In early spring 2005 I went to Tel Aviv to watch an Israel/Ireland soccer match with some Irish friends. It was the highest-level game I'd ever seen, and for me it was thrilling.
But it wasn't the best game of soccer ever. Ireland scored in the first three minutes, then they sat on it for the next 87. Israel could barely get a shot off most of the game, but finally a Palestinian-Israeli named Abbas Suan equalized in the 90th minute.
The party mood of the Irish with was hopelessly dashed. But it was pretty lame to sit on a 1-0 lead for 87 minutes. In any case, it was nice to see a crowd full of blue and white cheering on a Palestinian hero.
(In Israel's next match against France another Palestinian-Israeli, Walid Badir, scored the equalizer.)
But Suan, the captain of the Arab-Israeli team Bnei Sakhnin, hero of the Ireland game, was put in his place the next time his local team played Betar Jerusalem, whose fans are notoriously racist and thuggish. Before the game, the Betar management presented Suan with a bouquet of flowers to congratulate him for his national score.
The gesture was greeted with hissing and booing from Betar's fans. They unfurled a banner that said "You don't represent us, Abbas Suan." During the game they chanted "No Arabs, no terrorism" every time he touched the ball.
After the Ireland game, we gathered in an Irish Pub in Tel Aviv with the rest of the fans and mingled over Shepherd's pies and Guinnesses until the wee hours of the morning.
It also happened to be the Jewish holiday of Purim, complete with costumes, parties, good humor, a comprehensive West Bank closure, and costumed drunken armed Israeli settlers rampaging through Palestinian towns on what Israeli newspapers described as "pogroms." Settlers in the Hebron area poisoned Palestinian fields by spreading barley seeds boiled in rat poison over a large area in an attempt to kill grazing animals and starve out the local shepherds.
* * *
The next weekend there was some rampaging in Ramallah, but this time it was Palestinian rather than Israeli thugs. A group of Al Aqsa members had been holed up in the Muqataa for several years seeking refuge from Israeli arrest. After the ceasefire was declared, they refused to join the Palestinian security forces or hand over their weapons, as Israel demanded.
Instead of arresting them, which Abbas feared would make him look like a quisling, he kicked them out of the compound on Thursday, March 31. With nowhere to go, carrying guns and harboring years worth of cabin fever, they set off on a rampage, targeting ruling elites and whoever else happened to be in their path. They shot at Abbas's office and then shot up a couple of nice restaurants. No one was hurt, but it was awful. The worst-hit restaurant, Darna, was left open to the public the next day. John the half-Palestinian from Kentucky and I went in to have a look.
Darna was the finest restaurant in town, its creamy white stone architecture accented with china-blue painted tiles and potted palm trees, beautifully decorated with fountains, friezes, and silk tablecloths. It catered to the crème de la crème—Palestinian Authority VIPs, big-name journalists, UN workers, foreign ministers, artists, and heads of state. Portraits of famous patrons, including Kofi Annan, hung on the wall. The owner, Osama Khalaf, had opened it optimistically in 2003 as the Intifada was raging.
The first time I saw it, it seemed rather obscene in a 'let them eat cake' kind of way. Anywhere else it would simply have been a nice, over-priced restaurant.
It looked like a war zone. Two hundred guests had been dining when a dozen gunmen burst in. A wine rack had been overturned along with half the tables. The large panes of glass between the foyer and the dining hall had been shattered by rifle butts, and there were bullet holes in the ceiling. A wine rack had been overturned along with half the tables. Broken glass was everywhere.
As sickening as all this was, the kitchen was worse. A line of bullet holes pierced the tiles at waist height. The thought of the cooks being bullied and terrorized in this cramped space hit me harder than the chaos in the big posh dining room. Two glass-front refrigerators with Coke and Sprite and Fanta and mango juice lined up inside were shot through at chest height with one bullet each. It would have been almost comical if it hadn't been such a thuggishly juvenile, dangerous act of wanton destruction. The bar upstairs was hit hard, too, with French wines puddled around shattered bottles.
