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November/December 1993, Page 49


Musa Al-Alami: "The Last Palestinian"

By Andrew I. Killgore

''Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air. " —English poet Thomas Gray's "Elegy"

A eulogy for Musa Al-Alami that appeared in the June 1984 London Spectator recorded the remarks of two mourners at his funeral in Jerusalem's famous Al-Aqsa Mosque. Said one mourner, "I suppose he was the last of the Palestinians." Added another mourner, "And the greatest .''

Musa Al-Alami was recognized as a great man by admirers in Britain, Scandinavia and the United States when he died at the age of 87. But no such acknowledgment appeared in the American press. As far as this country's media were concerned, he might have been one of poet Thomas Gray's simple peasants who were born, lived and died unnoticed, as chronicled in the "Elegy'' quoted at the beginning of this article. For the American media's procrustean bed was designed for "Palestinian terrorists" only. It simply could not be adjusted to fit a Palestinian of Musa Al-Alami's stature.

Musa Al-Alami was born in 1897 into one of Jerusalem's great Muslim families. That same year the father of political Zion, Theodor Herzl, gathered the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland.

Herzl later confided to his diary that in fact Congress had created the state of Israel.

He also confided that the Palestinians should be hustled out of Palestine to make room for incoming Jews.

It was Musa's fate, as it was that of billions of other Palestinians, to be caught up in the titanic struggle between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism's for control of Palestine. In fact, Al-Alami's greatest claim to fame and his ultimate fulfillment came in institutionalizing help for thousands of the child victims of Israel's policy of "ethnic cleansing."

A lawyer and Cambridge University graduate, Musa Al-Alami was nearly 40 years old in 1936 when the spontaneous Palestinian convulsion called the "Great Strike" began. For three years, and at a cost of 14,000 Palestinian lives, the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of Palestine struggled to stop the immigration that threatened to turn their native land into a Jewish state.

Ultimately that struggle would fail, but the 1939 White Paper issued in London promising to limit Jewish immigration was specifically aimed at mollifying the outraged Islamic world as World War II loomed. Musa helped draft the White Paper, the only such document in the long history of British betrayal of the Arabs. That London conference also produced a unique photograph of British Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald, together with the great Arab leaders of the time, including Musa.

Musa helped establish the Arab Offices in 1944, which brought him to the United States to head the Washington branch. The objective was to show that there was an Arab side to the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine.

Money was so short that only two other branches, in Jerusalem and London, were established. Like the Great Strike, however, establishment of the Arab Offices failed to save Palestine for its Palestinian Arab inhabitants.

Both efforts showed Musa was a fighter, although the personality and temperament seen by his foreign admirers reflected a gentle person given to contemplation and reflection.

Musa Al-Alami was not a man to accept defeat. With nearly 80 percent of Palestinian territory lost to Israel and 750,000 Palestinian refugees barred from returning to their homes and lands after the 19481949 Arab-Israeli war, all seemed lost. But with his family's own money and a bit left over from the Arab Offices, he bought 4,000 dusty, dry acres at Jericho, where he created a Boy's Town for 200 Palestinian youths who had lost their parents in the fighting. This became his famous Arab Development Society.

Musa Al-Alami's first problem was that he had no claim to waters from Jericho's great Ein Sultan natural spring, and there was no water on his acreage. Or so everyone told him. But Musa Al-Alami had what we today call charisma. He was a brilliant raconteur and possessed an aristocratic elegance and a powerful intellect that impelled people to believe in his visions and follow him.

Making the Desert Bloom

So, as doubters looked on, Musa, like an Old Testament prophet, sent out workers with shovels to dig for water on his 4,000 acres. At only 100 feet, moisture appeared. A few feet deeper there was abundant fresh water. Soon once-barren land grew fresh vegetables, orchards and fields of alfalfa for dairy cows. Next came schools for the boys with shops and vocational courses to train carpenters, electricians, plumbers and mechanics. Thousands of Musa Al-Alami's once homeless orphans now lead productive lives all over the world as craftsmen, contractors and entrepreneurs employing tens of thousands.

Musa Al-Alami, the born aristocrat, also was a hard worker who was never afraid to roll up his sleeves or dirty his hands to do what had to be done. The first time I met him was in 1956 after he traveled to Beirut personally to find markets for the Arab Development Society's beautiful early vegetables. The land around Jericho is the lowest point on earth—a natural hothouse at 1,300 feet below sea level, capable of producing abundant summer vegetables in mid-winter.

At that time I noted that Musa was also a gifted fund-raiser. It was a talent that, time after time, saved his Boys Town from going under financially.

In the nearly 40 years that have passed since our first encounter, generous individuals and foundations in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States have established private support groups to help Musa Al-Alami's good works, both during his lifetime and after his death. Among the benefactors that time and time again warded off fiscal disaster was the U.S. government's Agency for International Development (USAID).

Following the 1967 war, the Israeli government seized 2,000 of Musa's 4,000 acres and destroyed a dozen of his wells. But the Israelis did not completely close down the Arab Development Society. Perhaps they knew it enjoyed U.S. government support and American friends in high places, or perhaps it was because they recognized a great man and an indomitable spirit when they saw one.

That greatness of spirit was always present, ready to be drawn upon to overcome obstacles that would defeat whole armies of lesser individuals.

I last saw him in 1983, just a year before his death, standing resolutely in front of the Jericho headquarters of the Musa AlAlami Foundation. What I most remember is Musa's dismissive gesture, as if to brush a gnat from his face, when the American support group of which I was a member presented him with a problem.

A Symbolic Gesture

We had raised $75,000 for his foundation. If we put it in a bank in Jordan, we asked him, would the severe restrictions Israel had put on transferring funds to the West Bank cause him difficulties? The wave of his hand was his only response. Not a word, only the gesture. It signified: "I can handle things. As I always have."

Now the "Muse Al-Alami House" before which he was standing is about to play a new role in the saga of his people. Palestinians, with a keen sense of history, expect PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to use it as his headquarters when he makes his first visit to Jericho.

I wish that Musa Al-Alami could be at Yasser Arafat's side, standing in front of the historic old house, when the doubters begin to ask exactly where the new Palestinian entity's borders are located, when they will move beyond the environs of Gaza and Jericho to the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, how the Israelis can be held to the spirit of the agreement and what will happen if they cannot. I'm sure, with his faith in himself, his people and their future, he would dismiss the questions with a wave of his hand, signifying: "We can handle things. As we always have."