LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Rest in Peace, Abu Ammar
11 November 2004
It's been a weird bubble of semi-denial, of dread,
resignation, and fear while waiting for the President
to die, masked under the usual flurry of working,
shopping, and visiting friends and family for the
Ramadan holidays. It's been The Normal Show in very
abnormal times. Hopes of the beloved, historical,
iconic leader coming back, and things returning to
about as normal as they ever get, died hard. But they
did die early this morning in Paris.
I've only been involved in Palestine for a year, and
his death comes as a sad shock to me. He was the soul
of his brokedown palace the Muqata'a, which I pass
every day on my way to work. He was a father to all
the Palestinian people, especially to the boys who
lived and worked with him in the Muqata'a as his
security forces, a few of whom are friends of mine.
He was no saint, but he was the father and hero of a
national movement and a legend of singular
He is the father of the Palestinian Liberation
Movement, a man who turned a bunch of dispossessed and
broken refugees into a powerful national movement
against all odds, and whose people trusted him enough
to make historic compromises with Israel, such as in
1993 affirming its right to exist in peace and
security on 78% of historic Palestine. Obviously 78%
wasn't enough for the guys running Israel. But it was
all any man in his position could give, and more than
anyone else could.
He's a man who operated out of a cave in Jordan and
survived a plane crash in the Libyan desert. A man
who slipped through the fingers of Sharon in Beirut,
survived about 50 assassination attempts, and then was
invited back to the Holy Land to lead a fledgling
Palestinian state in 1994, which was destroyed as a
political entity in 2002, after which he was
imprisoned in a war ruin for three years until he flew
to Paris, grinning all the way, and died at the age of
75, a global icon. James Bond got nothin' on Arafat.
He personally visited thousands of injured
Palestinians in hospitals and gave a monthly allowance
out of his own pocket to hundreds of Palestinian
families who were in desperate straits. Not even all
Palestinians agree with him. But you gotta give the
guy a certain respect, even if only grudgingly.
Nobody will ever take his place. He and Castro are
probably the only real revolutionary leaders left.
The last black sheep, the last icons, in a sea of
bland bureaucracy that has a stranglehold on the rest
of the world.
An American Christian friend of mine, half-Palestinian
and all Kentuckyan, said that they make the old guy
look like a real dork on television. But when you
meet him in person, there's something indefinable but
incredibly powerful about Arafat. He's a 5' 2" giant.
Some Palestinian friends say they feel hopeless and
helpless sometimes in the face of the overwhelmingly
powerful and brutal military occupation that rules
their lives. But when they shake hands with Abu
Ammar, their shoulders straighten and they feel power
flow through them again.
There have been demonstrations in town as things wound
down to the final death announcement, half-hearted at
first but gaining steam by yesterday, when half a
dozen Al-Aqsa guys joined the fray in their black
masks pointing their machine guns at the sky, just for
show. It's very rare to see machine guns on display
on the streets of this commercial suburban town.
Everything's been peaceful, even more sedate than the
news tries to convey. The press has been very
disappointed. Before Arafat died, during the marches,
the red Leftist party flags flew alongside the yellow
neo-liberal democratic party flags and the black Fateh
flags. A show of unity, of Palestine being bigger
than party politics.
After Arafat died, it's just been posters of Abu
Ammar, palm fronds, black and white keffiyehs and
Palestinian flags held aloft while people sing and
chant slogans, like at any rally. And a lot of quiet
crying, for the personality who was lost and the
dreams he embodied and did not live to see fulfilled.
And the prospect that maybe none of us will live to
see them fulfilled.
It appears that now is a time for mourning,
reflection, and respect. Not violence or anger. The
power transition has been perfectly in accordance with
Palestinian Basic Law, and accepted even by Hamas.
Democratic elections will be held within 60 days if
Israel allows the process to take place. Palestinian
leaders suggested a burial in the Muqata'a since it
was clear that Israel would not allow the President to
be buried in Jerusalem as he had willed, a compromise
which avoided a nasty and awkward confrontation.
Arafat will be buried in a stone tomb that can be
disinterred and reburied near the Al-Aqsa mosque when
East Jerusalem is liberated, insha'Allah.
As for hopes for the future... very mixed
speculations. It's almost a relief that Bush has been
re-elected. He earned his political capital by
pandering absolutely to the massive pro-Sharon, and I
would say anti-peace (they call themselves pro-Israel,
but I don't believe their ideas are good for Israel),
bloc in America of prominent Zionist lobbies,
Christian and otherwise.
Now he can spend that capital by working towards a
just peace in the region, and let the lobbies howl.
