While controversies rage on over Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Tunis in 2014, and whether he was standing near the grave of Salah Khalaf (AKA Abu Iyyad), or not, one of the greatest advocates for peace with justice between Israelis and Palestinians, 94 years old Uri Avnery, lies unconscious after a severe stroke from which he may not recover.
So, what’s the connection?
Avnery, a prolific journalist, came to Palestine as a child in the 1930s when his family fled from Nazi Germany. He did not just talk peace: he put himself on the line by meeting with high up figures in the PLO including Yasser Arafat, at a time when governments and mainstream press outlets in Israel, Britain and the USA all cast Arafat as a terrorist, and leader of a terrorist organisation. In the late 1940s, Avnery was a member and activist of Irgun the same right-wing Israeli nationalist and terrorist body that Menachem Begin was so proud of being part of. But Avnery broke from their politics in the mid-1950s and never looked back.
In 1983, for the first time in Britain, a high-ranking PLO official – a heart surgeon called Issam Sartawi – shared a public platform with an Israeli peace activist – Uri Avnery. The meeting took place at County Hall, then seat of the Greater London Council, now an aquarium. I was one of a dozen activists, mainly Jewish Socialists’ Group members and expatriate Israeli anti-Zionist leftists, who organised the meeting. We had been encouraged to undertake this initiative by Maxim Ghilan, founder in 1981 of the International Jewish Peace Union.
Like Avnery, Ghilan had come to Palestine as a youngster (via France his birthplace and Spain where he grew up), and joined an even more extreme right-wing Zionist group than Avnery – the Lehi of Yitzhak Shamir (also known as the Stern Gang). Ghilan’s switch though, from right to left politically, came earlier than Avnery’s. Imprisoned by the Labour Zionist government shortly after the establishment of Israel, he became an advocate for Palestinian rights after personally witnessing the sickening torture of Palestinian prisoners.
He moved back to France, from Israel, in 1969 and began the project of bringing together Israeli leftists such as Avnery and General Mati Peled with PLO members and officials in a secret dialogue in various European cities. This dialogue was in part facilitated by another key contact of Ghilan’s – an Egyptian Jewish communist called Henri Curiel.
The event in London in 1983 was electric. Around 300 people attended, the majority sympathetic to the aims of the meeting, but a few dozen on either side – Far Right Zionists and Palestinian rejectionists – determined to physically disrupt it. I was among the stewards in this testing situation. There were also armed police present, as Sartawi was convinced there were operatives who for some months had been seeking an opportunity to assassinate him. Just six weeks later he was gunned down in the lobby of a hotel in Portugal where he had been attending a conference of the Socialist International. Ghilan was in Spain at the time and Sartawi had invited him to meet him in that hotel lobby, but Ghilan was called back to Paris to attend to an urgent matter. He was convinced later that he would have been gunned down too, for the same reasons.
The night before the County Hall meeting we gathered in a private house to confirm every practical detail of the meeting. We hadn’t yet decided who should speak first. Sartawi said Avnery should speak first. Why? “…because you were a terrorist before I was a terrorist”. Avnery had been part of Irgun’s activities in the 1940s; Sartawi had been one of the Fedayeen (Palestinian guerillas) who survived the Battle of Karameh in 1968. Both Avnery and Sartawi were now completely focused on dialogue and peace with justice.
Which brings me back to Salah Khalaf/Abu Iyyad, believed to have masterminded the horrific Munich massacre of Israeli athletes, and now buried in the Palestinian Cemetery in Tunis. When I heard his name mentioned in connection with the Corbyn in Tunis story, I remembered his name from the conversations with Maxim Ghilan in the early 1980s, but at the time I was unaware of his connection with the Munich massacre. This morning I read an interview Ghilan gave in 2004, a year before he died suddenly in Tel-Aviv, in which he recalled the main Palestinian contacts he had made in the 1970s and 80s, and who were engaged in, or facilitated, the secret dialogue activities. He listed four people in particular from the PLO leadership. The first name was Abu Iyyad’s.
Abu Iyyad had apparently undergone a similar process to Avnery, Sartawi and Ghilan.
At the time of his murder in 1991, he was not a terrorist but a fighter for peace, a strong advocate of dialogue with Israelis, and mutual recognition. Indeed that was probably why he was murdered, rather than as revenge 19 years later for Munich.
One in-depth newspaper report just after he was assassinated in 1991 said:
Salah Khalaf, 57, was born in Jaffa. He was…considered the organization’s (PLO’s) main ideologist and strategist. He was the key person behind the idea of a secular state in Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs would live together. That idea replaced the original PLO ideology, which saw no place for Jews in Palestine. In recent years, Khalaf encouraged meetings between Palestinian leaders and representatives of the Israeli left.
…he was the key figure behind the initiative two years ago to declare an independent Palestinian state, which implied recognition of the State of Israel. Khalaf had a PLO career that ranged from most bloody to conciliatory, even a voice of moderation. He was a founder … of the terrorist Black September organization, … responsible for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics… But he was also the man who made a videotaped address to Israelis calling for peace.
…In February 1989, in an address which was smuggled into Israel and presented at a Middle East peace symposium, Khalaf called for direct talks with the Israelis, with a goal of signing a peace agreement and then taking it to an international conference… Khalaf’s statements in the address to (this)… symposium… were praised by Israeli doves.
‘I look forward to a future in which our meeting will be face to face and we can discuss the future of our two peoples as well as of real peace,’ he told startled Jews and Arabs at the symposium, which was organized by the International Center for Peace in the Middle East… Everything that has happened to the Palestinian and Israeli people — the blood which has been spilled, the victims, the maimed — has moved us to react to the call of every Palestinian and Israeli child, so that we can take a serious step toward peace… There can be no peace without two states which will co-exist side by side… and which will be able to say to the entire world: the war in the Middle East has ended, and the tragedy is over.’
That report was filed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a widely respected news bureau created just over 100 years ago in the Hague, by Jacob Landau, as the Jewish Correspondence Bureau. Then, just as now, its mission has been to collect and disseminate news to Jewish newspapers across the world. Today it operates from New York as a not-for profit corporation.
If the more serious media today, beyond the gutter press, weren’t afflicted with willful amnesia, in their efforts to tag-along on the relentless and dishonest anti-Corbyn bandwagon, they might have uncovered the much more interesting story about the controversial individual who was buried in the cemetery that Corbyn visited. Corbyn, with his lifetime of commitment to peace and internationalism, had gone there to honour 73 people – mostly Palestinians but also Tunisians – killed in 1985 in an act of state terrorism by Israeli forces, an act unequivocally condemned by the UN, and even by Corbyn and the Labour left’s nemesis, Margaret Thatcher.