Hanan Ashrawi is a name that refuses to go away. Palestinians of the 1970s remember her as an impassioned academic, teaching revolution to her students. Those growing up in the 1990s remember her as the public face of Palestine at the Madrid Peace Conference. A younger generation—the Twitter generation—knows her as that elderly Palestinian woman who speaks her mind freely, about current affairs and Middle East politics.
In the mid-1990s, the American University of Beirut (AUB) hosted one of its celebrated graduates, Hanan Ashrawi, for a talk on Middle East peace. Ashrawi was, and remains, the public face of the Palestinian cause, then serving as one of the chief negotiators with Israel. This was just two years after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in 1993, by Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Hundreds cramped into the overcrowded auditorium to hear the scholar-turned-politician speak her mind about the recent, yet by then already shaky, Palestinian-Israeli agreement.
Organizers were on the microphone constantly reminding students to extinguish their cigarettes. A dignified Ashrawi walked into a standing ovation, with all the grace of her Jerusalemite notability, wearing a black and white checkered kufiyya, synonymous with the Palestinian cause. After seating herself comfortably behind the desk perched stage-high, she looked at the students and asked: “Is smoking allowed in here?”
The students hissed a loud “nooo,” pointing towards the university President John Waterbury, seated in the front row. Ashrawi cracked a mischievous smile and took out a cigarette, shaking it slightly with her hand while teasing her audience into frenzy.
“The first rule for becoming a revolutionary is to break all the rules.”
“The first rule for becoming a revolutionary is to break all the rules,” she said amidst a storm of applause. She then turned to the university President and said: “With your permission, Dr Waterbury. Dakhno Shabab (Go ahead and smoke young people).”
A Life Dedicated to the Palestinian Cause
It is with that exact same revolutionary spirit that Hanan Ashrawi has lived her entire life, breaking rules along the way while shattering norms of Puritan Arab society. She was born in Nablus in October 1948, less than five months after the occupation of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel.
Ashrawi grew up under the towering influence of her father, Daoud Mikhail, a liberal thinker, physician, and one of the co-founders of the PLO. She was displaced with her family at infancy, like millions of Palestinians, and moved first to Amman and then Ramallah, the Palestinian city that came under Jordanian rule after the 1948 War and is now capital of the truncated State of Palestine. After attending a Quaker school, she went on to attend AUB in Lebanon to study literature and became spokeswoman for the Palestinian Students’ Union. Foreign journalists recall that she would escort them to the Palestinian camps outside the capital Beirut, asking them—in fact pleading with them—to write about their plight.
When the Six-Day War with Israel broke out in 1967, Ashrawi was denied entry back home so she moved to the United States, where she completed her graduate studies in comparative literature at the University of Virginia. Upon returning to Ramallah, she helped establish the English Department at Birzeit University, serving as its chair between 1975 and 1978, and then again from 1981 to 1984.
In the late 1980s, Ashrawi supported and joined the unarmed uprising of the Palestinian people, universally known as the First Intifada.
In the late 1980s, Ashrawi supported and joined the unarmed uprising of the Palestinian people, universally known as the First Intifada, an unchoreographed revolution of young boys and girls, objecting to their persecution by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). They achieved what decades of plane hijacking and target assassinations had failed to bring: the world’s attention to the Palestinian cause. Thereby, young Palestinians captured the hearts of people worldwide, confronting armored vehicles with their bare arms, carrying nothing but stones to protect themselves. Ashrawi later became a member of the political committee of the First Intifada.
“Hanan Ashrawi has always valued her academic career and never wanted to be involved in politics,” recalled prominent Palestinian writer Daoud al-Kuttab. Speaking to Inside Arabia, he explained: “The occupation forced her to speak out, however. She was active in the legal deference of Birzeit students and fought hard against the Israeli closure of Palestinian universities.”
Ashrawi and the Madrid Peace Conference
Ashrawi then became Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Birzeit University until 1990, when her political career took off after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. She was chosen as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference, which was held in October 1991—a landmark even in modern Middle East history, orchestrated by then-US Secretary of State James Baker. Yasser Arafat was barred from the meeting for having supported Saddam Hussein, so each evening, he would have the Palestinian delegates flown to his premises in Tunis, where they would be given specific instructions. It was the first time that Palestinians and Israelis came face-to-face around one table, raising hope that they might succeed at ending the bloody conflict, then in its 43rd year.
Ashrawi was the chosen spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation and a member of its Leadership Committee. When Secretary Baker mentioned that she would be attending as an independent Palestinian academic and not as a member of the PLO, Ashrawi snapped: “No, we are attending as members of the PLO, representing the Palestinian resistance.” Baker did not want to hear the name “PLO” which at the time, was blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Those talks led to the parallel Washington discussions, and then, to the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. Finally, after decades of exile, Arafat was allowed entry into Palestine after he recognized Israel’s right to exist, becoming President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Ashrawi meanwhile headed the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights and in 1996, was elected MP for her native Jerusalem in the Legislative Council. She was also appointed Minister of Higher Education and Research, a post that she resigned from in 1998. Then, that same year, in protest against corruption within the PNA, Ashrawi went on to establish MIFTAH, an initiative to promote global dialogue, along with democracy, human rights, and peace for the Palestinians. Since then, she has taken a backseat on politics, focusing more on her writing and NGO activity.
Still Making an Impact
Alas, following her step back, nothing was what it seemed in Palestine anymore—nothing. The peace deal that she had poured her heart into was destroyed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose provocative visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque triggered the Second Intifada in 2000 and led to the house-arrest and subsequent killing of Yasser Arafat (reportedly via poisoning). Then came back-to-back US administrations that showed no sympathy to the Palestinians, starting with George W. Bush and more recently, Donald Trump.
The secular revolutionaries that Ashrawi had defended during her teenage years were all gone and were now being replaced by jihadi-driven militiamen from Hamas, who excommunicated Christians like herself and even justified their killing, echoing rhetoric which became common with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
In recent years, she sharply criticized former President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel, and the Israeli-UAE peace deal, known as the Abraham Accords.
Still, taking a backseat was seemingly the right thing to do, although Ashrawi has continued to exercise a high moral authority over Palestinian affairs. In recent years, she sharply criticized former President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel, and the Israeli-UAE peace deal, known as the Abraham Accords. And, even with such upheavals to the Palestinian cause, Ashrawi’s long fought efforts have been recognized. She has received several prestigious international awards, including 11 honorary PhDs and the esteemed Sydney Peace Prize of 2003.
No matter what the future holds for the Palestinian cause, and how long the road to a just resolution is, Ashrawi’s words will continue to resonate as an affirmation of a people’s struggle and resilience. “Our goal isn’t outrageous,” she once said. “We simply want to live in dignity on our own land, see a just solution for the refugees, and closure to 55 years of injustice and denial of our own existence.”
When asked about how she views Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi told Inside Arabia: “A strong, female figure I recall watching and admiring on TV over my impressionable teenage years. She has been, and continues to be, one of the most intelligence, eloquent, and level-headed voices from Palestine.”