Bassam Shakaa, the former mayor of Nablus, passed away on July 22 at the age of 89. Shakaa was a true nationalist leader who struggled on behalf of all Palestinians without harbouring any ideological, factionalist or religious prejudice.
Shakaa’s base of support was, and remained, the people — ordinary Palestinians from Nablus and throughout Palestine who always stood by his side, most memorably when the Israeli government attempted to exile him in 1975; when the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) placed him under house arrest in 1999 and when he was finally laid to rest in his beloved hometown of Nablus, a few days ago.
Between his birth in Nablus in 1930 and his death, Shakaa fought a relentless struggle for Palestinian rights. He challenged Israel, the PNA and US imperialism. Throughout this arduous journey, he survived exile, prison and an assassination attempt.
But there is more to Shakaa than his intellect, eloquence, and morally-guided positions. The man represented the rise of a true democratic Palestinian leadership, one that sprang from, spoke and fought for the people.
It was in the mid-1970s that Shakaa rose to prominence as a Palestinian nationalist leader, an event that changed the face of Palestinian politics to this day.
Following its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, the Israeli government moved quickly to fashion a new status quo, where the Occupation became permanent and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was denied any political base in the newly-occupied territories.
They ripped off both my legs, but this only means that I am closer to my land. I have my heart, my intellect and a just aim to fight for, I don’t need my legs.
Among other things, the Israeli government aimed at creating was an ‘alternative’ Palestinian leadership that would engage with Israel with trivial, non-political matters, therefore marginalising the PLO.
In April 1976, the Israeli government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, conducted local elections in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel had, by then, assembled another group of Palestinian ‘leaders’, which consisted mostly of traditional heads of clans — a small, self-seeking oligarchy that historically accommodated whatever foreign power happened to be ruling over Palestinians.
Israel was almost certain that its handpicked allies were ready to sweep the local elections. But the Occupation had its unintended consequences, which surprised the Israelis themselves.
For the first time since Israel’s creation, all of historic Palestine was now under Israeli control. This also meant that the Palestinian people were, once again, part of the same demographic unit, which allowed for coordinated political mobilisation and popular resistance.
These efforts were largely facilitated by the Palestinian National Front (PNF) which was founded in 1973 and comprised all Palestinian groups throughout Occupied Palestine. What irked Israel most is that the PNF had developed a political line that was largely parallel to that of the PLO.
To Israel’s dismay, the PNF decided to take part in the local elections, hoping that its victory could defeat the Israeli stratagem entirely. To thwart the PNF’s initiative, the Israeli army carried out a massive campaign of arrests and deportation of the group’s members, which included intellectuals, academics and local leaders.
But all had failed as Palestine’s new leaders won decisive victories, claiming most mayoral offices and bravely articulating an anti-occupation, pro-PLO agenda.
Bassam Shakaa was at the forefront of that nascent movement, whose ideals and slogans spread out to all Palestinian communities, including those inside Israel.
Despite decades of exile, fragmentation and Occupation, the Palestinian national identity was now at its zenith, an outcome the Israeli government could never have anticipated.
In October 1978, Shakaa and other empowered mayors were joined by city councillors and leaders of various nationalist institutions to form the National Leadership Committee, the main objective of which was to challenge the disastrous Camp David agreement and the resulting marginalisation of the Palestinian people and their leadership.
On July 2, 1980, a bomb planted by a Jewish terrorist group, blew up Shakaa’s car, costing him both of his legs. Another targeted the elected mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, who had one of his legs amputated. The leaders emerged even stronger following the assassination attempts.
“They ripped off both my legs, but this only means that I am closer to my land,” said Shakaa from his hospital bed. “I have my heart, my intellect and a just aim to fight for, I don’t need my legs.”
In November 1981, the Israeli government dismissed the nationalist mayors, including Shakaa. But that was not the end of his struggle which, following the formation of the PNA in Ramallah in 1994, acquired a new impetus.
Shakaa challenged the PNA’s corruption and subservience to Israel. His frustration with the PNA led him to help draft and to sign, in 1999, a “Cry from the Homeland”, which denounced the PNA for its “systematic methodology of corruption, humiliation and abuse against the people.” As a result, the PNA placed Shakaa, then 70, under house arrest.
However, it was that very movement created by Shakaa, Khalaf and their peers that sowed the seeds for the popular Palestinian uprising in 1987. In fact, the ‘First Intifada’ remains the most powerful popular movement in modern Palestinian history.
May Shakaa rest in peace and power, now that he has fulfilled his historic mission as one of Palestine’s most beloved leaders and true intellectuals of all times.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His last book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London).