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Haidar Abdel Shafi

Haidar Abdel Shafi

Published: March 30, 2010
Haidar Abdel Shafi

Haidar Abdel Shafi

Palestinian with a long history of working to improve the health and social conditions of Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. Among his many accomplishments, Dr. Abdel Shafi has been the director of the Red Crescent Society of Gaza, was Chairman of the first Palestinian Council in Gaza, and took part in the Madrid Peace Talks in 1991.

Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi is one of the most revered persons in Palestine, whose long life has been devoted to the health and social conditions of his people and to their aspirations for a national state. Born in Gaza in 1919, he has spent most of his life there, except for study in Lebanon and the United States. He has been the director of the Red Crescent Society in Gaza and has served as Commissioner General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights.

His passion for an independent state of Palestine is matched by his dedication to achieve unity among all segments of the Palestinian community. Although Gaza is overwhelmingly religiously observant, he has won and kept the respect and loyalty of the people even though he himself is secular. Though nonpartisan he has often been associated with the Palestinian left, especially with the Palestinian Peoples Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party). 

A mark of his popularity is his service as Chairman of the first Palestinian Council in Gaza (1962-64) and his place on the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) (1964-65). His independence led him to resign often from official PLO bodies, though he always remained loyal to its aims of liberating Palestine.

Dr. Abdel Shafi won world-wide attention in a famous ABC Nightline debate in Jerusalem in 1988, in which he was part of a panel of Palestinians who directly addressed an Israeli audience, making a strong case for Palestinian self-determination. Subsequently he led the Palestinian portion of the Jordanian delegation at the Madrid Peace Talks in 1991, following up this as the head of the Palestinian negotiating team that met in Washington. 

Unfortunately, his work there was compromised by the PLO’s secret talks in Oslo. When the Oslo process began he correctly predicted its failure in part because of the Oslo avoidance of insisting on a settlement freeze. His disagreement with the PLO leadership however did not force him out of politics. He was elected to the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) in 1996, and later resigned to work with all the factions in Gaza to create an organized resistance movement.

While by no means a pacifist, Dr. Abdel Shafi has championed a defensive posture in combating the continuing Israeli occupation. He is firmly against suicide bombings and armed operations in Israeli civilian areas, but believes in the legal and moral right for Gazans to defend themselves and for Palestinians generally to struggle against the Israel military and settlement activity.

"There is no problem of co-existence; the Jewish presence is a reality to be acknowledged," he says.