With Arafat gone, the television screens of America are filled with “Middle East experts” who tell us that it was Arafat who was the obstacle to peace and that a new dawn is now upon us.
Last night on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the host and caption team couldn’t even pronounce or spell the name of guest Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, repeatedly referring to her as Ashwari. Commentary from the guests was similarly insightful. Today, MSNBC’s Lester Holt continued the Ashwari mangling and “Terrorism expert” Harvey Kushner ludicrously claimed an Arafat/Al-Qaida link. Switch the channel, no real difference. It was the kind of Middle East coverage that got Bush reelected.
I travelled to live and work in Palestine in September 1994, one year after the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. Earlier that year, on July 1st, the exiled Arafat had returned to Gaza to head the nascent Palestinian Authority. Israel still occupied Ramallah, where I lived, and consequently streets were deserted after 8PM out of fear of Israeli patrols. In Gaza, Palestinians had just emerged from seven straight years of a dusk to dawn curfew.
The occupation cast a shroud over life in Ramallah, an omnipresent darkness stemming from the very nature of military occupation — which inherently involves violence — and the uncertainty of whose door would be kicked down next. It is hard to communicate how the constant insecurity of living under a military occupation affects all aspects of daily life. Suffice to say, if you were living there, it takes you just a few days to figure out who holds the overwhelming balance of power from the ample evidence in front of you, to understand the impossibility of remaining untouched by the intrusive repression, and to notice the shocking gulf between the conflict as it seems from a media-only perspective compared to that of first-hand experience.
As the wave of Israeli redeployments from Palestinian population areas hit Ramallah in late December 1995, it was a time of hope. Even though Palestinians were immunized by bitter personal experience to believe the Israeli leopard’s spots had indeed changed, the simple fact that the town itself would be free of the feared and hated occupation soldiers was reason enough for optimism. Tens of thousands of people celebrated in Ramallah’s streets after the last Israeli jeep rolled out of town. As Israel continued to violently colonize the occupied territories in the months and years ahead, as if the “peace process” wasn’t happening, this goodwill would quickly evaporate, and this was not Arafat’s fault.
Ramallah was always one of the more liberal towns in Palestine, with the majority of the nearby Birzeit University’s faculty trained internationally, a steady stream of international students passing through its Palestine and Arabic Studies program, and a plethora of Ramallah-based non-governmental organizations attracting international volunteers and staff. Before the 1967 Israeli occupation came to town, she was “The Bride of Palestine”, her cool climate and 1930s Black & White movie-style hotels a tourist destination for many in the Middle East. Pre-1967 Ramallah had a large Christian population and many of Ramallah’s residents have relatives in the US — some say half of the original Christian population now resides in the state of Michigan — and you can get by in most places speaking English.
The redeployment and hopes of the Oslo period brought back many Palestinian-American exiles wanting to invest in the town, and new restaurants, coffee shops, malls and businesses began opening as early as the redeployment day itself, 27 December 1995.
It was on this day or the following day, sitting in Angelo’s pizza parlour, that I witnessed one of the first cultural differences between the exiled Palestinian fedayeen (“fighters”) that returned with Arafat and the local population. A group of Palestinian soldiers had come into Angelo’s for lunch with their guns, leaning them against their chairs, something normal to them in the years outside the country. One of the owners went over and had a quiet word with them and there were no guns seen in Angelo’s after that. On the surface, initially, the locals were more in control of their destiny, the outsiders deferent. One of the billboards erected by the Ramallah Municipality for the redeployment welcomed “Arafat the symbol,” easily the most defining characteristic of the man’s life as a focus of Palestinian aspirations and dreams. When Arafat finally returned to Palestine, the symbol became a reality that required Palestinian perceptions to shift.
It took time for the reports of Palestinian Authority corruption and human rights abuses to filter through to the street, and the snowballing frequency of reports produced both Palestinian optimists and realists. The optimists believed that the reports were “aberrations” that were signs of “teething troubles”, the realists recognized a pattern of abuse from Arafat’s exile years, bad lessons learned in undemocratic Arab regimes.
