Born in 1920 in Tiberias, Palestine. He is a descendant of an old and distinguished family closely related to Ibrahim al-Sabbagh, the personal physician and financial advisor of Dhahir al-‘Umar, the Palestinian leader who challenged Ottoman rule in Palestine in the eighteenth century. His grandfather Habib Sabbagh was a deputy of the French consul in Safad, and his uncle Tuma Sabbagh would later become French consul in Safad and Tiberias, as would Tuma’s nephew Yusuf upon his uncle’s death. Hasib’s mother, Faduk, was the eldest child of As‘ad al-Khoury, who sought refuge in Safad from the 1860 civil war in Lebanon. As‘ad was a self-made man who became a large landowner in the al-Hula region, married into the Haddad family, and had two daughters and five sons.
Hasib Sabbagh was first sent to a co-educational Catholic school in Safad. Later he and most of his siblings entered public school, while his brother Munir and sister Suad attended private Presbyterian institutions. In school he refused to leave the classroom when it was time for Islamic religious studies, and as a result learned a great deal about Islam. It was also in school that he learned to help those in need: his mother encouraged him to help his weaker classmates with their studies - which he did - and to assist needy students in other ways as well. Hasib also collected money from the better-off students and gave it to the poorest.
As a teenager, Hasib was accepted at the prestigious Government Arab College of Jerusalem, which only the top public school students in Palestine attended. It was headed by Ahmad Samih al-Khalidi and staffed by some of the finest teachers in the Arab world. It was a boarding school with regimental discipline, where the highest standards were set for the students. They were expected to study night and day, and were allowed only one day off for sports and other recreation. It was there that he established some of the friendships that have lasted to this day.
In the summer of 1941, after having graduated from AUB, Hasib returned to Palestine to find a job. The obstacles he encountered led him to make decisions that would change the course of his life. He first attempted to get a job with the public works department in Jerusalem; he met with the British director of the department, who offered him a low-paying job. When Hasib pointed out to him that an unskilled worker in the department made more money, the director responded, “Who says that you know more than a worker at this point?” Hasib rejected the offer and went to Tel Aviv. There, on the advice of his cousin Fawzi Sabbagh, he applied for a job with a Jewish firm that was engaged in work for the British military. The head of the firm did not meet with him, but had him fill out forms and state his salary requirements. Hasib refused to supply a salary requirement and asked that the director inform him of the salary for the position for which he was applying. When the director refused, Hasib put down what he knew others were making in similar jobs. The director then turned down his application on the grounds that he was asking for too much money. These two experiences convinced Hasib that he could not work directly or indirectly for the public sector.
Hasib’s political life began in the cradle, so to speak. He was born into a family that was involved in politics, although its members never joined any particular political party or group. He grew up in Safad, a city that was representative of the rest of Palestine, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived and socialized together. Hasib became aware of the troubles brewing in Palestine between the Arab population, the Jews, and the British in 1929 at the onset of the Buraq conflict. His political education, however, took place at the American University of Beirut, with his exposure to the various political trends represented on campus and the professors there who were the ideologues of some of the most popular of those trends. His political consciousness developed with the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and his new status of refugee in Lebanon. His involvement in the Palestinian cause and his support for those in the diaspora took the form of providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees. Hasib also attended numerous political meetings of Palestinians with different ideas for finding a solution to the Palestinian crisis, but he never became seriously involved with any one group, focusing all his energies on developing his business instead.
In 1970, Hasib met Yasir Arafat, chairman of the PLO, at the house of a mutual friend, Abdul Majid Shoman, in Beirut. Since that time, he has developed a close relationship with Arafat and other members of the PLO leadership. Hasib, Basel Aql, and Walid Khalidi became intermediaries between the PLO and the Lebanese government, trying to inform and explain the complexity of Lebanese confessional politics to Arafat and his colleagues and interceding on behalf of Palestinian refugees with the Lebanese authorities. It was the Lebanese civil war, however, that made Hasib an activist - an activist for peace and reconciliation between the various Lebanese parties and between the Palestinians and the Lebanese.
Hasib recognized the danger of the situation in Lebanon when, in April 1975, twenty-six Palestinians were shot to death by Phalangist forces in ‘Ayn al-Rumanah, in retaliation for the assassination of two of their bodyguards. The next day, he met with Abu Iyad, the PLO’s second in command, at Walid Khalidi’s house. The Palestinian leadership had also understood the potential threat to Lebanese - Palestinian relations this incident portended. Abu Iyad asked Hasib to convince the Maronite patriarch, Antonius Butrus Khraysh, to condemn the killing publicly in order to preempt a further deterioration of the situation. Hasib, accompanied by a member of the Phalangist party, visited the patriarch, who agreed to make a statement on the radio that same evening condemning the killings. Hasib also asked the patriarch to invite both Pierre Gemayel, the leader of the Phalangist party, and Yasir Arafat for lunch at the patriarchate to effect a reconciliation between them and their communities. The invitation was accepted by Gemayel, but Arafat declined, saying that it was too soon after the ‘Ayn al-Rumanah killings to meet with Gemayel. Hasib Sabbagh strongly believes that had that meeting occurred between the two leaders at the onset of the conflict, it may have prevented much of the bloodshed and disaster that took place in the following days, months, and even years. Hasib was involved in many other efforts to bring leaders of the various factions together in order to resolve conflicts or prevent their escalation.
Throughout the war, Hasib acted as intermediary and mediator, trying to find solutions to the conflict that was destroying the country. He passed messages from the PLO to the U.S. administration and back to the PLO (although he was not the only channel that Arafat used to communicate with the United States). In 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hasib, accompanied by Munib al-Masri and Abdul Majid Shoman, went to Saudi Arabia to ask King Khalid to intercede with the United States in an effort to stop Israel’s bombing of Beirut, to allow the PLO to leave the city. When the bombing stopped, Hasib was instrumental in passing information from the PLO to the United States about the PLO’s conditions for its peaceful departure from Beirut.
Today Hasib Sabbagh is working to promote the peace process in Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He is a member of the Palestine National Council as well as a member of the Palestine Central Council, where he has played an important role over the years. He is also deputy chairman of the Health Care Organization of the West Bank and Gaza and chairman of the Palestinian Students Fund, which provide social and economic services to residents of the West Bank and Gaza. To promote the training and education of young Palestinian men and women, he gives financial aid on an annual basis to educational institutions such as al-Najah University in Nablus, Bethlehem University, the Islamic University in Gaza, the Gaza National College, and Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
Hasib has not limited his assistance to Palestinians, but has also given generously to other causes. After the death of his wife, he founded the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Foundation, which receives 1 percent of his annual income and distributes it to a wide variety of institutions in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. He has given financial aid to the Beirut Charities Foundation, the American University of Beirut, the Jordan Charities Foundation, the Welfare Association in Geneva, and the Vatican. In the United States he has been generous to health care and educational institutions primarily. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have received generous grants from the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Foundation, as has Harvard University (the alma mater of his daughter Sana), Georgetown University (in particular the Center for Muslim - Christian Understanding), the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Eureka College in California, and Webber College in Florida (where his sons studied). In 1995, he made a generous donation to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York to create a chair in Middle East affairs. It is now occupied by Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs (1983 - 89) and the present chairman of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.