Robert Fisk: Palestinian flag-wavers dare to dream two days before UN vote


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I'd just been to the old boy's grave – presumably he's not turning inside, not this week anyway – and then, less than 50m from Manara Square, where Ramallah's concrete lions sit, mouths open in boredom, was Yasser Arafat himself. Walking, living, breathing; Arafat's face – as near as you can get minus the awful growth of beard – his dull green battledress jacket, familiar keffiyeh scarf folded to resemble the map of the original Palestine over his head and right shoulder.

He was followed by a crowd of flag-waving kids, an almost perfect lookalike for the real thing in the tomb up the road, a fantasy Arafat for a fantasy state. "He used to wander around dressed like that after 'Abu Amar' died," the man outside the pastry shop remarked coldly. "Now only the children make a fuss of him – they think he's the real thing."

"Arafat" – in real life, 58-year-old Hebron businessman Salem Smerat – held out his hand to me, and I have to admit it had the same soft, damp feel of the 75-year-old "President" of "Palestine" who died seven years ago, decades after I'd first met him in Lebanon. "We will be a democracy among the guns," he told me once. And yes, he said then, he loved the United Nations.

In Ramallah yesterday, they didn't love the UN but they understood its uses. Quite a few shopkeepers, all men of course, even suggested they wanted Barack Obama to veto a Security Council vote on "Palestine's" statehood, since this would finally prove to all Arabs that America was not their friend. No one suggested that Obama, who so blithely declared a new relationship with the Muslim world in Cairo and called for a Palestinian state by 2012, might – in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson – courageously support a vote for "Palestine", albeit at the cost of his re-election. But then again, that would be fantasy, wouldn't it?

In the streets, there were drums and recorded martial music and children who climbed on the tired lions, and youths who plastered the walls with posters showing an American fist holding the scales of justice. "Palestine's" golden tray was empty, of course, Israel's filled with the usual statistics (750,000 Palestinians detained since 1967, more than 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, Israel in full control of more than 50 per cent of the West Bank, 519,000 Israeli settlers in 144 colonies in the occupied "Palestine"...).

It was a kind of jamboree, which Majdi summed up rather well, although not so bravely that he wanted to give me his family name.

"These people are celebrating without knowing the outcome of the UN vote," he said. "We have to wait these two days to see if we should celebrate. Oslo was a waste of time – the only one who won was Israel. They only had 100,000 settlers here in those days. But American mediation has been a nonsense. They interfere in other Arab countries and support revolutions – but when it comes to Palestine, they don't care."

And Majdi, who sells gold jewellery, was superstitious. "Everything goes wrong for us in September," he said. "There was 'Black September' in 1970 and there was the Sabra and Chatila massacre in September 1982" – note to all readers: how many, in the aftermath of the 9/11 anniversary, recalled that this week marked the 29th anniversary of the slaughter of 1,700 Palestinians in Beirut? – "and there was the first intifada in September 1987, and then there was Oslo and now it's another September and we are going to the UN. But it's right to go and stir things up. If a baby doesn't cry – do you think it will get milk?"