Peace-activist Eyewitness report from the funeral of Arafa
By Israeli Peaceniks
Going to Ramallah through the Bitunya Checkpomt gives the clear feeling of entering a prison. We had to go by foot through a complicated system of high walls, barriers and security checks. At least this day we were not refused entry altogether, as we had become used to in the past years.
The Israeli soldiers looked at us with a kind of grudging respect as we lined up to sign the legal waiver. ("Knowing the dangers I declare that from my own free will I take all risks upon myself, and give up any claims whatsoever towards the state of Israel, the Ministry of Defence and their employees and soldiers in connection with any bodily damage or death, caused by my presence in the closed area.") Activist Edith Ohri took the soldiers by surprise by adding "except if I am shot at by the Israeli army" in a handwritten reservation.
We were through but without means of transport - the Gush Shalom bus from Tel-Aviv and the bus with Jerusalem activists had to be left behind at the military parking lot. But a phonecall to our Palestinian contacts soon brought a convoy of vans, bearing posters of Arafat and the inscription "official delegation" taking us and a group of Arab dignitaries from the Galilee to Ramallah’s city center.
Nearly every passing car sported an Arafat poster, and the small children at the street corners were selling them: Arafat smiling, Arafat saluting, sticker displaying the Israeli and Palestinian flags. The sheer pressure of the multitude split us up among the crowd. Throughout the hours of the funeral, we felt completely safe, even when thousands of shots were fired around us into the air to express grief and bereavement. We encountered hundreds of expressions of gratitude and friendship from Palestinians of all ages and stations in life.
I was in the middle of the melee when the helicopter bearing the coffin arrived from Cairo. Standing beside the grave among the Palestinian ministers, religious dignitaries and diplomats, I was vividly aware of the intense emotions of the huge crowd around us when the helicopter touched down. I remembered the scene of Gamal Abd-al-Nasser’s funeral in 1970, when the masses surged forward and literally captured the body of their beloved leader from the soldiers, and felt that this was going to happen here at any moment. And it did.
No Arab leader - and very few world leaders - evoke such profound love and admiration among their people as this man, whom Israelis consider a veritable monster in human form. The Palestinians trusted him, relied on him, let him make all the big decisions that demanded courage, derived from him the strength to defy the intolerable conditions under a brutal occupation. Now, suddenly, incredibly, they found themselves alone, like orphaned waifs, in a world changed by the death of a man who left a huge gap behind him.
What will happen now? Arafat has brought his people from the edge of oblivion to the threshold of independence. But the battle for liberation is still far from over. The new leadership will have to face all the problems that confronted Arafat, without the towering authority of Arafat.
Abu Mazen, Abu-Ala and their colleagues are upright, decent people. I have known them for years, mostly from meetings with Arafat. But they have no deep roots in their people. It may be years before a strong leadership emerges.
At the moment, the Palestinians are united in their resolve to show the world that they can overcome this crisis in a civilized and responsible manner. This could have been a chance for Israel (and the United States, of course) to open a new chapter in relations with the Palestinian people.
What could have been done? Well, there should have been a show of goodwill with such gestures as the mass release of Palestinian prisoners, including the much respected Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has been sentenced to serve :five consecutive life sentences. Sieges should have been lifted and army operations at least reduced. Peace negotiations should have been announced for the near future.
The first test was, of course, the funeral itself. Arafat should have been buried in Jerusalem, according to his wishes. His interment in Ramallah will only strengthen the resolve of the Palestinians to fight until they are able to re-bury him there. The Minister of Justice, Tommy Lapid, an extreme rightist posing as a liberal, reached new heights of vulgarity when he declared that "Jewish Kings, not Arab terrorists, are buried in Jerusalem". Well, Menachem Begin, a terrorist who became a "king" and was buried in Jerusalem, could have served as a precedent.
But the most important thing is to enable the Palestinians to hold. Indeed, some of the planned ceremony did not take place, but we have witnessed something much more meaningful: the vitality of the source upon which Arafat’s leadership drew, the love of an oppressed people for the symbol of their struggle to be free. Without grassroots struggle there would never have been the Palestinian Authority, and the people now in charge know that for a new mandate, that is where they have to turn.
Adam Keller & Beate Zilversmidt