In memory of Shafiq al-Hout (1922-2009)

In the early 1950s, a young student rose to the podium at the graduation ceremony of the American University of Beirut (AUB). While presenting him with his degree, AUB President Constantine Zureik whispered into his ear saying, “Now, we can say that we are rid of your mischief!” Shafiq Al Hout, who died on Sunday at a hospital in Beirut at the age of 77, was indeed a mischievous Palestinian, who survived 10 Israeli assassination attempts, the Lebanese Civil War and the wrath of his friend and comrade-at-arms, Yasser Arafat.

Born and raised in Jaffa in 1932, he went to Lebanon with his family in April 1948 and was forced to stay there indefinitely after the creation of the state of Israel only one month later. Al Hout studied at AUB – where I heard him speak about his encounter with Zureik, 10 years ago. At AUB, he befriended another legendary Palestinian, George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), emerging as a student leader and loud advocate of armed Palestinian resistance. Due to his participation in illegal communist activity, Al Hout was arrested by Lebanese authorities while still a student and, at one point, banished from Lebanon. A prolific writer, impassioned orator and political activist, he began his career as a schoolteacher in the 1950s and one of his students, who rose to fame in his own right, was current Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

Al Hout went to Kuwait in the mid 1950s, where along with Arafat and other like-minded Palestinian youth, he helped found the Palestinian underground, believing that every spot on earth was a battleground for the Palestinians and every Israeli an enemy. He also worked as a journalist, becoming managing editor of the popular weekly Al Hawadith. In addition to the Palestinian Liberation Front, he co-founded the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964, serving as its representative in Lebanon for more than three decades. He also served on its Executive Committee in 1966-1967, and again in 1991, famously resigning after a row with Arafat when the latter signed the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. Al Hout never forgave the PLO chairman for “selling out” and declaring peace with then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. That is why, despite his age, Al Hout remained admired as a man of principle by Palestinians of all ages, and all walks of life.

Unifying event

The tragedy of Al Hout’s passing is one of very few things all Palestinians managed to agree on this weekend, as they seem to be becoming more deeply divided, between Hamas and Fatah on the one hand, and also within Fatah itself as the party prepares for its much anticipated congress in Bethlehem. All ends of the political spectrum – the PFLP, the DFLP, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas – praised the late Palestinian statesman. Apart from that, they agreed on practically nothing. A veteran member of Fatah, Farouk Al Qaddumi, has recently accused Abbas of helping eliminate Arafat in 2004, dividing Palestinians.

Fatah members are calling on Abbas to bring Al Qaddumi to court, claiming that he was pushed into this corner by Hamas. Hamas, meanwhile, has recently announced that it will not allow nearly 400 members of Fatah to attend the congress in Bethlehem unless Abbas releases its members from jails in the West Bank.

Although Fatah leaders refuse to admit it, they are in a very difficult position when it comes to the president of the Palestinian National Authority, who is becoming increasingly unpopular within his own constituency. Some believe Abbas has been in power this long because credible alternatives are either in exile, retired because of old age or dead because of the Israeli war machine. The Fatah Congress will help boost his popularity, as would popular gestures such as calling for the release of charismatic leader Marwan Barghouti or mourning the death of legends like Al Hout.

Al Hout’s death will be used by all parties, no doubt, to inspire unity in a manner similar to how the Palestinians closed ranks after the death of Arafat in 2004 and, more recently, after the death of Habash. This unity will be short lived – but comes at the right time, four days ahead of the Fatah Congress. Had Al Hout lived longer, he would certainly have sided with Hamas in its struggle against Fatah, and probably with Al Qaddumi against Abbas.

Apart from that, his death is symbolic of the end of an era in which secular armed resistance was the only way to fight the Israelis in Palestine. He represented the era of the fedayeen, who emerged after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 pledging to liberate Palestine without the help of the Arab leadership. Since then, armed resistance has become synonymous with Islam, much to Al Hout’s dismay.

Al Hout, a courageous man, lived a full life and tried in vain to advance his cause during the 1970s and 1980s, refusing to return to the Occupied Territories after Oslo, saying: “I will never seek a permit from the occupier to enter my land!” Sadly, Al Hout reached his grave before reaching his homeland.

Gulf News, 3 August 2009