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Why Say No? | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Why Say No?

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It would take the pen of Swift to evoke the nauseating scenes of hypocrisy, bad faith and self-delusion on the White House lawn on September 13, crammed as it was with people who for long years were complicit in the butchery and torture of Palestinians and the denial of their rights, now applauding the “symbolic handshake” that in fact ratified further abnegation of those same rights.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

In the shadow of an American President with the poise and verbiage of the manager of a McDonald’s franchise, Arafat produced oratory so meager it made Rabin sound like Cicero. To think that long years of struggle and U.N. resolutions acknowledging Palestinian claims should end with this pathetic fellow shouting thank you to his suzerains.

Hillary’s comic-opera Rasputin, Michael Lerner, mustered on that same lawn, said later that “this Rosh Hashana, for the first time in Israel’s forty-six-year history, it will be possible to worship without feeling a conflict between moral sensitivity, on one hand, and loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people on the other.” Really? Thirteen thousand Palestinian political prisoners unmentioned, still in chains, land stolen, hundreds of thousands expelled and in exile, and a deal forged only because Rabin and Peres, confronted by a new generation of Palestinian leadership in the territories—not just Hamas—plucked Arafat and his P.L.O. from the grave and guided his hand through the articles of surrender, to which supposed advocates of Palestinian rights have been, both here and in Israel, a party.

Is it our role, as supporters of justice for Palestinians, to say that this is the best they can hope for? This sort of coercive harmony merely helps to mold the contours of surrender, as liberals have done so often in the past. Choctaw to Oklahoma? The best they can expect. By assisting in such Realpolitik one adds one’s mite to the treasury of the oppressors.

Study the exchanges between Rabin and Arafat, and it’s plain that Israel commits to nothing—not even an end to closure of the territories. Arafat gave up everything, including the right to resist.

Right now, Palestinians get the right to manage the world’s largest prison, the Gaza Strip, plus one cow town. It’s as though the Irish in 1921 got Tralee plus a few acres in West Cork, with the British holding the entire eastern half, Belfast, Dublin, Waterford, plus all the resources, with its army free to roam at will across the Irish enclaves, themselves fragmented by British highways and drained of water. There will be no Palestinian sovereignty and an economy completely subordinated to Israel’s. As the Israeli economy gets internationalized, companies will set up sweatshops in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Palestinians will furnish the $6-a-day labor. Members of the Palestine Liberation Army, imported from outside the territories, will do the policing, just as the sepoys did for the British in colonial India. Arafat or some successor could end up running, with Israeli and American backing, a mini-Haiti. The Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported on September 2 that Israel’s security police are already “cooperating” with the P.L.O. to insure security against “extremists” in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians Who Say No

Viewing what he calls “the funeral” that took place in Washington was a genial 61-year-old Palestinian named Shafik al-Hout. Until August 22, the day he resigned from the Executive Committee of the P.L.O., Shafik was in Arafat’s inner circle, an intimate of the P.L.O. leader since the late 1960s. Shafik disgustedly watched the ceremonies from Beirut, where he had been the P.L.O. representative.

Shafik’s reaction is not markedly different from the disappointment, even despair, one hears among many secular Palestinian folks in the diaspora. Americans hearing about “history in the making” from Washington may find it hard to fathom, but it isn’t just the fundamentalists in Hamas who now regard Arafat as a man who retrieved himself from history’s twilight by selling his people down the river.

I talked to Shafik for an hour and a half from Beirut.

AC: Why do you sound so depressed, Shafik? Don’t you like history being made?
SH: There’s nothing that answers the demands of Palestinians. We are still only at the theoretical level, and right now no one is satisfied. Wait till we start into particulars in, say, Jericho on matters like the shift of authority from the Israeli military to local Palestinians. They were waving flags in Jericho and Gaza. They may be euphoric. They may have been hired for the day by Arafat’s people. But flags don’t equal freedom, and the camera didn’t show the Israeli soldiers monitoring these demonstrations.

I wouldn’t expect anything more than very short-run support for Arafat. The Palestinians in the diaspora feel ignored and betrayed. If this is the maximum Arafat could get after all the years of the intifada, what will he get now that he’s in the hands of the Israelis, on the really Important things like sovereignty, Jerusalem, the return of Palestinians who have been driven out since 1948?

Those most sympathetic to Arafat’s deal say that this agreement is but a first step, so one should not stand against him. But then remember how Israel and Arafat have behaved for the past thirty years, all the promises unfulfilled. Arafat’s credibility is down to zero.

Look how he’s left Palestinians in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The support of ordinary people in these countries has always been our major asset. Now they see us as having signed an agreement without them

AC: What do you think happened to Arafat?
SH: There’s no doubt in my mind that he has degenerated. There was the blow of ’82 in Lebanon when they pushed us into the sea. We should have reconsidered our strategic objectives and organizational structures, but Arafat did nothing. Then there was his support for Saddam Hussein.

