Let's not allow the brazen murder of Juliano Mer Khamis, 52, and Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, two engaged idealists who were gunned down respectively in the West Bank and Gaza within two weeks of each other earlier this month, to pass largely unnoticed, relegated to a mere footnote in the narrative of the Palestinian struggle.
Their death clearly pained me, as it did countless other Palestinians, but it did more than that. It reminded me of the intolerant streak in Palestinian society for ideas — along with the people who embrace them — that depart from established orthodoxy. And trust me on this one: I know of that intolerance first-hand.
When the 16th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) wrapped in Algiers in the middle of February 1983, left unresolved was the question of what to do about the future direction of the national movement. The PLO had been expelled from Lebanon six months earlier, its fighters had been sent to Arab countries as far apart as Tunisia and Yemen, and its civilian population, left unprotected in refugee camps, were massacred in the thousands in Sabra and Shatila. Yet, at the conference, speaker after speaker instead took to rhetorical frills, at the edge of logic, praising ‘the heroic struggle of the siege of Beirut', which represented, in their view, a ‘great victory' against ‘the Zionist enemy'.
Later that day, I sat with a soft drink across a table from Essam Sartawi, at the coffee shop of the Orassi Hotel in Algiers, where VIP guests were put up, trying to make sense of the fantasy world delegates chose to inhabit during the three-day conference.
Sartawi, a leading PLO official and Yasser Arafat's adviser on Europe and North America, was no lightweight, but he was a maverick. At a time when advocating a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was considered an act of treason, he openly advocated just that, and then some, especially in his statements as head of the Israel Palestine Peace Council, where he called for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.
"If the 1982 war in Lebanon was a victory for the Palestinians", he told me in a voice at once cynical and bitter, "I hate to think what defeat would've looked like".
The man was a realist, but he was also blunt. And this is where he triggered that intolerant streak that today continues to afflict Palestinian society. Two months after our encounter, while attending the Socialist International Conference in Albufeira, Portugal, as the PLO representative, Sartawi was followed by a lone assassin to his hotel, the Montechoro, where he was gunned down in the lobby. It matters little that the hit man was identified as belonging to a renegade Palestinian group. He was Palestinian and he killed another Palestinian simply because he disagreed with his views.
Consider the sad case of another friend, another prominent Palestinian patriot killed four years later for the same reason.
Naji Al Ali, as those young enough to remember his work in the 1980s would agree, was a talented political cartoonist who had that uncanny ability to encapsulate the national mood of the Arab world, along with that of the Palestinian national struggle, in sharply critical sketches. A typical cartoon of his, not unlike that of a deft picture by a skilled photojournalist, was indeed worth a thousand words. Political cartoonists are by definition sharply critical (that's the nature of the beast) and by the late 1980s, Al Ali, who had become alienated from Yasser Arafat's style of leadership, was getting even more sharply critical of the PLO chairman and the corruption of many of his top officials.
And that's where, again, that intolerance in Palestinian society for anyone with adversarial views kicked in.
On July 22, 1987, while on a visit to London, Al Ali was shot in the face, and mortally wounded, outside the London offices of Al Qabas, the Kuwaiti newspaper he had for years worked for. He died five weeks later. It is well-established that Al Ali was clipped by a fellow Palestinian, because he espoused views that were seen as a threat to the conventional wisdom.
That's the kind of society we lived in, where you had to think, act and move in lockstep with those long-accepted, immobilised values that had rotated around the treadmill of our political culture for decades, even centuries. And the devil with originality, innovation and spontaneity.
How many times (to indulge a recollection or two here of my own efforts on the lecture circuit in the US) had I encountered audiences that would come to a lecture hall not to listen, debate and probe, but to shout the speaker down because his view of the world, or even his lifestyle, did not jive with theirs, all in a vulgar debasement of public discourse!
All of which brings us back to the tragic killing of Juliano Mer Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni earlier this month, the former by two bullets to the head, and the latter by strangulation. Khamis devoted himself to running Freedom House, a youth actors' workshop in Jenin that provided local kids with an alternative to the hardships of life under occupation. And Arrigoni was an active participant in the International Solidarity Movement and an ardent champion of the Palestinian cause. Both fell victim to intolerance. Mahatma Gandhi had it right. "Intolerance," he said, "is a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit".
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.