Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Voice that was Silenced

IT was twenty five years ago, April 10, 1983, that Issam Sartawi was murdered in Portugal, and it is twenty years since Khalid al Wazir(Abu Jihad) was killed in his home in Tunis, on April 16, 1988.

I remember that morning in '83. I was working nights up in town, and had just come home, made myself a cup of tea and something to eat, and was ready to get some kip when the phone went. It was Steve, a member of the Jewish Socialists' Group who was studying at Cambridge. We talked about Sartawi, who had gone to Portugal to attend the Socialist International as an observer, carrying a message from the Palestine Liberation Organisation(PLO) and the people of Palestine. Shimon Peres of the Israeli Labour Party lobbied against Sartawi being accepted, and the British Labour delegates were among those who backed this block on the Palestinian.

It was less than a year after Israel's invasion of Lebanon, six months after the Sabra and Chatila massacre. Issam Sartawi's message was one of justice and peace. It was one that had to be silenced, so far as some people were concerned. But the Socialist International chairman Willi Brandt affirmed that Sartawi would attend the conference as his guest, and it looked like the PLO envoy would get to speak to the delegates that day.

Not long before this some of us had helped organise a packed meeting in London's County Hall at which Issam Sartawi shared the platform with Israeli journalist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery. A bunch of Zionist thugs from the right-wing Herut(now part of Likud) heckled Avnery, threatened members of the audience, and battled with stewards before being thrown out. Some young Arab extremists heckled Sartawi and threatened his life. He took that calmly but seriously, saying he knew he was under threat but it would not deter him. He also stated his view that the Abu Nidal group, blamed for the attempt on Israel's London ambasador which provided the pretext for the Lebanon war, but notorious also for killing Palestinian officials, had been penetrated and was being manipulated by Mossad.

Anyway, what Steve had to tell me was that he and some others had arranged a meeting in Cambridge, at which Issam Sartawi, this time we hoped fresh from a triumph at the Socialist International, would once again share a platform with Uri Avnery, Things were looking up.

I went to bed in a good mood, and slept well. When I woke in the afternoon the news was on the radio. Issam Sartawi had been gunned down that morning in the foyer of his hotel at Albufeira, as he was about to leave for the International. A waiting gunman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head. Portuguese police later arrested a man in Lisbon. They found he had travelled to Portugal via Spain, having flown into Barcelona from Athens. Before Athens he had travelled from Iraq. That fitted the statement from the Abu Nidal group claiming responsibility for the assassination.

One odd piece of information was reported by the London-based Saudi daily Sharq al Awsat .
It said the arrested man had four Israeli entry visas on the Moroccan passport he was using.

The killing of Issam Sartawi formed part of a pattern. On January 4, 1978, Said Hammammi, the PLO's representative in Britain, was shot dead in his London office. Hammammi had met with Israeli left-wingers and peace campaigners, and been one of the first people to suggest that
the Palestinians might accept a state alongside Israel as part of a peace agreement. His assassination is assumed to have been the work of the Abu Nidal faction.

On June 1, 1981, Naim Khader, PLO representative in Brussels was shot dead in the street by Abu Nidal's gunmen. Khader had been opening up links with European political parties, assisted
possibly by his contacts with a Jewish left-wing academic, Professor Marcel Liebman, a member of the Union des Progressistes Juifs de Belgique(UPJB).

The obvious explanation then was that Hammammi, Khader and Sartawi were Palestinian "moderates", murdered by extremists who opposed their attemps to reach a peaceful solution.
But there is another death to consider, which suggests the pattern had another dimension.
On May 4, 1978, Henri Curiel, Egyptian Jewish communist, was gunned down as he stepped from the lift at his apartment home on the quiet Rue Rollin, in Paris. The French security services had been keeping Curiel under surveillance but never caught his assassin. No convincing claim of responsibility was made for the killing. It could have been that South African agents were involved, because they blamed Curiel for assisting underground anti-Apartheid fighters.

My late friend Maxim Ghilan, an Israeli who was living in Paris and knew the Curiels, told me "It was probably the South Africans. But they were pointed at Curiel by the Israelis". If so, and the Mossad had a motive for removing Henri Curiel at that time, then we have another angle on Issam Sartawi's death, because at the time Curiel was killed he was having discussions with Issam Sartawi, and helping to arrange for him to meet people like Uri Avnery. The two hands - those of Abu Nidal and Mossad - may have worked seperately, but was there a co-ordinating intelligence somewhere behind? For now we can only speculate.

After Issam Sartawi was killed, Yasser Arafat insisted his work would continue, and appointed Ilan Halevy, a Jewish intellectual, to represent the PLO to the Socialist International. Khalil el Wazir(Abu Jihad) met with Maxim Ghilan after Sartawi's funeral, and promised him contacts with Israeli and Jewish peace forces would continue. The contacts with the Israelis would be the responsibility of Abu Mazen - Mahmoud Abbas.

So whoever was responsible for the assassination of Dr.Issam Sartawi , it did not halt the process at which it was aimed. But it removed a capable and daring Palestinian representative, delayed
progress, and may have helped shove developments into different channels, without people realising it at the time. Sartawi had taken his message from clandestine meetings to open conferences, aiming to win people to his ideas, but the kind of 'peace' the powers - which came to mean one super-power - brokered was a deal cooked up behind closed doors. Whatever it has delivered is neither Palestinian freedom nor peace.



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