The mothers who came to the military court at Salem on Sunday were seated five to six meters away from their sons on the defendants’ bench. It was impossible not to hear their shouted conversations. After they informed their sons about who had sent them regards, and about how they have been thinking about them when they prepare the food for Ramadan, they summed up – for themselves, for everyone around, for their sons – “If only Arafat would die already.”
It was clear they blame Arafat for “everything:” the arrest of their sons, the expected years of imprisonment for them, the meters of separation that kept them from the touch of their hands, the dozens of shekels they had to pay for the exhausting ride to the distant court and the young military policemen who were hushing them with waggling fingers and “Sh-sh-sh” every few minutes, as if they were toddlers in nursery school. This reminded one of the Palestinian lawyers in the courtroom that, during a lecture he delivered recently in Italy, a group of workers who support the Palestinian struggle for independence came and waved a placard along the lines of “We are all with Yasser Arafat.” You can all be with Arafat, he said to them with suppressed rage, but you are wrong in identifying him exclusively with the Palestinian cause.
There are many aspects to the centrality of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in the international, Israeli and Palestinian consciousness as the representative of the Palestinians. This centrality is not only a result of the status he has obtained for himself as father-ruler. It is also the handiwork of people around him – haters and lovers, members of his own people and foreigners. On the one hand, the constant presence of the Palestinian cause on the international agenda is attributed to Arafat; on the other, so are the Palestinian failures, which everyone defines differently, especially since 1990.
The mothers who blamed Arafat for “everything” are part of a current fashion. Not only like former prime minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but also like Fatah activists, officers in the security apparatus and Palestinian government ministers. Thus, it is convenient not to examine the traditional social ties and the political habits within which Arafat operated. Thus, it is convenient among the Palestinian elite and many activists to shrug off any personal and collective responsibility for what is happening.
Over the years, Arafat would not have been able to display his virtuosity in creating circles of supporters and doers of his bidding in return for money and perquisites had not prominent individuals and movements, including some in the opposition, agreed to take this from him. His skill in creating mechanisms and institutions that compete with one another, in order to ensure that no leader will compete with him, rests on a tradition of inter-tribal tensions and competitions.
Wide circles of Palestinian politicians were partner to the colossal failure during the Oslo years, when the worship of the symbolism of an airport and postage stamps and the easing of restrictions on movement that they received from Israel prevented them from seeing in time that Israel was aiming at a new kind of control, not at a peaceful solution. The rapidity with which the current intifada degenerated into the use of weapons and explosives is not only the result of “his decision not to decide:” The cult of the “armed struggle” has also been nurtured by his fiercest opponents, like Hamas and the Popular Front. His opponents, and there are more than a few of them, do not dare to come out systematically and openly against this cult, and not because of Arafat or armed gangs. After all, for many years people dared to come out against the Israeli army of occupation and endanger their lives, their liberty and their jobs. Here, among other things, there is also a role played by considerations of tribal loyalty, personal prestige, socialization processes, the fear of harm to salaries and perquisites, class alienation and social distance from the objects of the criticism.
Arafat’s wise disciples and his foolish disciples say that without him the world would not have taken any interest in the fate of the Palestinians. This does an injustice to the entire Palestinian population that has declined to melt away, without an identity, into the countries of its diaspora. There are those who say that without Arafat it is impossible to reach a peace agreement based on the fair and realistic solution of two states within the borders of June 4, 1967. In this they are not recognizing the contribution to the Palestinian cause of the tens of thousands of Palestinian activists in the territories, who adopted this solution over the years, brought about the eruption of the first intifada and contributed to the explicit change in the position of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Arafat could not have sold the Oslo agreement to his public without an entire generation of Palestinian activists – in Fatah and in the organizations to the left of it – familiar with Israel from the struggle against the occupation and from the prisons and wholeheartedly believed that this agreement would lead to independence. This generation exists, be Arafat alive or dead. But Israel will lose it entirely, and will lose what is left of the chance for normal life in this region, if it continues to spin solutions that are not based on a total withdrawal from the territories that were occupied in 1967.