I was elected to the Executive Committee in 1991 and felt he was no longer the man I used to know. He was introverted, suspicious. His plane crash in Libya that year compounded these traits. I thought he would draw the necessary conclusion and widen the leadership; instead he shrank it.

He probably felt he could either sit still and go steadily downhill, because he had no margin to move and act as a freedom fighter and no money from Saudi Arabia, or he could get back into action by relying on Israel and embarking on this adventure. The psychological aspect of this is that Arafat, being aware of his symbolic role, started to feel that if his stomach felt O.K., then the stomach of the Palestinian people must feel O.K. He doubtless thought in Washington that if he was victorious, then we were all victorious. He got trapped by being in this, away from the masses. He has been enchanted by the role of CNN. In that way he was imitating Sadat.

AC: Does he really control $2.5 billion?
SH: There’s a lot of corruption in the P.L.O. Arafat holds all the financial strings. Only he can sign a check. There is no co-signature. No one has been paid for the last four months, from those at the top of the ladder right down to the most humble partisan. We didn’t join the movement to be paid, but when we became full-timers we had to earn our bread from the P.L.O. I’m also talking of institutions—like a secondary school in Lebanon, now closed because the rent wasn’t paid—and of pensions for the martyrs’ families.

There is P.L.O. money under his control, probably hundreds of millions, as much as $2.5 billion. There’s Fatah money too. He will take this money to Gaza and Jericho and spend some of it buying support and running his operation. You can either carry a stick that scares people, or have a lot of money to buy them, or have an idea to fight for. He’s buried his stick, so what’s he got left but the bag of gold?

Arafat couldn’t go bankrupt in a normal way and say, Look guys, what shall we do? And we had a lot of useful ideas. We enjoyed luxuries we could have done without. We probably had more embassies around the world than the U.S. We could have changed this style, but he wouldn’t discuss it.

AC: Why did you quit the P.L.O.’s Executive Committee?
SH: My resignation is not rejectionism. I have to remind you that the P.L.O. implicitly recognized Israel when we joined the U.N. as observers in 1974. We did it explicitly in 1988, when we declared the state of Palestine on the basis of U.N. Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine. Moreover, we accepted Resolution 242 and gave up territory that was ours according to 181. Third, when the U.N. General Assembly convened in Geneva in 1988, Arafat addressed the assembly and George Shultz insisted he hold a press conference and dictated what he should say in English, It was a statement to the effect that Arafat recognized Israel and renounced terrorism. I supported that, even though I thought Arafat was paying the bill prematurely.

So it’s not recognition of Israel I object to. But I thought we would come out better on the right to self-determination, on the right to return. I thought we might have to pay more, but I never thought we would be party to an agreement that pitchforks us into the unknown and gives up our last card as negotiators, namely the intifada, our right to resist occupation. So now we become the oppressors of our people; instead of the Israeli army, it’s going to be the Palestinian policemen.

Yesterday we were watching the funeral, and there was an ambush in Gaza, probably by Hamas. In Washington they expected Arafat to condemn the attack. What will be his position tomorrow when some Palestinians demonstrate about sovereignty, about full withdrawal?

AC: What do you now look forward to?
SH: I’m still for a two-state solution, a real peace that could be accepted, not imposed. I’ve always said there are three options. There’s full recovery of Palestinian rights. That has no chance. I leave that to the ideologists and the fundamentalists and those who believe that even peace with Israel is wrong. The second option is politically one that could be implemented by reference to U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and to international law. And there is the third option, which we are now enjoying, namely the imposed one.

This last one does not have the necessary support of our people. It didn’t go through our institutions, as required by our constitution. This was my last effort at compromise with Arafat. I said, Please, Abu Ammar, call for a meeting of the Palestine National Council. But he didn’t do this or even convene the medium body, the Central Council, or parliament.

AC: Do you think this plan might gradually evolve into some real expression of sovereignty and self-determination?
SH: No, my reading of the agreement offers me no clue on that. We get nothing, and Israel gets everything it has been looking for since its inception. The agreement even legitimizes occupation. The occupied territories are referred to as “disputed territories.” By accepting that, we say Resolution 242 doesn’t apply.

I would have been satisfied if Arafat had been able to get a separate, bilateral agreement with the United States to the effect that Washington believes in the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the right to return to Palestine. At least there would be a big brother guarantee.

AC: I’m afraid the P.L.O. always had illusions about that big brother. You should have gone to the American people more and the government less. But now what will Hamas do?
SH: In Beirut yesterday there were 50,000 people and a hysterical atmosphere. Many people will line up with Hamas because it reminds them of Fatah when it started. Its batteries are charged and it can absorb a lot of what is left behind from the different factions. Add to this Muslim fanatics from other countries. Americans raise fears of Hamas but help create the conditions in which it prospers. A person like myself is left behind. I represent Palestinians who want to survive properly, humanly, with dignity, with a piece of land. When I am denied this why don’t I jump to the ideological solution, which is to call for the extinction of Israel? But I can’t go along with slogans that call for the destruction of Israel. Neither can hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. So we either join the fundamentalists or we capitulate. Two unacceptable options.

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