A self-identified Christian and feminist, Hanan Ashrawi was born on October 8, 1946 in the West Bank city of Nablus. Her father, Daoud Mikhail, was a prominent physician who co-founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
In 1964 Ashrawi enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where she earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Literature. While in Lebanon, she also: joined (and became a spokeswoman for) the General Union of Palestinian Students; joined the General Union of Palestinian Women; took part in the activities of the Fifth of June Society (whose purpose was to disseminate Palestinian propaganda to the American and European press); helped organize women’s revolutionary groups; and served as a guide to foreign reporters visiting the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut.
When the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, Ashrawi, who was still in Lebanon, was declared an “absentee” by Israel and thus was denied re-entry to the West Bank for six years. In 1969 Ashrawi relocated to the United States to obtain a Ph.D. in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. She subsequently returned to Beirut, where in the early 1970s she dated newsman Peter Jennings of ABC, who was stationed in Lebanon as his network’s Bureau Chief.
Upon returning to the West Bank under the terms of a family reunification plan in 1973, Ashrawi established the Department of English at Birzeit University, where she taught Medieval and Comparative Literature. In 1974 she was a founding member of the Committee for Legal Aid and Human Rights, which was based at the university. Ashrawi would remain on Birzeit’s faculty until 1995, serving as English Department Chair from 1973-78 and again from 1981-84; from 1986-90 she was the Dean of Birzeit’s Faculty of Arts.
During the First Palestinian Intifada in 1988, Ashrawi joined both the Palestinian Diplomatic Committee and the Intifada Political Committee. In 1991 Yasser Arafat appointed her as the official spokesperson of the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid.
Ashrawi has long held Israel in deep contempt, as evidenced by her account of how the Jewish state was first established: “In 1948, more than a quarter of a million Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes [in] a series of massacres and a campaign of terror … and they have been refugees since then.” On another occasion, Ashrawi said: “We have to start with first of all the recognition of [Israel’s] guilt and culpability and of course, a recognition of the tremendous historical tragedy that the Palestinians suffered in ’47 and ’48 – the loss of their land, the loss of their continuity, development, the dispersal, dispossession, occupation, exile.”
Refusing to “think of Hamas as a terrorist group,” Ashrawi defends that organization as a legitimate component of the Palestinian “political spectrum.” “We coordinate [with Hamas] politically,” she said in April 1993, “… the people we know and talk to are not terrorists.”
Also in 1993, Ashrawi justified the PLO’s practice of murdering Palestinians whom it suspected of “collaboration” with Israel.
In a 1995 speech in Detroit, Ashrawi demanded an end to immigration to Israel by “foreigners,” by which she meant Jews.
From 1993-95, after the Oslo Peace Accords had been signed by Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ashrawi headed the Preparatory Committee of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights in Jerusalem. In 1996 she was elected to the Jerusalem Governorate of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Also in ’96, Ashrawi was appointed as the Palestinian Authority‘s Minister of Higher Education and Research, though she resigned the post two years later in protest against alleged corruption and mismanagement by the Arafat regime.
In 1998 Ashrawi founded MIFTAH, a non-governmental organization that seeks to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and refers to that nation’s 1948 creation as “Al Nakba,” or “The Catastrophe.” Ashrawi herself routinely refers to Israel’s creation as “Al Nakba.” She considers Tel Aviv and Haifa to be illegal settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestine that need to be liberated.
In August 1998, Ashrawi founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, and then served as its Secretary General.
In the July 2, 1998 edition of the official Palestinian Authority newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, Ashrawi published an article characterizing the Holocaust as “a deceitful myth which the Jews have … exploited to get sympathy.”
By Ashrawi’s telling, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is due entirely to Israeli intransigence and ill will. In July 2000, for instance, she lamented the “increased Palestinian feeling … that life has become worse under the peace process, that the Israeli control is being exercised as occupier, both in terms of increased settlement activities, increased siege of Jerusalem, and unilateral actions to transform the city of Jerusalem.”
In speeches she has delivered on various occasions, Ashrawi has accused Israel of “carrying out ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem”; “shooting at civilians”; “besieging the towns and cities and camps of the Palestinians”; “occupying other people’s lands”; and “enslaving” Palestinians.
