Dr. Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi (Haidar Abdul Shafi): Physician; leading secular Palestinian nationalist leader in the Gaza Strip. Highly respected non-partisan figure, though with links to the Palestinian People's Party (formerly the Pal. Communist Party). Head of the Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip; Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights. A founding member of the Palestinian National Initiative, launched June 2002; also a member of the Birzeit University Board of Trustees and United Palestinian Appeal Board of Trustees.
Born in Gaza on 10 June 1919, at the very end of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine. One of six children of Sheikh Muheiddin Abdul Shafi, head of the Higher Islamic Council (Waqf - the authority which administered the affairs of the Muslims in Palestine) and custodian of the holy places in Gaza and (from 1925-27) Hebron.
Attended primary school in Gaza; secondary education as a boarder at the Arab College in Jerusalem, graduated 1936. Left for Beirut, to study medicine at the American University (photo), where he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement (dedicated to Arab nationalism and the founding of a Palestinian state). Graduated 1943, went to work at the British mandate government's Municipal Hospital (Mustashfa Al-Baladiya) in Jaffa.
In 1944 joined the Jaysh al-Badiah (desert army) of the British Jordanian Army, then part of a new British Ninth Army intended to open a second front - which never materialized - in the Balkans. Spent the war instead in various locations in Palestine: Al-Azraq, Ashona, Jericho, Gaza. Resigned his commission at war's end; returned to Gaza and entered private practice. Co-founded a branch of the Palestine Medical Society (1945), and participated in the first Palestine Medical Congress in 1946.
Provided medical support to Palestinian guerillas in the clashes between Jews and Arabs following the UN partition resolution in 1947. Ran a medical clearing station in Gaza the first Arab-Israeli war (1948), when Gaza was flooded with 200,000 refugees. Worked closely with the Quakers, who provided humanitarian relief for Gaza Palestinians until UNRWA was established in 1951. Left Gaza for the US, where he studied surgery at the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio (photo). Returned to Gaza - now Egyptian-ruled - in 1954, worked as a surgeon for the Egyptians at the Tal Zahur Hospital.
Israel invaded and temporarily occupied Gaza in 1956, installing a municipal council with Abdel Shafi as one of its 10 members. Gained a reputation as troublemaker by comparing Israeli rule unfavourably to Egyptian control, and refusing to serve on council.
In 1957, married Hoda Khalidi, daughter of a prominent Jerusalem family, refugees in Alexandria since the 1948 war. (Four children: one daughter, Hind, also a physician; and sons, Khaled, Tareq and Salah). Appointed by the Egyptians as head of medical services in the Gaza Strip, 1957-60; during this period, became a strong admirer and personal friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Returned to private practice 1960.
Served as chairman of the first Palestinian Legislative Council (photo) in Gaza (1962-4). Also a delegate to the first all-Palestinian conference (Palestinian National Congress) which convened in Jerusalem in 1964 and established the PLO (under Ahmed Shukeiry). Served as a member of the first PLO-Executive Committee (1964-5). Developed a constituency and political base through the Gaza clinic system, and by 1966 was the leading PLO figure in the Gaza Strip.
Worked as a volunteer at the Shifa hospital in Gaza during the 1967, in which Israel again occupied Gaza, this time for the long-term. Temporarily detained by Israel at war's end, suspected of support for the military activities of George Habash's PFLP, an offshoot of the Arab Nationalist Movement. (Abdel Shafi denies membership, but expresses sympathy for its goals). Upon release, he refused all co-operation with Israel's plans to tie Gaza to Israel through the development of a common infrastructure, as punishment Moshe Dayan expelled him for three months to the isolated Sinai village of Nahal in 1969. Deported again on 12 Sept 1970, this time to Lebanon for two months, along with 5 other prominent members of the Gazan leadership, in retaliation for a PFLP hijacking.
Founder and Director of Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip from 1972, providing free medical care and a forum for cultural activities. Distanced himself from Egypt after the Camp David Accord of Sept 1978, which he saw as an Egyptian sell-out of the Palestinians to get back Sinai. After vocal opposition to the Accord, Israel confined him to Gaza, and threatened the Gaza Red Crescent with closure.
In May 1988, during the first intifada, he was one of three Palestinians (Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi were the others) to participate in ABC Nightline's Town Hall meeting from Jerusalem. First time that Palestinians had directly addressed an Israeli (and Western) audience. Turning point in Western perception of the PLO. Led the Palestinian element of the Pal-Jordanian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, and subsequently led the Palestinian negotiation team for 22 months in the Washington talks (1992-3).
Left - Abdel Shafi at the Madrid Conference with his Deputy, Saeb Erekat.
Centre - Greeting the Israeli delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference, 1991. (Read Abdel Shafi's opening address to the Conference).
Right - Returning with Hanan Ashrawi from the Madrid Conference to a hero's welcome in Jericho, Nov 91. (Read her impressions of Abdel Shafi).
