ANNAPOLIS – When Najat Arafat Khelil left Palestine in 1962, she never thought it would be the last time she would live in her homeland.
She was angry over what had happened – maybe even militant – but today the Potomac resident plays a crucial role in the Middle East peace process.
As national president of the Palestinian American Congress, Khelil has been at the forefront of public discussion regarding recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. She has worked closely with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President Clinton at achieving a lasting peace in the name of Palestinian Americans.
Khelil came from Nablus, a Palestinian city right in the middle of the violence occurring between protesters and Israeli forces that broke out a week ago. She left there as a teen to study physics at Ohio State University on a Fulbright Scholarship.
That was before the Six-Day War of 1967 changed her life.
Israel captured areas now known as East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the war.
Khelil learned Israel had taken a census at the time of occupation, denying any Palestinian not accounted for re-entrance into the territory. Her family tried to sign her up, but to no avail.
“Coming to study in the United States, assuming I would be coming here for a few years, all I had was just my clothes,” she said. “All my memories, all that ever belonged to me was in our house in Nablus. So it was a total destruction of my life.”
Nearly 3 million Palestinians faced the same expulsion.
When war broke out, Khelil was working on her doctoral degree in nuclear physics from the University of North Texas. In 1973, she became the first woman to receive such a degree in the state.
Khelil visited her family sporadically after the war. It took nine years for her to get Israeli approval to visit Nablus for the first time, she said. Entrance was only possible for her from a bridge in Jordan, and she said she had to withstand humiliating strip searches at the border.
“It was like we were animals and we didn’t need any privacy,” she said.
Now an American citizen, Khelil grew up insulated from the world outside Nablus. She was a teen-ager very angry about abuses she had witnessed in her life, uncaring about the Israelis who lived a few miles from her and hardened by experiences since the war. But a visit to Israel after finishing school in Texas changed her life again.
Her niece begged her to go swimming during the visit, but no water sources were nearby. They had to go to Netanya, an Israeli city with miles of beach.
Khelil was reluctant to look at the people she hated, but seeing babies running on the beach and youngsters sunning themselves gave her an epiphany.
“They (Israelis) solved the Jewish problem by creating a Palestinian problem,” she remembered thinking. She realized the Palestinians would be wrong to do the same thing.
Khelil began working with American Jews and other groups toward achieving peace, including setting up a 1985 United Nations conference in Nairobi that brought an organized group of women Jews and Palestinians to the same table.
Now she works with the likes of Clinton and Arafat.
Ever since Likud party leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, a Muslim holy site, last week, Khelil has been joining and mobilizing protests outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Friday, she returned from a meeting at the White House looking tired and distressed.
“When I get frustrated, that is just a drop of the anger most Palestinians are feeling,” she said. She had gotten little sleep the nights before when she failed to reach family members by phone. Then she went to a meeting at the White House, where she said everyone listened but offered little solace.
“I feel like I’m hearing a broken record,” she said of recent talks. She is also upset that the president and Vice President Al Gore have publicly condemned Arafat.
“We did not hear one single remark condemning what Israel is doing right now,” she said, referring to the deaths of nearly 100 Palestinians and 3,000 injured at the hands of Israeli troops. Khelil has known Arafat since 1976, and she believes he wants peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
“The point is that when you talk about peace, it has to be peace with justice to all of Palestine,” she said. “So far, what’s been done is trying to achieve peace by giving Palestinians the minimum of their requirement. And as long as that issue is not resolved . . . then peace cannot and will not last.”