Letter From Jerusalem
The Israelis have come up with many eccentric plans concerning the wall. At the northern edge of the West Bank city of Bethlehem sits Rachel's Tomb, which Moshe Dayan, a secular Jew, did not want after the 1967 war. Idea rejected, with a wave of his imperious hand. But times have changed, and now the wall has been designed to enter Bethlehem and encircle the tomb for the Israeli side because it is a sacrosanct spot to Orthodox Jewry, a force much more powerful in Israeli politics now than it was in Dayan's day. The extension was immediately disputed, and so nothing was erected in the area, leaving a security hole through which a suicide bomber passed in 2004, blowing up a bus in the wealthy, secular Rehavia district of West Jerusalem, killing eleven. Thus, within Israel, the ambitions of the religious conspired, at least in this instance, to permit the killing of the secular.
Or that's how some see it. Laughing in an Israeli way, which means with a dismissive shrug, Gil says it works like this: Every sector has its own suicide bombing. In two attacks less than two weeks apart, commuters and working stiffs, including soldiers, got theirs in the early-morning bus bombings on Jaffa Street in 1996, with forty-five dead. The religious Jews got theirs at a bar mitzvah celebration up in the religious quarter of Beit Yisrael in 2002, with eleven killed. The media elite got it at Cafe Moment in 2002, with twelve killed. The moms and babies and tourists and average people got it at Sbarro's Pizza, at the busy intersection of King George and Jaffa streets, and at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, in 2001, with a combined twenty-six killed. And each side holds up its own suicide bombings against the others, as if they were part of a fight among Jewish Jerusalemites instead of a running Palestinian commentary on the illegitimacy of the occupation. In the recent Friday night Tel Aviv bombing at the Stage nightclub, as in the 2001 Friday night Tel Aviv bombing at the Dolphinarium disco, secular Jews who were not observing religious Sabbath laws were killed and wounded. At least, that's how very religious Israeli Jews might view it. To the Palestinian bombers, all the targets are simply this: Israeli, and vulnerable.
Rachel's Tomb is not the only tomb of interest in the area. Another is Arafat's, up in Ramallah. Of course, he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, but the Israelis nixed that. I meet my friend Hani up at the Kalandia checkpoint. As depressing spots go in the vicinity of Jerusalem, this is a major one. It's dusty and littered, full of idling traffic and waiting taxis. Mothers, children, babies at the breast, old men with walking sticks, doctors, lawyers--all move through a long, fenced-in corridor past young Israeli soldiers who check their papers and bags. A makeshift watchtower sits above the checkpoint, draped in camouflage netting. At the base of the wall on the West Bank side are vegetable stands and trinket stalls. Tea vendors pass by, and peddlers sell clothes, snacks and herbs from strategic positions on the ground. A lot of Palestinian life is lived right here at the checkpoint, as--for long hours--people wait to cross. What is clear is that, with the wall, Israel has effectively Gazafied the West Bank.
Hani takes me over to the Chairman's burial place in Ramallah, inside the Muqata, the headquarters where Arafat had been virtually imprisoned for three years before his unceremonious airlift to a deathbed at a military hospital near Paris. The Muqata, which was shattered by Israeli tank fire in 2001, has been cleaned up substantially since Arafat's death, with a new, glassed-in structure built for the tomb.
At the head of the tomb is a photograph of Arafat with a kaffiyeh draped over it. At the foot is inscribed, in Arabic and English, THE TOMB OF THE LEADER YASIR ARAFAT. I say nothing as we walk away, but Hani turns to me and says, apologizing yet explaining, "All men do wrong in their lives." He voted for Mahmoud Abbas for president in January, and he shows me the ink stain that remains on his thumb from election day. Hani turns his head slightly to one side. "Maybe there will be change," he says. "And maybe it will be good. We can hope..."
Hope is one thing. But an analysis I've heard from a veteran Palestinian observer of the political scene predicts that without substantial and continuous shoring up from the United States and the international community, and visible, palpable, immediate Israeli-inspired improvements in the lives of the Palestinian population, Abbas--cornered politically by corrupt backers and rogue security forces--will fall within the year. His rule is far from secure, and Hamas is expected to do very well in this summer's parliamentary elections. There is a rumor that both the Israelis and the Americans are already holding private talks with Hamas leaders--those who remain, that is, after the 2004 Israeli assassinations of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi.
Ramallah itself has little to do with Hamas. It's a Fatah bastion. Hani drives slowly through the bustling center. On the road in and out and in every neighborhood is the campaign poster of the cheerfully smiling Abbas. In a few posters, he is pictured in his suit shoulder to shoulder with the kaffiyeh-crowned Arafat, but more often he isn't. Because a great deal of Abbas's charm for the Palestinian electorate is that he was Arafat's close associate. And a great deal of his appeal for them is also that he is not Arafat.