El BIREH, WEST BANK
AS the only candidate opposing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat for the position of president in the Palestinians' first elections, Samiha Khalil might be considered a courageous politician.
But the mother of five and a grandmother who founded and heads the largest charity and women's self-help group on the West Bank is widely seen as something else.
Mrs. Khalil is, to be sure, a leftist and a member of the Palestinian National Council - the Palestinians' parliament in exile. She does not belong to any Palestine Liberation Organization faction. What makes her stand out in her candidacy is that she opposes the PLO's 1993 peace accord with Israel. The accord, she says, will not bring true independence or sovereignty to Palestinians.
On Tuesday, Khalil launched her campaign for the Jan. 20 elections in the West Bank town of Nablus.
"I want to be elected to get all Palestinians to work together ... and then maybe we can convince Israel to give us our independent state," she told supporters.
Many Palestinians say just the fact that she is posing an alternative to Mr. Arafat furthers democratic principles among Palestinians.
"This is setting an important precedent and will ensure that Arafat is not placed above criticism ... that he will not become a sacred cow," says political scientist Khalil Shikaki, director of the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus.
And Arafat welcomes a challenge in the poll. "Arafat does not want to get 99 percent of the vote," says Jiries Atrash, an Arafat spokesman. "He likes the idea of having an opponent and wants the best person to win."
The most daring pundits give Khalil only 15 percent of the vote. But she is philosophical about the expected result. "I hope to win but, if I don't, it will be enough for me that I raised my voice high as a Palestinian woman, demanding the fulfillment of the dreams of Palestinians at home and abroad. I believe that women, like men, are fully entitled to lead the Palestinian people."
Khalil, who is the recipient of several international awards for her charitable work, is well-known for her dedication to empowering women as the basis of family upliftment.
Her charity provides vocational training for thousands of women, self-help commercial enterprises, and a wide range of educational and welfare activities for children and orphans of jailed and martyred Palestinians struggling for their own state.
For the past three decades, Khalil has received no remuneration for her work as head of a charity that now employs about 110 full-time workers. She says her oldest son, an engineer, supports her. Khalil's organization generates 78 percent of its monthly budget of around $300,000 by producing a wide range of products ranging from clothes to food.
"She started in a small garage in 1965 with a budget of around $100," says Amina Eisawi, the supervisor of the Society Inash Al-Usra, which means "help for the family." The Society headquarters form a complex of several large buildings in this town adjacent to Ramallah, which Israel turned over to Palestinian self-rule a week ago.
Mohammed Abu Zaid, a doctor employed by the society, says that Khalil could bring a real grass-roots understanding of people's needs to the Palestinian leadership. "She is a charismatic leader rather than a politician," he says.
But the fact that she is not perceived by the Palestinian public as a politician could count against her.
"It could mean that people opposed to Arafat will not take her seriously and rather leave their ballots blank than vote for her," says Ghassan al-Khatib, an official of the Palestinian People's Party, the group fielding the largest number of candidates after Arafat's PLO faction, Fatah.
Khalil, who graduated from high school at the same time as her son Saji in 1964, is a passionate Palestinian nationalist who believes that unity is paramount for her people to reach their goal of a sovereign state.
She also founded the Palestinian Folklore Museum at the headquarters of her charity here in 1972. "Palestine is full of people with their own heritage and culture. Their roots are deep in the land. They have been here for thousands of years," she says while walking past exhibits of Palestinian history and culture.
Her life mirrors the struggle of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation: She was detained six times in Israeli jails for her participation in demonstrations against the occupation. Two of her five children - four sons and a daughter - spent time in Israeli jails for activities against the occupation, she says.