Saturday, August 08, 2009

Shafiq al-Hout, who has died aged 77 in Beirut, was a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), its representative in Lebanon and a larger-than-life figure who championed the Palestinians' right of return to their homeland and a unified, democratic state there for Muslims, Jews and Christians. He was also a strong advocate of armed resistance.

Al-Hout has died a disappointed and frustrated man, his life's work, for the foreseeable future, buried in a divided and moribund PLO and a Palestinian national movement in the worst straits in its 50-year history.

He once wrote: "If I were asked after all these years, after that evil day I was wrenched from Palestine, if I remained convinced of my right to return, I would never hesitate to say 'yes'. It is not just that I will return to Palestine, but Palestine will return to me and to what it once was." He died still believing that, but the past 15 or so years gave him strong reason to doubt that his dream would be realised soon.

He was twice a member of the PLO executive, before Arafat took over from Ahmed Shukairy, from 1966 to 1968, and – appointed by Arafat, who wanted his antagonistic but admired friend inside the tent – from 1991 to 1993. Al-Hout left the executive over what he, like many, regarded as the disaster of the Arafat-orchestrated PLO recognition of Israel under the Oslo accords, and the movement's effective return to the occupied territories under the control and aegis of Israel...

In that great division in the Palestinian movement between the "outside" – the diaspora of the refugee camps and the millions of exiles worldwide – and the "inside"– the Palestinian authority and its constituents – Al-Hout was a devout outsider. He believed that all of Palestine belonged to all Palestinians, in one state. In later years, he remained a member of the Palestine National Council, the parliament-in-exile, but stayed out of politics, writing his memoirs, spreading the word in his articulate and forceful way, in that familiar and formidable deep smoker's growl, usually alongside a rapidly diminishing bottle of Black Label whisky. He viewed recent Palestinian developments with dejection and pessimism, though never despair.

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