A Meeting with Arafat

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“They want us to enact a constitution? No problem! I shall ask Israel to send me a copy of theirs and copy it word for word!”

Arafat sent me an amused look. Israel, of course, has no constitution.

That was on Wednesday evening, after five Gush Shalom activists – Haim Hanegbi, Adam Keller, Oren Medicks, Rachel Avnery and I – had succeeded in reaching Ramallah (forbidden to Israelis) and entering the bombed, fortified compound of the Palestinian leader. There was a danger that Ariel Sharon, who was returning at the same time from Washington, would exploit the murderous suicide bombing in Rishon-Letzion the evening before in order to achieve his old aim: killing Yasser Arafat. That would have been a disaster for Israel and prevented peace for generations. We thought that the presence of Israelis in the compound might help to avert such an attack.

Immediately after Arafat had finished his meeting with the European emissary, Moratinos, during which they concluded the final agreement ending the siege of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, he received us for a long meeting. “I shall give scholarships to the 13 who are to go abroad,” he remarked, as if continuing the previous conversation, and read us the document he had just signed.

Since meeting him in 1982 in besieged Beirut, in rather similar circumstances, I have met him many times. I found him relaxed, smiling, self-confident, a little tired.

He laughed when I described the “reforms” that George W. Bush demands to be carried out in the Palestinian Authority: Palestine should become democratic like Saudi Arabia, there should be a separation of power like in Syria, it should be headed by a powerless president like Jordan, there must be a unified security service like in Egypt and an independent court like in Iraq.

The new Bush-Sharon idea of “reforming” the structure of the Authority (meaning: the appointment of American agents), as a pre-condition for peace, does not seem to have made a deep impression on him. Actually, it is hard to decide whether this is a cynical pretext for postponing a solution or just a demonstration of monumental stupidity. “There will be no Palestinian Hamid Karzai,” he said, alluding to the puppet-president the Americans have brought to Afghanistan from outside.

Never before has Arafat been so deeply entrenched in the innermost heart of the Palestinian people as now. His prestige has risen sky-high all over the Arab world, where the masses compare their own kings and presidents to the man who has endured six weeks of siege, some of them almost without food, without water and electricity, at a distance of two meters from the Israeli soldiers (we measured the distance ourselves), without flinching. The idea that somebody from the outside could turn him into a figurehead is ludicrous.

“The PLO stands above the Palestinian Authority, and I am the head of the PLO,” he reminded us. The PLO represents all the parts of the Palestinian people, while the PA was elected only by the inhabitants of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.

During the meeting, senior officers entered several times and reported on Israeli troop concentrations around the Gaza Strip and Ramallah. It seemed as if Sharon’s attack could start at any moment. He paid attention and issued short orders. Yasser Abed Rabbo was present throughout the meeting, and other senior personalities entered from time to time and listened.

We asked about his reaction to the Rishon-Letzion suicide bombing that had happened 24 hours earlier. “I have published a strongly-worded condemnation (Arafat used, for the first time, the Arab word ‘irhab’, terrorism) and ordered the arrest of Hamas activists.” He replied. “They have timed the attack exactly during the meeting in which Sharon asked Bush for permission to carry out his plans against the Palestinian Authority and myself. The Hamas leaders knew that they are helping Sharon. They want to destroy the Authority and don’t mind using Sharon for this purpose.”

“Think for yourselves,” he continued, “Do I look such an imbecile as to put bombs under my own seat?”

It was almost midnight when the meeting broke up. The soldiers invited us to a dinner of pitta, sardines, cheese and humus. During the long night in their company, we became an attraction in the compound, which houses more than a hundred armed soldiers of Force 17, who continued throughout the night to fortify the place with sandbags. Many of them crowded around us, showering us with questions that showed that they were immensely curious about the situation in Israel, as much as we were curious about the situation on their side.

We were sitting in a great circle in a hall, where all the furniture had been moved to the walls, talking and smoking. Haim became friendly with a youngster of 17, who had not seen his family in Jenin for four months, because of the blockade, and was very worried about their fate. Another has not seen his family in Gaza for two years. All his possessions have been burned in the fires that had broken out in the adjacent buildings, leaving him only the clothes on his back. Adam had a debate with a 25-year old who spoke good Hebrew and remembered nostalgically the Iraqi Jew who had employed him in the Beer-Sheva market. There was a man of 37 who had been arrested at 15 for throwing stones and spent 15 years in prison, and who is now serving as an officer.

Only one soldier did not join in, his face stiff. He listened, saying only that he does not believe that peace would ever come. And Rachel took pictures.

All of them wanted to know what the Israelis think, and first of all why Israel does not want peace. These terrible “armed men” (as they are called in Israeli press-releases), with their various Kalashnikovs, some of them in civilian clothes (“all our uniforms were burned by your missiles”) spoke longingly about peace. After some hours of conversation Oren summed up: “We could sign a peace treaty within five minutes.”

There was something surrealistic about the situation: all of them spoke about the Ra’is with unbounded admiration. Like us, they expected to be attacked any moment by the Israeli tanks, but they had a friendly conversation with the Israelis who had come their way.

When we lay down, at long last, on our mattresses, side by side with some “internationals” from several countries who had also come to serve as “human shields”, I was called to give a live interview by phone to al-Jazeera television, which brought the news of our being there into millions of homes all over the Arab world. Another little bridge for peace.

In the morning, after a quick wash (there was a long line for the bathroom) we strolled around the compound, guided by the courageous Netta Golan, who had been there throughout the long siege. A smell of urine and excrements filled all the rooms that had been occupied by our army. Somebody had painted Mezuzot on all the doorways. In one room there was a high pile of destroyed computers; everywhere the furniture was destroyed. On all the walls graffiti: the Israeli national anthem (with crude mistakes), the name of Israel in Arabic (wrong spelling), a slogan in English: “Isreal (sic) rules”. In the walls, the gaping holes that have become a trade mark of the IDF, in spite of the fact that all doors had been open. Outside, heaps of crushed cars. On the side, the black, armored Chevrolet that President Clinton had given Arafat as a gift, squashed, with tank marks clearly visible on the roof. Everywhere the dirt, destruction and mindless vandalism of the “most humane army in the world”.

It did not make us feel very proud.

[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]

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