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You Cant Imagine How Our
People Are Living

By Vikram Sura

The Hindu
3 August, 2003

He shares a portion of his meal with a stranger. From his thinly filled dining plate, he shares half a boiled, yolkless egg, one sprout of boiled broccoli, a small, juicy section of corn-on-the-cob and a sweetened shell biscuit. Perhaps it is his way of saying a guest is welcome. The host is Yasser Arafat, the harassed President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The venue is the Muqata. It is his blown-up home, his razed-down office, his cocoon in Ramallah, the temporary capital of the Palestinian nation. The occasion is a modest banquet hosted by him. Supplicants from all over the West Bank and Palestinian ambassadors to distant lands, around two dozen of them, are there. Some of his people hope that one-day Abu Ammar — his movement name — will hoist their flag over Al Quds or Jerusalem. While his people demand the eastern half of the city for themselves and their brethren in the umma, the western half of the city is for their cousins, the harassed Jews of Israel.

After the meal, Abu Ammar smacks his lips and tugs at his kaffiyeh the way a traditional Indian woman will tug at her sari-end to conceal a blush. There is a blush across his cheeks, some colour, more than last year when he looked deathly pale. But for Abu Ammar, the shape of his kaffiyeh is always supposed to remind you of Palestine. Press reports speak of the many hours he spends early morning shaping it.

It is the evening of July 29; earlier he personally saw off a British Minister who called on him in the Muqata. The Chairman appreciates the gesture. Recently, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said `no' to his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, who suggested that he boycott the Chairman. As minutes tick by following the meal, the PLO chief line-edits in red communications in his name. Two aides adjust their chairs in a corner of the large rectangular table. The Chairman, at the head, dusts his military coat and stretches it. He signals he is now ready.

When I thank him for the meal, he nods, "We are friends." Chairman Arafat is a vastly experienced and formidable communicator. In conversation with a journalist, he knows when not to say more. When he is waiting for the next question, the eyes behind the glasses sway from person to person. His aide later tells me: "There is meaning behind every word he says." She perhaps forgets to add that there is meaning behind every word he does not say. For instance, he gently dismisses in two sentences the question of tensions between him and Prime Minister Abu Mazen (the nom de guerre of Dr. Mahmoud Abbas). And two sentences are all he needs when asked whether Jordan and Egypt will send back their ambassadors to Israel.

In the interview, Mr Arafat repeatedly refers to his role in history and in shaping regional and world events. An aide later tells me that he is an "honest mediator who works for solutions, not problems." A hard-line Israeli might retort, "that's nice fiction." However, it is clear that the grand old leader is taking the long view and seeking for his movement and his own leadership of it a new historical judgment.

It is close to two years since the hawkish Israeli regime imposed total restrictions on Mr. Arafat's freedom of movement. Speaking in both English and Arabic, he gave this 40-minute interview to Vikram Sura for The Hindu. Excerpts:

Vikram Sura: Are you hopeful that the new developments in the past several weeks you have achieved with your Prime Minister will eventually lead to a Palestinian state?

Yasser Arafat: Definitely. According to the road map, it has been mentioned clearly and obviously that in a year-and-a-half, we will have the ability for our independent Palestinian state. In the road map clearly and obviously — although the Israelis are insisting on not implementing clearly and completely the road map. They are saying that they didn't until now accept the road map. They have put fourteen notes again in the road map. We have accepted the road map; although we have some remarks, we didn't mention this and it got our approval. Because we respect the peace of the brave that we have signed with our partner [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin. The peace of the brave. I cannot forget that our partner Rabin paid with his life from this fanatic group in Israel. But we are, at the same time, following not only the Palestinian decision — it also became an Arab decision. You remember the initiative that was announced by Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, which has been adopted by the Arab summit conference that took place in Beirut. And in the United Nations, 161 countries are for the state of Palestine.

Abu Ammar, had Iraq not been invaded, would the world community now be intensely engaged in resolving the conflict with Israel?

Definitely. Now they are involved completely with what is going on in Iraq.

