MER FLASHBACK - Originally published 5/97
ARAFAT IN GAZA:
"A REGIME OF EXTORTION"
MER - If you only have time for one article about the so-called
"Peace Process" and what has been done to the Palestinian people since the Gulf
War -- READ THIS ONE! AND READ IT IN FULL! David Hirst is one of the most seasoned veteran
journalists in the Middle East today. This article is from the GUARDIAN WEEKLY, 27 April.
(Opening Headline): Yasser Arafat and his 'Tunisians' have turned
the Palestinians' homeland into a ramshackle, nepotistic regime of extortion....
SHAMLESS IN GAZA
By David Hirst
GAZA is the most conservative of Palestinian communities; its
Islamist militants once set fire to a sea-front hotel, a restaurant and other such dens of
So imagine the pious horror at the opening of Gaza's first and only
nightclub. On a Thursday evening of the Muslim weekend, I found the Zahra al-Mada'in, the
Flower of the Cities, packed almost to capacity, not just with lonely young men come to
admire Gaza's first belly dancers and songstresses -- locally recruited gypsies -- but
with entire families, women, children and even a babe-in-arms.
In other smart or risque places, you can add illicit liquor to your
Coca-Cola, but here -- in another Gazan first -- you can order your scotch or your Israeli
Maccabee beer on the very premises. However the oddest thing is not so much the place, but
the clientele: they are mainly "Tunisians", not Gazans at all.
Tunis was Yasser Arafat's last headquarters in exile, and "the
Tunisians" is a nickname which Gazans gave to those, officially known as
"returnees", who came with him when, following the Oslo accord he established
himself here instead. There are about 10,000 of them, bureaucrats who run his Palestinian
Authority, former guerillas who dominate his enormous security apparatus."
PHOTO: Suha Arafat laughing beneath a photo of
Caption: "Suha Arafat: in charge of private slush fund."
The Tunisians" have " come home" to the soil of
Palestine itself. But the terrible irony is that they are not merely strangers in their
own land, they are for the most part disliked, despised, even hated. It is they who
introduced such abominations as Zahra al-Mada'in.
But it is not just Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or bigots in general,
who feel the shock. Liberals who welcome any challenge to the dour local mores feel it
too. For almost everyone, "the Tunisians" are as alien, as unfit to rule, as
those -- Turks, British, Egyptians, Israelis -- who came before them. And because they are
actually Palestinians,! and came as "liberators", the shock is even
worse.Arafat's Palestine Revolution never made itself very popular, among governments,
elites or even ordinary people of the territories it passed through .
But at least in Jordan, in the sixties, its men truly fought and
died. So -- though with less purpose or conviction -- did they in Lebanon in the seventies
and eighties. Obviously, during the eightie s and nineties, they could not fight from
Tunis, and other far-flung Arab countries in which they fetched up, but at least, as
members of the world's richest liberation movement, they continued to pump money into
Here, in the homeland itself, far from fighting the former Zionist
foe, they lead the collaboration with it. They may attract money -- in the form of
international aid -- to this poorest of Palestin an communities, but they take at least as
much away from it. They are oppressive -- and immeasurably corrupt. "
We live in amazing, shameful times," said one of Gaza's
merchant princes, and a former Fatah fighter himself, "but you should know that every
revolution has its fighters, thinkers and profiteers. Our fighters have been killed, our
thinkers assassinated, and all we have left are the profiteers. These don't think even
primarily of the cause, they don't think about it at all. They know that they re just
transients here, as they were in Tunis, and, as with any regime whose end is near, they
think only of profiting from it while they can."
This is a damning indictment, but if any system can be measured by
the conduct of its bureaucrats it is a fair one. In fact, the justice of it hits even a
casual visitor in the eye. Just go to the district of Rimal. Rimal means "sand",
and on this former wasteland there is now arising, at incredible speed, the most up-market
neighbourhood of "liberated" Gaza.
You might not think it at first sight; a sand-smothered,
refuse-strewn mess of empty lots amid shacks that are disappearing and half-finished
concrete monsters that are taking their place, it differs little in spirit from the rest
of this desolate, infinitely decrepit and unsightly city.
But it is mainly here that "the Tunisians" have taken
root, with their amazing array of "ministries", "authorities" and
special "agencies", police stations and sen ry posts, choice rooftop apartments,
villas and places of entertainment. Here is Arafat's own sea-front bureau -- al-Muntada,
The Club -- with all the "presidential" trappings he so adores, and here in the
very next building, is the Zahra al-Mada'in cabaret.
Here you will sooner or later run into Suha, his young wife, out for
lunch at Le Mirage, an exclusive sea-front restaurant, with her infant daughter and a
posse of Force-17 bodyguards. You will run into her, at least, when she is not in Paris,
where she does her shopping and can find a decent hairdresser, unlike the first,
disastrous Gazan one, who reportedy turned her blonde locks almost orange .
PHOTO: Palestinians throwing stones.
Caption: While ordinary Palestinians continue to fight on the streets against Jewish
settlements, their rulers are busy lining their own pockets.
And you are bound to come across Susie, her ample British nanny who
affects leopard-skin tights and often has too much to drink, a condition in which she is
apt to dispense indiscretions about the presidential household, threatening, some fear,
another Middle Eastern nanny scandal of Netanyahu proportions.