Ramallah was in a state of collective outrage. "It's unbelievable," the owner Mr. Khalaf said, still in a state of semi-shock. "Like something out of a Wild West movie. No one can believe it happened here."
The thugs weakly claimed they were protesting the decadence and lax morals of Ramallah, but no one bought it. A popular politician named Muhammad Muqbel said, "That's just a false slogan to cover themselves. We're in a democratic state; we're not in Iran. There is a church here and a mosque there and a bar here, and people can choose where to go."
Mr. Khalaf had called the police when the gunmen showed up, "but the ones nearby ran away, and the rest showed up when it was over." He said the incident was really "a challenge to Abu Mazen. Who's going to run the show, him or the gunmen?"
Two days earlier, another wanted member of the Al Aqsa Brigades had died in a car accident. His friends had fired guns in the air and forced all the shops in Ramallah to close as a show of respect—an empty show since it was forced (and an annoying show since I was hungry and nothing was open).
Mr. Muqbel said, "I believe the Palestinian Authority has lost its legitimacy, because it has no authority on the ground when two armed guys can shut down the city."
Hundreds of people came to Darna to show their support and help clean up the mess. The restaurant reopened in a matter of days. The gunmen later apologized and even dined at Darna. The incident was virtually forgotten in a matter of weeks. But it was a stark reminder of how quickly things could go bad with one foolish decision in a place so rife with tensions.
* * *
The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, was reporting that Mr. Abbas had threatened to resign at a Fatah meeting in Gaza City over attempts by other officials, including Ahmed Qurei, to block change. He talked of canceling a visit to Washington in April unless he had Fatah backing for administrative, financial, and security improvements.
Not to restate the obvious, but how can anyone expect the PA to rule the streets when Israel has systematically destroyed their entire civil infrastructure, including police stations, training facilities, town halls, and prisons? Just recently in Hebron, Israeli soldiers detained and beat unarmed Palestinian traffic cops for no apparent reason.
Some liken Abbas's position to someone being tied up with chains and thrown into a river, and then being asked why he's having trouble swimming.
Either way Abu Mazen's party, Fatah, will be in big trouble in the coming Palestinian Legislative Council elections if it's still not providing adequate security. He has to find a way, even though his hands are tied. He's trying to give the most notorious gunmen cushy government jobs in exchange for their weapons and loyalty, paid for by the abundance of international aid coming in.
Of course, if Fatah doesn't deliver, the only other political tickets available are Hamas and Dr. Barghouthi's coalition. Dr. Barghouthi's party is being marginalized by both Fatah and Israel as much as possible, while Fatah surfs on institutionalized connections, international favor, wealth, and power, and Hamas surfs along on people's disenchantment with the possibility of using the institutions of international law to achieve justice.
Simply put, support for Hamas is a measure of people's lack of faith in the world, led by the United States, following its own laws and treaties and ideals. As long as America vetoes every UN resolution it doesn't like regardless of its merit, Israel laughs in the face of the International Court of Justice, and Europe just stands by wringing its hands, people can hardly be blamed for wanting to take matters into their own hands, for dignity's sake if nothing else.
All else being equal, I'm against violence, and I don't think it even makes tactical sense in this case. Palestine has an obvious advantage when it comes to international law (if only they could parlay it into useful PR) and an equally obvious military disadvantage.
But if Gandhi had been helicopter bombed by Britain along with a dozen of his friends and family members, I wonder what the Indians would have done.
Vietnam and Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq have demonstrated, at least to the eyes of oppressed people, that even large and arrogant powers eventually get tired of fighting and dying for causes they don't really believe in and have far less stake in than the people they are oppressing. There's only so long a government can hold its cracking illusions together. And it becomes more difficult when the people we are supposedly liberating, or at least holding under "enlightened occupation," are constantly trying to kill us.
Getting out of Vietnam or Lebanon or Iraq earlier would have prevented a lot of needless hardship. History will likely show that the same is true of the West Bank.
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