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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2006, pages 42-43

In Memoriam

Schafik Giries Abdullah Handal (1930-2006)

By Matt Horton

A supporter of Schafik Handal holds a poster with the FMLN leader’s portrait during a Jan. 29 funeral mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador (AFP Photo/Yuri Cortez).

SCHAFIK Handal, leader of El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), died Jan. 24 at the age of 75 after suffering a heart attack in the Comalpa Airport, 40 miles south of San Salvador. He was returning home from the inauguration of Bolivia’s new president, Evo Morales.

Schafik was born Oct. 14, 1930 in Usulután, El Salvador to Giries Abdullah and Gamile Handal, Catholic Palestinians who had emigrated to El Salvador in the 1920s from Bethlehem. Giries (George in Arabic) became Jorge in Spanish-speaking El Salvador, where he owned a chain of stores. Today there are approximately 90,000 Palestinians in El Salvador, most of whom are from Bethlehem.

The oldest of six children, Schafik Jorge Handal became a political activist at an early age. At 14, he helped organize a national strike against the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. By the time he was 18 and attending the University of El Salvador, Handal was leader of both the Democratic Students Association and the Revolutionary Students Committee there. In 1950, he joined the outlawed Communist Party of El Salvador (PCS) and, as a result of his participation, was exiled in Chile from 1952 to 1956. Handal became PCA general secretary in 1973, and was instrumental in building an alliance with the National Democratic Union and the Christian Democrats, forming the United National Opposition for the 1972 and 1977 elections, largely seen to have been fraudulently stolen by the regime.

In the latter half of the 1970s, when the U.S. cut off aid due to concerns about human rights violations, El Salvador obtained 80 percent of its weapons from Israel. In 1975, Israel sold El Salvador 18 refurbished Dassault Ouragan aircraft, some of the first jets introduced into the region. Other Israeli arms sales to El Salvador included helicopters, Arava STOL aircraft, Galil Rifles, Uzi sub-machine guns, and a central computer system installed in 1978 that monitored and kept records of utilities usage, telephone calls and places of employment. In 1979 Israel’s honorary consul to San Salvador, Ernesto Liebes, was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas in retaliation for his involvement in these military sales. The South African ambassador was also kidnapped that November by guerrillas who demanded a severance of all government ties with Israel and South Africa, as well as recognition of the PLO.

The Israeli military also provided significant training to Salvadoran soldiers and paramilitaries, including the notorious Salvadoran secret police (ANSESAL). Notable graduates of the Israeli training include Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez. Both have been implicated in the activities of right-wing death squads, including the 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero.

In an Oct. 10, 1979 New York Times article, Handal alleged that Salvadoran forces were being trained by the Israelis. In return for Israel’s assistance, the Salvadoran regime recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving its embassy there in 1984.

As violent repression increased following the 1977 election, Handal became involved in the development of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Named for PCS founder Agustín Farabundo Martí, who led a peasant uprising that was brutally repressed in 1932, the FMLN was an alliance of five political parties to wage armed struggle against the Salvadoran dictatorship. Using the nom de guerre Comandante Simon, Handal served as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL), the armed wing of the PCS. In this capacity, he also served on the FMLN’s General Command until 1991, and was partly responsible for acquiring arms for the FMLN guerrillas. This assignment reportedly led him to travel to Beirut in 1981 for a meeting with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In the early 1990s, Handal became a negotiator for the FMLN, founded the National Commission for Consolidating Peace (COPAZ), was elected general secretary of the FMLN, and was a signatory to the Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992 ending El Salvador’s civil war.

Elected to the Asamblea Legislativa de la República de El Salvador in 1997, Handal served as leader of the FMLN party bloc, and was the FMLN’s candidate for president in 2004. He was defeated by businessman, sports commentator and Bush favorite Elías Antonio Saca González of ARENA, who also is of Palestinian descent.

During the campaign, both Handal and Saca were involved in the construction in central San Salvador of Plaza Palestina, where a large plaque features a map of historic Palestine with the inscription “Palestine: Holy Land” in Arabic and Spanish. The opening ceremony was attended by the late George Salameh, PLO ambassador to Central America, who endorsed Handal’s presidential bid. If elected, Handal promised, he would move El Salvador’s Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv. Handal blamed his loss on interference by the Bush administration, which threatened the immigration status of Salvadorans in the U.S. if the FMLN were victorious.

In 2000, Handal and his second wife, Tania (his first wife, Blanca, died in 1980) had visited Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity and his grandfather’s house in the old city, and he was thrown a massive homecoming party. Weeks before he died, Handal spoke to his cousin in Bethlehem, recalling the excellent time he had there and indicating he was planning to return in the near future.

In 2005, Handal’s FMLN party was responsible for a second memorial park in downtown San Salvador, on the corner of Calle La Mascota and Avenida Jerusalem, dedicated to the late Yasser Arafat. The Plaza Arafat caused a diplomatic dispute which resulted in Israel’s withdrawing its ambassador to El Salvador.

When news of Schafik Handal’s death broke, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans took to the streets to remember him. President Saca declared three days of national mourning and guaranteed access to the funeral, held in San Salvador’s main cathedral, to a Cuban delegation led by Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly, despite the fact that El Salvador and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations.

Schafik Handal is survived by his sisters Ana Isabel and Miriam, brother Jose Trimming, widow Tania Bichkova and children Anabella, Jorge Schafik, Erlinda and Xenia. His brother Antonio was disappeared by the Salvadorian regime on Nov. 11, 1980, and another brother and PCS leader, Farid, was killed in combat in 1989.

A memorial for Handal was hosted Feb. 16 in Washington, DC by Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Álvarez. The event, completely in Spanish, was broadcast live in El Salvador.

“Those who die for life cannot be dead,” said Sonia Umanzor, an FMLN activist in Washington, DC, as she stood next to an alter draped with the Salvadoran, FMLN and Palestinian flags.

Ambassador Álvarez described Handal as a man who had the “deep love and confidence of the people....Shafik rises as a source of inspiration and a guide in politics and ideology. For us at the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” he continued, “it is a special honor to receive all of you in our house to celebrate these new times, along with Shafik Handal and our Salvadoran comrades.”

The program included a letter from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez which expressed his solidarity and sadness, and quoted Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton as well as Mahmoud Darwish.

Salvadoran writer Grego Pineda described Handal as “an honest man, incorruptible, faithful to his vocation for justice, and above all, a patriot.”

According to Dagoberto Rodriguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC, Handal was able to describe “with noonday clarity, what the world was—domination under that neo-liberalism—and he became one of its sharpest critics.” Honoring Handal’s place in the pantheon of Latin American revolutionaries, Rodriguez proclaimed that “he will always be in the first roll of those who fought for our people and our continent.”

Handal’s widow related his solidarity with Venezuela, Chile, Cuba and Bolivia, and noted that “he took up the Palestinian struggle and never ceased to demand respect for self-determination and freedom for Palestine.” Tania Bichkova quoted her late husband as saying, “I want you to remember me exactly as I have been, as a struggler who has been holding the banner of democracy.”

Bichkova’s closing proclamation summed up the life of Schafik Handal and those who share his ideals: “The struggle continues!”

Matt Horton is the Communications Director at the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.