Among the fancy new villas, fanciest is that of Abu Mazen, key
negotiator of the ill-fated Oslo accord. It is not clear who paid for this $2 million-plus
affair, all balconies and balustrades in gothic profusion, but the graffiti which some
irreverent scoundrel scrawled on its wall proclaimed that "this is your reward for
Lifestyles match. Nabil Shaath, the highly articulate minister of
planning much seen on Western TV screens, recently took a wife young enough to be his
daughter. He required four receptions to celebrate this event, in Cairo, Gaza -- and two
in Jerusalem. Because his Israeli friends could not go to the one in East Jerusalem's
Orient House, that "illegal" outpost of the Palestinian Authority, he had
another in the Ambassador Hotel.
For salutary contrast with Rimal, just stroll up the coast where,
just beyond Le Mirage, you will come upon the awful squalor and open sewers of the Shati'
refugee camp, conditions resembling those n which most Gazans live.
There, in a windowless concrete block they call "the
cafe", I asked some day labourers, idled by yet another Israeli border closure,
whether they thought that Gaza's per capita income, far from rising, had actually fallen
by as much as 39 per cent since the Oslo accord. For that is what a recent UN survey says.
"More like 75 per cent," one replied. "some no longer think it a shame to
send their children out to beg." That also seems to be borne out by the UN report,
which records an "alarming" increase in "child labour".
More shocking, really, than the contrast itself is what lies behind
it. When he first came here, Arafat said he would turn Gaza into a "new
Singapore". Palestinian businessmen, who made their fortunes building the Arab
oil states, would help ! him build his.
But, three years on, it is clear that none will seriously touch it.
Not just the Israelis deter them, with their repeated frontier closures that bedevil
businessmen as well as workers In truth, Arafat does not want them either. For they would
undermine his control, achieved through a combination of police surveillance and money
power. So instead of any kind of independent, creative, wealth-producing capitalism, he
and his coterie of unofficial economic "advisers" have thrown up a ramshackle,
nepotistic edifice of monopoly, racketeering and naked extortion that enriches them as it
further impoverishes society at large.
Two years ago, the al-Bahr company barely existed. Al-Bahr means
"sea". But Gazans now dub it "the ocean", because, they say, "it
is swallowing Gaza whole". Legally speaking, not being officially registered, it
should not be operating at all. Yet it is so brazen about its powerful connections that --
to the impotent indignation of the Palestinian "parliament" -- it even uses the
Authority's letter heads. It belongs to Arafat, or, more precisely, to his wife Suha and
the other "shareholders" who handle his private finances. Al-Bahr -- who else?
-- runs the Zahra al-Mada'in nightclub. The premises were supposed to go by open tender to
the most qualified bidder. But Arafat just signed a decree placing it in his protege's
hands. It is never by fair, and often by quite foul, means that Arafat In corporated moves
into real estate, entertainment, computers, advertising, medicine, insurance. Only the
most powerful Gazan businessmen can resist its encroachments. It goes chiefly after small
and medium fry. These are pressed into "partnership" with al-Bahr.
Al-Bahr is the new, strictly domestic instrument of Arafat's
takeover of the Gazan economy. It complements already existing monopolies, for the import
of such basic commodities as cement, petrol or flour, which he operates in complicity with
the Israelis. For example, out of the $74 for which a ton of cement is sold in Gaza, $17
goes to the Authority, and $17 into his own account in a Tel Aviv bank.
It is no secret what Arafat uses this money for. "I shall give
you all you want if you obey and protect me -- and give me all I want." That has
always been his message to his nomenklatura, and it has been amazingly successful. For
what resistance can be expected from an apparatus whose minister of civil affairs, Jamil
Tarifi, a big contractor, goes on building Israeli settlements even as the Palestinian
people threaten a new intifada over Har Homa? Or whose high officials use their VIP cars
to sail through Israeli checkpoints on their way to the fleshpots of Tel Aviv even as
Israel! i border closures rob day labourers of their menial wage?
Rarely can a revolution have degenerated like Arafat's -- and yet
survived. It only survives because, in robbing his people to bribe his buraucrats, he has
proved so great a commitment to the peace process that the parties on which he now
completely depends -- Israelis, Americans, the international community at large -- are
willing to ignore, even encourage, his manifest corruptions. The Israelis may be
embarrassed by the latest, scandalous revelations of their leading newspaper, Ha'aretz,
about the Arafat slush fund that the great peace-maker, Yitzhak Rabin, authorised. But so
long as Arafat goes on bending to their conception of the peace, they will go on letting
him draw on it.
European governments would be far more embarrassed if it were
established that Arafat really does earn far more from al-Bahr and his illicit monopolies
than from all their aid combined. But unless the scandal becomes too great, they will go
on paying too. But they delude themselves if they think that they can go on propping him
up for ever. And in this regard, it seems, Arafat and his "Tunisians" are more
clear-headed than they are. They know that there is a point beyond which even he cannot go
without risking his people's wrath.
Small wonder then that, according to Ha'aretz, a part of Arafat's
secret fund is earmarked for "emergency situations", such as a coup or a civil
war, in which he, his family and immediate entourage could be forced to flee into exile
once more, and re-establish the leadership from there. They know, better than anyone, that
the peace process, and all they get out of it, is built, like the Zahra a M ada'in, on
nothing more solid than the fine white powdery sands of Rimal.
The Guardian Weekly, 4/27/97