By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The mayor of Beit Jala, Raji Zeidan, said, “He was deprived of the opportunity to create a state by the occupation. Israel wasn’t serious about ending the occupation, because they always wanted the land.”
The deputy mayor, Dr. Yusuf Abu Jareis, saw it differently: “I will tell my grandchildren we had a serious leader, a real leader, but he should have started building the state — the infrastructure, the societies — and he didn’t. He was able; he had the chance to build a state. He had the whole world with him to do this, and he didn’t. And we are paying for this today.”
Besides negligence, corruption in the PA was driving Palestinians crazy long before it became a target of criticism from the United States or Israel. A journalist named Raed Othman remembered a PA minister explaining to him how PA corruption often worked, with Arafat using money rather than hard work to buy fealty . “I asked the minister, why are you doing this to people? He said he’d once sent two letters to Arafat, one asking 60,000 shekels for the ministry and another asking for the same amount of money to buy two cars. He said Arafat signed the letter to give him two cars, but he didn’t sign the letter for the people.”
Arafat also kept what were known as “black files” on anyone whose allegiance mattered, carefully noting any “financial misdeeds, whoring or cowardice,” according to the Aburish book. Whenever reasoned argument or money failed to get someone on his side, Arafat would pull out his file and let him look at it.
Fuad, the agricultural engineer, drew in the dust on the window of his pickup to illustrate the corruption problem as he saw it. He drew a dot — Arafat — and then a circle around it.
“Arafat knows around him there is a lot of corruption. All the Palestinian people told him, there is corruption around you, next to you. He said, ‘Okay, but they are thieves since 20 years, and who knows what will come if I bring in new [people]?’ He is one of them. He is in them. And he doesn’t do anything.”
But a police captain, Fadal Badrin, said only, “Anyone who works, errs,” when I asked him if he thought Arafat had made any mistakes.
“He formed our identity,” he said. “He is the father, the leader. I had feelings I couldn’t describe when I shook his hand.”
The man who published the joke book about Arafat, the one with the blank pages, is a television journalist in Bethlehem named Nasser Laham. I asked him why he published this book, which he did with his own money, at significant personal risk; Arafat doesn’t like being criticized. He said, “I want people to think. No one deserves to be our god. People have to say something. They have to do something. Okay, shit, Israel is our enemy. Okay, after that? What about our internal things? What about our democracy, our life? We need people in Palestinian society to make a civilized society, to make democracy.”
The second Intifada, with its deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, has undermined one of the main achievements of the first Intifada: the rendering of the Palestinian cause sympathetic around the world. The second Intifada has also obscured the fact that the first Intifada was not just mainly non-militant, it was also a populist movement that started without Arafat. Democracy was never going to come from Arafat. He cultivated followers, not citizens.
The first Intifada showed that the Palestinian cause is bigger than Arafat. It also created some local leaders, like Nasser Laham, who published the book, who are committed to a bottom-up, nonviolent struggle. Maybe with different leadership at the top, they’ll be able to make progress doing what Arafat couldn’t: building a state. But maybe not. After trashing Arafat for 10 minutes, Fuad, the agricultural engineer, switched gears.
“Out of all of them, I wish he will stay alive,” he said. “There are others worse than him that will rise.”