Though it was well documented that Palestinians, desirous of scoring propaganda points against Israel, were sending children to the front line of their battle against the Israelis in the Second Intifada, Ashrawi in 2000 condemned such claims as “blatantly racist slur[s]” that were part of “the Israeli theft of our humanity as parents.” “[W]e are accused of ‘sending [our] children out to die’ for the sake of ‘scoring media points’,” said an enraged Ashrawi. “The horror is further compounded by the total and unquestioning equanimity with which such a grand national slur is repeated by Israelis of all parties, with no critical distance or even awareness of the enormity of such a racist charge.”
Ashrawi views virtually all Palestinian attacks against Israelis as understandable and justifiable. For example, when Palestinian mobs tortured, mutilated, and lynched two unarmed Israeli reserve soldiers in Ramallah in October 2000, Ashrawi defended the killings.
Ashrawi once signed a petition against suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians, leading many in the media to portray her as a moderate. But in fact, that petition did not condemn suicide bombings in principle; rather, it argued that the timing for such attacks was wrong from a practical standpoint – because they would inevitably harm the Palestinians by generating bad press and Israeli reprisals.
Ashrawi favors the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel, which would render the Jews a permanent minority in their own country, thereby spelling the end of Israel. As she said in a 2000 statement that grossly misrepresented the stipulations of United Nations Resolution 194: “Israel has to recognize and admit its responsibility and culpability for the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees who are dispossessed and dispersed and who have lived for more than half a century in atrocious conditions and tremendous pain and oppression, totally deprived of any rights. Then they have to accept Resolution 194, which very clearly states that the Palestinian refugees have the right to return and for compensation.”
From 2000-05, Ashrawi headed the PLC’s Legislative Reform Committee. In 2001 she became a spokeswoman for the Arab League, an organization of Arab dictatorships that consistently expressed solidarity with the late Saddam Hussein.
In the mid-2000s, Ashrawi was an original Advisory Committee member with the “Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti & All Prisoners.” Regarding itself as “part of the wider struggle for Palestinian independence and self-determination,” this Campaign stated that “the plights of Marwan Barghouti and other prisoners cannot be separated from the wider issue of the constant violations of international agreements and of Palestinians’ human rights perpetrated by the Israeli state.” Other original Advisory Committee members included Edward Said, Nelson Mandela, and Noam Chomsky.
In 2006 Ashrawi was again elected to the PLC representing the The Third Way, a small centrist political party headed by Salam Fayyad.
In 2009 Ashrawi was elected to the PLO’s Executive Committee as head of the Culture and Information Department, a post she continues to hold.
Ashrawi has also served variously on the advisory boards of several international and local organizations, including the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the International Human Rights Council. Moreover, she founded the Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights (renamed in 2007 as the Independent Commission for Human Rights) and the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (whose aim was to combat corruption in Palestinian society).
When President Donald Trump in December 2017 declared that the U.S. would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Ashrawi angrily declared: “There is no way that there can be talks with the Americans. The peace process is finished. They have already pre-empted the outcome. They cannot take us for granted.”
Further Reading: “Hanan Ashrawi” (Britannica.com, Palestinian Journeys, Jewish Virtual Library, WN.com); “Hanan Ashrawi: The West’s Preferred Voice of Palestine” (Maclean’s, 11-23-2012); “The Life and Times of Dr. Hanan Ashrawi” (WorldTrek.org); “9/11 Outrage in Colorado” (by Stephen Plaut, Front Page Magazine, 9-5-2002, re: Ashrawi’s view of Hamas, Hamas’s response to “collaboration,” the immigration of “foreigners,” the term “Al Nakba,” the “deceitful myth” of the Holocaust, the petition against suicide bombings); “Hanan Ashrawi’s Propaganda” (CAMERA.org, 11-8-2000, re: how Israel was established, the failure of the peace process, Palestinian children on front lines, murder of Israeli reserve soldiers, right of return); “Leading Palestinian Spokeswoman Ashrawi Resigns from Cabinet” (CNN, 8-6-1998); “‘Palestinian’ Spox Hanan Ashrawi: ‘No Way There Can Be [Peace] Talks with the Americans’” (Jihad Watch, 12-6-2017).