Palestinian Ex-Guerrilla Embarks on a New Mission

Fellows Fall 1998

By Betsy Hiel

June 07, 2009

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, January, 1999 -- He is a Palestinian guerrilla who married a former queen of Jordan during a Palestinian-Jordanian civil war, a tall, blue-eyed warrior of Bedouin roots with a graduate degree in English literature and a poetic side.

The model for a PLO military commander in a famous spy novel, he was held in an Israeli prisoner of war camp in South Lebanon, earning the respect of his Israeli jailers. His persona so fascinated an Israeli journalist that the reporter wrote a book about his life.

Salah Ta'mari, 56, is an intriguing character in a land of many complexities. And today he has shed his military fatigues in favor of a suit for what could be his most fulfilling role yet.

The guerrilla-turned-legislator is now a prominent voice of the Palestinian democratic experiment. Elected as the Bethlehem representative to the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council just three years ago, Mr. Ta'mari says he is on a quest.

"I don't consider myself a politician. It's not a job or a career. This is my mission in life," he says during an interview in his modest Bethlehem office.

Mr. Ta'mari spent more than three decades in Fatah, the largest revolutionary movement in the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, as one of Yassir Arafat's fiery lieutenants. The model for the PLO military commander in John leCarre's spy novel The Little Drummer Girl, Mr. Ta'mari is described in the book's foreword as a man with heart and courage.

Today he is a popular figure among Palestinians at a time when many politicians are unpopular. He eschews the large homes and luxury cars of some of his compatriots and is often seen mixing with his people in the streets and at the market alone, without an entourage as do other politicians.

"He is very much involved with the daily life of the people," says Sami Awad of the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian Center for Democracy and Elections.

Outside his office at Jerusalem Open University are a collage of pictures showing Mr. Ta'mari in his current and previous lives. Some are of the statesman with Bethlehem residents at the opening of a new school and a road.

Others depict the PLO commander, dressed in military fatigues, towering above the diminutive Mr. Arafat.

Pinned to the wall of the sparsely furnished, linoleum-floored office is a map of the West Bank. Over the map is a gold-framed tapestry of the West Bank embroidered in red, black, and green, the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Plaques dedicated to Mr. Ta'mari by local sports clubs attest to his popularity with his constituents.

The tall dark-skinned man with receding dark hair tinged with gray at the temples sits at his desk smoking cigarettes and drinking hot tea. He flips through a stack of black binders pointing to the 2,200 constituent problems he has dealt with since taking office in 1996.

He pulls a booklet from his suit jacket pocket that denotes the pledges needed for an 8-year-old boy's bone marrow transplant. The local committee organized for that purpose has done well, raising $38,000 - $8,000 more than needed.

The new mission, Mr. Ta'mari explains, is to help his people gain freedom and to build a democratic state dominated by justice and equality. "I did it when I carried a gun. Now it is my chance while living as a legislator to see part of the dream come true."

Fulfilling that aspiration means signing on to a peace process with sworn enemy Israel.

A founding member of the PLO, Mr. Ta'mari was in his mid-20s when he took charge of central command of Fatah bases in Karameh, Jordan, on the east bank of the Jordan River. The "Black September" fighting in 1970 between Palestinian commandos and the Jordanian army forced him to flee to Lebanon.

Just before making his way eastward, he paused to marry. His wedding to the former queen of Jordan, Dina Abd el-Hamid, the ex-wife of King Hussein, took place at night, not far from the blacked out capital city, Amman.

He rose through the ranks of the Fatah movement to lieutenant colonel and commanded several army units in South Lebanon during Israel's invasion in 1982. Captured by the Israeli military in the southern port city of Sidon, he was imprisoned in Israel before he was eventually transferred to Ansar, an Israeli prison camp in South Lebanon.

During his imprisonment, the Israeli journalist Aharon Barnea took a special interest in him. Finding the prisoner cultivated and charismatic, Mr. Barnea conducted interviews and arranged a visit in Tel Aviv between Mr. Ta'mari an his wife, as well as a visit to the journalist's own home. Mr. Barnea and his wife, Amalia, relate their relationship with the Ta'maris in the book Mine Enemy.

The book chronicles Mr. Ta'mari's life until his release from the POW camp at the end of 1983. During this time, he became the leader of the disparate Palestinian militia factions and led revolts against his captors.

Still, the Israeli journalists write of a leader respected by prisoners and jailers alike.