Torture methods, for example, differed from security apparatus to security apparatus. Jibril Rajoub’s West Bank branch of the Preventative Security Service (PSS) was comprised largely of local Palestinians who had only known Israel’s military occupation, many having been detained by Israel. The PSS tortured Palestinians with methods they themselves would have experienced in Israel’s prisons — sleep deprivation, hooding, and tying people for long periods in painful positions. The Mukhabarat (Military Intelligence), comprised largely from the returning Palestinian fedayeen, tortured like the Arab regimes, with electricity.
And the level of central control was excessive to the point that it was ludicrous. Arafat literally was sitting at his desk in Gaza approving every single Palestinian application for a driving license and other utterly mundane administrative tasks. Stories of nepotism, corruption, and mafia-style threats swept through the local grapevines like wildfire, each additional story of intimidation of a business owner in one part of the country leaving no doubt as to what was happening everywhere.
One Palestinian friend of mine and I were sitting in a café in the nearby town of Birzeit, a year after the PA had returned. When the media reported that the Lebanese had celebrated when the PLO was forced to evacuate Beirut in 1982, he said, we believed this was Israeli propaganda. Now we understand that it was true.
Within a year of the redeployments, it became obvious, regardless of what Arafat and the PA were up to, that Israel’s continuing land confiscation and settlement policy would be the death knell of Palestinian support for Oslo’s process. In a conflict that is entirely about land and resources, how could any “peace” initiative by Israel be perceived as genuine when its bulldozers did not stop for a single day?
Looking at the number of settlers Israel moved into the occupied West Bank during the 7 years of Oslo, a doubling of the existing 100,000 to 200,000, what was everyone thinking? This provocative theft was the end of the hope I saw in Ramallah on redeployment day. Arafat was nothing to do with any of this, and it became apparent over time that whatever small concessions he could squeeze from the Israelis would never be an antidote to the poisoning effect of the ongoing injustice.
The Palestinian people, typically lumped together in an act of media racism as equal partners in the excesses and failings of the PA leadership, had actually figured out the extent of the situation long before the international media, who wrote — and continue to write — in terms of a “peace process” long after it became apparent that, for Israel, it was business as usual in the task of consolidating its hold on Palestinian land.
Neither did the rampant corruption — currently the main talking point of the Arafat funeral coverage on US networks — register in the international media for years. The earliest article I saw that exposed the extent of the PA’s moral decay was a devastating 21 April 1997 article, “Shameless in Gaza”, published in the Guardian by a longtime ally of the Palestinians, David Hirst. And this flagship article by no means resulted in a subsequent flood of reports, despite the tendency of the media to demonstrate a pack mentality, usually preferring to circle round the prevailing US and Israeli conventional wisdom. It was months yet before corruption became a key focus in coverage.
In other words, it took the media more than three years after Arafat arrived in Gaza, and more than a year-and-a-half after the end-1995 redeployments brought PA rule to the majority of the remaining population areas, to register what every Palestinian on the street had been talking about for years. There are a number of factors that influenced this but one of the more obvious is that, at this time, no foreign correspondents were based in Palestinian-controlled areas. The same is still true.
On 3 April 1996, Birzeit University students, in the wake of a disastrous PA raid on Al-Najah National University in Nablus and the detention of 18 Birzeit students, made history by being the first group of Palestinians to confront Arafat with an organized public protest. Marching several miles from the university, breaking through a Palestinian police cordon halfway, and running the remaining distance to Ramallah, several hundred students came to a halt outside the Muqata’a (Ramallah’s PA district headquarters in which Arafat would later spend three years under Israeli ‘house’ arrest until his death yesterday).
Demanding to see Arafat, who was present in town for a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the students were amazed when Arafat actually arrived and spoke with them. He bullshitted them, of course, not admitting to his direct involvement in the raid (he later ‘punished’ the police chief by transferring him to the equivalent position in Bethlehem) and failing to follow through on any of his promises to the student leaders in a private meeting, but it was clear that both he and the members of the various security forces were shaken by the directness of the peaceful protest.
