Monday, January 16, 2006

Arafat Redux

January 16, 2006

I'm having deja vu.

Just over a year ago, the world held its breath as a leader lay unconscious. As die-hard supporters predicted that he would improbably return to lead his people for another decade, pundits speculated about what his death would mean for the precarious Middle East peace process that he alone had been able to carve out of an endless cycle of violence.

If there's a life after death, Yasir Arafat must be enjoying the knowledge that the man who blocked his lifelong ambition, to be the one to bring freedom to his people, is now denied the opportunity he only recently realized he wanted (if he did) to be the one to bring "peace" to his. The media, which accepted Sharon's reimaging from hawk to dove much more easily than they did Arafat's more credible transformation, try to tell us that Palestinians are saddened by Sharon's impending death. Okay, they say, some people remember a little incident in Lebanon 20 years ago that he might have had a hand in - as if the massacres at Sabra and Shatila had not been proven in an Israeli court to be Sharon's responsibility, as if that was the last thing Palestinians have to be angry at Sharon for, as if he had not been the one to scuttle the last "peace process" with his brazen march to Haram al-Sharaf. An Israeli friend who is hanging out in Ramallah said succinctly, "Yeah, the tears are really flowing here."

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most prolific and articulate English language writers in Palestine, expressed the mainstream Palestinian perspective this way: “With the Israeli PM, so to say, laying the foundations for a very unjust peace agreement with the Palestinians, it would be fair to say that in terms of striking a genuine peace agreement, which many Palestinians and Israel's have sought, the future looks quite grim. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, and what many media and political analysts have been uttering in recent days, that Palestinians have lost a partner they can do business with, Palestinians have actually been freed from a unilateralist leader.”

Prime Minister Qurei did send good wishes to Sharon's family, which is ironic since a year ago, the pre-pacific Sharon and his buddies couldn't stop toasting each other long enough to announce that under no circumstances would Arafat be buried in Jerusalem. This disparity of expectations is testimony to the huge power imbalance that exists between the Palestinians and the state of Israel, that the Palestinian leadership cannot say what they really think even about a man who has spent his entire adult life murdering Palestinians. I feel the humiliation, just thinking about it.

Will anyone in the mainstream U.S. media point that out? I doubt it. Will they even remember it? I doubt it. Already they are writing stories about how the expected success of Hamas in the coming Palestinian elections will scuttle the "peace process", not even mentioning that it is solely due to Hamas that there has been a sharp decline in violence in the last six months, and that Israel’s idea of a peace process has meant killing nearly 100 Palestinians since the “disengagement” from Gaza (, approving a huge new settlement expansion on the edge of Modiin Ilit (, completing the isolation of Bethlehem by the Wall just in time for Xmas and adding insult to injury by posting a sign saying “Go In Peace” in Hebrew, English and Arabic signed “Israeli Ministry of Tourism”. My Israeli friend Dorothy Naor writes that it reminds her of the “Arbeit Machts Frei” sign posted over the gate to Auschwitz.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports today that “U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority would be reviewed and possibly reduced if it gave Hamas a role in government after this month's Palestinian election, U.S. diplomatic sources said on Friday.”

I wondered, how much money does the U.S. government give to the PA? Hard to get an exact figure, but the State Department website talks about an annual total of $200 million, but it doesn’t normally go directly to the PA - a $20 million grant for utilities approved in December 2004 and tied to the January 2005 presidential election was “only the second time in history” that US money went directly to the PA, and required a special policy waiver by president Bush. So where does it go?

According to a May 2005 Washington Post article, “In the emergency spending bill that lawmakers completed late Tuesday, the White House had sought $200 million ‘to support Palestinian political, economic, and security reforms,’…. But the fine print of the document gives $50 million of that money directly to Israel to build terminals for people and goods at checkpoints surrounding Palestinian areas. Another $2 million for Palestinian health care will be provided to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, while the allocation of the rest of the money is tightly prescribed.”

Keep in mind that U.S. government direct aid to the Israeli state - not counting this $50 million for checkpoints - is about $14 million a DAY or $5.1 BILLION.

I am learning more interesting stuff about US aid to the PA but that will wait for another time. I want to close with this encouraging statement made by Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff in today’s Haaretz, "Deep in my heart, I know it's impossible to reach any peace agreement with the Palestinians without Hamas" because without it, the Palestinian Authority is not representative enough.”

My Arabic teacher Adwan, echoes that point. His village, Jayyous, elected a majority of Hamas candidates to their local council in the recent municipal election. But, Adwan says, it doesn’t mean that people are necessarily in favor of all of an Islamist regime, or are in agreement with all of Hamas’s principles. People voted for the Hamas candidates, he says, because they were good people, honest, an independent. Hamas picked people who were not necessarily members of their party, he says.

I’m very interested to try to learn more about why Hamas would do that, and why “good, honest, independent” people are drawn to Hamas. But what is clear is that the simplistic “good vs. evil” narrative that the US media likes to apply to the conflict will not help us to understand, or to influence the situation in a positive way.

Shut Down Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib!

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