The massive demonstrations sweeping the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the 24-hour vigil at Yasser Arafat’s embattled Ramallah headquarters are a referendum by the Palestinian people with a simple message to Israel and the United States, Yasser Arafat is the democratically elected Palestinian leader. Palestinians have reinstated their trust in Arafat and within hours have given him something the United States and Israel have tirelessly tried for months to take away–”his legitimacy, authority, and the support of his people.
There are several lessons to be learned from the events of the past few days. Ariel Sharon’s countless attempts to eliminate Arafat have failed. With every attempt, Arafat emerges stronger and Palestinians rally behind him. And just when Arafat’s fame and international spotlight fades, his old foe Sharon thrusts him back into living rooms all over the world.
Despite what Israelis believe Arafat may be involved in, the fact that the majority of Israelis support the idea of forcefully removing an elected leader and even assassinating him is a troublesome revelation of what kind of society "democratic" Israel has become. No one denies that Israelis are afraid to go to cafÃ©s, malls, or ride buses. Equally, Palestinians are afraid to walk to school, sleep in their beds and shop in markets. Killing Arafat will not end the violence as Sharon and his hawks want Israelis to believe. His death or exile won’t stop Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Al Aqsa Brigades from carrying out suicide bombings. Ending the occupation, giving an entire nation freedom and a future to live for, will. Both peoples have felt the pain of the loss of life and share a fear of the future. But Israelis have the power to bring an end to the violence, to come out and demand that they live in security by securing the freedom of their neighbors and ending their suffering. Israelis can end the suicide bombings by taking away the one issue which Hamas garners its support from–”the occupation. Hamas wants nothing more than to see Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) he created disappear so that it can take over Palestinian society. They have played on the mood of Palestinians, using their frustration with Arafat and his PA’s willingness to deal with Israeli and U.S. dictates and peace plans that neglect Palestinian rights to gain support for their actions. This weekend Hamas continued to play on the peoples’ emotions issuing a statement condemning Israel’s decision to eliminate Arafat. It is time Israel and the United States learn, just as Hamas has, to read the Palestinian people.
The Israeli people are victims of Sharon’s political game. As he turns global and local attention to Arafat–”who Israel has no proof is involved in terror attacks–”he continues to strangle the Palestinian people through military checkpoints that restrict access to vital services such as health care and education, the demolition of homes and the confiscation of land. Sharon’s war machine is responsible for the region’s rising death toll.
There are lessons for the United States as well. The Bush administration regarded it a political triumph when Arafat appointed a prime minister, but it only proved that Arafat is in control of Palestinian politics. It was Arafat who appointed Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister and it was to Arafat that Abbas submitted his resignation. Ahmed Qurai’ was appointed by Arafat and his fate will also rely on Arafat. Did Arafat want Abbas to fail and does he plan the same fate for Qurai’? Maybe, but only because the United States and Israel allow him to. To weaken Arafat’s hold on Palestinian politics, the United States should seriously take action to see its road map implemented by Israel. As Abbas stated in his resignation letter, it was Israeli noncompliance and U.S. inaction regarding the road map that cost him not only his job but his reputation among the Palestinian people. Anyone who watched Abbas barely escape club-wielding masses as he entered the parliament building in Ramallah days before his resignation will understand that just as the power of the people can reaffirm Arafat as their leader, the power of the people can force him to keep a prime minister who will deliver freedom.