"The man fascinated me," an Israeli military policeman in his prison camp said. "I understood him immediately. First of all, he was charismatic. Secondly, he deeply believed in the justice of his cause. He talked to me in a language I understood, in concepts taken from Judaism."

After the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, the forum for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr. Ta'mari returned to his roots.

Returning to his birthplace in the West Bank, he says, is like "uniting with one's soul."

The man who once waged war against the Israeli military was part of last month's historic vote of peace by the Palestine National Congress in Gaza City. In front of President Clinton, Mr. Ta'mari and fellow congress members raised their hands in agreeing to annul clauses in the Palestine National Charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

For the warrior-turned-peacemaker, the priority is to help his people "maintain hope and not lose faith in the peace process no matter what happens. Losing hope means turning to violence once again."

His foray into local Palestinian politics shows an independent streak. He ran in the parliamentary elections against the wishes of his former military commander, Mr. Arafat, who thought Mr. Ta'mari could not win. Although a founding member of Fatah, Mr. Ta'mari ran as an independent, keeping his campaign promises straightforward and simple. He promised to upgrade living conditions in the countryside and refugee camps in his district.

"If you want to build a school, I will carry a shovel. If you want to clean the streets, I will carry the largest broom ... I didn't promise the moon, but I did much more."

The win, he says with a slight smile, is very significant because he is one who has returned from exile abroad. "They elected the soul and spirit of my generation ... They elected my history."

He is paying back his voters by helping build schools, new roads, as well as arbitrating in disputes, raising money for transplants, and organizing new clubs for kids. As the chairman of the Land and Settlement Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Mr. Ta'mari keeps a close eye on Israeli settlement activity.

"I want to leave a heritage for those who come after me," he says. "I want to set a standard so the constituents won't accept anything less."

One of the ways to do that will be through his work on the council, which he describes as one of the most important of the new democratic institutions, despite its organizational and legislative shortcomings.

Those problems include reluctance on the part of President Arafat to enact laws passed by the legislature, particularly the Basic Law that serves as the Palestinian version of a constitution.

Mr. Ta'mari's political acumen served him well throughout the corruption crisis with the Palestinian Authority. The legislators initiated an audit of the authority's budget and found evidence of incompetence and corruption on the part of some ministers of Mr. Arafat's regime.

Members of the council called for resignations, although Mr. Arafat refused to deal with the issue for nine months. When he finally did, he refused to sack the accused ministers and instead swelled the executive ranks with new ministers to co-opt his critics.

"I was also pleased that Salah Ta'mari, a member of Fatah, refused the position of minister-without-portfolio for the fraud that such a position was," wrote the Palestinian intellectual Dr. Edward Said in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram.

When asked why he turned down the ministerial position, Mr. Ta'mari says nothing of the corruption charges and only explains that it would be too time- consuming to combine both the legislative and executive positions. "I hardly have enough time as a council member. My constituents deserve better."

These problems in the council, Mr. Ta'mari says, are inevitable given the fact that the final settlement of the peace process is yet to be determined, meaning some Palestinians still live under Israeli occupation.

"The occupation alters our people and our government as a democracy ... We can't allow this to reach a point where domestic issues blind us to the real danger occupation poses."

The former guerrilla does not yield to the Israeli government when it comes to Israeli settlement activity.

He leads foreign diplomats like British foreign minister Robin Cook to view places of contention like Abu Ghnaim. Known by the Israelis as Har Homa, the hill outside Jerusalem taken over by Jewish settlers has become a focus of Palestinian rage.

He also calms the Palestinian demonstrators and urges them to go home when the protests are finished. Mr. Ta'mari's protests against the settlements are seen by some Palestinians as his most impressive initiative as a politician, something not done by most legislators or Palestinian Authority officials.

"A lot of politicians talk about it, and [Mr. Ta'mari] goes and does it,"Mr. Awad says.

Pointing to aerial photographs of Israeli settlements and bypass roads in the Palestinian-claimed West Bank, Mr. Ta'mari vents his frustration and also becomes poetic.

"How can we build a state here with all these settlements?" he asks.

"Look at this land, it is exquisite. It is very hard and very gentle at the same time. It knows no compromise, but you can't resist it. The snakes are deadly, but the herbs are redeeming. After a shower of rain you see a million reflecting lights from the little pools in the rocks. It is a desert, yet not a desert. Barren, but not barren. So old, but not aging."