Rest in Peace, Abu Ammar

Pamela Olson
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 personality.

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 hope...

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 removed.

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."

– Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, whose position and actions are in flagrant violation of international law, in an interview with Haaretz, Dec. 2003.

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 last chance.

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.

Next: Bush Wins: 17 Reasons not to Slit your Wrists

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