On October 26, 1995, Fathi Shikaki awoke to the last day of his life. He was staying at the Diplomat Hotel in the town of Sliema, in Malta. The Mediterranean island was full of tourists, but somehow managed to keep its beauty intact and a had a certain atmosphere of parsimony. Shikaki had landed the previous night, coming from Libya, where he had attended a meeting of Arab terrorist groups organized by Muhamar Gaddafi. As the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he could not be absent. He had not wanted to attend, but the Libyan colonel was a generous patron. In addition, Said Mussa al-Muragha, the leader of a radical Palestinian faction that had challenged Yasser Arafat within the Palestine Liberation Organization and a staunch enemy of his, had decided to attend. Shikaki had to be there. As usual, he would return to Damascus, stopping in Malta.
It would not hurt a short stay on that peaceful island, anyway. The last months had been hectic as he had ordered the execution of several successful attacks in Historic Palestine. In November 1994, a Palestinian cyclist detonated a bomb attached to his body at an Israeli military checkpoint in Netzarim (Gaza), killing three reserve soldiers. In January 1995, at the crossing of Bet Lid (on the route between Tel Aviv and Haifa), two of his men blew themselves up -with a difference of three minutes so as to reach the passers-by who came to the site to help victims of the first detonation – causing the death of a civilian and twenty-one Israeli soldiers. Then, in April, two suicide bombers exploded next to a bus in Kfar Darom (Gaza), killing seven Israeli soldiers and a 20-year-old American student, Alisa Michelle Flatow. Shikaki could reward himself with a brief relaxing moment on the Maltese stop-over.
At mid-morning, taking advantage of the warm weather, he went for a walk. He stopped at the Marks & Spencer store and bought a shirt. In the next store, he acquired three more. It was soon noon. The clock struck 1:15pm –the time of his death. A Yamaha motorcycle with two passengers on board had been following him stealthily. It approached slowly and stopped at his side. A Mossad agent drew a silenced pistol and fired twice at the head of the Palestinian militant. Shikaki fell to the ground. The shooter triggered once more, aiming at the neck of his target. The driver sped away to a nearby beach. There, they met other Israeli commandos who were dressed in civilian clothes, posing as tourists. They waited for the arrival of the rest of the team, jumped onto a boat that took them out to sea, where farther away an Israeli ship transported them back to Tel Aviv.
The Israelis had been planning this operation for months. Previously, they had tried to eliminate him in June 1994, on the road that connects Tunisia with Libya. The Mossad had tapped his phone, so they knew his movements. Shikaki used to fly from Damascus or Beirut to Tunisia (via Malta) where he rented a car, usually a BMW or a Jaguar, and drove alone to Tripoli. The Mossad and the Israeli army mounted an operation to plant explosives at a point on that route and attach an electronic device to Shikaki’s car, which would activate the bombs as it passed near them. They were acting on the ground when they realized that a Morocco-Egypt rally would take place at that time. They noticed that some drivers were approaching, and as they wanted to avoid what in the jargon is coldly called collateral damage, they quit the mission. By the time the second opportunity appeared, months later in Malta, the Israelis were determined not to let Shikaki go.
So far, this is just a common story in the war on terror that Israel has been waging for decades and that several authors have documented, notably Ronen Bergman in his book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. But this story stops being anecdotal when noticing a turn, so to speak, that gives it a certain tragic beauty. Fathi was survived by a brother two years younger, Khalil, who could have well followed the violent wake of his brother; and, in fact, he had a reason to do so in that endless an-eye-for-an-eye cycle that has bloodied the Palestinian-Israeli reality. However, he chose to dedicate his life to the academy, becoming a reputed pollster in the West Bank who even interacts with his Israeli counterparts. Two sides of the same emblematic coin.
Khalil Shikaki was born in 1953 in Rafiah, in the Gaza Strip. He graduated from the West Bank University of Bir Zeit and the American University in Beirut. After a working stay in Kuwait, he moved to New York, where he got his doctorate from Columbia University in 1985. He taught there for a year, and returned to the West Bank to take up teaching at the An-Najjah University in Nablus. When this university was closed during the first intifada, Khalil returned to the United States and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before moving to Tampa in 1991, where he became a professor at the University of South Florida.
Although he sought to distance himself from his brother’s dark aura -he became involved in second-track negotiations with the Israelis during the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference-, when he wanted to return to the West Bank that same year, after the reopening of the An- Najjah U., the Israeli authorities denied him permission in light of intelligence information that stated that he had kept in touch with Fathi. The US Department of State intervened on his behalf and Khalil was able to return to the territories. He always denied being in touch with his brother or with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but more than once he was embraced by the shadow of his brother´s organization. According to some allegations, the PIJ had used Khalil´s academic center in Tampa as a front.
In 1993, with support from the Ford Foundation and the European Union, he founded the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, which in 2000 became the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. His opinion polls on the Palestinian street about the government in Ramallah put him in direct confrontation with the Palestinian Authority on more than one occasion. In 2015, a survey revealed that eighty percent of Palestinians considered the PA to be corrupt, and a later survey showed that seventy percent of the Palestinian population believed that Mahmoud Abbas should resign. This is not exactly the kind of data that the Palestinian government would want to advertise. Besides, that he conducts joint academic studies with his Israeli colleagues must have aroused the ire of the fanatics, who will surely have seen his engagement with the Zionists as a betrayal of his deceased brother’s legacy.
Fathi and Khalil were born just two years apart, in the same city and of the same parents. They grew up in the same cultural, social, political and economic millieu. Both attended university (Fathi obtained a medical degree in Egypt). However, they ended up taking very different directions in life. In 1981, while Khalil was pursuing his doctorate in the United States, Fathi founded the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Egypt, as a vehicle for anti-Zionist struggle and for the future establishment of a caliphate in Palestine. Their contrasting life stories expose a singular saga that shows us that we can yield to the pressures of circumstances, or avoid them. Khalil teaches us that, ultimately, it is always individual choice -based on human will and values- what determines the destiny of men. Unintentionally, he shows us that free will, our inner moral compass and a sense of positive mission can forge one’s own path, with relative independence from the surrounding environment. Symbolically, Fathi and Khalil embody two legendarily different paths among which the Palestinian people, each day, collectively, must choose.