Avnery / 11.5.02
Meeting with Arafat
“They want us to enact a constitution? No problem! I shall ask Israel
to send me a copy of theirs and copy it word for word!”
Arafat sent me an amused look. Israel, of course, has no constitution.
That was on Wednesday evening, after five Gush Shalom activists - Haim
Hanegbi, Adam Keller, Oren Medicks, Rachel Avnery and I - had succeeded in
reaching Ramallah (forbidden to Israelis) and entering the bombed, fortified
compound of the Palestinian leader. There was a danger that Ariel Sharon, who
was returning at the same time from Washington, would exploit the murderous
suicide bombing in Rishon-Letzion the evening before in order to achieve his old
aim: killing Yasser Arafat. That would have been a disaster for Israel and
prevented peace for generations. We thought that the presence of Israelis in the
compound might help to avert such an attack.
Immediately after Arafat had finished his meeting with the European
emissary, Moratinos, during which they concluded the final agreement ending the
siege of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, he received us for a long meeting.
“I shall give scholarships to the 13 who are to go abroad,” he remarked, as
if continuing the previous conversation, and read us the document he had just
Since meeting him in 1982 in besieged Beirut, in rather similar
circumstances, I have met him many times. I found him relaxed, smiling,
self-confident, a little tired.
He laughed when I described the “reforms” that George W. Bush demands
to be carried out in the Palestinian Authority: Palestine should become
democratic like Saudi Arabia, there should be a separation of power like in
Syria, it should be headed by a powerless president like Jordan, there must be a
unified security service like in Egypt and an independent court like in Iraq.
The new Bush-Sharon idea of “reforming” the structure of the
Authority (meaning: the appointment of American agents), as a pre-condition for
peace, does not seem to have made a deep impression on him. Actually, it is hard
to decide whether this is a cynical pretext for postponing a solution or just a
demonstration of monumental stupidity. “There will be no Palestinian Hamid
Karzai,” he said, alluding to the puppet-president the Americans have brought
to Afghanistan from outside.
Never before has Arafat been so deeply entrenched in the innermost heart
of the Palestinian people as now. His prestige has risen sky-high all over the
Arab world, where the masses compare their own kings and presidents to the man
who has endured six weeks of siege, some of them almost without food, without
water and electricity, at a distance of two meters from the Israeli soldiers (we
measured the distance ourselves), without flinching. The idea that somebody from
the outside could turn him into a figurehead is ludicrous.
“The PLO stands above the Palestinian Authority, and I am the head of
the PLO,” he reminded us. The PLO represents all the parts of the Palestinian
people, while the PA was elected only by the inhabitants of the West Bank (including
East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.
During the meeting, senior officers entered several times and reported on
Israeli troop concentrations around the Gaza Strip and Ramallah. It seemed as if
Sharon’s attack could start at any moment. He paid attention and issued short
orders. Yasser Abed Rabbo was present throughout the meeting, and other senior
personalities entered from time to time and listened.
Hamas leaders want to destroy the Authority and don’t mind using Sharon for
We asked about his reaction to the Rishon-Letzion suicide bombing that
had happened 24 hours earlier. “I have published a strongly-worded
condemnation (Arafat used, for the first time, the Arab word ‘irhab’,
terrorism) and ordered the arrest of Hamas activists.” He replied. “They
have timed the attack exactly during the meeting in which Sharon asked Bush for
permission to carry out his plans against the Palestinian Authority and myself.
The Hamas leaders knew that they are helping Sharon. They want to destroy the
Authority and don’t mind using Sharon for this purpose.”
“Think for yourselves,” he continued, “Do I look such an imbecile
as to put bombs under my own seat?”
It was almost midnight when the meeting broke up. The soldiers invited us
to a dinner of pitta, sardines, cheese and humus. During the long night in their
company, we became an attraction in the compound, which houses more than a
hundred armed soldiers of Force 17, who continued throughout the night to
fortify the place with sandbags. Many of them crowded around us, showering us
with questions that showed that they were immensely curious about the situation
in Israel, as much as we were curious about the situation on their side.
We were sitting in a great circle in a hall, where all the furniture had
been moved to the walls, talking and smoking. Haim became friendly with a
youngster of 17, who had not seen his family in Jenin for four months, because
of the blockade, and was very worried about their fate. Another has not seen his
family in Gaza for two years. All his possessions have been burned in the fires
that had broken out in the adjacent buildings, leaving him only the clothes on
his back. Adam had a debate with a 25-year old who spoke good Hebrew and
remembered nostalgically the Iraqi Jew who had employed him in the Beer-Sheva
market. There was a man of 37 who had been arrested at 15 for throwing stones
and spent 15 years in prison, and who is now serving as an officer.
Only one soldier did not join in, his face stiff. He listened, saying
only that he does not believe that peace would ever come. And Rachel took
All of them wanted to know what the Israelis think, and first of all why
Israel does not want peace. These terrible “armed men” (as they are called
in Israeli press-releases), with their various Kalashnikovs, some of them in
civilian clothes (“all our uniforms were burned by your missiles”) spoke
longingly about peace. After some hours of conversation Oren summed up: “We
could sign a peace treaty within five minutes.”
There was something surrealistic about the situation: all of them spoke
about the Ra’is with unbounded admiration. Like us, they expected to be
attacked any moment by the Israeli tanks, but they had a friendly conversation
with the Israelis who had come their way.
When we lay down, at long last, on our mattresses, side by side with some
“internationals” from several countries who had also come to serve as
“human shields”, I was called to give a live interview by phone to
al-Jazeera television, which brought the news of our being there into millions
of homes all over the Arab world. Another little bridge for peace.
In the morning, after a quick wash (there was a long line for the
bathroom) we strolled around the compound, guided by the courageous
Netta Golan, who had been there throughout the long siege. A smell of
urine and excrements filled all the rooms that had been occupied by our army.
Somebody had painted Mezuzot on all the doorways. In one room there was a high
pile of destroyed computers; everywhere the furniture was destroyed. On all the
walls graffiti: the Israeli national anthem (with crude mistakes), the name of
Israel in Arabic (wrong spelling), a slogan in English: “Isreal (sic) rules”.
In the walls, the gaping holes that have become a trade mark of the IDF, in
spite of the fact that all doors had been open. Outside, heaps of crushed cars.
On the side, the black, armored Chevrolet that President Clinton had given
Arafat as a gift, squashed, with tank marks clearly visible on the roof.
Everywhere the dirt, destruction and mindless vandalism of the “most humane
army in the world”.
It did not make us feel very proud.