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A protest too long delayed

By Edward Said (Al-Ahram Weekly, 9-15 December 1999)

Twenty Palestinian citizens of the West Bank and Gaza, nearly all of them extremely popular and prominent, issued a bitingly pointed denunciation of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, accusing it of massive "corruption, humiliation and abuse", selling out the Palestinian people in the "peace process" as it is still quaintly known, and generally allowing the Palestinian common weal to deteriorate on every level. Oslo is blamed for much of this, but the statement specifically (and justifiably) named Arafat himself as the most responsible party for the whole sorry mess; he is cited as having himself opened the doors to financial corruption, misled the people as to Oslo's achievements, and promised them a Singapore instead of the stagnant morass in which almost three million people, with the exception of two or three hundred around him who have officially designated VIP status and are doing brilliantly, thank you very much, have sunk. With characteristic subtlety, the Authority responded by arresting nine of the 20, and placing two more under house arrest; several others have been called in for interrogation, all under the orders of Ghazi Jabali, head of Arafat's main police force, who came to Palestine with his chief in 1994, having sat out the Intifada in comparative luxury in Tunis.

The New York Times and a few other mainstream papers picked up the story on 29 November, but none of them put it in its real context, or interpreted it for what it is, a tip-of-the-iceberg sign of how totally unpopular Arafat, his partners the US and Israel, and their peace have now become, not just among the "Islamic enemies of peace" that Bill Clinton sees around every corner, nor among the "Syrian agents" that Arab clients of the US love to blame for discordant noises about Oslo, nor "isolated" people like myself, but among nearly all ordinary Palestinians and their Arab counterparts. It isn't at all what Thomas Friedman recently suggests is the problem, that the Arab governments that have signed on to the peace process haven't sufficiently educated their populations into "the culture of peace," a fatuous phrase if there ever was one, but that "peace" is being made by undemocratic, profoundly unpopular and isolated governments who have charged ahead with it because of US support for their precarious regimes, and because Israel's blatantly explicit unwillingness to abide by the two UN resolutions that stipulate land for peace has made it clear that the settlements will continue and grow larger, Jerusalem will remain under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, borders and security as well as water will be under Israeli control, and whatever meaningless Palestinian "state" will emerge is as contemptibly unviable, as it was always planned to be. Add to that the horrible deterioration of Palestinian quality of life, plus Israel's utter refusal to accept any significant return or compensation of the refugees that it created in 1948, and one has something of an idea of how desperate and disgusted all Palestinians feel now that the "final status negotiations" approach their culmination, with the Western media already celebrating the millennial peace and the World Bank forking over more and more money directly into Arafat's greedy little hands.

The misrepresentations of "peace" extend still further, as a closer look at the signatories will reveal. Bassam Al-Shakaa is not simply the former mayor of Nablus, but a genuinely admired hero who lost both of his legs when an Israeli-set booby trap exploded in his car in 1980. Known as a fearless champion of Palestinian independence, he refused to allow Arafat to visit him in his home in 1994, and when I spoke to him last week he told me that despite his house arrest he routinely leaves his house in his wheel-chair to buy bread and defy Jabali to arrest him. Rawya Al-Shawa is a strikingly brilliant and articulate member of the Legislative Council who comes from Gaza's leading family; her husband is Gaza's mayor but she has made no secret of her opposition to Arafat's dreadful regime. Tactfully, the bully Jabali didn't even try to arrest her, obviously preferring not to take on someone so formidable but settling instead for easier targets. Ahmad Kattamesh, who was arrested, has only just been released by the Israelis after being the longest held prisoner in administrative detention, i.e. without trial. Abdel-Jawad Saleh is a former PLO minister, Fatah member (like several of the other signatories), and Council member. Adil Samara and Abdel-Sattar Qasem are respected, independent academics; Adnan Odeh is head of the Parliamentary Research Unit, Abdel-Rahman Kitani is a well-known physician, as is Yasser Abu Saffiyeh, who is also a board member of the Union of Health Work Committees. Arafat also tried to strip the nine legislators of their parliamentary immunity, raiding homes and offices with stunning brutality.

Even as I write these lines, hundreds, and even thousands more Palestinians are speaking out, signing petitions, openly calling for new elections and Arafat's ouster. The scandal is that the Chairman is being kept around simply to sign this convenient peace, in the meantime employing no less than about 125,000 people as part of his security and bureaucratic apparatus (almost 70 per cent of the budget) while spending only two per cent on the infrastructure. Especially hated lieutenants of his -- celebrated in Israel and Washington as brave advocates of peace -- have built ostentatious multi-million dollar villas on the Gaza beachfront (in full view of Jabalya, a 90,000-person refugee camp criss-crossed with open sewers), their wives go to Paris on shopping sprees, and their children and relatives manage monopolies of nearly everything, with Israeli bank accounts to squirrel away their money in. Unemployment fluctuates between 20 and 40 per cent, the house demolitions and land expropriations continue unimpeded, while Ehud Barak, that famous champion of peace, continues to increase military and settlement spending beyond even Netanyahu's.

Even the combined talents of Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh couldn't have invented anything more stupid and doomed to failure than the current peace juggernaut. It will certainly hurtle forward but just as certainly bring more instability and bloodshed for Palestinians and Israelis alike. But neither the enlightened Israeli nor the Western liberal Left seems to want to step forward and state the obvious, as if the word "peace" has become a mantra that has hypnotised them all into stupefaction. What policy makers should at very least sense, however, is that Palestinians and Israelis are too politicised and savvy a pair of peoples to be fooled for long by their cowardly leaders, or to accept schemes for separation that are little more than apartheid given a new name. The scandal of this recent protest should awaken people to what has been happening all along in this most grotesquely misnamed of all "peace" processes. But, alas, it won't, so stay tuned for more of the same until some eyes are opened, and Arafat is finally removed, which he most certainly will be once he has fulfilled his purpose. Then the upheaval may be too great to stop, and Oslo will be exposed forever as the lamentable mockery it has been for so long.

For the present, an international conference of politically active and independent Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, Israel and all the refugee populations is being planned. Its platform will include an alternative peace process, democratic elections, and representative institutions. One hopes that such an initiative will at last succeed in allowing Palestinians to represent themselves.

But matters on the ground have considerably worsened, with several of the jailed protesters now being denied the right to see lawyers and family members, street demonstrations increasing and, not least, Palestinian negotiators at long last facing an inevitable reality: that Israeli final-status negotiations do not include any plans for either dismantling or curtailing the expansion of most of the settlements. So much, then, for the "advantages" of peace.


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