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The beginning of hope in the Middle East

Boris Johnson says that the end of Yasser Arafat — the man who brought so much suffering to his own people — could be the opportunity for lasting peace

13 November 2004

12:00 AM

13 November 2004

12:00 AM

Boris Johnson says that the end of Yasser Arafat — the man who brought so much suffering to his own people — could be the opportunity for lasting peace

But why did he do it? I asked the dark and bony young man in the yarmulka, still clearing up the scene of the murders. We were standing at the blackened steel counter of Shimmi’s cheese and olive shop, where three people had yesterday been killed by a suicide bomber and 13 seriously injured. It is a testimony to the vibrancy of the Carmel market, Tel Aviv, that business had resumed at the neighbouring stalls within minutes of the detonation, as though an act of self-destruction and murder by a 16-year-old was as banal as a traffic accident. Shimmi’s cheese shop still had ripped awnings and bust fluorescent lights, but fewer than 24 hours later the shop boy was getting ready to open again, and he didn’t seem disposed to ponder on my question. ‘I cannot imagine why anyone would do that,’ he said. So I turned to Ran, my affable minder from the Israeli foreign office. Why did he do it? I repeated, looking at the sinister fatty globules still adhering to the counter.

A Jewish religious organisation called Zaka had been fossicking away for hours, in obedience to the code that says all body parts must be interred; but it was impossible not to speculate about the stains. Amar al-Far was just a kid, one of the youngest suicide bombers ever. What made him leave the Askar refugee camp near Nablus, pass through the Hawara checkpoint, and kill himself and three blameless Israelis, including Leah Levine, 67, a holocaust survivor? How could anyone persuade a child to do something like that?

‘He was expecting the 72 Virgins,’ said Ran, ‘like you have written in your novel.’ Flattering though this answer was, it didn’t quite work, for me. Maybe it was true that Amar al-Far dimly expected to be cosseted in paradise by the 72 black-eyed ones of scripture, which some authorities say should be correctly identified with raisins rather than virgins. But was that hope really enough to encourage a sentient adolescent to come to a shop and blow himself into a compote of cheese, persimmons and human remains? No one seemed to have the answers in the Carmel market, least of all an old man who — so said that morning’s Jerusalem Post — had stared at the mayhem and announced, ‘It was the pork. It was the pork that brought on our doom.’ He meant that the market was being punished for tolerating an outlet as exuberantly non-kosher as the Baboy butchers, two stalls down, which had a picture of a round, pink, beaming, curly-tailed porker, and the advertisement, ‘Here we sell fresh pork.’ A million Russian Jews have arrived in recent years, and their fondness for ‘white steak’ causes great offence.

So I left Carmel market with two barmy opinions from the rival theologies: the killings were either inspired by the heavenly promise of 72 peach-bottomed girls, or else by heavenly anger at the consumption of pork; and, since neither seemed adequate, I wanted to go to Nablus, where the kid’s parents were saying the most extraordinary things.

The mother was sad, she said, that her child was dead, but the real pity of it was that he had died so young. They should have waited until he was older, she said, before turning him into a suicide bomber. And that was his mother! What kind of sick society is it, in these refugee camps, that a mother could condone the suicide, at any age, of her son?

The trouble with going to Nablus was that it meant giving my nice Israeli handlers the slip, and when I reached the checkpoint I found that I couldn’t get in. No way, said an Israeli soldier, unimpressed by all the credentials I could muster, including a new Israeli press pass. The town was closed for an ‘operation’; by which it turned out he meant the search for the associates of the suicide bomber, and the customary destruction of his family home — intended to be a deterrent to other families. But as I looked at the Palestinians queuing to get into their own town, waiting to be passed by Israeli troops through the urine-soaked turnstiles, I had an inkling of the frustrations that might produce a cult of suicidal martyrdom. It wasn’t the promise of 72 Virgins that drove a young, talented female lawyer to escape from the Occupied Territories to Haifa, a mixed Arab-Israeli town. I don’t believe it was the notion of carnal bliss in heaven that made her order lunch in a crowded restaurant, pay for the meal, then stand by a baby’s trolley (the suicide bomber manuals always recommend standing up, in buses or restaurants, for the decapitating effect) and blow herself up. It is all about a sense of powerlessness, and rage, and hatred, and a sense of injustice.


And if you want to see the physical embodiment of that injustice, then you must go to the wall, or fence, as the Israelis prefer to call it. The wall/fence now runs for only 200km of its projected 700km, and as a security measure it must be rated a triumphant success. In its wall incarnation it is huge, much higher than the Berlin wall, grey and forbidding and covered with wire and watchtowers. But it is a wall only for very short stretches, and just as effective when it appears as an electronic fence, equipped with no anti-personnel devices whatever.

We were shown inside a monitoring station, where young female Israeli soldiers sit staring at the screens and other imaging devices of great complexity (provided, oddly enough, by the French company Alcatel). As soon as the fence is touched the monitoring station is filled with the opening bars of a pop song by Queen. ‘Dum dum dum dum,’ it goes, ‘Another one bites the dust!’ Immediately the site flashes on the screen, wherever it is on the 55km stretch, and within five or six minutes an Israeli army jeep can be on the scene. As a direct result of the wall, say the Israelis, suicide bomb attacks have declined by between 75 and 90 per cent. Even car thefts have declined considerably. The station commander described how one potential bomber had been trying to get round it, and became lost. ‘We heard him asking directions,’ said the Israeli soldier. That’s right: they intercepted his mobile phone call, and pounced. And who can deny that the Israeli government has a perfect right, a duty, to use such means to protect its citizens from the insanity of the suicide bombers? The figures speak for themselves: 126 people died from suicide bombs in March 2002; there was a time when they were happening every week. Yesterday’s was only the second in this calendar year. And yet the wall is itself, of course, responsible for inflaming the insanity it attempts to seclude.

