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The life and times of Dr. Hanan Ashrawi

In 1988, ABC's "Nightline" aired a three-hour discussion between four Palestinians and four Israelis. A member of the Palestinian team, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, was then a relatively unknown figure -- a Dean at a Palestinian Anglican University and a political activist. Appearing on live American television for the first time, Hanan Ashrawi was about to blast onto the political arena.

As a woman, a Christian and an articulate and eloquent speaker -- Dr. Ashrawi's appearance shattered a number of Western stereotypes about Palestinians. Educated in the West, with a doctorate in medieval literature from the University of Virginia, Dr. Ashrawi understood how to cross cultural boundaries and make Palestinian issues clear and identifiable to people outside the Middle East. ABC News describes her as a person who "masterfully conducts press conferences and interviews, controlling the topics of discussion, dodging uncomfortable issues and cutting off what she considers irrelevant questions". Back in 1988, she was one of the first Palestinian figures to transcend the media's popular "terrorist" stereotype and present the more realistic image of Palestinians as victims of oppression.

Hanan Ashrawi
Hanan Ashrawi was born to a wealthy Palestinian family in 1946 -- just 2 years before Israel became a country, in what Palestinians call "Al-Nakba" or "the Disaster." She grew up in the West Bank town of Ramallah, outside Jerusalem. When Israel's Six-Day War broke out in 1967, Ashrawi was just 22 years old, and a student of English Literature at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. By the end of the War, which really did last six days, Israel had control over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and West Bank, including Ashrawi's home town. At the time, the Israeli government passed a law, which labeled anyone who was not in the country an "absentee". "Absentee's" like Ashrawi had no legal status, and were not allowed to return to Israel. For the next six years, Ashrawi traveled and continued her studies overseas. Studying for her PhD in Virginia, Ashrawi gained part of her education in dissent and activism from the growing Women's Movement in the US. Finally, in September 1973, she was granted permission to return home, and, if she wanted, resettle. One month later, Egypt and Syria attacked the Israeli Occupied Territories, marking the beginning of what is called the Yom Kippur War.

Back in Israel, Ashrawi was offered a prestigious position as chair of the Department of English at Bir Zeit University, an old Anglican Teacher's College. First as chair of the Department of English, and later as Dean of Faculty of Arts, Ashrawi became actively involved in the Palestinian cause. She participated in speeches, performances and demonstrations, and founded and led the Bir Zeit University Legal Aid Committee and Human Rights Action Project.

After her successful 1988 appearance on live American television, Ashrawi became even more active and involved -- joining the Palestinian Diplomatic Committee and the Intifada Political Committee. Then, in 1991, Yasser Arafat appointed her as Official Spokesperson of the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Process. At that time, the American government still had not officially acknowledged the Palestinian cause, and would not conduct official discussions with Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Peace Accords and the Arafat/Rabin/Peres Nobel Peace Prize were still two years away. Nevertheless, at the peace conference in Madrid, Dr. Ashrawi astonished the world by upstaging her Israeli counterpart, a man who would later become Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.


eloquent - expressive and clear
candid - openness or impartial
ideological - concerned with ideas
As Ashrawi's prestige and influence grew, she became Palestinian Minister of Higher Education and Research, and for one year, Head of the Political Committee. In 1993, she was one of the founders of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights and also is currently a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Jerusalem. In 1998, however, Ashrawi resigned from the government in protest against political corruption, specifically Arafat's handling of peace talks. At the same time, she founded MIFTAH -- the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. MIFTAH's mission is to "foster the principles of democracy and effective dialogue based on the free and candid exchange of information and ideas". Essentially, MIFTAH aims to promote the Palestinian cause by providing "updated, accurate and reliable information and analyses on all aspects of Palestinian reality" as well as networking with like minded organizations, regionally and globally. The ultimate goal is a respect for human rights, democracy and peace. MIFTAH reflects Dr. Ashrawi's drive to end to Israeli occupation on humanitarian, rather than historical or ideological, grounds.

Read more about a documentary focusing on Dr. Ashrawi's life
Whether she is fighting for the cause of her people, or standing up to corruption and abuse of power by her own leaders, Dr. Ashrawi has consistently set an example of courage and integrity. She is undeniably an inspirational figure, a powerful woman in a world of big boys and their guns and an articulate and outspoken activist for democracy, human rights, and the Palestinian cause.

Dr. Ashrawi Home | Interview Transcript

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