Arafat's Grave

February 20, 2010

On the day Tony Blair is due to have discussions with the Palestinian leadership, Karen Bartlett, who visited Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah shortly after his death, reports on the political power vacuum and what, if any, chance there is for peace in this troubled region.

Yasser Arafat’s grave is bleak and windswept.
On one side, the tattered Palestinian flag hangs on the building where Arafat, the first President of the Palestinian Authority, once lived.
The building rots in a permanent state of semi-collapse after the continuing Israeli siege of the last few years. On the other side of the compound is a scrap heap of burned out cars. Under a white plastic makeshift awning, Arafat’s body lies attended by some of the hastily arranged trappings of a statesman.
A guard of honour, a pile of flowers, a trickle of mourners. Most prominent is the wreath laid a day earlier by Jack Straw.
Ghassan Khatib is the Minister for Labour for the Palestinian Authority. He stops to read the inscription from the Foreign Secretary. “All the people who refused to meet him in life are lining up to visit his grave,” Khatib says.
He is wearing a flat cap, which he removes at the grave site, and a raincoat which flaps in the wind. He looks like an incongruous intellectual in a sea of armed blank-faced young men. We cross the courtyard under their gaze. “These are the rooms where Arafat lived.” He points to the only part of the building remaining intact. Behind the building suddenly sags away sharply and the outside wall has been destroyed, revealing a patchwork of gutted empty rooms and exposed concrete. Sitting on the ledge of one room is a tin bath. As I peer up, a Palestinian in green fatigues steps forward and looks down at me. He seems expressionless but, like everyone else here, holds a machine gun.
Two rheumy eyed older men in red Arab headdress keep guard at the rear of the compound. It’s freezing and they sit around an open fire. Khatib gives them a brief wave.
This is the dilapidated Muqata headquarters of the state that Yasser Arafat never brought into being for his people. It remains deliberately unreconstructed as a `museum of ruins’ to emphasise, as Arafat put it, that he was a “leader under imprisonment”.
Beside his grave someone has drawn his familiar image, but instead of a head there is the golden dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the city Arafat both wanted to rule from and be buried in.
He failed on both counts and lies in the West Bank city of Ramallah instead. By road, only half an hour separates the two towns, but it is a road few Palestinians are allowed to go down. Now Arafat’s secular political movement Fatah meets at his compound to decide on the future leader who may rescue them from the stalemate that the latest four years of uprising – the `intifada’ – have brought.
Today the atmosphere is tense. Fatah’s preferred candidate is Mahmoud Abbas, an elder statesman who has the support not only of his comrades, but also of Israel and the US. But until he pulled out of the race last weekend, a younger, more populist figure lurked in the wings – Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving a jail term in an Israeli prison for murdering five soldiers and a Greek monk.
On January 9, the people of the Palestinian controlled areas will vote for a new president. Were Barghouti to have remained in contention, it is likely he would have won as much as a quarter of the vote, such is his popularity with ordinary people and especially the young.
For those Palestinians desperate to pursue negotiations and rein in extreme factions like Hamas, it was crucial that Barghouti did not split the vote and deny Abbas democratic legitimacy.
At Arafat’s compound, the Fatah Revolutionary Council sits and looks out at the rain. They wait for news. Men smoke. Drivers run the engines of their masters’ expensive 4×4s to keep warm. “I was here with Arafat when the Israelis attacked,” Khatib says. He bends over and shields his eyes to show how he survived for more than 24 hours. “After each bombardment I would open my eyes and think – am I still alive? I fully expected to die that day.”
As a member of a rival group, the PNA, Ghassan Khatib joined the Palestinian cabinet after studying for a PhD at Durham University and running the well-respected Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre.
Prior to his government position, he jointly founded the Israeli-Palestinian website,, to encourage intelligent dialogue of the issues. Despite his official role, he still writes a weekly article which is posted alongside that of his partner, the Israeli academic and former intelligence expert, Yossi Alpher.
“It’s about people who disagree but don’t have to resort to violence,” Alpher says.
They have expanded to include another forum for discussion of wider Middle Eastern issues and are, as far as they know, the only type of cross-community dialogue in operation.
Despite his background in the media, Khatib becomes agitated about what he believes to be the failure of the Palestinians to communicate their circumstances to the world.
“We won the last intifada because the world understood our cause, the Israelis have won this one because they have associated us so closely with terrorism after September 11.”
He recounts how he would join Palestinians on protests and would see young men throwing stones. “But rarely did we return home without carrying at least one body.”
Activities like stone throwing are one of the many intractable and endless issues between the two sides, with the Palestinians viewing it as a relatively peaceful outlet for frustration while Israelis consider it as a prelude to even more violent activities.
Stone throwing one day, shooting and bombing the next. Always prone to recount thousands of years of history, fundamental differences such as the future rule of Arab dominated East Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, remain unresolved.
Khatib, though critical of what he perceived to be bad management and corruption in Arafat’s regime, remains stoutly defensive of the former President’s decision to abandon the peace process and begin the intifada.
“It is already a huge compromise for us to acknowledge that Israel should exist. I believe nearly all of their land is rightly owned by Palestinians living in the occupied territories,” Khatib says. “How could Arafat accept an agreement that would not even allow us the West Bank. It would be asking the Palestinian people to accept a compromise on a compromise.” It is clear that whatever motivated the intifada, conditions have significantly deteriorated for Palestinians since the collapse of the peace process. Most are severely restricted in their ability to travel for work and more than half live below the poverty line.
Refusal to accept a compromise on a compromise, as Khatib puts it, has meant that the Palestinian Authority has been powerless to negotiate on the controversial withdrawal plan proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which will leave some Israeli settlements in the West Bank intact and allow for the completion of the new `security fence’ that will stretch for hundreds of miles across the country and isolate individual Palestinian communities from each other.
It is hard to imagine how `free and fair elections’ for the Presidency of the Palestinian Authority can be conducted in such circumstances. “Our candidate for the PNA is not even allowed to travel to Gaza,” Khatib says.
Gaza remains cut off from the West Bank by a large swathe of Israel and is likely to always remain so. “Political freedom means freedom of movement, freedom to campaign, freedom of speech, freedom to put up posters.”
The question of how Tony Blair could conduct a British election campaign under such restrictions might be one the Palestinian leadership will put to the Prime Minister during his visit today.
During his day in Ramallah, Ghassan Khatib met Jack Straw for the first time. “He gave us assurances that Blair had got more from Bush on the Middle East than was common knowledge, but he was vague about the details.”
Palestinian meetings with Jack Straw had gone well but, he added, he was in no doubt that ultimately power rested only in the hands of the US.
A combination of factors may yet propel the urge to find a solution. The Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza and some parts of the West Bank has been motivated in large part by the realisation that only a two-state solution will solve the demographic crisis facing the country.

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