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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 September, 2003, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Said's battle for the Palestinians
By Najm Jarrah
Middle East analyst

Edward Said (Picture: Columbia University)
Said spent most of his life in the United States
Although Edward Said achieved worldwide renown as a ground-breaking academic and gifted political commentator, he was also a powerful and increasingly influential voice for change in his native Palestine and the wider Arab world.

Particularly in the later years of his life, he was as outspoken in criticising the ruling elites and home-grown injustices of the Middle East as he was in challenging longstanding Western stereotypes and misrepresentations of the region and the prejudices and policies they spawned.

Some his fiercest attacks were on his own people's leaders and their unsuccessful pursuit of a negotiated settlement with Israel.

But Said's opposition to successive US-sponsored "peace processes" stemmed from the same convictions that emboldened him, two decades earlier, to become one of the first prominent Palestinians to publicly urge the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to seek a peaceful accommodation with Israel.

Difficulties with Arafat

In the highly-charged climate of the 1970s, this placed him firmly in the unfashionable "moderate" camp and made him a target of "radical" Palestinian and Arab criticism (he himself loathed such simplistic political labels).

Said's forays into unofficial diplomacy at the time, particularly his involvement in attempts to start a dialogue between the Palestinians and Washington, left him frustrated and disillusioned with the decision-making processes of the PLO and its chairman Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat addresses supporters in Ramallah on 14 September
He criticised Arafat's style of rule
Although many shared his misgivings, few Palestinians expressed them openly, wary of undermining a national movement that was struggling to make its case heard in the West, especially the US.

But while championing the PLO's representative status, Mr Said increasingly saw its diplomatic and organisational failings as part of a paralysing internal malaise that had to be remedied if the dispossessed and dispersed Palestinians were to begin reversing their misfortunes.

This underpinned his scepticism about the Madrid peace talks in 1991, and his opposition to the subsequent Oslo accords.

He charged that by accepting their terms the leadership was compromising fundamental Palestinian rights and putting self-preservation above both principle and the practical requirements of a workable peace.

Negotiations held on that basis would merely reflect the massive disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and result either in an unjust settlement or none at all.

Call for reform

Said's stature and eloquence gave added clout and credibility to the dissident Palestinian viewpoint, and while others expressed it in nationalist or religious terms, he rooted it in the universal values of human equality, justice and acceptance of "others" that imbued his scholarship.

He stressed the centrality of reforming the Palestinian body-politic long before it became, for what he regarded as all the wrong reasons, an item on the diplomatic agenda.

Palestinian militants in Gaza
Said was dedicated to trying to find a Middle East solution
His appeal also lay in the way he linked the Palestinian predicament to the wider crisis of misrule in the Arab world as a whole.

In newspaper columns, lectures and interviews in the Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Gulf and other Arab media, Said argued that the prerequisites for a successful Palestinian freedom struggle were the same as those for social and political progress and genuine independence throughout the region: democracy and the development of civil society through broad peaceful popular action.

He began losing faith in the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict he once fought for, instead favouring a bi-national set-up based on equality rather than territorial division.

He was under no illusion about the deep political, cultural and ideological changes that would have to be instilled on both sides before that could become viable.

Although Mr Said never joined any Palestinian political party, last year he came out in support of the Palestinian National Initiative, a movement launched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to promote the kind of new political thinking and action on which he believed the future of the Holy Land depends.

Watch Edward Said appearing on the BBC's Hardtalk

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