But it’s hard to bring dissent out of the Palestinian version of the office water cooler into the realm of healthy public discourse when the media is not free. Editors and journalists were often PA prison ‘guests’ of Arafat, who once famously imprisoned Al-Quds editor Maher Alami in Jericho because he ran a story praising Arafat on page 8 of the paper rather than on the front page. As the story went, Arafat had instructed editors of Palestinian newspapers to give front-page space to a story which compared him to Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of the Muslims, who conquered Jerusalem in 638AD. None of the newspapers reported Alami’s week-long detention. While an American audience may find such stories amusing, similar dynamics exist in the US media that work to control content and exclude dissenting voices, as today’s Arafat coverage amply demonstrates.
As things progressed on the ground, I authored a series of articles highlighting PA human rights violations against Birzeit students, critical of corruption in the Fatah student bloc at Birzeit, and published an explosive investigative piece into the assassination of Muhideen Al-Shareef in my online journal, “A Personal Diary of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, which has seen over one million visitors since its launch in 1996. The latter two articles were written in April-May 1998.
Following a dispute with my landlady that we were attempting to resolve with a lawyer, members of Fatah Tanziim (out of which the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade was to form) accompanied by members of the Palestinian security forces (dominated by Fatah members), bulldozed my Ramallah home on 25 May 1998. We camped in the house, held firm, and launched a protest which resulted in hundreds of faxes flooding Arafat’s offices. This did not impact the frequency of the death threats from members of the Palestinian security forces during that long week.
After a week of negotiations involving many prominent Palestinians intervening on our behalf, myself and the other residents accepted a settlement. At the final meeting with the landlady and those who had thrown my belongings in the yard, destroyed the home’s water, electricity, doors, and the walls and roof of my bedroom, one of the Tanziim members acknowledged that my writing had been part of their motivation. It also transpired that they received financial compensation for their service to the landlady. The perpetrators went on to carry out a drive-by shooting at an Arab American family’s home one month later. Such was the jungle that Oslo had become.
Those who are quick to seize on this story as evidence of the corruption and abusiveness of the ruling Palestinian faction are welcome to make that conclusion. However, in this age where America’s and Israel’s ‘War Against Terrorism’ rhetoric offers the premise of “spreading democracy” like magic butter to end conflict, it should be noted that democracy was never the Israeli or American aim in coming to an agreement with Arafat and the PLO.
In 2000, then deputy Israeli Prime Minister, Natan Sharansky wrote:
“Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin coined the phrase that chillingly summed up the government’s entire approach: Arafat would deal with terrorists, he said, “without a supreme court, without Betselem (a human rights organisation) and without all kinds of bleeding heart liberals”. In short, the undemocratic nature of Arafat’s regime, far from being an obstacle to furthering peace, was considered a crucial asset in the fight against terror.”
(Source: “Yassar [sic] Arafat is no friend of Middle East peace: Human rights record shows Palestine remains a threat”, The Ottawa Citizen, 8 July 2000).
Of course. Arafat and his Fatah faction were seen by Israel and its US sponsor as having the size and brute power necessary to ‘control the street’. The US-Israel tag team hoped that a compliant Palestinian leadership would be able to make the further concessions that Israel wanted from this people who had already generously conceded 78% of their historic homeland. Israel was so emboldened by the evil genius of the move that it believed that it could continue on as before, putting settlements on Palestinian land in obvious violation of the Declaration of Principles that it had just signed, not to mention international law. No serious peace partner would have done this.
This regime was intentionally installed on the backs of a people who had already suffered much thanks to the colonial interest of foreigners. Israel and America subsequently used the failings and flaws of the very regime that they helped install to demonize the entire Palestinian people after it turned out that there were limits to the level of continued Israel violations Arafat could convince his people to accept.
Palestinians didn’t see peace during Oslo, they saw the occupation continue unabated. If the occupation had stopped, things would be totally different today. That was clearly never the plan for Israel, and the US clearly never acted as the “honest broker” it presented itself as.
And here we are again today, with the same people on the same TV screens, expressing the same hope for a new Palestinian leadership to mediate a Palestinian surrender — with no lessons learned a decade later.
The real question that the talking heads should be asking is whether Israel will become a genuine partner for peace this time around?
Nigel Parry is one of the founders of the Electronic Intifada. He lived in Ramallah and worked in Birzeit University’s Public Relations Office from 1994-1998.