Dr Haider Abdel-Shafi, who has died at the age of 88, was a towering figure of the Palestinian national movement for more than half a century – not only one of the fiercest critics of Israel, but also often of the Palestinian leadership. He had a commanding presence, equally at home in an Oxford college as on the crowded streets of Gaza, and his integrity shone out in any company.
Abdel-Shafi was born into an illustrious religious family in Gaza, just at the end of the Ottoman occupation. After boarding at the Arab College in Jerusalem, he studied medicine at the American University of Beirut. There he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement, which backed the founding of a Palestinian state and the growing Arab revolt in British-occupied Palestine.
In 1944 he joined the British Jordanian army, then part of a new British Ninth Army intended to open a second front (which never materialised) in the Balkans. Instead, he spent the war in Palestine, and then set up in private practice in Gaza. Wounded Palestinian guerrillas were brought to him as clashes escalated between Jews and Arabs following the 1947 UN partition resolution. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he ran a medical clearing station in Gaza as the territory was flooded with 200,000 refugees.
After studying surgery at the Miami Valley hospital in Dayton, Ohio, he returned to the Middle East in 1954, by which time Gaza was under Egyptian rule, and worked as a surgeon at the Tal Zahur hospital. Israel invaded and temporarily occupied Gaza in 1956, installing a municipal council, on which he refused to serve. The following year he married Hoda Khalidi, daughter of a prominent Jerusalem family who, since 1948, had been refugees in Alexandria. The Egyptians appointed him head of medical services in the Gaza Strip (1957-60), and he became a personal friend of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Abdel-Shafi was chairman of the first Palestinian legislative council in Gaza (1962-64). He was also a delegate to the first all-Palestinian conference, which convened in Jerusalem in 1964 and established the PLO. He became a member of the first PLO executive committee (1964-65), and by 1966 was the leading PLO figure in the Gaza Strip.
During the 1967 six-day war, he worked as a volunteer at the Shifa hospital in Gaza, as Israel again occupied the area. Suspected of supporting the military activities of George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), he was detained by the Israelis – he always denied membership of the PFLP, but expressed sympathy for its radical stand. In 1969 he was expelled for three months to the isolated Sinai village of Nahal. He was deported again in 1970, this time to Lebanon for two months, with five other prominent members of the Gaza leadership, in retaliation for a PFLP hijacking.
Abdel-Shafi was founder and director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip from 1972, providing free medical care and a forum for cultural activities. This provided the bedrock of his later grassroots political support.
In 1978, he denounced the Camp David accords as an Egyptian sellout of the Palestinians to get back Sinai. In retaliation, Israel confined him to Gaza, and threatened the Red Crescent with closure. In May 1988, during the first Palestinian intifada, he went on US prime-time television with Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi. It was the first time that Palestinians had directly addressed an Israeli and western audience, and the three achieved a turning point in western perception of the PLO.
Abdel-Shafi became a world figure when he led the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, where his moving and eloquent speech set a tone that no other Palestinian leader has ever risen to. For the next 22 months, he headed the very difficult negotiations with the Israelis in Washington. He left the delegation once over the issue of settlements, and even after he was persuaded to return, urged the Palestinians to withdraw from a process he believed was doomed by bad faith on this issue. Like the writer Edward Said (obituary, September 26 2003), he forecast the failure of the Oslo peace process long before it became obvious.
Abdel-Shafi was overwhelmingly popular in Gaza, and in 1996 was elected to the Palestinian legislative council with the highest number of votes, becoming leader of its political committee. Three years later, his disagreements with Yasser Arafat (obituary, November 12 2004) came into the open when Abdel-Shafi walked out of the Palestine National Congress meeting, arguing that Arafat should not amend the Palestinian national charter to recognise Israel until reciprocal recognition was achieved.
He announced his intention to resign from the PLC in October 1997 on the grounds that it did not have any real power to change the Palestinians’ situation; he also called for more democracy within the Palestine national authority (PNA), and a national unity leadership. The following April he initiated unity talks for all factions in Gaza – Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the leftwing PFLP and DFLP.
Abdel-Shafi described the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000 as a spontaneous rejection of 10 years of fruitless negotiations that Israel had used to create facts on the ground; he supported the right of the Palestinians to fight, but opposed suicide bombings. Even as the splits in the Palestinian political class deepened, he continued to call for a government of national unity, even if this meant the PNA would be allied with groups unacceptable to the west, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It was symbolic of his unique position that his funeral procession yesterday was accompanied by representatives of all the factions in Gaza.
He is survived by his wife, four children and seven grandchildren.
· Haider Abdel-Shafi, doctor and politician, born 1919; died September 25 2007