It's just good common sense to try to solve the
Israel/Palestine conflict, vastly improve the
horrendous American image abroad, lessen terrorism
threats all over the world, and earn the Cocaine
Cowboy a Nobel Prize to boot. He can have the damn
thing. I'll shake his hand and put a bust of him in
my study if he manages it, I don't care what his
motivations or methods are. I don't care if he can't
even spell Palestine. If someone can just drawn him a
picture of Jerusalem, and draw a little line down the
middle between Israeli West and Palestinian East and
say, "Good. Legal. Peace. OK?" And he smiles and
nods, more power to him.
He's still a young, mentally-challenged lamb facing Sharon, a lion with a
steel-trap for a mind and no scruples whatsoever.
Sharon will never give up East Jerusalem, and neither
will any credible Palestinian leader.
But maybe with the new regime of international
sanctions against the Israeli government that is
rapidly gaining steam, and with Sharon's perennial
excuse that he has "no partner for peace" gone, maybe
if negotiations open up and America actually takes
them seriously, maybe if all of these pressures can be
applied in just the right mix at just the right time,
and if the exhausted Palestinians can be shown some
clemency by Israel, just so people can have a little
And then maybe if Sharon and Netanyahu simultaneously
resign, the settlers get struck with a bolt of sanity,
and the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria take
some kind of poll and show that only a couple hundred
thousand want to return to Israel as citizens,
really... maybe we can figure this thing out in the
next few years. Sigh.
I really think it comes down to pressure on Israel.
Political exigency and partisan politics can ossify
any bad strategy and strangulate any good strategy.
(Or just assassinate it.) Israeli internal politics
is a hotbed of secular yuppie coffee drinkers, peace
activists, bureaucrats, hardline right-wingers,
geopolitical strategists, and powerful religious
fundamentalists, some of whom are quite insistent and
militant. There's no way to please everyone, and it
seems like the crazier people are, the
better-organized and more passionate they are.
With Likud running the show more brazenly than Bush
Republicans, and Labor shrugging around more
yellow-bellied than Democrats, unless there's serious
pressure put on Israel from the outside, I predict
very bad times ahead.
Sometimes we feel like things couldn't possibly get
worse. But they sure can.
In a way, the Annexation Wall is kind of forcing
everyone's hands. The international community can't
stand by and watch such a blantantly horrible and
illegal thing done to millions of innocent people (one
would hope). The Palestinians can't accept being
herded into impoverished ghettoes and reservations or
kicked out of their homeland entirely. The Israeli
public can't bury their heads in the sand forever (one
would hope); at some point they have to wake up and
see the mixture of apartheid and ethnic cleansing they
are allowing to be committed against an overwhelmingly
innocent population in their name.
The settlers can't stand by while the legitimacy of
their whole religious enterprise is undermined if
they're kicked out of Gaza. Sharon, for his part,
won't stand even for slowing the expansion of
settlements in the West Bank, and Palestinians can't
survive as a cohesive unit and will never enjoy peace,
freedom, or security if the settlements are not
Big forces are in motion. Big things will have to
happen soon. It's hard not to feel like the Titanic
is minutes away from the iceberg. And Sharon, with a
mad twinkle in his eye, is just hitting the gas.
"[The] formula for the parameters of a unilateral
solution are: To maximize the number of Jews; to
minimize the number of Palestinians; not to withdraw
to the 1967 border and not to divide Jerusalem."
The Palestinians are sticking together, obeying the
rule of law, acting in a respectful and non-violent
manner in this difficult time, and praying that
neither Israel nor militants will incite anything
until the new guys are given a real chance - maybe our
– Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister,
whose position and actions are in flagrant violation
of international law, in an interview with Haaretz,
Palestinians are afraid that Israel or America will
manage to install a Karzai or Allawi in the Muqata'a
who will rubber-stamp any giveaway of Palestinian
rights put in front of him. And not a single
Palestinian will stand for that.
The one thing the worldwide press steadfastly refuses
to talk about today is the daily suffering of
Palestinians, and the fact that no matter how much
Palestinian violence eases up, and Israelis sigh in
relief, Israeli violence NEVER eases up. It's been an
average of 72 deaths per month here for four years.
Eighteen people killed each week. A child killed
every other day. 182 people killed last month. All
mostly civilians. And millions suffering daily under
a brutal military occupation that can't be described
in words. That is the crux of the problem.
The fact that any olive branch is ever offered under
such circumstances is nothing less than heroic on the
part of Palestinians. People are trying to rally
around non-violent resistance and democratic reforms,
even in the face of relentless Israeli violence and
the shutting down of elections centers by Israeli
soldiers. There's no hope of containing the tired,
sad rage here if things get much worse. But if things
could just simmer down for a while... If people could
just breathe for a solid month...
Watch closely. See what both sides do.
Here's hoping for good things.