selected by the Fatah Central Committee to sit on the PLO Executive Committee. I was not present at the National Council meeting when my selection took place. Had I been given the choice I would have declined. In fact, I was contacted and asked about it during the time I was in Moscow and refused the membership offer. Yet I returned to Damascus only to find myself inexplicably a registered Central Committee member. I did not take part in the work of the committee for two years, until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982.


In 1982, ahead of the invasion of Lebanon, I discussed my PhD thesis, entitled The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement at the Moscow Institute of Orientalism. After Israel had invaded and tightly cordoned off Beirut, I realized that it was the end of an era and the dawn of a new one. As a result, I relocated to Tunisia, the lifeline of the Palestinian revolution, following its government's approval to host the PLO.


In 1988, I adopted the Palestinian initiative wherewith the Palestinian National Council agrees to recognize international legitimacy resolutions, namely endorsing UN resolutions 242 and 338.

I championed that initiative on the Palestinian, Arab and international levels and regarded its approval by the PNC as a personal victory.


After U.S. President George Bush announced his initiative on March 6, 1991, I strongly advocated our participation in the peace process. I led a committee to conclude an agreement with Jordan concerning the Palestinian representation in the Madrid peace conference. After that, I chaired the Negotiations Follow-Up Committee in Washington and I took part in the Oslo negotiations that started in December 1992. Those negotiations went until August 20, 1993 when we signed the Israeli Palestinian Declaration of Principles in initial form. Later I signed the agreement in Washington.  


We guided our people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the first step on the road to ending the occupation through the Declaration of Principles. However, this road is very long and filled with obligations and obstacles. The future will be unlike both the past and the present.  Every stage has its own men, ideology and tools. The mindset of the revolution is different from that of the state, and it is the responsibility of our people to build something out of nothing. This is the challenge we are faced with. Having contributed to achievements that placed our people at the forefront of history, I remain deeply concerned that we could get swept away by history, lose control, and suffer an unrecoverable setback.


We have grown a seed in the hopes that God will protect it against turbulent winds. God's providence is found in the hearts and souls of the honest, righteous and virtuous. I pray to God that he bestows his providence and blessings on our people.


As we stand at the threshold of a new era in history, realizing the aspirations of our people, we recall the convoy of martyrs:  the fighters, cadres and leaders who orchestrated this march and sacrificed their lives for its sake. We recall and recollect the names of the earliest martyrs of the Fatah Central Committee, Abu Jihad – who I wish lived to see the children he brought up for the long-awaited day, Abu Iyad, who was a shrewd politician, Abdulfatah Hmud, Abu Ali Eyad, Abu Sabri, Abu Yousif an-Najar, Kamal Udwan, Majed Abu Sharar, Saad Sayel, Abu al-Hol, and so many others whose blood continues to water the tree of our freedom.


Tunisia, January 1, 1994