The understanding was that if the Arab states supported the invasion of Iraq, the United States would be involved in resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

This is the [problem with the] Israeli government and not with the peace. By way of example, there is the agreement of Wye River. It was with Sharon and Netanyahu and in spite of that they didn't implement it. The George Tenet understanding. It was with Sharon himself when he became Prime Minister. He didn't implement the George Tenet understanding. And the Mitchell report. It started in Sharm El Sheik in the conference headed by President Mubarak, in the presence of President Clinton and King Abdallah. [Javier] Solana from the United Nations and Kofi Annan. And the report had been finished and offered through the Americans and through the Quartet Committee to both of us — to the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. We accepted it. Until now they haven't implemented it. These are facts, realities. I'm not giving you my own opinion. But they have to understand that Palestine is terra sancta, the holy land, not only for us but also approximately for the majority of the whole world. Besides, 161 countries in the United Nations have supported completely a united and independent Palestinian state. We are not asking for more. We are asking for what has been accepted internationally. What has been accepted even by my partner Rabin in the beginning and after that, with the Wye River, by Netanyahu and Sharon and the others.

Isn't it ironic that Prime Minister Abu Mazen has your blessings, yet Israel and the United States have issued a call to support him in order to isolate you?

I appointed him. You see, Sharon cannot forget his defeat in the siege of Beirut. What do I have to do? And he lost his title as one of the heroes of the Israeli army after his losses in the city of Beirut. And you remember after our departure from Beirut according to the American agreement, with Philip Habib representing the American administration, what happened? The massacre of Sabra and Shatila. You are seeing what we are dealing with here. These are not cantons, these are prisons! The majority of our infrastructure has been completely destroyed. All our farms — to give just one example, more than sixty per cent of the olive trees have been uprooted. How many thousands of families are making a living out of these olive trees! Our factories have been destroyed and they have used a one-tonne bomb. Not only that, they are still using depleted uranium [munitions]. And I can give you the American report, which has discovered the same, in which they have mentioned that they discovered what the European mission from Holland has discovered also. (In July 2002, an Israel Air Force F-16 dropped a one-tonne missile into a Gaza residential neighbourhood to kill Salah Shehadeh, the chief of the paramilitary wing of Hamas, accused of murdering Israelis. Around 15 Palestinians were killed in the explosion and many were injured.)

There have been some press reports that there was some kind of a tension between you and Abu Mazen.

No. There was this tension between him and some of our colleagues. But we have succeeded in solving it.

Could you explain why the Israeli attacks against Palestinians, and the other way about, have stopped after the Prime Minister took office and not with you?

Arafat: Until now they haven't stopped their attacks. Till now. Every day, every night, every month, they are attacking! Where? Even places they declared that they had withdrawn from. You can go and see [these places under attack], if you had the opportunity to see the Gaza Strip. It is a disaster. Beit Hanun [in the northern Gaza Strip]...

An aide: They occupied Beit Hanun even after the Prime Minister took office.

Arafat: After. And not only that. What is going on against our holy sacred places in Bethlehem and our holy sacred place in Jerusalem, Christian holy places and Muslim holy places and also in Hebron? Do you know that they have closed completely, and prevented our people from walking to pray in the mosque of Abraham? And what has been declared — actually we were working for it for six months ago. Not me alone. The Egyptians are working very hard with these fanatic groups — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — to accept the Hudna, the truce. And, at last, truly with these efforts, the Egyptians succeeded in getting it.

The Israeli government is non-committal on the separation wall and on settlements, not just outposts, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad are non-committal about their actions after three months of truce. Will the calm last and blossom into peace or is it deceptive?

We hope so [that it will last]. It will lead to peace if the Israelis will be committed to implementing accurately the road map. But the most important thing is that uptil now they are wasting time. Here we received the road map more than six months ago unofficially, officially more than two months ago. Can you imagine the West Bank [Mr. Arafat unfolds a paper sketch of the West Bank separation wall with future military projections], and this is the wall — which will be continued up to all of here. One canton [Hebron], one canton [Bethlehem], one canton [Ramallah], one canton [Nablus], one canton [Jenin], one ghetto [Jericho], one ghetto [Tulkaram], one ghetto [Qalqilya] and the wall around Jerusalem had closed even the entrance of Bethlehem! The historical holy passage from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the Nativity Church in Bethlehem has now been closed. Can you imagine it? Another example. You remember when the Taliban [blew up] the Buddha statue, what happened all over the world? It became a big story all over the world. Can you imagine what happened against our Saint Mary statue in Bethlehem? And you know Saint Mary is the only woman who has been mentioned in our Koran. To be treated like that, not one shot by accident but thirteen shots. Who can believe it? Our people are praying in the streets in front of the mosque of Abraham in Hebron and they are preventing them. Who can imagine this?

`Terrorism'-`Arabs', `Terror-Palestinians', these have become interchangeable [in the U.S. lexicon]. Has President Bush's `war on terror' led to this understanding in any way?

