Spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation in the Arab-Israeli peace talks and later chair of a human rights group in the West Bank and Gaza, Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi (born 1946), a professor of English literature and a political activist, won international recognition for her articulate defense of Palestinian national rights. Her innate eloquence is further manifested by her literary accomplishments.
Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi was born October 8, 1946, in Nablus, one of the big cities of what was then central Palestine. The youngest of five children— all female—Hanan and the rest of the Mikhails moved around quite a bit during her childhood, mainly due to the 1948 war of Israeli independence and to demands placed on her father, a physician. From Nablus, her family moved to the warm city of Tiberias in the north where they remained until Israel became a state in 1948. With most Palestinian Arabs of that part of Palestine—now Israel— fleeing the war and ending in refugee camps in southern Lebanon and Syria, Mikhail's family moved to Amman, Jordan. Initially, her father, Daoud Mikhail, remained behind in the war-torn country, but he rejoined his family a bit later. While in Jordan, Hanan's father worked as a health inspector with that government.
Finally, in 1950 the Mikhails returned to the West Bank, settling in Ramallah, a city located six miles north of Jerusalem. The West Bank, which had been annexed by the Amman government in August 1950, came under Israeli occupation during the Six-Day War of 1967.
As a physician, Daoud Mikhail, along with his wife Wadi'a Mikhail, a nurse, provided his family with a comfortable standard of living. Daoud Mikhail was a liberal thinker and quite progressive in his philosophy. Brought up by his sisters when his mother died, he had learned to respect and admire the position of women and favored a greater role for them in society. Contrary to acceptable norms for most girls and women at the time, Hanan grew up believing that there was nothing she could not or should not do only because she was a woman. Her father's status and his social and political views undoubtedly influenced Hanan's personality and character and set her on a path which ultimately led to her activist and leadership roles.
Daoud Mikhail's activities with the Arab National Socialist Party had led to his imprisonment by the Jordanian authorities for a time. Later on he was involved in the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He died in 1988.
Hanan Mikhail received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the American University of Beirut. While there she joined the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and became its spokesperson. She also taught political awareness classes to Palestinians in that city's surrounding refugee camps. ABC's World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings met Hanan while in Beirut and described her as "incredibly smart." In 1970, unable to rejoin her family in the West Bank, Hanan left Beirut to go to the United States to complete her graduate studies at the University of Virginia, where she received her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature.
Hanan met Yasser Arafat for the first time in 1969 while attending a GUPS convention in Amman; she joined Fateh, the largest of the PLO components, but then she left. She was able to return to the West Bank in 1973 under the Family Reunification Act. There she became involved in the women's rights movement and began to speak about coexistence with Israel and about a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In 1975 Hanan Mikhail married Emile Ashrawi, an artist, filmmaker, and later a photographer in Jerusalem for the United Nations refugee relief group. They had two daughters.
Hanan Ashrawi came to world attention during her highly praised performance on ABC's Nightline "town meeting" from Jerusalem in April 1988, five months after the breakout of the Palestinian intifada (uprising against Israeli rule). That event catapulted her into the world of high politics and placed her under a substantial level of responsibility. Ashrawi, a professor of English literature and the former dean of arts at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank, became very involved in the talks with then Secretary of State James Baker that eventually lead to the 1992 Madrid peace conference. As a resident of East Jerusalem, she was denied a role as a negotiator by Israel, becoming instead the chief spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation. As such, and with the world as her audience, Hanan's articulate conferences on behalf of the Palestinian people, and her information duels with her Israeli counterpart, made her face one of the most recognizable in the world. Along with Faisal Husseini, the chair of the group and another West Bank personality, Hanan sat at the core of an influential team of advisers for the Palestinian delegation.
Ashrawi published many articles, conferred with heads of state, and addressed numerous international conventions. When arrested by the Israeli authorities along with Husseini, former President George Bush said, "Hanan is on my mind." These Palestinians were soon released.
Ashrawi received her share of criticism, and not only from the Israelis. From the Palestinian corner, Ashrawi was criticized as too moderate and too accommodating to both the Americans and the Israelis.
After the signing of the September 13, 1993, agreement between Israel and the PLO, Ashrawi resigned her position on the Palestinian team. She then founded a human rights group that focused on women's issues in the West Bank and Gaza.
Her convictions and determination to bring freedom and democracy to the war-torn country of Palestine are described in her critically acclaimed memoir, This Side of Peace. The book draws from the imagery of her native Arabic, but Ashrawi wrote the book in English in order that it might be more widely read. Reviewer William B. Quandt of Foreign Affairs Magazine described the book as "an appealing and powerful personal statement from a person of integrity and insight." Ashrawi plans to publish a novel dealing with the realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Further Reading on Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi
The best source of additional information is The New Palestinians: The Emerging Generation of Leaders (1992) by John Wallach and Janet Wallach. See also Mikhail-Ashrawi, Hanan, This Side of Peace (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Victor, Barbara, A Voice of Reason: Hanan Ashrawi and Peace in the Middle East (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994). Periodical articles include Commonweal, June 16, 1995; Foreign Affairs, July-August 1995; Interview, July 1995; Mother Jones, March-April 1993; and Publishers Weekly, December 5, 1994.