Palestinians Mourn Pragmatic PLO Official


Palestinians and Israeli peace advocates mourned the death Thursday of Faisal Husseini, a prominent leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization who was the scion of a near-legendary family and an early advocate of compromising with Israel.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians shuttered shops, closed businesses and declared three days of mourning for Husseini, 60, who was found dead in his hotel room in Kuwait on Thursday morning. Kuwaiti officials said he apparently died of a heart attack. The Palestinian Authority declared him a shahid, or martyr, an honor usually given to one who dies fighting.

Husseini, one of the founders of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO, played the role of a Palestinian statesman on the international stage and a tribal elder at home. He was respected as an uncorrupted leader who represented the views of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Middle East War.

He was equally comfortable engaging Israelis in intellectual debates about the future of Jerusalem and joining street protests against the military occupation he despised.

At one time, he was considered a possible successor to PLO leader Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat has never named a deputy, and Husseini's death is only likely to intensify speculation as to who might one day take the Palestinian Authority president's place.

"If there was anyone with whom we could reach a common language, then it was he," said Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, speaking of Husseini. "He was a real prince. . . . He had internalized the family pride and carried it on."

As word of Husseini's death spread, hundreds of people converged on Orient House, his East Jerusalem base. He had turned the stately structure, once his family home, into the PLO's de facto foreign ministry in East Jerusalem, a move that as recently as last month drew threats from Israeli officials to close it down.

Some of the mourners looked dazed as they slumped in plastic chairs under a blazing sun in the asphalt front yard. Others wept openly as a nearby mosque blared mournful passages from the Koran from a loudspeaker. A steady stream of limousines dropped off consular officials from around the world to pay their respects. Husseini's death, they said, leaves a leadership vacuum in Jerusalem at a time when the Palestinians are locked in struggle with Israel over the city's future.

"He was the son of Jerusalem nobility," said Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of Israel's parliament. "He symbolized Arab continuity and control in Jerusalem. He was a leader and the son of a leader. It is a great loss for the city of Jerusalem and for the Palestinian people, because he combined steadfastness with courage and reason."

Arafat cut short a visit to Brussels and rushed to Jordan to meet Husseini's body and escort it back to the West Bank.

"He has been my colleague in all stages of life and since we were both very young," Arafat told reporters in the Belgian capital. "It's a great loss for the Palestinian people."

In Washington, the Bush administration described Husseini as "a man of open-mindedness and compassion."

"We're very saddened by his passing," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "He is a man who has worked for peace in this region for many, many years."

Israel Radio broadcast tributes to Husseini from Israelis who over the years had built close relations with the tall, soft-spoken Palestinian who learned Hebrew while in Israeli jails.

Onetime right-winger Moshe Amirav, who met secretly with Husseini in the 1980s, said his own political views were transformed by the Palestinian.

"We first met in 1987, seeking a way for the two of us--the whole land of Israel man and the whole land of Palestine man--to reach a compromise," Amirav said. "We both gave up our 'whole land of' dreams. . . . He was the most realistic in the Palestinian camp."

But other Israelis said it was wrong to mourn a man whom the right wing in Israel viewed as an implacable enemy, the man most responsible for pushing forward the claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

"You have almost declared national mourning, and have forgotten that he was an enemy, as was his father," Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi complained on air to Israel Radio's anchorman.

Tens of thousands are expected to attend Husseini's funeral today in Jerusalem. He is due to be buried near his father, Abdel Khader Husseini, revered as a national hero by Palestinians, within the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.

Faisal Husseini was born in Baghdad, where his family was living in exile after the British mandate of Palestine expelled his father for anti-British activities. But his family history and his life's passion were inextricably entwined with the blood-soaked history of Jerusalem, which is the focal point of the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Caught outside the region when the 1967 Middle East War erupted, Husseini swam the Jordan River to return to Jerusalem after Israel captured the city and the West Bank from the Jordanians.

"I preferred to work as a garbage man in Jerusalem than to be a general abroad," he told The Times in a 1992 interview.

Husseini's grandfather, Musa Qassem Husseini, was mayor of Jerusalem. A Palestinian leader in the 1920s and 1930s, he fought the immigration of Jews to the British mandate. A distant relative, Mohammed Amin Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, led the violent Palestinian revolt against the British in the 1930s and became an ally of Adolf Hitler during World War II. Faisal Husseini's father was a guerrilla who died fighting the Zionists on the road to Jerusalem during Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

Faisal Husseini grew up immersed in nationalist Palestinian politics but showed little inclination during his early years to pick up the family mantle of political and military leadership. Growing up in Egypt, he became an Arab nationalist in the 1950s, believing that a unified Arab world would liberate Palestine from the Jews.

In the early 1960s, he joined Arafat's fledgling Fatah faction of the PLO and trained in military tactics in Iraq and Syria. Lacking a university degree, he worked as an information officer in the PLO offices in East Jerusalem in 1965 and later had a job as an X-ray technician. At one point, he opened a menswear shop in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

After Israel captured the West Bank, Husseini hid weapons in his home for Arafat and trained guerrillas. Although he was not considered by the Israelis to be a leading activist, he spent a total of three years in jail and four years under house arrest between 1968 and 1989.

In his first interview with an Israeli newspaper, from jail in 1968, Husseini spoke of seeing an alternative to endless fighting between Arabs and Jews over Palestine.

"Both peoples have rights on this land," he said. "History calls for a war between us, but reality calls for a peaceful coexistence."

He was in an Israeli jail again, being held without charges, when the first Palestinian uprising broke out in 1987. It was during that six-year intifada that he began to rise to prominence as one of the pragmatic leaders of the Palestinians who lived "inside"--under Israeli occupation--and who believed a negotiated settlement with the Jewish state was the only way to achieve Palestinian independence.

In 1990, while participating in a demonstration at Al Aqsa mosque that was violently suppressed by Israeli troops, he experienced the epiphany that propelled him to become a passionate advocate for Palestinian rights and for a negotiated settlement with Israel.

As the dead and injured fell around him that day, Husseini told an interviewer in 1990, "I had a sort of mystical experience in which I saw myself and my life very clearly. It was from that day that I wanted to be less cautious, to take more chances."

He decided to fight for an end to Israeli occupation through dialogue instead of armed struggle.

In 1993, Israel accepted Husseini as a member of the Palestinian peace negotiating team. The Israelis previously had vetoed his participation because, as an East Jerusalem resident, his inclusion might imply that the city's fate was negotiable.

After the Oslo peace accords reached later that year were signed and the Palestinian Authority was established, Husseini's political role diminished as Arafat asserted control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And when the current uprising erupted in September, Husseini and other moderates found their voices drowned out by the fighting that continues today.

Until his death, Husseini held the title of minister of Jerusalem affairs for the PLO's Executive Committee and remained a member of the Palestinian peace negotiating team. He continued to speak out for his vision of an undivided Jerusalem serving as the capital of two independent states.

Husseini was in Kuwait to attend a nongovernmental conference opposing normalization of relations with Israel and to persuade the Kuwaiti royal family to invite Arafat for a visit.

Husseini is survived by his wife, Najat, 53; son Abdel Khader, 25; and daughter, Fadwa, 23.


Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.

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