The Life and Death of Naji al-Ali: voice of a nation

24 July, 2007

It has now been 20 years since reknown Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali was shot in London on July 22, 1987 by an unknown assassin. He lapsed into a coma and died five weeks later on August 29, 1987. During his life time, al-Ali drew more than 40,000 cartoons and was know for his sharp political wit and criticism of not only Israel, the US but also the Arab states. In his work, he campaigned tirelessly for the rights of the Palestinian refugees, Palestinian self-determination and against the absence of democracy, corruption and inequality in the Arab world. His work was often censored and he frequently received death threats. al-Ali was also detained and jailed in various countries and expelled from others for his political commentary. At 10 years of age, al-Ali and his family were forced to flee Palestine to Lebanon, when Israel invaded and seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Lebanon, he like thousands of others Palestinians, were forced to live in poor and over crowded refugee camps. This experience gave birth to his most famous creation, Handala (sometimes spelt Hanthala or Hanzala). The cartoonist christened his 10 year-old boy creation, who never spoke but was the guardian of the Palestinian cause, after a short bitter bush which can be found throughout all of Palestine. The bush although weak, if cut, has the reputation of growing back, time and time again.

Handala, dressed in rags and bare foot, according to al-Ali, represented him at the age of 10 years when he was forced to flee Palestine. “The young, barefoot Handala was a symbol of my childhood. He was the age I was when I had left Palestine and, in a sense, I am still that age today. Even though this all happened 35 years ago, the details of that phase in my life are still fully present to my mind. I feel that I can recall and sense every bush, every stone, every house and every tree I passed when I was a child in Palestine”. Handala, explained al-Ali is “a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way”. “Handala was born ten years old, and he will always be ten years old. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, Handala will still be ten, and then he will start growing up. The laws of nature do not apply to him. He is unique. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns” “I presented him to the poor and named him Handala as a symbol of bitterness. At first, he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon. He is a simple yet tough child, and this is why people adopted him and felt that he represents their consciousness.”

According to al Ali, Handala “protected” his soul when he felt weary and prevented him from ignoring his duty to his people and their struggle: “That child was like a splash of fresh water on my forehead, bringing me to attention and keeping me from error and loss. He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine. Not just Palestine in geographical terms, but Palestine in its humanitarian sense – the symbol of a just cause, whether it is located in Egypt, Vietnam or South Africa. I am from Ain Al-Helwa, a camp like any other camp. The people of the camps were the people of the land in Palestine. They were not merchants or landowners. They were farmers. When they lost their land, they lost their lives. The bourgeoisie never had to live in the camps, whose inhabitants were exposed to hunger, to every degradation and to every form of oppression. Entire families died in our camps. Those are the Palestinians who remain in my mind, even when my work takes me away from the camp”.

In 1982, al-Ali once again experienced first hand the military might of the Israeli Zionist state. Back in Ain Al Helwa refugee camp in Lebanon, he and his family and thousands of others were forced to flee from the camp. He and many others were taken prisoner by the invading Israeli army. He recounted once he and his family were freed five days later, they sought to return to the refugee camp: “We travelled by day. The corpses of the victims still lay in the streets. The burnt-out hulks of Israeli tanks still stood at the entrances to the camps. The Israelis had not removed them yet. From my inquiries into the circumstances of the resistance, I learned that it consisted of a group of no more than 40 or 50 youths. The Israeli army had burned the camp while the women and children were still inside their shelters. Israeli missiles had penetrated deep inside the camp, claiming the lives of hundreds of children in the camp in Saida. The young men in the resistance group had spontaneously taken an oath to one another that they would die before they ever surrendered. And, in fact, the Israelis never captured a single one of them. In daylight, the Israeli forces would attack. At night, the resistors would strike. This is what happened in Ain Al-Helwa, as I saw for myself. But I also know that there were other forms of resistance in the camps of Sur, Al-Burj Al-Shamal, Al-Bass and Al-Rashidi”. The subsequent butchery of Palestinian refugees in the camps shocked al-Ali to the core, none more so than the infamous massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps. For two days the IDF surrounded the camp, closing off all routes of escape and than sat and listened as their allies, the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, carried out the dirty work of murdering 3000 unarmed Palestinian men, women and children. (Israeli Defence Minister – who was later to become Prime Minister – Ariel Sharon was found personally responsible by an Israeli commission for the massacre, while the Israeli military personnel were found indirectly responsible because they knew the massacre was happening and did nothing to stop it)

In response, Handala’s 10 year-old hands become more animated, raised in anger and against oppression: sometimes holding a Palestinian flag or throwing a stone as a sign of resistance but always in condemnation of those who betrayed the justice of the Palestinian cause. His untimely death came just five short years later. Ten months after his death, Scotland Yard arrested a Palestinian student who turned out to be a Mossad agent. According to the agent, Israel were well aware in advance of the assasination attempt. Israel, however, refused to pass on any information they had on al-Ali assasination. In response, Britain expelled two Israeli diplomates and closed down Mossad’s last base. Despite his death, al-Ali’s legacy continues to live on, even now 20 years later. He once remarked that Handala, “this being that I have invented will certainly not cease to exist after me, and perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that I will live on with him after my death”. al-Ali words continue to ring true and since his death, his creation continues to speak out, in deafening silence, for Palestinian self determination. Handala, the small refugee boy, dressed in rags, silent in defiance and strong in resistance can be found everywhere throughout Palestine. And while his image is prolific, he is of course found most at home in the Palestinian refugee camps – the place of his birth – where he continues to remains a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance and defiance against all odds. Samples of Naji al-Ali’s cartoons can be found HERE

To Annie


  1. Daniel said,

    July 25, 2007 at 07:18

    So many people have given so much to try to right the wrongs yet still Israel marches on and over all opposition.

    I guess cartoons are no match for missiles and tanks and religious fanaticism!

  2. Desert Peace said,

    July 25, 2007 at 07:22

    You are right Daniel… they are no match… but they do bring attention to the struggle.
    From that we get eventual supporters…
    And from that we will eventually be victorious over those missiles and tanks and religious fanatics.

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