Why did they demonstrate?

Last week, Palestinians went out in the streets, defying the curfew, to protest Israeli actions against the Palestinian president and the demolition of his compound. Some asked why did they demonstrate? Was it in order to show their support for Yasser Arafat? Or did they protest against something else?

Palestinians have been struggling against Israel’s military occupation of their land for decades. They established several political movements and factions, some secular, some religious. They differ on various visions of ways to end the occupation and the type of state that should emerge on liberated Palestinian land. A number of these factions disagreed with the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, and a number of them decided to stay outside the Oslo formula and did not take part in the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Some did not see the end of occupation with Oslo. For them the struggle continues.

During the past decade, in particular, the past two years, Yasser Arafat was also subject to debates. Some thought that he was the only legitimate Palestinian leader, representing the Palestinian cause, believing that he would always be loyal to the cause, refusing to make any concessions. Others thought of him as a person, who is not acting as a revolutionary leader, the symbol, but someone who has defended American and Israeli interests, rather than defending the Palestinian cause.

If someone wants to describe the popularity of Arafat, he could as well look at the ups and downs of the US dollar. During and after the Oslo period, his popularity has gone up and down. Up, when he refused to surrender with the Camp David proposals and his support of the Palestinian uprising, down, when he started to condemn acts of resistance against the Israeli occupation, complying with American and European pressures. Up again, when he was under siege in his compound in April and May, down after the Ramallah and Bethlehem deals with Israel and the US, the imprisonment and hostage taking of Ahmad Sa’adat in Jericho and the deportation of Palestinians from the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, down further when he negotiated so-called ‘security’ reforms instead of much-needed democratic reforms and elections, while most Palestinians were still faced by Israeli tanks, curfews and killings, and rising a bit after he was put under siege again this week.

Palestinians in various cities took the streets on Saturday night, breaking the curfew, endangering their lives, marching and chanting in support of Arafat. This started ten minutes after the Israeli occupation warned that if the people inside the compound would not surrender, they would demolish the last remaining building on top of the people.

Do we now witness a new rise in Arafat’s popularity? Did people marched and chanted in support of Arafat? Do we suffer from a short memory? Did people forget Arafat’s continuous concessions to Israel and the US? Did they forget all those Palestinians killed and injured, while Arafat blessed security meetings? Did they forget the deals in Ramallah and Bethlehem? Is this the same fluctuation as the dollar?

Perhaps this is not the right place to discuss Arafat’s swinging popularity, but what must be said is that most people who took the streets on Saturday, did not initiate these marches in support of Arafat, the person or the leader, but they went out in support of all those Palestinians in the compound, they took the street in support of the Palestinian cause. The message that was taken to the streets said: ‘although we disagree with Arafat, although we think that he should give room to other leaders, although we believe he should step aside, and although it is time for a new leadership, the Palestinian people, and only us, the Palestinian people, can make this internal change. This can never be forced upon us, especially not by the occupier’.

Forcing Arafat and all those people with him inside the compound to surrender does not mean forcing Arafat, the person, and his associates to surrender, but was perceived as surrender of the cause. Israel cannot force us to change our leadership, we, the Palestinian people, are the only ones, who can legitimately demand and force change. A new leadership will be elected and rise from the people themselves. A leadership that will be designed by Israel and the US will fail and will not gain support from the people.

When Arafat leaves, he leaves not because of Israel, but because of the people. If he leaves, it will not because he is perceived as a ‘terrorist’ and the head of a ‘terrorist’ organization, but because he cannot lead his people to their liberation. When he leaves, it will not be due to a newly American and Israeli designed leadership, neither because ‘he is no longer a partner for peace’, but because he is inable to bring peace based on justice for the Palestinians. He will not leave because he ‘supports terrorist attacks’, but because he cannot lead the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice. He will not leave because ‘he is not doing enough’ to counter ‘terrorism’, but because is inable to protect his own people from Israeli state terrorism. When he leaves, it will not be because he cannot secure Israeli security, but because he cannot secure Palestinian basic rights.

It was not a huge challenge for people to take the streets. The challenge is to make clear that they supported the cause and not the person. When history will wake us up with another ‘deal’ and Arafat remains in place, it will define the crisis of the nation. Palestinians are also taking part in writing the history.

Awatef Sheikh is a human resource manager at a Palestinian human rights organization