Frontline: Bethlehem - A Bedouin under siege

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The Independent Online
SALAH AL-TAMARI, the hawk-faced leader of the Palestinians in Bethlehem, stands on his office balcony and points to the Israeli settlements crowning the hills around the town like siege camps: "Sometimes I think we are going back not just to pre-Oslo days, but to pre-Camp David."

Israel has recently established a new settlement near his home village of Zaatara, near Bethlehem: "Next they will build a bypass which will slice through the village. Already they have bulldozed several houses nearby. Our shepherds have nowhere to graze their flocks," he says.

At 55, with much of his life spent in exile, Mr Tamari has adopted a philosophy of endurance and resistance. It is the fruit of a life spent resisting injustice, be it Israeli or, in recent months, at the hands of the proto-state being created on the West Bank by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Born into a family which traditionally provides the leadership for the Tamari, a Bedouin tribe long settled in the area, he left to study in Cairo in 1963.

Expelled from Jordan in 1971 (he is married to a former wife of King Hussein), he became a leader in Fatah, Mr Arafat's political movement, in Lebanon. During the 1982 Israeli invasion, he was held for a year in Sidon.

In 1994 he returned to Bethlehem under the terms of the Oslo accords. He is critical of the agreement, saying "not that it was just, but that it produced less injustice".

"It gave our people the wrong message," he says. "We seemed to be saying that the days of hardship are over."

He is critical of the modern Palestinian ambition to have "a big bank account, a villa and a Mercedes". Ordinary Palestinians have seen their standard of living slashed by 30 per cent in recent years, so Mr Tamari's attacks are levelled at the corruption and high living of the Palestinian leadership.

Elected by a large majority to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1995, Mr Tamari walks a fine line between organising resistance to the expansion of Israeli settlements around Bethlehem and criticising Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Mr Arafat and his men make a point of ignoring the Palestinian parliament. Earlier this year, the Palestinian leader offered to make Mr Tamari a cabinet minister to buy him off.

Mr Tamari has a strong local base, is self-confident and experienced. Mr Arafat, however, is suspicious of grassroot leaders and their ability to mobilise people. He has always seen a Palestinian state as being created from the top down.

These different approaches were apparent last year when Israel began building a settlement of 6,500 houses at Har Homa, called Jebel Abi Ghneim by Palestinians. This settlement will sever the link between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and is part of an Israeli policy of encir- cling the Jewish city withsettlements.

Salah al-Tamari and Feisal Husseini, the Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, set up a protest camp on a rain-swept hilltop next to Har Homa, where they conducted a non-stop press conference for days. Television crews from around the world clambered to hear them. The protest was highly effective, but viewed with the deepest suspicion by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza.

Many local Palestinian leaders, however, have given up, squeezed out by an all-powerful Israeli state and the authoritarian impulses of their own leadership. Mr Tamari believes the only principled course is to persevere in the face of these twin pressures. "You have to put up with people who say you are a Don Quixote."