Omar al-Bitar was born in Jaffa. He had two brothers, Abdel Raouf and Ahmad, and a son named Zaki.
He received his primary education at the Ryshdiyya [Ottoman-era secular schools] and elementary schools of the city. In his early youth, he worked as a sheep trader between Jaffa and Anatolia. He was appointed as an advisor to the municipal council of Jaffa from 1905 to 1908.
After the restoration of the Ottoman constitution in July 1908, Bitar became the representative of the Committee of Union and Progress Party in Jaffa, and in this capacity he was elected as the city’s mayor that year. In 1913, he was also nominated to the general council responsible for the administration of the district of Jerusalem and as a member of the council’s agriculture subcommittee. On April 19, 1914, Bitar became the first Palestinian to ride an airplane, a Turkish craft named Adermid, that was flown by aviators Salem and Kamal Bek, on a flight that flew over Jerusalem for eight minutes.
During the early days of the British Mandate over Palestine, Bitar was arrested and sent to a military prison in Cairo and then in Alexandria for one year. After returning to Palestine, he founded the Muslim-Christian Association of Jaffa in 1921 and remained its head for many years.
Bitar took part in the proceedings of the fourth Palestine Arab Congress that met in Jerusalem in late May–early June 1921. The congress issued a statement asserting that the Arabs of Palestine had the right to political self-determination for their country, and declared to the British government and the League of Nations “the people’s decision to reject the Mandate.” He also took part in the proceedings of the fifth Congress, which was held in Nablus in August 1922, where a boycott of the Legislative Council elections (called for by the Mandate authorities) was announced. Bitar was chosen as a member of the Arab Executive Committee that emerged from that congress.
Bitar played a prominent role in the preparation for the meeting of the seventh Palestine Arab Congress, after it was agreed that the majlisiyyun, or councilists (supporters of Haj Amin al-Husseini, president of the Supreme Moslim Council), and the muʿaridun, or oppositionists (those opposed to Husseini and the council, led by Raghib al-Nashashibi), would have an equal number of delegates. The invitation to attend the congress was sent with the signatures of both Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husseini, on behalf of the councilists [majlisiyyun], and Omar al-Bitar on behalf of the oppositionists [muʿaridun]. That congress was eventually held in Jerusalem in late May 1928, and Bitar again was part of the Arab Executive Committee that emerged from it.
In his capacity as representative of the oppositionists, Bitar issued a joint statement along with Shaykh Abd al-Qadir Muzaffar, who was representing the councilists, addressed to the Arab Independence Party [Hizb al-Istiqlal al-Arabi], which was founded in the summer of 1932. In it, they asked the party to implement the program of noncooperation with the Mandate through the resignation of two members of its leadership (Muhammad Izzat Darwaza and Subhi al-Khadra) from the waqf (religious endowments) board. Then, in early December 1934, Bitar and several others—Raghib al-Nashashibi, As’ad al-Shuqairi, Suleiman Touqan, and Yaqoub Farraj—co-founded the National Defense Party [Hizb al-Difaʿ al-Watani].
After the call for a general strike in April 1936 and the formation of national committees across the country, Bitar chaired the national committee for Jaffa. While the shopkeepers in Jaffa assured him of their commitment to the strike, he sent letters to the vegetable, egg, and fish traders in Egypt and Syria, entreating them to stand with their Palestinian counterparts and refrain from exporting their goods to Tel Aviv.
Bitar was invited to attend a meeting of the Arab Higher Committee that was held at the end of August 1936 to debate a proposal put forward by some Arab kings and princes to stop the general strike. In July 1937, Bitar met with Ibrahim Hashem, prime minister of the Emirate of Transjordan, and Mohammed al-Unsi, personal secretary to Emir Abdallah, at the Grand Ram Hotel. However, he refused the Emir’s request to endorse the partition plan for Palestine that had been proposed at the time by the royal Peel Commission inquiry.
In late December 1937, Bitar and his supporters in Jaffa sought to calm the political situation in the city in order to save the orange harvest, believing that any revolutionary action at that moment would not be in the best interests of the Palestinian people. However, on 22 November 1938, he broadcast a joint statement from Lebanon along with Isa al-Isa, similar to the one issued by Raghib al-Nashashibi, in which he affirmed that Fakhri al-Nashashibi, who was among those behind the militias called the “peace bands” [fasaʾil al-salam] that were formed to quell the Arab revolt, represented only himself. The statement further affirmed that the National Defense Party stood in solidarity with the other Arab parties of Palestine in their resistance to the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate.
On 21 June 1941, Bitar was appointed by the British Mandate’s High Commissioner for Palestine as head of Jaffa’s municipal council. He was also the honorary chair of the National Chamber of Commerce in Jaffa until 1945. In this capacity, he took part in the fourth conference of Palestinian mayors that was held in Gaza City that year.
Bitar participated in the conference of the Arab chambers of commerce of Palestine, which was held on 12 November 1943, and formed a preparatory committee to discuss the establishment of an Arab political organization to replace the Arab Higher Committee, which had been banned by the British Mandate authorities in September 1937. On 12 March 1945, he sent a letter to the British governor of Lydda district, Mr. Church, tendering his resignation as mayor of Jaffa.
Bitar died on 16 June 1946 following a massive heart attack. His family received telegrams of condolence from Mr. Church; King Abdullah ibn al-Hussein; the former president of the Syrian Republic, Hashem al-Atassi; a number of recognized foreign consuls; and well-known Palestinian figures such as Jamal al-Husseini, Ahmed Samih al-Khalidi, Izzat Tannous, and Ahmad al-Shuqairi.
He was given a massive public funeral, and the ceremonies committee consisted of the Islamic courts religious magistrate for Jaffa along with Shaykh Abd al-Qadir Muzaffar and Hassan Abu al-Wafa al-Dajani. Raghib al-Nashashibi and Yaqoub al-Ghussein; the British governor of Lydda district; emissaries of King Abdullah; members of the Supreme Muslim Council; and the mayors of Jaffa, Nablus, Gaza, and Ramla all took part in his funeral procession. Eulogies for him were delivered by the Islamic religious courts magistrate of Jaffa and the mayor of Hebron, Shaykh Mohammed al-Jaʿbari. His body was buried in the Jabaliyya cemetery in Jaffa. A memorial service was held for him on 26 July 1946 at al-Hamra Cinema in Jaffa, on the occasion of his arbaʿin, or the passing of forty days after his death.
Omar al-Bitar is considered one of the major figures of Palestine and a quintessential symbol of Jaffa in his time. He enjoyed great popularity in his city, especially among the working class. Bitar was remembered for his generosity and loyalty to his friends and his capability to defuse feuds. Although he remained on the side of the oppositionists against the leadership of Mufti Mohammad Amin al-Husseini and his councilists, he continued to extend the hand of friendship to their faction, always striving in his conduct to be someone who rose above partisan politics.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
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