No. The Israelis are repeating this. In all their mass media. Day and night. You can't imagine. Today one of them is speaking about assassinating me.

Assassinating you?

Arafat: Yes.

An aide: This is incitement.

Arafat: Day and night. They are not stopping their military escalation, their propaganda, their escalation, day and night against us, against our people. Can you imagine that you can't send our ambulances to bring wounded persons? Can you imagine this? And even the International Red Cross, they are preventing it [from helping]. Today, the Israeli forces in Jenin opened their guns and fired against a group of peace activists — Palestinians, Israelis and six of the Europeans have been wounded. Who can imagine this? You can go to visit the old city of Nablus, which has been completely destroyed; they don't even respect their history. You know why [Nablus is important]? Because Saint Joseph lived in the city with his father and with his brothers before going to Egypt. And there in Egypt, Musa was one of their clan members. They didn't respect their history. Now they destroy this old city.

If I said that to establish peace in the region there are multiple obligations on the part of not just Israelis and Palestinians but also the Arab world, are their actions aimed toward that end?

Don't forget what I mentioned to you. It's a very important report that had been accepted by all the Arabs in Beirut. It had also been accepted in the Islamic Conference, and in the Non-Aligned Conference in South Africa and recently in Malaysia. It's the same with the African countries.

But Jordan and Egypt have refused to send their ambassadors to Israel.

Yes! Because what is going on here is horrible — the situation. You can't imagine how our people are living!

Prime Minister Sharon is to make a `historic' visit to India in September. On the agenda is the `war on terror'. Israel is expected to assist India in border control practices, some of which are followed at the borders of Gaza, West Bank and also with Lebanon. How do you feel about this?

This is silly talk. Because he can't offer anything for this programme. Don't forget you are speaking to Arafat; the Simla agreement, they say, is an Arafat agreement. You forget this, what I have done between two friendly, brotherly countries? And I am ready to play a role again if there is a misunderstanding. But what he [Mr. Sharon] is saying is to escalate the situation and war between Pakistan and India.

Do you welcome this relationship between Israel and India?

Look, when we signed the agreement with my partner Rabin, the doors were opened to my partner Rabin from China to Indonesia and to Senegal and in between, you remember? More than 64 countries opened their doors to him. What is the meaning of `the peace of the brave,' which we have signed with my partner Rabin? But we hope that this visit will be a pressure for him [Mr. Sharon] to make real peace with your brothers, the Palestinians.

Don't you think one of the reasons India is bridging the gap with Israel is because the Palestinian Authority has not been articulate about India's concerns with Pakistan?

Who made the Simla agreement? It is you who call the Simla agreement the `Arafat agreement,' not me! In all the press conferences during all my visits you ask me, `what about the Arafat agreement?' I asked them when they mentioned this in front of me, `what do you mean by the Arafat agreement?' And one of our friends beside me from India said, `We call the Simla agreement the Arafat agreement.' I am proud of it. And I am ready always to return. You forget that it is I who has made the first agreement between the Communist Party and the Islamic movements in Afghanistan. And who destroyed it? And I convinced him, King Zahir Shah, to return as a Prime Minister and not as a King and he accepted it. And I worked hard with the Soviet Union during this period to convince it to work with me on the Communist Party, which was in power. And when Najibullah, the President, accepted this and left the palace, they took him and arrested him from the United Nations' office and killed him on the streets. Who were behind it? You know that. It is known for everybody.

Finally, what do you expect Mr. Sharon...

You forgot that I was participating in the Islamic countries' meeting to stop the war between Iraq and Iran? You know that.

What do you expect Mr. Sharon to do when he returns from Washington?

To implement accurately and honestly the road map. I am not asking for more. And to stop this escalation, all types of escalation. Economic escalation and humanitarian escalation and military escalation — against our people, against our cities, against our towns, and against our refugee camps. And stop damaging our infrastructure.

What do you think he expects from you?

He hasn't any vision left. Now, there is no excuse. He is against me? Ok. Why not carry on with my brother, Abu Mazen? And he [Mr. Sharon] knows, for your information accurately, that Abu Mazen and I are close friends, close brothers. But he has now no reason. Ok. You don't want to work with Arafat? You work with Abu Mazen. And peace here and the peace in the whole Middle East, it should reflect completely peace in the whole world. Historically, this is the holy land. No one can escape from these facts, theserealities. This is terra sancta.

(Vikram Sura is a freelance journalist specialising in West Asian affairs).