Jacob, our gun-toting guide from the Israeli Defence Force, kept explaining what a piece of cake it is if you are an Arab olive farmer, and you want to bring in your olives, half of which are on one side of the fence and half on the other. You just go to the nearest agricultural gate, press the buzzer, and, hey presto, a detachment of friendly Israeli troops shows up to let you through. Jacob’s voice dropped confidentially as he informed us that in one case a family of Arabs had proved so trustworthy that the IDF gave the head of household the key! Could he tell us the name of this family? Alas, no: security reasons.

This sunny analysis was not shared by the Palestinians I later spoke to in the village of Turmus Aiya. There the discussion turned on Israeli shootings, stolen olives and stolen land. As any candid Israeli politician will tell you, there is not the slightest intention to redraw this wall/fence, and remove all its anemone-tentacle protrusions into the West Bank. Those salients enclose large numbers of Israeli settlers, and under any peace map those red-roofed villas close to the 1967 Green Line will remain Israeli. ‘The truth is you don’t build a fence within your own cou
ntry; you build a fence between your two countries,’ an Israeli MP said, and he was a moderate. Successive Israeli governments — even Barak’s — have connived in or encouraged the settlement of territory that the world ascribes to the Palestinians.

Take that injustice, add the fetid conditions in the refugee camps and the brainwashing by Hamas, and you have the conditions for madness and martyrdom. But there is a final reason why the Palestinians are driven to kill themselves, and why the Israelis have created the dreadful expedient of the wall; and that is the abominable leadership of Yasser Arafat, now dying in Paris, who for more than 35 years has taken his people from one disaster to the next.

For a final verdict on the motives of Amar al-Far, the teenage suicide from Nablus, I went to Arafat’s compound in Nablus. ‘I think he must do that,’ said a guard who showed me round. ‘They killed his father, they destroy his home. What else can he do? The Israelis destroy everything. They kill old men, women, children. What can we do? We can only stay and wait. Look at this,’ he kept saying, pointing to a kind of sculpture park of vehicles, flattened by Israeli tanks in 2002, ‘look at this. What would you do? What can a man do?’ he said, smacking his brow with his palm; and after a while I’m afraid I grew impatient, and wanted to suggest to him that since the damage had been done more than two years ago, it was time to clear it up.

But that would be to miss the essence of Arafat’s approach, which is always to be a martyr. It is meant to be a sad but necessary fact of life that terrorists graduate to the role of statesman: Kenyatta, Begin, McGuinness, and so on — all have made the transition. The most glaring and pathetic global exception has been Yasser Arafat.

To judge by the deals he was offered in 2000, at Camp David and later, he wasn’t interested in statesmanship or statehood. He was offered 93 per cent of the West Bank, and a deal on the holy sites of Jerusalem by which Israel would have effectively delegated sovereignty over the Dome of the Rock, rather as an embassy is deemed to be foreign soil. Arafat was offered east Jerusalem, a concession that amounted to political poison for Barak. He had several Palestinian negotiators ready to do a deal, who thought he should. The Israelis were ready, since all sensible Israelis — even Sharon — know that there must be a two-state solution.

There are now 3.5 million Arabs living in the West Bank. Add to those the 1.2 million Israeli Arabs, and you have 4.7 million Arabs living in the whole area. In spite of the huge Russian influx, there are only 5.5 million Jews, and, given the faster Arab rate of reproduction, the Jews face the appalling prospect of shortly being in the position of the white South Africans — a minority race depriving the majority of full civic rights, and ruling that majority by force. It cannot last, and that is why Ariel Sharon is unilaterally pledged to pull out of Gaza. So why did Arafat say no, four years ago, to a much better deal? Why did he launch the second intifada, which has claimed the lives of so many thousands, including the teenage suicide bomber and his victims in Tel Aviv?

He said no, because any such accommodation would have robbed Arafat of his martyr status, and therefore of his power. Throughout his career he was the physical expression of victimhood. With his runty physique, his pendulous lips like a pair of rotting apricots, he has invited sympathy; he has been the epitome of underdoggery and chronic injustice, and it did not suit him to have that role taken away. He has been an egotist and a narcissist who has required his people to adopt the endlessly defeated tones of that guard in Ramallah, so that he could maintain his chosen role as their martyr and leader. He is also a killer, the founder not just of Fatah but of Black September. It was Yasser Arafat’s organisation that killed the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972; Arafat’s voice can be heard on a tape, ordering the execution of the US ambassador to Sudan, and others. With one breath he tells English language reporters that he is calling a ceasefire and discouraging suicide bombings; with the next he orders the crazed young men of Palestine to continue their jihad.

It is bizarre, in retrospect, that everyone should have sucked up to him for so long, and that his impending death should move a BBC reporter to tears. Such sentimentality was forgivable in this sense: that behind the mask of a revolutionary eccentric, behind all the crazy demands, we assumed there was a man with a plan, a man who wanted to be at the apex of a set of new political institutions. But instead of being the father of his country, Arafat will die a political juvenile.

It was his tragedy that — as he revealed in 2000 — he had no ambition to make that transition from terrorist martyr to grown-up politician. It was the Palestinians’ tragedy that he represented their aspirations for so long. His death comes too late for thousands who have died in the intifada, most of them Palestinians. But his imminent departure brings hope: that Israel will be demographically obliged to renew the Barak offer, and that the Palestinians will find a statesman with the wisdom and authority to accept it.


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