WEST BANK — Iyad Murar told this story only after being pressed. We sat in his living room in the village of Budrus, north of Ramallah, with a map on the wall showing the route of the separation barrier Israel is building. When he realized last fall that the barrier would come through his village, the 42-year-old Murar said he knocked on every door in the Palestinian Authority he could think of with a simple request: a megaphone and a digital camera. He told government officials he needed them for the civil-disobedience campaign he and his brother had begun organizing in Budrus. If the separation barrier is completed according to current plans, he said, getting up and showing Budrus on the map, it would confiscate 250 acres of the village’s land and enclose several villages in a giant corral, with limited access to hospitals, jobs, schools, relatives and the rest of the world. Not only did nobody in the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) help, said Murar, who works in the P.A.’s Ministry of the Interior, “They cut 25 days from my vacation, because I was absent defending against the wall.”
Some context for this story: For months it’s been clear that Palestinians have an issue that has garnered world — and even American — sympathy. President Bush has bluntly declared the separation barrier “a problem.” Even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced several weeks ago to admit that the miles of fences, military roads, barbed wire and occasional 20-plus-foot concrete walls cutting into the West Bank have been “not satisfactory in all matters relating to the damage to Palestinians’ quality of life.”
Facing periodic suicide bombings, like the one last month on a bus in Jerusalem that killed eight people, many Israelis still support the barrier, at least in principle. But the winding route of the structure, because it’s been so obviously damaging, has stirred to action even the mostly moribund Israeli left, as well as the U.S. and Europe. It’s also done what nothing else in the last three years has: roused masses of ordinary Palestinians to organize and protest in ways that don’t involve guns, rockets or suicide bombs.
Yet the P.A., in the face of all this, has failed to lead the fight, or even to contribute much to it. Protests, until recently, have been mostly small, local and not coordinated with other protests. Many communities still don’t understand how the barrier might affect them, let alone have a plan to fight it. No visible, consistent leader has come forth to galvanize those who do understand. At a demonstration several weeks ago in Jerusalem, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was trumpeted as the keynote speaker. He never showed. A group of farmers in the northern West Bank who were losing land to the barrier had to stage a sit-in at then–Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ office just to be heard. A Swedish Parliament member was arrested recently during a protest in Murar’s village; no Palestinian Parliament members have been arrested fighting the barrier. Where has the P.A. been for the last year and a half — its ministers, its newspapers, its radio and television stations, its head, Yasir Arafat?
“I don’t know,” said Jamal Juma, who heads a coalition of non-governmental organizations fighting the barrier. “Don’t ask me. This question is killing me.”
I put the question to Abdel Jawad Saleh, a Legislative Council member who is a longtime critic of the P.A. The problem, he said, is “indifference. They [members of the P.A.] don’t feel that the problems, the grievances of the people, are on their shoulders. They don’t have any affinity or relation with the people. They don’t believe they are the servants of the people. This is Arafat culture.”
Arafat is famous for disliking populist movements among his people. In the late 1980s, a group of Palestinians organized a disciplined tax-resistance campaign in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, refusing to pay taxes to Israel. Arafat denied the group publicity and funds, and blocked the spread of the campaign to other areas. Only after the movement was shattered, when Israel cracked down on the tax resisters by surrounding the town, placing them under a monthlong curfew and sweeping through their houses to confiscate their belongings, did Arafat offer help. He handed out money to the resisters’ families, neatly shifting their energies into personal squabbles over who got more cash.
All this he did from exile in Tunisia.
In the case of the barrier, the P.A.’s anemic leadership seems to be less a matter of deliberate sabotage than a lack of will, and Arafat is not the only one to blame. Saleh, the Legislative Council member, remembered meeting last spring with then–Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
“I said, ‘You should be Gandhi, a Palestinian Gandhi to confront the Israelis with nonviolence,’” said Saleh. “He said, ‘Have mercy on me,’ as if I was asking him to go on a martyrdom operation [a suicide attack]. He doesn’t think the function of the prime minister is to lead his people in this way.”
The problem with lackluster leaders is that people still expect, or maybe just hope, that they will lead. A few weeks ago, in a small, unheated meeting room packed with 20 men and about 21 mustaches, Palestinians from the villages near the Israeli settlement of Ariel listened intently as an Israeli lawyer made a proposal. Shlomo Lecker, a civil-rights attorney who’s brought dozens of West Bank land-use cases to Israel’s high court over the last 15 years, said he could file a case that might reduce the amount of land the fence would take from the villages. The men weren’t convinced. One stood up and said, “We have to check with the national level about this. We need to go to the [Palestinian] Authority.” Lecker could barely hide his frustration. The P.A., he said later, “has never showed any interest in Israel’s taking of the land. Not one bit.” When I repeated Lecker’s comment to Saleh, the Legislative Council member, he said, “He’s right. This is another failure, really.”
Maybe it sounds counterintuitive — that the government of a people in a land dispute would not have a plan to hold on to the land — but consider the facts. From the mid-1990s, when the P.A. arrived in the West Bank and Gaza, till 2000, when the second Intifada started, Israel appropriated land for more than 800 miles of bypass roads for settlers in the occupied territories, according to the Israeli peace group Now. In the late 1990s, following the U.S.-brokered Wye River Accord, then–Foreign Minister Sharon urged Israelis to “run and take the hilltops,” and within three years, more than 40 “outposts” had been created on thousands of acres of West Bank land. Now, in addition to these outposts, bypass roads and settlements, the separation barrier is being built, and so far, 7,000 acres have been expropriated in order to accommodate it, according to the Israeli human-rights organization B’Iselem. “The Palestinian Authority is doing the maximum it can,” said Arafat’s adviser Imad Shakkour. “They are calling to stop [the barrier]. They are against it. They went to the U.N.; they got a resolution to go to the Hague.”
He’s right that the one exception to the P.A.’s rudderless response to the barrier is its legal campaign, making a case against the barrier at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague. The Hague hearings generated publicity and energized resistance on the ground; more villages have begun staging anti-barrier protests, including one a couple of weeks ago in which two Palestinians were killed by fire from Israeli forces. The Hague also seems to worry Israel in a way that the United Nations and all its resolutions do not. In Hebrew, “U.N.” translates as “Oom,” and Israelis are fond of quoting Golda Meir’s dismissive pronouncement on the U.N.: “Oom, shmoom.” But an international legal body is potentially more troublesome. Although Sharon’s government decided not to give oral arguments at the Hague — saying the ICJ had no right to rule on the barrier — it took the matter seriously enough to put together a special team of lawyers and consultants to file a 100-plus-page brief.
Iyad Murar finally managed to coax a megaphone and a camera out of a non-governmental organization. He said he and other villagers took time out from their anti-barrier campaign to protest outside Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s office in January.
“What we want from the P.A. is to encourage other villages to follow in Budrus’ footsteps,” he said.
In Budrus, meanwhile, the villagers continue to gather once a week to demonstrate and stay organized, Murar said, even though construction on the barrier has stopped in their area, for now. “Our visits to everybody did not help us,” he said. “What helped us was our work on the ground: our village, our struggle.”