The main street came into view. The busy bus park revealed only its rubble, which is usually hidden by waiting passengers. Few yellow taxis drove by. I turned to ask a by stander:
-"Why is everything shut? Arafat?"
- "La La, Arafat's dead. Everything is shut. Shut for three days"
And so the disruption of normality began. An event which causes the daily routine to be paused for three days so people are forced to respect, to contemplate, to mourn the loss of their leader. Three days where business can only continue behind closed metal doors; where people work silently in half filled offices, where the Koran fills the air with an eerie and continuous reminder. These sounds are complemented by a visual reminder as various images of Arafat are plastered over walls and hung in lines from street to street. Fresh posters of the dead stuck over older more tattered ones; all men and all 'Martyrs' in one sense or another. They all died under the occupation, where their final public appearance denied the reality of their powerless as their images are superimposed onto posters showing guns and flags; the honor of dying for Palestine…perhaps in the Martyrs grave yard they will find freedom.
As I retraced my steps I tried to process the moment of change which I was witnessing, which I was part of by walking through and observing and contemplating as every other actor here today would be. Regardless of ones personal viewpoint or political affiliation, what is certain is the uncertainty which follows. The death of Arafat symbolizes a change in Palestinian politics and it represents a potential dynamism in the peace process, for two reasons:
Firstly, Arafat's death leaves behind a political power vacuum. Since the formation of the PLO, Arafat has retrained control over it and his Fatah party. Despite the creation of a Prime Ministerial post, Arafat as Chairman of the PA has managed to concentrate the web of power and bring it firmly under his control. To his credit he united most of the political fractions – with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad as the exceptions. Moreover, he set a precedent – refusing to sell out his people and discarding Israel's 'generous' offer at Camp David, of creating a 'Palestinian' namesake as opposed to a 'Palestine'. However, by 'uniting' the political fraction he chastised democratic development. Although the Israeli occupation is undoubtedly the largest obstacle to democratization, Arafat's style of governing denied vital opportunities. It stifled a more organic political development and instead thrived off corruption and croyonism. This weakness provided his enemies with further ammunition against both his credentials to rule and the ability of Palestinians to form a democratic and legitimate nation. Consequently, Arafat's death provides new opportunities for fresh leadership and political empowerment.
Skeptics have fuelled rumors that local politics is unprepared for such a change with the most predictable result being in-fighting between the various political fractions and even civil war. My colleagues here in Beit Sahour feel that this is highly unlikely. As in most situations of conflict a solid enemy – in Palestine's case the Israeli Occupation Army (IDF) - unites the fragmented. It provides a common focus which is more than a political convenience but a political and social necessity; a survival strategy. Without a united front there would be no ideological Palestine and there would be no communal support structure. Moreover, my colleagues are weary that change will mean an 'easy peace'. Their predictions will disappoint the celebrating residents of Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv, who believed Sharon's excuse that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace. Instead, my colleagues assert that Arafat's successor will be bound by his political precedent. The same 'obstacle' to an 'easy peace' will be renewed…
Arafat refused to create peace by surrender. He stood by the most basic and fundamental conditions of real 'peace': The right of return of refugees, the withdrawal of the IDF to the 1967 Green line and finally, the creation of a divided capital with East Jerusalem returned to Palestinian control. With these conditions outlined and celebrated as un-conditional, no future leader will be able to surrender the very real society of Palestine to Israel and America without losing its support and his own legitimacy as their leader. This reintroduces the second catalyst for change represented by Arafat's death; Israel's reaction…
How will Sharon's government progress now that its excuse for non-negotiation has died? Again the rumours fly, but as always they are only based on the combination of censored press and unpredictability which characterizes such events. It was predicted that Israel will relax its control to appease the renewed international attention (one of the clearly positive consequences of Arafat's death is this surge of international media attention and reflection it has generated), that is of course until the next bombing, which Israel will then use as evidence of Palestine's inability to 'keep the peace' and of the ultimate chaos which Arafat has left in his wake.
In fact, Friday's funeral was a taster…rumour had it that the entry and exit to the West bank was sealed. When we approached the check point, which is usually marked by the Separation Wall, it had crept further forward into the city of Bethlehem. A pre-limary check point had been established about 1/2 km further into Bethlehem; rolls of the razor sharp barbed wire were strung across the road, while behind it stood our local Occupation contingent. Six military clad young soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders were busy demonstrating their illegitimate and underserved power over their residential neighbors. One such elderly lady stood firm, although her composure was yielding to their stubborn deafness. Entry denied we took a breath to hide our guilt – our multiple guilt of being able to cross their 'artificial border' while granted permission by an illegal Occupation. Meanwhile, our friends and colleagues and our local neighbors were forbidden such a right – such a privilege of freedom of movement in their own country. While we inhaled our guilt which was our silence, we ignored the eyes of the woman. We were ignoring our responsibility by virtue of a common humanity. To try and help her case would be to deny the futility of the situation and our own delicate residence in this 'democracy', as we reside on the 'wrong' side of the green line.
We walked passed the soldiers gripping our passports as symbols of our freedom of passage in this foreign land. Access granted once and then twice, as we continued to pass the second original check point. We continued to pass the army camouflage netting marking our road to Jerusalem. We walked passed the many observation points, bored young soldiers and coil upon coil of the razor-barbed wire. We walked along the old road joining the two cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Although now it was only accessible to the yellow plated (Israeli) cars and which in reality, is a privilege only utilized by army jeeps. We walked up towards Jerusalem to where this old main road rejoins its still functioning 'better half'. A mini-bus pulled up along side us. The blacked out windows were betrayed by the sliding door, which opened to reveal the Palestinian passengers. The city buses never seem to stop at this bus stop. It is as if they presume all their possible passengers are pedestrians from the 'other side'.
