Arafat's men pay tribute at burial of suicide bomber

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They looked embarrassed. They even looked a little frightened, the men of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, as they stood to attention a mile short of the graveyard. But when they presented arms to salute the coffin of Islamic Jihad's latest suicide bomber, even the crowd were taken aback. Mr Arafat is supposed to be obeying orders from the United States and Israel to lock these men up, not honour them as martyrs amid crowds of gunmen.

They looked embarrassed. They even looked a little frightened, the men of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, as they stood to attention a mile short of the graveyard. But when they presented arms to salute the coffin of Islamic Jihad's latest suicide bomber, even the crowd were taken aback. Mr Arafat is supposed to be obeying orders from the United States and Israel to lock these men up, not honour them as martyrs amid crowds of gunmen.

With his officer's eagle insignia sparkling on his shoulders, Major Najid Wadiha stood rigidly to attention as the plyboard coffin wobbled past on the shoulders of a dozen sweating men. What was he doing here, I asked the major. "Another time," he hissed. "Another time." And he stared straight ahead as the last mortal remains of 24-year-old Nabil al-Arair - precious little of them after the cannon shell strapped to his chest tore him to bits outside an Israeli army post in the Gaza Strip on Thursday - passed by the regional Palestinian Authority headquarters.

There was little doubt what Ehud Barak was going to say. The Israeli Prime Minister would denounce the honours paid by Mr Arafat to a "terrorist" who had wounded an Israeli soldier, he would condemn Mr Arafat's men for saluting a "terrorist organisation" devoted to the overthrow of "peace". But I doubt if that's what I saw in Gaza yesterday. Indeed, I rather suspect that Major Wadiha and his 20 soldiers in their mixture of old khaki and kitty-litter camouflage uniforms were proof of what we have long suspected: that Mr Arafat and his cronies are now so marginalised by their support for the collapsed Oslo agreement, so despised by their own Palestinian people, that they would be assaulted if they did not show some respect for those ready to "die for Palestine".

It was pathetic. As the major and his men stood to attention, a crowd of urchins strutted in front of them, mimicking their salutes with grubby hands while their fathers screamed " Allahu akbar" in their faces. Even in the old Great Mosque in Gaza City, with its ancient Crusader church foundations and arches, the crowd was angry with Mr Arafat.

"Why does 'Abu Amar' Arafat not fight with us?" a youth asked the old man beside him. "Why does he go on playing with the Americans?" And sure enough, the sermon blasted by loudspeakers from the gentle, floating minaret outside carried the same withering message: What did Oslo give to the Palestinians? Disaster. What did Sharm el-Sheikh bring to the Palestinians? Nothing. "Arafat's men are frightened of us," a schoolteacher said in the stinking lane opposite the mosque. "Every time we have a martyr, they disappear and hide."

Nabil al-Arair's story was familiar to every Islamic "martyr" - and the need for quotation marks around so many words shows the polarisation of this conflict, whether he be Palestinian or Lebanese. He was a nursery school secretary who constantly read the Koran, whose family were known to be "religious", whose last act was to pray at his local mosque in Shijaia before riding his bicycle down the main Gaza highway to the Israeli post at Kissufim. His father, Faraj, said he was proud of his son and that Nabil had "done nothing unusual" prior to setting off to his death.

They never do, of course. The suicide bombers of the Middle East are trained to do absolutely nothing out of the ordinary on the day of their death. Nabil al-Arair left just a bicycle in two pieces and a few bits of flesh. The wooden box was draped with green flags; and with that odd cruelty that fate bestows on such events, it bore a sticker with the word "coffin" in English on the side and two black arrows pointing upwards - this side up.

Then, on Baghdad Street, the guns came out: automatic rifles, Kalashnikovs, M-16s, sniper rifles, pistols. The blue-uniformed Palestinian police watched expressionless as volleys of bullets rattled into the sky. This was no time to support "the peace process" by arresting gunmen who - for once - did not even bother to hide their faces behind masks. The anger was palpable, genuine, real in every gunshot. Death to Israel, they screamed. Death to America. We'd heard it all before; but somehow, this time they meant it.

Before sunset they lowered a white cloth containing what was left of Nabil al-Arair into a muddy hole on the outskirts of Gaza, the first suicide bomber of the new intifada. Then another burst of gunfire as the men of Islamic Jihad buried their "martyr", along with the Oslo agreement.

* Four Palestinians were shot dead and more than 150 injured yesterday during renewed clashes with Israeli security forces. Palestinians have declared Fridays "days of rage".

Comments