Resigned from delegation in April 1993 (over settlements). Resumed position under pressure - only to urge the suspension of Palestinian participation in the talks in May 1993: "From the beginning when we started negotiations in Washington, we insisted that Israel should stop the settlement process, because it is a contradiction with the terms of reference. When Israel refused to stop, and the American sponsor did not compel Israel to abide by the terms of reference, the negotiation process then lost its credibility." Eventually made final break with the Palestinian negotiating team over Oslo. Abdel Shafi was one of the first to predict that the Oslo process would collapse, because it failed to tackle the issue of settlements:
- History Proved Arafat Critic Right, by Amira Hass; Ha'aretz, 30 Sept 2007.
Elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 as member for Gaza, gaining highest number of votes of any member. Ran for speakership of the PLC, but lost to Ahmed Qurai' (Abu Alaa) by 57-31 votes; instead took up leadership of the PLC's political committee. Walked out of April 96 Palestine National Congress meeting, arguing that Arafat should not amend PN Charter to recognize Israel until Israel gives reciprocal recognition. (Though he does support the Two-State solution: "There is no problem of coexistence. The Jewish presence is a reality to be acknowledged".) Announced intention to resign from PLC in October 1997 (effective from 30 March 1998) on the grounds that it did not have any real power to change the Palestinians' situation; also called for more democracy within the PNA, and a national unity leadership.
A long-time proponent of a less PA-centric (and less Arafat-centric) Palestinian leadership. In April 1998 initiated unity talks for all factions in Gaza, to include Fatah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the left-wing PFLP and DFLP. Describes the Al-Aqsa intifada as a spontaneous rejection of ten years of fruitless negotiations which Israel has used to create facts on the ground; supports the right of the Palestinians to fight, but opposes suicide bombings and is critical of the disorganized nature of the resistance. Urged the PA to organize the intifada, rather than distance itself from it, and to widen its democratic base by forming a government of national unity, even if this means that PNA would be allied with groups unacceptable to Western public opinion, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad: "You see it is our right; it is not the business of the US nor of the European community how we manage our own affairs, to establish a national unity authority is our private concern".
Calls for a Palestinian unity govt to show the world the essentially defensive nature of Palestinian resistance by fighting only in the Occupied Territories and only against Israeli settlement activity, and its associated activities such as home demolitions and farmland expropriations: "I think we should face the world with this position. I think that we should make this very clear to the American sponsor and to the Israelis. We should say we are not interested in killing Jews, but we will actually fight wherever Israel continues to establish settlements, or when they see it necessary to demolish a home or farm or trees, then we should fight. We must focus our fire on the illegal settlements - particularly new settlements. This is where we can stop the expansion of the Zionists, and where we are completely in our rights by international law, by the frame of reference, and supported by world public opinion".
Lukewarm over the Road Map, believes ending settlement activity should occupy all the energies of Pal resistance, and only thence move step by step to a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. Any negotiating activity while settlements continue to expand would be pointless and a waste of Palestinian energies.
Was nominated by a coalition of smaller leftist parties to contest the PA Presidential election of January 2005, but declined (citing ill-health) and endorsed instead the candidacy of Mustafa Barghouti.
Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006. Declined Israeli offer of exit visa for surgery abroad, choosing to accept only treatment available in the Gaza Strip. Died 25 September 2007. In a rare show of unity after months of unrest in Gaza, representatives of all political factions joined the mourning (photo left, BBC News). Hamas described him as "one of the most important symbols of the Palestinian people and their historic struggle to regain their legitimate rights"; Fatah recalled him "a man of patriotism, decency, honor and vision.... He devoted all his life to serve his people and his country, a country that he wished to see in his lifetime, and he did not".
Biographical information –
- More than a thousand citrus trees (autobiographical notes on the 50th anniversary of the Nakba); al-Ahram Weekly, May 1948.
- This Side of Peace by Hanan Ashrawi, pub Simon & Schuster (1995), ISBN 0-684-82342-X
- Still Small Voices by John and Janet Wallach, pub Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch (1989), ISBN 0-15-184970-6
- The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (G.C.M.H.P.).
- Glen Rangwala's Middle East Reference.
- The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).
- Al-Ahram Weekly, 28 May 1998.
- Middle East Information Resource, 1999.
- Profiles of Peace: Haidar Abdel Shafi - AFSC, June 2007.
Political views –
- "Palestinian Council is undemocratic", Arabic News.com, 17 Oct 1997.
- Palestine and Hamas head towards reconciliation, Arabic News.com, 14 Apr 1998.
- Put our House in Order: Interview with John-Paul Leonard, 12 May 2001.
- First-hand look at Israeli conflict, Anglican Journal, June 2001.
- Interview with Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, Palestine Chronicle, 14 July 2002.
- “A Palestinian National Unity Government, the Way to Move Forward.” Report from a Palestine Center briefing by Haidar Abdel Shafi, 5 Aug 2002.
- Beyond Negotiations, Al-Ahram online, 26 Sept 2002
- A Despondent Situation, Bitterlemons.org, 6 Jan 2003.
- al-Ahram Weekly (Ramzy Baroud & Hanan Ashrawi).
- The Economist.
- The Guardian.
- BBC News.
- NY Times.
- United Palestinian Appeal.
- Ma'an Independent News Agency.
- Associated Press.
This page last updated: 28 Aug 2008.
Return to Palestinian Biographies Home Page.
حيدر عبد الشافي חיידר עבד א-שאפי