Sari Nusseibeh

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Sari Nusseibeh (Sari Anwar Nusaybah): Academic; Professor of Islamic Philosophy, President of Al Quds University, former PLO representative in Jerusalem, co-author of the People's Voice initiative to build grassroots support for a Two State Solution. Married to Lucy Austin, daughter of British philosopher J.L.Austin and founder of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND); 4 children - sons Jamal, Absal and Buraq; daughter, Nuzha.


Born 1949, in Shaykh Jarrar, East Jerusalem. Lives in Abu Dis. His mother, Nuzha Ghussein came from a landed Palestinian family, made refugees from Ramle (near Tel Aviv) by the 1948 war. Father, Anwar Nusseibeh, was a distinguished statesman, prominent in Palestinian and (after 1948) Palestinian-Jordanian politics and diplomacy.


Father's family were originally wealthy landowners in Jerusalem area, with prestigious role in Jerusalem history. (Family traces unbroken presence in Jerusalem back to at least 7th century. Since the 12th century, when Salah al Din captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and returned it to Muslim rule, the Nusseibeh family held the keys as custodians to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). Lost their lands to the Ottoman Turkish administration in the late nineteenth century.


Comfortable childhood in family home on Nablus Road, opposite the American Colony Hotel, in Jordanian-ruled Jerusalem; within blocks of the green line, which left him with a strong awareness of the artifical division of the city, and probably explains the emphasis on porous borders and the open-ness of Jerusalem in his later political initiatives. Studied PPE (Politics, Philosophy & Economics) at Christ Church, Oxford. Graduated BA, 1971.


Describes himself on graduation as sick of being a poor student, and more in search of a comfortable life than politics or confrontation. Went to live with relatives in Abu Dhabi, where he worked for the Abu Dhabi Oil Company and as a columnist the The Abu Dhabi News. 


In 1974, won a scholarship to study for his doctorate at Harvard. Graduated D.Phil in Islamic Philosophy, 1978. Contemporaries remember him as inclined to scholarship rather than activism, and not apparently seized with the Palestinian issue. (Nusseibeh too describes himself as an essentially non-political person, drawn into political issues by the unavoidable daily issues that arise out of living under military occupation).


Returned to the West Bank in 1978 to teach at Birzeit University (where he remained as Professor of Philosophy until the University was closed for an extended period - 1988 to 1990 - during the first intifadaa). At the same time, taught classes in Islamic philosophy to Jewish students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Through the early 80's, helped to organize the teachers' union at Birzeit, and served three terms as president of the union of faculty and staff there. Also co-founder Federation of Employees in the Education Sector for the entire West Bank.


In June 1987, he controversially suggested that the Palestinians should recognize Israel, and that Israel should annex the Occupied Territories, reunify the country, and give full citizenship to the Palestinians in a single binational state. Told a Peace Now rally that talking openly about annexation was the only way to bring home to Israelis the fact that they had to choose between binationalism or a two state solution: couldn't keep both the land and the Jewish nature of Israel. Some of his early comments on the binational state mirror closely the kind of discussion coming into prominence today.


Approached privately by Likud's Moshe Amirav in July 1987, with a proposal to open dialogue between the Likud and the PLO on the West Bank. Nusseibeh and Faisal Husseini thus became the first prominent Palestinians to meet with the Israeli right. On 21 September 1987, he was badly beaten on leaving Bir Zeit University (after delivering a lecture on Tolerance!); presumably by elements of Fatah, angered by his talking with the Likud. (Husseini was jailed for attending the meeting, and Amirav expelled from the Likud).



First Intifada


Nusseibeh describes the Palestinian experience of the first twenty years of Occupation as one of being torn between, on the one hand, the possibility of immersion in Israeli society (with the hope of equality in a single state), and on the other the nationalistic hope of independence in a separate Palestine. The frustration of twenty years under occupation with no positive move toward either end was the spark for the first intifada. Palestinians made their own move towards a two state solution, cutting the economic tie that bound them to Israel's economy (through strikes and boycotts), and building grassroots political structures (local committees) to run their own lives and lay the foundation of their own state. Most importantly, for Nusseibeh, they did it without waiting for the approval of the external PLO or, above all, the permission of the Israelis. (The belief in bringing about change by directly mobilizing and organising the people would resurface in The People's Voice Initiative of 2002).


Nusseibeh helped to author the "inside" Palestinians' declaration of independence issued in the first intifada, and to create the 200 political committees and 28 technical committees that were intended to as an embryonic infrastructure for a future Palestinian administration. Nusseibeh's aim was to strengthen Fatah in the Occupied Territories, by creating a link between the academic negotiating class and the activists in the streets and refugee camps. However, the way it was done (as a fait accompli, without external consultation) led to accusations that he was making a grab for power, and alienated many of the external PLO as well as the non-Fatah PLO internal factions.


In May 1989, he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of four Palestinian activists facing an Israeli military court. Israelis alleged he was a member of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, the underground group that coordinated the intifada, and that he was instrumental in channeling funds from the PLO in exile to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nusseibeh denied it, and no charges were brought. The following month, Israelis cracked down on his Holy Land Press Service, that was providing news of the intifada to foreign correspondents and diplomats; closed down for two years, on the grounds that it was alleged to be funneling money to the intifada. Nusseibeh's English language weekly newsletter - Monday report - analyzing the events of the intifada for an English speaking audience - was banned at the same time.



