In Roman mythology, the god Janus is depicted with two faces – one facing forward, the other looking back. Equipped to gaze both into the future and the past, Janus was the patron saint of transitions: a symbol of the tension between two opposing states and an allegory for the distance that separates two points in time.
Bassam Abu Sharif, spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and former advisor to Yasser Arafat, has long been a man of two faces. To many he is a symbol of hope, someone who has devoted decades to fighting for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. To others he is the “face of terror,” the name given to him by Time magazine for orchestrating the Dawson’s Field hijackings of 1970.
“I am not ashamed of the West calling me a terrorist,” says Abu Sharif in an interview following the publication of his most recent book. “I have read much history of the world and colonizers have never once failed to call the resistance terrorists. George Washington was a terrorist to the British, the French called the Algerians terrorists. Even Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were terrorists to some.”
“If that is terrorism,” he continues defiantly, “then I am proud to be listed with those people.”
As Abu Sharif speaks, it is impossible not to notice his injuries. In July 1972, he received a package in the mail from an unknown sender. The book inside (the memoirs of Che Guevara) had been rigged by the Israeli Mossad to detonate upon opening. The bomb blast tore apart Abu Sharif’s face, ripping one eye from its socket and leaving him deaf in one ear. One side of his face is now eerily static, frozen by the violence of the past. The other is spirited and alive, animated by the conviction that resolution lies somewhere in the near future.
Perhaps more than any conflict in modern memory, the Israeli/Palestinian debate is rife with dichotomy. Polarities like victim and aggressor, terrorist and terrorized often localize within one individual. And there is no better example to illustrate this point than the story of Bassam Abu Sharif. He is, by his own admission, a hijacker – a man who has resorted to violent means in an effort to achieve political ends.
In September 1972 Abu Sharif was working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian nationalist movement known for its hard-line policies. The group hijacked three planes bound for New York (an attempt to commandeer a fourth plane was foiled and the would-be hijacker killed). Two of the aircraft were landed in Dawson’s Field, a remote airstrip in Jordan’s Zarqa’ Desert while the third was diverted to Cairo. None of the passengers on the hijacked planes were harmed and hundreds, including all the women and children, were quickly released. Those holding Israeli passports or who had served in the Israeli military were held as hostages and used to negotiate the release of Palestinian POWs. Abu Sharif, on the ground in Dawson’s Field, was the operation’s mastermind and spokesman.
Asked in a recent BBC interview how he could possibly justify the hijackings and their victims, Abu Sharif offers a logic that is difficult to assail: “Yes they were victims,” he says. “But victims who didn’t care about others being victimized by their own army or money.”
“We,” he continues, referring to the Palestinians, “are victims too. And when it comes to the issue of victimization, I always ask the question ‘who dispossesses whom?’ If a person came to your apartment and tried to take it from you, would you not defend yourself?”
At the time of the hijackings, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had been quoted as saying that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people.
“It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them,” she claimed. “They did not exist.”
Dawson’s Field was the PFLP’s way of reminding the world that there was indeed such a thing as the Palestinian people – and that they were a people unified by a national consciousness who demanded the rights afforded a sovereign state.
What he describes as a “political catharsis” led Abu Sharif to part ways with the PFLP and its hard-line agenda in 1987 and throw his unwavering support behind Arafat, then head of the PLO and the one man Abu Sharif believed capable of navigating the turbulent diplomatic waters en route to establishing a sovereign Palestinian state. Assuming the role of adviser, Abu Sharif devoted himself to helping Arafat gain official international recognition for the PLO so the body could begin negotiating a two-state solution with Israel. The “face of terror” became the voice of diplomacy, even initiating the historic Oslo Accords of 1993.
Though it was intended to serve as the framework for the future relations between Israel and an eventual Palestinian state, the Oslo Accords ultimately failed. In the wake of the unsuccessful negotiations that followed, Arafat and the PLO began to lose popular support as more extremist factions such as Hamas gained strength and political legitimacy. The “peace process” of the last two decades has been a violent vacillation between tenuous ceasefires and broken promises. And despite renewed hope for revived diplomatic relations with the election of Obama, the two sides seem no closer to resolution today than when Abu Sharif began negotiating over 20 years ago.
Concluding his interview on the BBC, Abu Sharif is asked if the injuries he sustained at the hands of the Mossad imbues him with a particular sympathy for Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks. Abu Sharif stops short of saying yes. Instead, he tells the story of visiting land that belonged to his grandfather, only to be stopped by a teenage Israeli settler with an M-16.
“This land belongs to my family,” he told the settler. “It has been ours for generations.”
“No”, said the young man, “this land is ours – it was promised to us by God.”
And there, in one face, we see the terrorist and the terrorized, the problem and the solution.