Arafat's men fumbling for the reins: On the morning after the PLO leader's homecoming, the practice of statehood fails to live up to its symbols
Sunday 03 July 1994
Down at the Palestine Hotel, Mr Arafat was holding court with his servants, the Fatah leaders who ran the resistance battle against Israeli occupation and whose absolute loyalty he must have in the coming days. He met the Jersualem consuls of Britain, France and Germany whose countries' financial assistance he needs almost as much as he does the support of his gunmen. Israeli Arabs and the representatives of Israeli left-wing parties turned up for an audience before midday, while down the road, sitting in the dust on the pavement, kept at bay by a clutch of Palestinian policemen, sat a couple of dozen young men who merely wanted to glimpse the man who was now ruling them.
They got their chance yesterday afternoon when Mr Arafat, escorted by dozens of armed men, drove through the refugee camp of Jabalya where the Palestinian intifada against Israeli rule began and addressed thousands of Palestinian refugees in a decrepit schoolhouse. They were chanting the old refrain: 'With soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat).' No, Mr Arafat roared back, in future they must shout that they sacrifice themselves 'for Palestine'.
It was a somewhat crude attempt by Mr Arafat to win hearts, if not minds. To the applause, of the crowd, he said that he had refused conditions for World Bank loans 'because we will not exchange Israeli occupation for economic occupation'. And he spoke ruefully of the Oslo peace accords. 'The agreement we have made is not to our taste,' he said as an Israeli helicopter flew over the schoolhouse. 'But it's the best we've got at a time when the Arab predicament could not be worse.' All the while, Mr Arafat's men covered the crowd with their Kalashnikov rifles.
'Arafat's men' may soon become a regular expression here. Some of them are Gazans, of course, but many are Palestinians who played no part in the resistance, who rotted away in Baghdad or Cairo or grew old fighting in the hopeless internecine wars in Lebanon. They have arrived here now to rule Gaza with many of the characteristics of their countries of exile. The Palestinian police and soldiers who came from Egypt have already adopted that special mixture of Ottoman bureaucracy and British colonial arrogance that rubbed off on the Egyptians a hundred 100 years ago. Those Palestinians who spent too much time in Baghdad shout and give orders. 'They want to use the stick,' as one Gazan put it. Those who lived in Lebanon are more acquiescent, prepared to turn a blind eye to transgressions or even, so it is said, here, take a bribe or two.
In Omar Mukhtar Street yesterday morning, they were sitting outside the police station in front of a set of ancient typewriters, trying to organise a new car registration scheme. Palestinians were handing over Israeli military papers in return for an Arabic document headed 'Palestine Authority', which permitted them to obtain new red and black car registration plates with numbers printed in Roman and Arabic numerals. But the symbols of statehood do not give a nation reality. And, as anyone walking through the streets of Shati or Jabalya camps yesterday would quickly realise, most of Mr Arafat's new subjects perhaps 90 per cent of them do not come from Gaza at all.
They are refugees or the children of refugees from that part of the original Palestine that is now Israel, having lived for almost half a century amid the rubbish pits and squalor of Gaza waiting for Mr Arafat to honour his promise of sending them home to Ashkelon and Haifa or Beersheva. Now they have to face the reality that they will not be able to go 'home'; indeed, that they must live on in Gaza with two-thirds of the original Israeli occupation force which has redeployed away from Palestinian homes but which has certainly not withdrawn. from this part of Mr Arafat's putative homeland Inside the Gaza Strip, those soldiers are still guarding the Jewish settlers and patrolling the borders of the nation which those newspaper advertisements lauded so fulsomely.
In Shati Camp yesterday, you could find Ibrahim, a taxi driver from the Israeli town of Ramleh, standing at the doorway of his ramshackle home, waiting to catch sight of Yassir Mr Arafat. 'Ten years ago, I drove my mother to Ramleh and she found our home and I knocked on the front door,' he said. 'There was a Jewish family inside. The Israeli man asked us to come in and said 'Welcome to our home.' And my mother and it was her home, remember , that she was driven out of she broke down in tears. The Israelis were kind to us and understood that this had been our family's property. My mother died a year later. No, I know I'll never get our home back. Anyway, it has been destroyed now for a new estate. Maybe I'll get compensation. And maybe also some statement from the Israelis that they took our homes away in 1948.'
Elsewhere in Shati, men from Beersheva, Jaffa and Lod said that yes, they really did believe they would one day return to these towns, in Israel 'with God's help'. That , of course, is not what the Israelis have in mind. for them. They want to see an orderly, well-policed 'autonomous area' on their doorstep and have chosen Mr Arafat for the job.
Yesterday, afternoon, two plain-clothes men in a green saloon car stopped me in Shati. The PLO's security men were suspicious, abrupt. 'What are you doing here? Where are you from? Give me your papers]' they demanded. And One could only reflect that Mr Arafat's Palestine might, after all, turn into a typical Arab state.
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