Abdel Shafi was a Palestinian struggle icon

Isabel Kershner

Isabel Kershner

Haidar Abdel Shafi, 88, a Palestinian leader, physician and founder of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Gaza, died at his home in Gaza City early on Tuesday.

The cause of death was colon cancer, his daughter Hind said. Abdel Shafi, who studied medicine in Beirut and the US, founded the Gaza branch of the PRCS in 1972 and was its first director.

A socialist long identified with the Palestinian secular left, he also helped establish the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1960s.

He was a soft-spoken, gentlemanly figure, but also a fiercely independent politician who often went against the Palestinian mainstream.

Abdel Shafi became a sharp critic of the centralisation of power in the Palestinian territories under the rule of Fatah Party leader Yasser Arafat.

He was among the first of his people to call for the acceptance of Israel alongside a Palestinian state.

"In 1948, I was among the people who advocated the acceptance of partition," he said in an interview.

"In the 1960s I wrote that it was time for the Arabs andPalestinians to call for the implementation of partition and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict," he said.

Abdel Shafi had expressed his distress at the rising violenceand chaos in his native Gaza in recent years. On his death, rival Palestinian factions, in a rare coalescence, issued statements of tribute.

The secular Fatah Party hailed him as a "great national struggler".

The Islamic movement Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June, praised him as "one of the most important figures in Palestinian history".

In 1991, he led a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference, which brought Israel together with its Arab neighbours.

Abdel Shafi is survived by his wife, four children and eight grandchildren. - New York Times