Woman of the Year

At the Madrid peace conference in late October 1991, for the first time in a century-old conflict, the Israelis were defeated by their Palestinian opponents. There was a palpable feeling of history in the making as Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, an elderly physician from Gaza and the head of the Palestinian delegation, delivered his opening address in the Grand Palace. Of all the presentation of the Palestinian case made by official spokesmen since the beginning of the conflict, this was undoubtedly the most eloquent as well as the most conciliatory and the most convincing. It would have been inconceivable for the PLO, despite its growing moderation, to make such an unambiguous peace overture to Israel. The PLO, in any case, had been excluded from the Madrid conference by the right-wing Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Evidently troubled by the conciliatory tone of Dr. Abdel Shafi’s speech, Shamir passed a note to an aide. An observer speculated that the note could well have said: “We made a big mistake. We should have insisted that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

The principal author of this remarkable speech was Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation. Hanan was born in Nablus on October 8, 1946, of a well-to-do Christian middle-class family. Her father, Daud Mikhail, was a doctor who joined the resistance against British control of Palestine. After the loss of Palestine in 1948, the family lived under Jordanian rule in Ramallah in what became known as the West Bank. From the Friends Girls School in Ramallah Hanan went to study English literature at the American University in Beirut. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967 turned her overnight into an exile. It also marked the beginning of her active involvement in the Palestinian revolution. In 1970, barred by the Israeli authorities from returning home, she enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in medieval English literature at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. There she combined radical political activism with her academic studies and began to make a place for herself in the US at a time when the word “Palestinian” was synonymous with “terrorist.” As the founder and only member of the Charlottesville branch of the Organization of Arab Students and as head of the American Friends of Free Palestine, she formed coalitions with an anti-Vietnam War group, women’s groups, and the Black Students Alliance.

A general amnesty for Palestinians enabled Dr. Ashrawi to return home to Ramallah and to rejoin her family in 1974. She settled into academic life as head of the English Department at Birzeit University. From the outset, she made clear her opposition to the occupation. Following her participation in a few student demonstrations and protest marches, she was arrested and taken before a military judge. “What are you doing here today?” asked the judge after Hanan chose to take her oath on the New Testament rather than the Koran or the Old Testament. “That’s a good question,”…

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