An encounter with Arafat and back!
Eyad El Sarraj
15 January 2004
He was frail, but astonishingly vibrant, his eyes shining but sad. As usual he was cordial, warm and cynical. Going into his office was haunting. Leaving him behind was painful. It was all surreal but very telling.
This is the President of Palestine living and working in a destroyed base, surrounded by the few faithful Palestinian soldiers and besieged by the formidable force of the Israeli army. Is he the hostage of a grand dream or the victim of an uncompromising destiny?
The meeting was arranged in a hurry for a group of scholars and intellectual activists who were participants in a Jerusalem conference on ‘Faculty against occupation’ on the 4th of January 2004.
It was dark when we were driven down the tortuous alleys of Ramallah and slipped through the half lit narrow corridors leading to the President’s office. I was apprehensive but excited. This is the man whom I consistently criticised for violating basic law and human rights and now I find myself identifying with him in his ordeal. Are we not all hostages of Sharon and his grand vision of greater Israel?
We were greeted by heaps of rubble and a defaced three story building, where divulged rooms tell a story of bulldozers knifing their ways and tanks pounding earth and sky. It was gruesome and frightening. I could not escape the thought that Arafat, in his cynical ways, is determined to keep it as a testimony to his ordeal.
There was the President of Palestine, smiling even joking while talking politics and answering questions. So relaxed was he, almost resigned to the fate drawn for him by the Almighty, like every devout Muslim.
But he is bitter. He believes that it was the deceitful Barak who was the cause of all hell. He recalls how he went to see Barak the evening before the infamous visit of Sharon to the Holly Mosque and how he pleaded to Barak. ‘I asked Barak’, Arafat told us, ‘why would Sharon visit the Holy Mosque now when he did not do so when Begin, the extreme Likud leader was his Prime Minister or even when he was the triumphant general of war?’ Arafat said he warned Barak against Sharon’s visit especially because the feelings were simmering with discontent’
Arafat firmly believes that Barak sold the peace process and the Labour Party to Sharon for a place in a future government that he was not sure of winning by election.
Arafat was radiating warmth, and had a fantastic memory. When asked about the Camp David talks and why Barak blamed him for its failure, Arafat simply said ‘Read Rob Mulley, who was taking the notes’. Arafat continued ‘We agreed that Israel would withdraw from 97% of the West Bank and all Gaza, the remaining 3% would be swapped with equal territory. We agreed on Jerusalem; the east part would go back to Palestinian sovereignty; the Jewish quarter would be under Israel’s’. Arafat posed, his eyes shine ‘I used to play in the Jewish quarter, where the house of my mother’s family, Abu So’ud, was. I hope the time will come again’. President Arafat continued, ‘We later concluded an agreement in Taba, but Barak did not dare to declare that and wanted to wait for the elections in Israel. He was playing around and wasting time. He was scared of peace’. Few moments of silence and Arafat bursts ‘ Do you know that Barak has shut himself off in the last three days of Camp David and refused to meet any body? Was that a behaviour of a man who wanted peace?’
Arafat paused for a moment before adding ‘We even had a tentative agreement on the refugees’. Like a magician, Arafat pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and asked me to read it aloud. It is a small article from Haaretz, published in January 2000, which informs that 60% of the Soviet immigrants to Israel were Christians and 10% were Muslims! Arafat said that he showed that article to – then US President- Clinton who was obviously amazed. Arafat said he pleaded to Clinton on why Russian Christians are allowed to ‘return’* to a place they don’t belong to, while Palestinian Christians are not allowed to return to their properties. He added that what concerned him most were the refugees in Lebanon, who are not allowed to work in sixty five professions, from medicine to driving and live in utter misery.
Listening to Arafat I visualised the round baby face of Barak contorted with anger, pouring accusations and abuse on every screen and wondered if he was not struggling with guilt?
