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Death in the Middle East: What Can Moderates Do?

December 13, 1985|TOM HAYDEN | Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-West Los Angeles) has made five trips to the Middle East.

One overcast day in late November, I visited a long-time Palestinian friend, Aziz Shehadah, a lawyer and self-described political moderate, at his comfortable home in Ramallah, 10 miles from Jerusalem.

The observations of this 73-year-old gentleman, given over generous servings of Turkish coffee, have always seemed to me an accurate barometer of peace possibilities in this anguished area. This time it was to be no different.

Aziz was stabbed to death in front of his home one week later. According to a wire story, the "Revolutionary Council of Fatah" took responsibility. Led by Abu Nidal, this Palestinian group seems to specialize in killing moderates. Aziz, they announced, was a "traitor" who advocated a "humiliating co-existence" with Israel.

I first met Aziz in 1979 at the suggestion of an Israeli friend. Aziz was mild in manner and appearance, short, stocky, balding, rumpled, fatherly. Though raised in an atmosphere hostile to a Jewish state, Aziz had long since concluded that Israel deserved its right to exist alongside any Palestinian nationalism. The price for being such a humane realist was high. Dialogue between Arabs and Jews was "not welcomed by certain people," and, until recently, it was "an offense in the Arab world even to talk to a Jew," Aziz said.

On the other hand, he believed, as long as the Israeli government of Menachem Begin pressed its theological claim to the land that Aziz and his people called their home, dialogue would drop to zero. In this polarized atmosphere, he said, raising his arms in a weary, so-be-it gesture, "We are all PLO."

When next we met, Anwar Sadat had been assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood for what he did at Camp David. To Aziz, this was part of a larger conspiracy to "destabilize the moderates" so that conflict in the Middle East would be perpetuated. He proclaimed himself a moderate, not meekly but with a certain pride, knowing that this made him a "collaborator" in PLO eyes.

At the onset of the 1982 Lebanon war, Aziz's anxiety turned toward the Israelis. "We on the West Bank will be (Gen. Ariel) Sharon's next target after he uproots the Palestinians in Lebanon. He wants us to make an exodus into Jordan," Aziz worried aloud. He was obsessed with the threat of uprootedness.

The more I visited him, the more I understood the fragile position of moderates like Aziz, defenseless inhabitants of an area subject to ferocious conflict, never knowing their final destiny, but doubting that they would have much say in it.

In our last visit, when I asked if he took hope from the diplomatic gesture between Israel and Jordan, he only shook his head. "I don't even speak out anymore," he admitted. "I don't know if anyone wants peace."

However, Aziz invested considerable confidence in his two sons, Raja and Samir. The former, a lawyer in his mid-30s, has written extensively and critically on the nature of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and has also formed the Center for Law in the Service of Man, a small legal clinic that represents Palestinians.

In 1982 Raja wrote "The Third Way," a book about ordinary life under occupation on the West Bank. Searching for an alternative to either "mute submission" or "blind hate," he adopted the concept of "steadfastness," which for him meant an ability to persevere on the land. Neither "to acquiesce" to alien rule "nor to become crazed with consuming hate" was Raja's mission. He confessed an enormous faith in reason.

Raja was attending an international jurists' meeting when I visited Ramallah, but his brother, Samir, younger by a decade, was just home after spending most of seven years at universities in America and Britain.

Aziz was extremely proud of this second "steadfast" son returning to Ramallah from the compelling and peaceful allurements of the West. (There are more citizens of Ramallah in California than in Ramallah itself.) Still wearing an American alligator sweater, Samir said that politics was what drew him back. Since elections have not been allowed on the West Bank for almost a decade, I asked Samir what type of politics he meant.

The politics of terror or religious extremism was a dead end to Samir, though fully alive among students on nearby campuses. Samir, who defined politics in a broader, consciousness-raising sense, said, "I would like to educate the people that there are other ways, not just one way alone, to achieve their goals."

Samir looked instead to the emergence of a pluralistic politics to replace dogmatism. Given the limits determined by Israeli rule and Arab fundamentalism, I wished him well on this unenviable task. Yet he seemed optimistic, and his father pleased.

That was five days before the assassination of Aziz on the sidewalk where I bade him farewell. What are the moderate sons of this moderate father to do? How to maintain "steadfastness," and to educate the people that there are "other ways?" How will Raja and Samir answer such questions now?

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