A Palestinian activist from Ephrata, WA?

By John Hamer
Associate editorial-page editor
  

WHEN Mohammad Said was a small boy growing up in the village of Bunn, near the city of Nablus in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank, his aunt often took him to Jerusalem.

“I would look across the wall that separated East and West Jerusalem,” Said recalls. “As a Palestinian, I was very afraid of the Jews. But she would tell me, ‘Don’t be afraid. Those are your cousins. We must learn to live together with them.’”

It was a lesson Said never forgot. All his life he has hoped that Israelis and Palestinians could someday learn to live together. And he has remained active in the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Today, Said is a long way from his homeland–a very long way.

His business card reads: “Mohammad H. Said, M.D., Ph.D. Said’s Family Clinic, Ephrata, Washington State, U.S.A”

It may seem incongruous to find a Palestinian activist working as a physician in Ephrata, a small town in Eastern Washington about midway between Wenatchee and Moses Lake.

But Said is undeniably an activist. He recently returned from Geneva, where he was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organiza­tion delegation when PLO leader Yasser Arafat spoke to the United Nations General Assembly. Before that, Said was an observer at the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers. When the PNC next meets, he will be an official delegate.

Said knows Arafat personally. He went to medical school at the University of Madrid with Arafat’s brother, Fathi, who now heads Red Crescent, the Arab Red Cross. Said later earned a degree in public health at the University of Toronto.

After learning that many U.S. rural towns badly needed resident physicians, Said ended :p in North Dakota for several years and then worked in a program that sent doctors to small owns on a temporary basis. Looking for a )lace to settle down, he drove across Washing- on — and heard that a doctor in Ephrata was joking for someone to take over his practice.

“I went to Ephrata and found the area similar to the Jordan Valley,” Said recalls. There is lots of irrigation. It’s like the blooming desert.” He decided to stay, but his interest in the Israeli-Palestinian problem persisted, Said explains:

“Being a doctor in Ephrata is now my major concern. I am an American citizen. I love this country. My children were born here. But I find myself in a unique position, being American and Palestinian at the same time. I am trying to bridge the gap between the PLO and the mainstream of American politics.”

To that end, Said has been active in Washington Democratic politics. He helped draft a Mideast peace resolution at the party’s state convention that — although it was rejected by the party’s platform committee and at the national convention in Atlanta — helped influence the peace process, he believes.

“Practically all of what we wrote was passed through me to the PLO executive committee,” Said observes. “A very similar document to the Washington state resolution was adopted at the PNC meeting in Algiers. They did not use the exact text, but it is in essence the same.”

The resolution dealt with such key issues as recognition of Israel’s right to exist, the renunciation of terrorism, self-determination for the Palestinians, and negotiations between the two sides.

Said believes that Arafat’s statements in Geneva — which led to the dramatic announce­ment by Secretary of State George Shultz that the United States would begin talks with the PLO — have led to a turning point in the Mideast.

Although many Israelis and members of the American Jewish community remain deeply skeptical of Arafat, Said thinks it’s time to move toward a compromise.

“I am telling them, please test Arafat. Give him a chance. If they don’t, bloodshed will continue.”

Said concedes that Arafat can’t guarantee no terrorist acts will occur. “Arafat controls about 70 percent of the Palestinians, but he does not control some groups based in Syria. If there is a terrorist act, you cannot blame it on Arafat alone.”

There is intransigence on both sides, he notes. ‘As much as some of those Palestinian splinter groups disagree with Arafat, and want to topple the peace process, some of the Israeli hard-liners are the same.”

He bemoans the fact that one of the first things Israel’s newly formed Labor-Likud coalition did was to declare that the government would not talk to the PLO.

“Unfortunately, part of the problem which exists between Jews and the Palestinians is a lack of communication,” Said says.

He is trying to address that problem locally. This week he met privately with members of the Seattle Jewish community. Because of the sensitivity on both sides – it was their first meeting with a Palestinian who has such close PLO-PNC connections – the discussions were off the record and closed to the press.

But Said believes the meetings went well – and Rabbi Anson Laytner, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, concurs.

“His basic message was that the Palestinian people are sincere in their desire for peace,” Laytner says. “I think everyone was convinced of his personal sincerity. He has a lot of integrity. But everyone is still skeptical of the PLO’s intentions. Some are more willing to hope, and others are not hopeful at all.”

Still, Said and Laytner agree that the discussions were a step forward.

“For years there hasn’t been any direct dialogue, only confrontations,” Laytner says. “It would be interesting if some of the local Arab-American groups would now invite some of us to come talk with them.”

The spirit of reaching out to the other side is strong in Said. He again recalls his aunt: “Several times she took me to Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born, to get His blessing – even though she was not a Christian, she was a Moslem. She was very tolerant.”

Someday, Said hopes to go back to the West Bank village where he grew up, to gather together all the members of his family, and celebrate peace under the fig trees that he helped plant long ago.