I noticed the desperate tone of nostalgia when Arafat fondly remembered Yitzhak Rabin, whom he constantly called ‘my partner’, and blamed the extremists in Israel for slaughtering him and killing the peace process. Arafat is confident that Rabin was a man of peace, like himself. He stressed that he accepted all the peace proposals, including the recent Geneva accord and that the resistance to peace comes now from Israel after the death of Rabin.
Arafat is a proud Palestinian. When a colleague asked him about how he would envisage the building of Palestine after all the destruction and death which Sharon has spread, Arafat smiled and said that Palestinians have the highest post graduate scholars in the Middle East including Israel. Another colleague who has not yet recovered from the shocking scene at the entrance expressed her profound sadness for what is happening in Palestine and for what is happening to Arafat. She said she feels guilty and sorry as an American that her country is supporting the Israeli occupation.
Knowing the devastating impact of the war on Iraq and possibly aware of the warm relationship with Saddam, another colleague asked about the possible ramifications on the Palestinian situation. Arafat, relaxed and jovial responded by talking about his involvement with leaders and governments in conflict, how he helped in securing peaceful agreements between the Kurds and Saddam, between India and Pakistan, and between different factions in Afghanistan! Did he understand the question or did he evade it?
When I repeated the question Arafat simply said ‘It will have an effect every where’. I seized the moment to ask him if he was involved in any way with the Libyan surprising decision to destroy weapons of mass destruction. Arafat said he was giving advice when he was asked to.
I asked the President if he would share the feeling that the Wall has made the two-state solution unrealistic. Arafat agreed and produced a map which shows that the Wall would carve up 58% of the West Bank. The rest of the land would be divided into small enclaves barely connected.
That was a grim moment. I was puzzled though on where he draws the feeling of hope from?
The only answer lies in his deep conviction of God’s will. People and life are thus decided, and whatever that may be, he is content with it. Knowing Arafat, I think that he still dreams of playing in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.
Although pleased to be allowed to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah for the first time in three years, meeting President Arafat was a sad encounter. For this was the man who championed the Palestinian cause through arms struggle, was transformed to lead his people through the peace process but is now virtually under arrest and condemned as an irrelevance. Like many Palestinians, I wonder why they haven’t killed him or deported him instead of keeping him in such a humiliating position. Or is it that they don’t want to make a martyr of him and really all they ever wanted was a Palestinian President with no authority.
Leaving Ramallah was not difficult nor was entering into Gaza. Both entrances are controlled by Israeli soldiers. Coming back to the realities of life in Gaza I was apprehensive. Not only did Israel continue to send military helicopters and F16s on sudden operations of assassination, but there is also the increasing sense of danger posed by the various militias. The daily stories of armed people kidnapping, arresting, shooting, even killing others are reaching an alarming level. Journalists are threatened and intimidated, university students went on a rampage of stone throwing against each other, public offices are invaded and civil servants are beaten. A man, dressed in uniform, went into prison and killed a prisoner. Security forces have repeatedly clashed with other forces and with militias. If that is the Sharon plan, then he is succeeding and we are helping.
The grim reality is that there is little law and even less order. There are Palestinian soldiers and policemen. There are courts and judges, there are public services and even traffic lights but there is no authority. Palestinian officials are demoralised and the rest of the populace is helpless and desperate. Israel is in full control and parades through the thin veil of what is called the Palestinian Authority. The question is if Arafat and his Palestinian Authority are aware of all this, then why are they living the pretence and letting Sharon get away with it. Since Arafat is deemed irrelevant by Sharon and the Palestinian Authority nothing but a hollow shell and since the Palestinians are losing land, life and soul, then in whose interest are they playing this lethal game.
I believe that President Arafat in his capacity as the Chairman of the PLO, should immediately announce the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and hand over the keys to the United Nations. Arafat has every reason to do so, and I think he has the courage. It is after all the sole responsibility of the UN to fulfil its role, be honest to its charter and resolutions, and to force Israel to abide by international legality. If the UN is to prove as irrelevant as it was the case in Iraq, then Sharon’s Israel will have to face the future of increasingly becoming an apartheid state and the struggle will be for all of us to establish a one state where all are as chosen and as equal.