Salah Khalaf

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Salah Mesbah Khalaf (Arabic: صلاح مصباح خلف‎‎), also known as Abu Iyad (أبو إياد) (born 1933 – January 14, 1991) was deputy chief and head of intelligence for the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the second most senior official of Fatah after Yasser Arafat.[1]

Early life[edit]

Khalaf was born in northern Jaffa in 1933, close to Tel Aviv. His father, who came from Gaza, ran a grocery in Carmel Market, where half of his clients were Jewish and he spoke Hebrew, which his son also picked up from companions among Sephardic Jews.[2] One of his uncles was married to a Jew.[3] He dates his first feelings of animosity towards Jews to an incident in 1945, when he was taunted by Jewish youths for being an Arab while riding over to visit relatives. They smashed his bicycle, and, on returning home, he learnt that Jewish friends had falsely reported that he had knifed Jews in Jaffa, at a time corresponding to the bicycle incident. He was arrested, aged 11, by British police, beaten up and sentenced to a year of house arrest.[2] On expiry of the sentence, he joined the 'lion cubs' of the Najjada militia founded by his school principal Muhammad al-Hawari,[4] which inculcated a rejection of racism, bigotry, and parochial loyalism, and taught him how to retaliate to violence with violence. His family abandoned Jaffa by boat for Gaza on 13 May 1948, as part of a general flight inspired by news of the Deir Yassin massacre and a sense of Jewish military superiority. They fully expected to return as an expected tide in the fortunes of war changed, enabling the Arab armies to drive back to Zionists.[4] He moved to Cairo in the early 1950s, enrolling in the Dar al-Ulum teacher's college.[5] There in 1951 he became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.[6]

Encounter with Arafat and entry into the PLO[edit]

In 1951, he met Yasser Arafat at the al-Azhar University—where he studied literature—during a meeting of the General Union of Palestinian Students. He returned to Gaza in 1957 with a combined degree in philosophy and psychology, and a teacher's certificate from Ain Shams University, where he was assigned to teach at Al Zahra, a girls' school, a position that was, in his memoirs, allocated in order to make him a pariah in the city.[5] The posting lasted six months, after which he was transferred to teach in a makeshift school for poor refugee boys in the Gaza desert. Responding to a call from Arafat, he left for Kuwait and, together with Arafat, Farouk al-Qaddum, Khaled al-Hassan, Abd al-Muhsin al-Qatan and Khalil Ibrahim al-Wazir, founded Fatah - a name meaning "Conquest" composed from the reversed initials of Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini (Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine).[7][8]

He was accused by Israel and the United States of having founded the Black September organization. As a result, Khalaf was arrested by the Jordanians and then released after he appealed to his comrades to stop fighting and to lay down their arms. According to Said Abu Rish's biography of Yasser Arafat, Arafat had used the fact Abu Iyad negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan to deflect criticism from himself over the conduct of the fighting between Palestinian guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970-71, portraying Khalaf as weak. Some argue that the ridicule his mediation met with was a decisive factor in his turn towards tactics which were considered by his adversaries to be terroristic.[9] Khalaf then felt the need to restore his reputation within the Palestinian community, and became one of the foremost advocates for the terror campaigns conducted by PLO fighters and others during the early 1970s. Christopher Dobson, who met Abu Iyad in Cairo at this time, described him as someone who would pass unnoticed in a crowd, despite him topping Israel's most wanted list.[9]

He met with the U.S. ambassador to Tunis as part of the U.S.-PLO dialogue, a contact that had been authorized by James Baker.[10] He was a man "who had been instrumental in bringing about the shift of PLO policy toward greater pragmatism."[11] Khalaf opposed Arafat's alliance with Saddam Hussein, in so far as, he argued, one could not side with an occupying power when one was fighting in one's own country against an occupation. It was rumoured that he had openly expressed disagreement with the Iraqi leader in face to face meetings,[12] and vouched to stay neutral during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.


Abu Iyad is said to have helped the CIA in an operation to break up the Abu Nidal organization. Defectors who split off were given refuge in Tunis by the PLO. Among them, was a plant.[10] In the same year Abu Iyad was subsequently assassinated in Tunis, in the home of Abul Hol (the security head of Fatah), by a Palestinian guard: Hamza Abu Zaid was the plant from Abu Nidal's group, who shot him in the head, along with Abu Hof and another PLO operative.[8] Palestinians generally reacted by blaming Abu Nidal for the murder, since he was backed by Iraq. Hamza Abu Zaid later confessed to being in contact with Nidal.[13][14] While Seale considers Abu Nidal to certainly have been behind the murder, others think the order probably came directly from Saddam Hussein.[10]

Views of Zionism[edit]

According to Elizabeth Thompson, Abu Iyad regarded Zionism as an ideology exploited by a political elite which manipulated memories of Nazism in order to create a persecution complex among Jews.[15]

School naming[edit]

On September 24, 2016, the Palestinian Authority named a school in Tulkarem after Khalaf. Tulkarem governor Issam Abu Bakr said that the school was named after “martyr Salah Khalaf in order to commemorate the memory of this great national fighter”.[16][17]

Further reading[edit]

My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle, Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, New York 1981, ISBN 0-8129-0936-4

Salah Khalaf, "Lowering the Sword," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1990, pp. 91–112.


  1. ^ Salah khalaf. [S.l.]: Book On Demand Ltd. 2013. ISBN 5512009125. 
  2. ^ a b Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East, Harvard University Press, 2013 p.245.
  3. ^ Steve Posner,Israel Undercover:Secret Warfare & Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East, Syracuse University Press 1987 p.57.
  4. ^ a b Steve Posner,Israel Undercover:Secret Warfare & Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East, Syracuse University Press 1987 p.57
  5. ^ a b Steve Posner,Israel Undercover:Secret Warfare & Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East, Syracuse University Press 1987 p.58
  6. ^ Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, Oxford University Press, 2014 pp,153,159,392,402.
  7. ^ Steve Posner,Israel Undercover:Secret Warfare & Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East, Syracuse University Press 1987 pp.58-9
  8. ^ a b Aburish, Said K. (1998). From Defender to Dictator. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 1-58234-049-8. 
  9. ^ a b The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Be comes a Terrorist and Why?, Library of Congress, September 1999 p.52.
  10. ^ a b c William B. Quandt, 'Skewed perceptions: Yasir Arafat in the eyes of American officials,1969-2004,' in Sir Lawrence Freedman, Jeffrey Michaels (eds.),Scripting Middle East Leaders: The Impact of Leadership Perceptions on U.S. and UK Foreign Policy, A&C Black, 2012 pp.101-116
  11. ^ William B. Quandt, Peace Process (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001), page 297.
  12. ^ Elizabeth Thompson,p.249.
  13. ^ Patrick Seale, Abu Nidal: Gun For Hire, Hutchinson 1992, pp. 312–316.
  14. ^ Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted, Harvard University Press, 2013 p.270.
  15. ^ Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East, Harvard University Press, 2013 p.260.
  16. ^
  17. ^