First Gulf War



Following the firing of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, Nusseibeh worked with Israeli Peace Now on a common approach to condemn the killing of civilians in the war. But was arrested and placed under administrative detention on 29 January 1991, effectively accused of being an Iraqi agent. (Had discussed Scud attacks on Tel Aviv with the Iraqi Ambassador at Tunis, which the Israelis alleged made him a spotter for missile attacks). Arrest questioned by British and American officials, and U.S. administration urged that he should either be charged or else the suspicion would be that the arrest was political. Adopted as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International. Palestinians saw the arrest as a political warning that Israel did not intend to negotiate with any Palestinian leader, no matter how moderate. e.g. Prof. Saeb Erekat of An-Najah University: "This is a message to us Palestinian moderates. The message is, 'You can forget about negotiations after the war because we are going to make sure there is no one to talk to' ". Released without charge shortly after the end of the war, after 90 days in Ramle Prison.







Madrid Conference



Was ineligible for Palestinian delegation to Madrid Conference in November 1991 (as Israeli would not recognize Jerusalem residents as Palestinians), but served as a member of the steering committee behind the Palestinian(-Jordanian) delegation. Read Dr. Hanan Ashrawi's impressions of Nusseibeh, from working with him during this period.


In reference to the Madrid Conference, Nusseibeh told a CPAP (Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine) symposium in Washington DC that the olive branch strategy was best way for the Palestinians to recover from the debacle of Arafat's support for Iraq in the Gulf War, and that all forms of dialogue should be accelerated: "One of our major concerns should be to focus on trying to influence Israeli public opinion through joint actions, demonstrations, statements or meetings. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have to demonstrate that they are really serious and genuine about achieving peace. He said that Madrid would be a catalyst for change, but a slow one. Told the Macneil-Lehrer News Hour: [The idea of a Palestinian state] has been demonized in people's minds and it's all to do with psychology. I think the more it is shown to them, how a future Palestinian state would coexist side by side with Israel, how it is possible, what the different bits and pieces of the Palestinian state would look like, the more it becomes known to them, I think the less afraid they would be of it."




Peace Initiatives


In 1991, co-authored No Trumpets, No Drums with Mark Heller, calling for a two-state solution with emphasis on openness between the two states. Nusseibeh pointed out that it is much easier to fix the location of a border, if it is going to be permeable or porous to the people on both sides.


Founded and still directs the Palestinian Consultancy Group (Maqdes), in Ramallah; undertakes research projects on the management of Palestinian infrastructure.


Returned to academia in 1995, when appointed President of al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Though remained politically active, esp in cooperative initiatives with the Israeli left.





Left - Signing a Declaration of Peace with then-Meretz leader, Yossi Sarid; Jerusalem, 28 December 2001

Right - Meeting with then-Labour Party Knesset members Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan, at a Labour Party symposium in Tel Aviv; 21 December 21, 2001




Appointed by Arafat in October 2001 as PLO representative in Jerusalem (replacing the deceased Faisal Husseini). His article, What Next? which appeared in numerous Israeli and Palestinian newspapers on 24 Sept 2001, generated huge controversy and debate among Palestinians, over its recommendation that Palestinians give up the Right of Return to their 1948 homes:


"We have two rights. We have the right of return, in my opinion. But we also have the right to live in freedom and independence. And very often in life one has to forego the implementation of one right in order to be able to implement the other rights. In this case it is very clear to me that we would have to forego the implementation of the right to return in order that we are able to create the possibility of fulfilling our right to live in freedom. . . . It is not full justice, but it is practical justice, this is what is possible." (Attribution)



Criticised the militarization of the intifada in January 2002, called for the renunciation of suicide bombings and the establishment of Palestine as a demilitarized state: "A Palestinian state should be demilitarised - not because that's what Israel demands, but in our own interest".


Arrested briefly, 17 December 2001, for planning a reception for foreign diplomats at the Imperial Hotel in Jerusalem, to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Arrest criticised on the Israeli Left, justified by the Likud on the grounds that the reception threatened Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem. Nusseibeh's university offices were closed and sealed by the Israelis on 10 July 2002, on the grounds that they represented PA activity in Jerusalem (same grounds were used to justify the closure of Orient House in East Jerusalem in August 2001, in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide attack).


Relieved of Jerusalem PLO portfolio by Arafat, 19 December 2002.


In June 2003, Nusseibeh co-launched with Israeli former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon "The People's Voice", a non-partisan civil initiative to mobilize grassroots support for a two state solution based on:

§         a return to 1967 borders;

§         Jerusalem to be an open city;

§         Palestinian refugees have right of return only to a (demilitarized) Palestine, Jews have right of return only to Israel.


Plan is intended to be complementary to the political process, not to circumvent it. Currently (Dec 03) the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan has 200,000 supporters signed up, and has had expressions of approval from, among others, Sec of State Powell, Dep Def Sec Wolfowitz, and West Bank Fatah leaders.


The Jewish Peace Lobby has prepared an interesting comparison of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan with the Clinton Parameters, here; and a useful summary of the various peace initiatives on offer, put together by Ha'aretz, is online here.


A January 2004 interview, in which Nusseibeh considers what direction Palestinian resistance to the Occupation should take, and assesses the prospects for the "People's Voice" initiative, is available here.







In addition to the sources linked in the text, this biography draws upon:

§         The New Palestinians: The Emerging Generation Of Leaders, by John Wallach and Janet Wallach, pub 1992 by Prima publishing. ISBN 1-55958-215-4

§         Glen Rangwala's Middle East reference





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Last Update: 27 July 2004





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