Brothers, devoted to Palestinian cause, take divergent paths

June 14, 1995|By Boston Globe

NABLUS, Occupied West Bank -- The resemblance to his notorious brother is unmistakable: the soft, thoughtful voice, the bearded, bespectacled face.

And like his brother, Khalil Shikaki is a highly trained professional, born in Gaza and devoted to the Palestinian cause. But the gap between them is cavernous.

For Fathi Shikaki, 44, a physician, is the Damascus, Syria-based leader of Islamic Jihad, sponsor of suicide bombs and the focus of many an Israeli nightmare. Khalil Shikaki, 42, runs the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, one of the few independent think tanks in the Arab world and, increasingly, a focus of Israeli hopes.

With Palestinian elections expected by year's end, the center is gaining attention as a democratic force and one of the most reliable sources of information on Palestinian politics. "When I wanted to return here from the U.S. three years ago," Khalil Shikaki said, "the Israeli officials originally said no because of my brother. But I made a personal appeal to the general in charge of the West Bank and was allowed back."

Today, two years after founding his center with a $150,000 grant from the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mr. Shikaki, who has a doctorate from Columbia University, takes no money from the Palestine Liberation Organization or any political grouping. Two-thirds of his $750,000 budget is covered by private American and European donors, notably the Ford Foundation, and one third by wealthy Palestinians.

Through quiet, painstaking work, rigorous scholarship and groundbreaking opinion surveys, the center is developing into the premier compiler of information about the Palestinians -- their politics, their tastes, their disputes, their shifting public moods -- and as a forum for discussion.

"His is the most consistent, most reliable source of Palestinian public opinion of issues highly relevant to the peace process. He has no match whatsoever," said Ariel Merari, a specialist in Palestinians at Tel Aviv University who has not met Mr. Shikaki personally.

The center's field workers have had to draw their own maps of towns and neighborhoods and conduct their own demographic research to get as close a scientific sample as possible since such information is unavailable.

Because the center's work is so new, its impact extends well beyond the scholarly, as Nadir Izzat Sa'id, 29, a research fellow at the institute with a doctorate from Western Michigan, pointed out.

"We're actually training Palestinian housewives to think, 'Yes, I have an opinion on that,' " he said. "By answering our questions, they surprise themselves. We have interviewed 27,000 people, half of them women, since we started. It breaks down stereotypes in how they're supposed to think and feel. People become more open-minded, more careful, more democratic."

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist who runs the Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, Egypt, another rare example of an independent think tank, said Mr. Shikaki's institute is vital, part of "the tissue of civil society."

"It would not have been easy to set this up elsewhere in the Arab world," Mr. Shikaki said of his institute, which has a staff of nine. "It's not clear how long we will last once [PLO Chairman] Yasser Arafat sets up his authority fully. It's easy to imagine a visit to say, 'We're not pleased with your work.' "

Mr. Arafat has threatened Mr. Shikaki but has so far taken no action.

The institute is able to function partly because there is a kind of political twilight zone in the West Bank now. The Israelis have withdrawn from much of the work of occupiers, but Mr. Arafat is yet to take over.

Ironically, Mr. Arafat should be pleased by what Mr. Shikaki produces not simply because it is a useful reflection of public opinion but because it has presented remarkably good news for the Palestinian leader who expects to hold elections before year's end as part of a deal with Israel.

The center's surveys find that the strength of Mr. Arafat's main challenger, the fundamentalist group Hamas, has been exaggerated by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The reliability of the data has been questioned since the public has never lived in a free society and could easily fear giving an honest answer.

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