The bus drove to the old city bus park. The park was heaving with a mixture of men and fully armed Israeli soldiers who had erected a metal barrier. The barrier did little more than create a chaotic bottle neck. In fact chaotic was to be an appropriate adjective to describe the remainder of the day's events, although in a much calmer sense than was portrayed by the international press.... Soldiers were everywhere, while every man (there seemed to be very few women) on the street seemed to be clambering into a vehicle bound for the North. We found a space in a service bus to Qalandiya – the next check point – which marked the Wall/ West Bank. Within 20 minutes we were following streams of men, who were all on a mission to witness the burying of their 'national' leader, this was irrespective of the cruel reality of the situation which leaves them not only without a leader but of course still without a nation – as Arafat's life time goal of justice for Palestine is not only still a 'goal' but a controversial one at that.
No-one checks our passports...Was this the 'top security', 'high alert' which had been propagated? After all what better time for a suicide bombing/ terrorist attack than amid this mass movement of 'terrorists' between the Wall and over the line…this was a time when permits to travel were being utilized despite the humiliation and inconvenience of each and every journey throughout the West Bank. Emotions and sentiments were running high, and the country crawled with international media… We walked with the crowd, passing camera crews and journalists decked with equipment and 'protected' with the letters 'TV' taped to their windscreens. Many flaunted Canadian patches, which were sewn to their flap jackets…Canadian or Israeli…one had to wonder…I also wondered when Ramallah had ever seen so much international attention. I wondered for how many reporters the Separation Wall appeared as shocking and ugly as it should be to Virgin eyes?
We piled into a service taxi "To Ramallah". A colleague who was already at Arafat's compound - the Mutaka – called:
"The helicopters are coming" …
We wrenched our necks out of the open windows amid sympathetic looks from out fellow passengers. We pointed to the skies as an alternative way of linguistic explanation. Soon our actions were explained – soon the black dots appeared. They hovered above. Rumour had it that the people of Gaza had requested that the helicopters fly over on their way to Ramallah so that (for many their access was denied to the West Bank) they could pay their symbolic last respects to their leader. The feeling of anticipation which characterizes any major event invaded every inch of the atmosphere. Like many others who stood side by side with us, we were not supporters of Arafat but rather supporters of his Nation and all that he stood for. For this reason we wanted to be part of this 'change' in history. We wanted to share with his people what he represented and the overwhelming feeling of solidarity which his death and this event had ultimately fuelled – and which cheated Israeli expectations.
We walked with the crowds, through Ramallah's own metal corridor of 'mourning' shops and their wider variety of Arafat posters and memorabilia. We all walked with an aim but there were few tears. In fact there was almost a festive feel fired by the explosive atmosphere, which yesterday had left us all with headaches and a frustrating restlessness. We approached the desecrated compound. The first and last time I had stood here had only been six weeks before. Six weeks before I had come to meet Arafat, to shake his hand, to sit in his one remaining conference room and listen as he passed around photographs of the daily destruction his country endures at the hands of the Occupation. The Mutaka was now cleared of the many blown out and over turned cars. The heaps of rubble which were still visible had been re-ordered; this site of deconstruction had been Arafat's make shift defense force to protect the him from the return of Israeli assigns.
Now the Mutaka was full of Palestinian flags. These flags stood tall upon rusted oil drums and hung from blown out walls. Men sat on chairs on the third floors of buildings. Their presence was revealed because of the absence of a fourth wall. Every remaining wall, every concrete block, every pile of rubble was loaded with spectators. In the distance blue neon circular lights poked out of the crowd and lined the tops of wooden platforms which had built a second wall around the compound. Every neighboring house had been occupied - not by the usual suspects but by the much rarer species of the International Reporter.
We walked through the rubble, flags and giant sized posters. The crowd gained in density and intensity. I was gradually being pulled out of my comfort zone. Bodies were pressed closer together, although the atmosphere still seemed festive rather than aggressive. There were no rallying political speeches or mourning verses, but there were other accompaniments, as the gun shots fired high into the air reminded us of both the event and of the style of the Palestinian military – forbidden and powerless. Yet I had never before seen so many soldiers or guns which were not in the hands of the young Israelis.
Before long a human wave pushed its way through the crowd, which was pre-warned by shouts. We moved as far to the side as space would allow. Bodies on top of bodies, until the wave came closer, carrying with it more gun shorts, soldiers, party members and of course the tense faces of the photojournalists; cameras held high and whose dress and composure stood like the blue neon lights above their presence – which to me was nothing more than reassuring. One photographer was carried into me before being sweep passed be managed to say an unnecessary but characteristically English, "I'm Sorry".
The space expanded slightly, but only momentarily before the wave seemed to recurl and retace its steps. We sought refugee in the higher spaces; away from the main stream leading from the helicopter pad to the ruined buildings. Although the crowds may have dispersed the gun shots increased. The odd ambulance drove through, as children had fainted, and 9 were injured – I suppose ceremonial bullets have to land somewhere. The two helicopters rotated their way towards the sky. People waved but were then forced to cover their faces from the dust. It seemed symbolic; in a display of solid national unity Palestine said farewell to their leader, but were then forced to turn away – a well adapted survival technique; the denial of the internal uncertainty, denied freedoms, of the squeezing suffocating pressure of the Occupation. Meanwhile, the international eye disperses with the dust.