Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Palestinian Leader's Quest for What Israel Has

Israel marks 50 years of statehood today. But Faisal Husseini still waits for a homeland.

Faisal Husseini is always asked whether his family blew it.

Fifty years ago, Palestinians under his family's leadership refused the United Nations plan to partition this land into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. He was then just eight years old, but the heir of several generations of Arab leaders in Jerusalem who reject any compromise with Jewish nationalists.

About these ads

He often responds by comparing Palestinian resistance to Masada and its place in Jewish history. "Do you believe that the Jewish people were wrong in the battle of Masada? Do you believe [that] without Masada, [they] would be here?" asks Mr. Husseini.

Masada is the desert fortress where a group of 1st century AD Jews barricaded themselves, eventually committing suicide rather than be forced into giving up their religion and national identity at the hands of the Roman conquerors.

"Sometimes the leaders will make a decision, though it will have a high price, but it will defend the people's rights in the future," Husseini says. He implies that just as Masada came to represent the Jewish fight for survival stretching back 2,000 years, Palestinians would not have remained Palestinians had they not put up a fight against Zionism.

For Husseini to compare the Palestinians' declaration of war to the Jews' suicide reveals a great deal about the state of the Arab-Jewish conflict 50 years later: the degree to which the two sides have come to know each other, and the extent to which many Palestinians have grown pragmatic in the five decades since Israel's establishment.

Many wonder why Palestinians gambled on such high, all-or-nothing stakes rather than accept half a homeland, as the world suggested a half century ago. Hindsight, Husseini reminds such inquirers, is always 20-20. "It is not fair to come and judge someone in a certain period with the information that you know now," Husseini says in an interview at Orient House, his family-owned mansion that serves as Palestinian political headquarters in East Jerusalem.

The Husseini pedigree

But people do judge. Israelis often treat Husseini as though, by dint of pedigree, he has blood on his hands. His great uncle, Haj Amin Husseini, was Jerusalem's Grand Mufti, the top Islamic and political leader, from 1921 until the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He personified bitter Arab opposition to Jewish statehood in Palestine, stirring up anti-Jewish riots and allying himself with the Nazis. Husseini's own father, Abd al-Qadir Husseini, fell in the 1948 war while fighting to recapture Castel, a strategic Arab village near Jerusalem.

About these ads

Even though the resistance proved disastrous, the effort won him martyrdom in Palestinian eyes. The devastation that followed - more than 350 villages vanished, historians say - entered the Palestinian consciousness as a national tragedy that needed to be rectified. "It is a real disaster when your infrastructure has been destroyed, and a whole village is suddenly living in a tent," Husseini says.

Husseini and other family members waited out the bloodshed in Egypt with other wealthy Palestinians, and he would not return to Jerusalem until 1951. Others would not be so fortunate. Some 800,000 Palestinians fled or were forced out in 1948, approximately half the Arab population at the time. Four million Palestinians remain in exile today.

While studying in Cairo, Husseini met Yasser Arafat, the man who would lead the Palestine Liberation Organization. They shared some views, but clashed on others. Ultimately, Husseini returned to Jerusalem for good in 1964, a full 30 years before Mr. Arafat would return to head the transitional Palestinian Authority (PLO) set up by the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Husseini was active in the PLO, serving as an officer, setting up a training camp in Lebanon, and playing a role in organizing other "military activities." Until 1993, those activities included bombings and hijackings most of the world saw as terrorism.

He says he never supported attacks on civilians, but suggests that they made the world notice. "Maybe the thing we succeeded in most was turning the attention of the world toward us," he says. "In the beginning, they did not understand. We have now gained some of the public's favor in the world, including inside Israel."

Husseini himself has gained partners inside Israel, among members of the peace movement that came to oppose Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When the intifada, or uprising, erupted in 1987, he played a key role in organizing Jerusalem participation and raising millions for the cause in the Gulf Arab states. When the Israeli government agreed to begin peace talks with the Palestinians in 1991 but refused any "official" PLO representation from abroad, Husseini became a leading delegate to the Madrid conference.

So it was perhaps only natural that after Arafat arrived here in 1994, Husseini was awarded the Jerusalem portfolio - a sort of minister without a ministry. Since the peace accords bar the Palestinian Authority from basing any institutions in Jerusalem, Husseini's Orient House remains the unofficial political hub. Attempts by world leaders to meet there with Husseini have roused the ire of Israeli officials.

As the conflict has increasingly focused on Jerusalem, where Palestinians envision their future capital, Husseini's profile has risen. He among all Palestinian figures is most often seen at demonstrations against Israeli plans to build Jewish neighborhoods in Arab areas of East Jerusalem.

But observers say Arafat has been pushing Husseini out of the decisionmaking circle, something that has happened to several senior officials. Most high-ranking Palestinians refuse to talk about life after Arafat. Husseini, who is a decade younger than Arafat, is no exception.

A successor to Arafat?

"The word 'if' opens a job for the devil," jokes Husseini, quoting an old Arab maxim. "If Faisal Husseini will be president, then the Jerusalem problem would have to have already been solved, because I will not leave Jerusalem"- a veiled criticism of Arafat, who signed an accord that resigns him to living in Gaza. "If Jerusalem is our capital, then my job will be done. I'd rather be a citizen in his city than be a leader sitting somewhere else."

Though he is popular and well-liked in Palestinian intellectual circles, analysts say he hasn't enough backing in Fatah, Arafat's political party, to win the No. 1 job. "I wish people would see me not through my family name, but just as a man," says Husseini. "It puts on my shoulders all the good things this family did, and all the bad things people believe [we] did. This is not always helpful."

If that is true, then much would have changed in 50 years. Few mainstream Palestinian leaders today talk about a solution other than sharing the land between the two peoples. Husseini, who learned to speak Hebrew and has marched arm in arm with Israeli peace activists, is not a Husseini of 1948.

He believes he's carrying on the fight, but with the weapons of a peace activist: signs, demonstrations and press conferences. "What pushed my father to pick up the gun was the love of his people and the love of his land. I am doing the same thing, but by other means."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.