Living Shield

The most dramatic moment arrived in the evening after Yom Kippur.

We were sitting in the courtyard of Arafat’s Mukat’ah (compound); a group of Israeli peace activists and Palestinian friends, senior Palestinian Authority officials. A pleasant mild wind was blowing after a hot day. We were chatting about the situation (what else?) and the latest gossip about the Palestinian leadership. From time to time a senior Palestinian joined us, before going up to see the President, or coming back from him.

The tall figure of Jibril Rajoub emerged from between the sandbags that reinforce the entrance of the building. He had seen Arafat and joined our group for a few minutes. “We have heard that the Israeli cabinet is about to meet,” he announced darkly.

We all understood the meaning of that. A meeting of the cabinet – what could that mean? What if not an attack on the Mukata’ah?

Rajoub entered his black car and sped off on his business. We exchanged some words about the possibility of an attack – and then, suddenly, all the lights in the compound went off. A dead silence ensued. From afar we heard the approaching drone of an airplane.

Nobody said anything. In the brain a thought was passing: “So that’s it!”

And then the lights went on, as suddenly as they had gone off. The plane in the air passed us and flew on in the direction of Amman. We continued to talk as if nothing had happened.

Earlier on that day, the atmosphere had become tense for a different reason. At noon, one of the volunteers came back to the compound and recounted that, while he was sitting in a coffee shop, shouts were heard: “The Israelis are coming!” The owner of the shop urged his guests to run away, even without paying. Soon after, two army jeeps appeared. From afar, the sirens of ambulances could be heard. The two jeeps went on to the narrow street in front of the Muhata’ah, where they went back and forth. Inside, the rumor spread quickly. It looked like a reconnaissance patrol before the attack. The jeeps went off to Ramallah’s central square. The children of the neighborhood threw stones at them. A matter of routine. Calm returned.

The moment we heard about the shocking atrocity in Haifa, on Saturday afternoon, we understood that we had to hurry to the Mukata’ah. Within an hour, a small group of ten Israeli peace-activists was organized. Somehow we succeeded in entering Ramallah, which was surrounded and cut off by the Israeli army. With us were also some 30 international peace activists from many countries.

If we had more time, the group might have been larger. But as it was the Jewish holiday season, many of potential participants were abroad, others could not join at such short notice. But for us, time was of the essence.

It was clear that Ariel Sharon would try to exploit the outrage of the Islamic Jihad, in which whole families were killed, in order to realize his dream of many years: to kill Yasser Arafat. That was so obvious that a question arose automatically: was this, perhaps, the real aim of the perpetrators to start with?

The suicide bomber had been a young female lawyer, who wanted to take personal revenge: both her brother and her fiance were killed by the Israeli army. In the Palestinian territories there are now thousands of such people, men and women, each of them a ticking bomb. They do not need any political justification. An Israeli who orders the killing of Palestinians, men, women and children, must know that something similar may well be the result.

But the Islamic Jihad organization has taken responsibility for the action. The bomber’s personal vendetta thus became a political act. A political act has political aims. And the aim could only be connected to the fact that – as all the world knows – Sharon is ready to kill Arafat at any moment. The Israeli government has already officially decided to “remove” Arafat. (Abroad, this word has been falsified into “expel”). Only the Americans are preventing this, for the time being. But after a major outrage the American red light might change into green, or at least into yellow. For Sharon, the slightest yellowish flicker is enough for him to execute his plan.

A Palestinian organization that sends a suicide bomber in such circumstances knows that its action will not only kill and wound dozens of Israelis, men, women and children, but may also cause the death of the Palestinian leader. It seems that the Islamic Jihad – or somebody within the Islamic Jihad – desires this. The hope seems to be that the killing of Arafat will cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, spread general anarchy throughout the country, create hundreds of terrorist cells in the Palestinian territories and raise Jihad’s prestige sky high.

As sometimes happens in history, the interests of Jihad are coinciding with the interests of Sharon. In order for Sharon to enact his policies – the removal of the Palestinian Authority, the enlargement of the settlements all over the country and the domination of Israel over all the Palestinian territories – he need an atmosphere of anarchy and an ever-widening cycle of bloodshed. Arafat is an obstacle in his way, and therefore he wants to “remove” him – to the next world.

Exactly for this reason, a consistent Israeli peace movement worth its name must do everything to prevent this act. The killing of Arafat would be a historical disaster for the State of Israel, because it would mean the elimination of any chance for peace for generations to come and an increase in bloodshed on an unprecedented scale.

Therefore we decided to try to prevent this disaster with the paltry resources at our disposal.

The reception at the Mukata’ah was tumultuous. Dozens of TV teams from all over the world, and especially from the Arab world, were crowded in the courtyard. They pounced on us and showered us with questions from all sides and in several languages.

One question turned up again and again: “Do you believe that you can stop an attack by Sharon?”

We all answered candidly that we didn’t know. We cannot stop tanks, warplanes, trained soldiers or disabling gas. But we hope the very knowledge that in the compound there is a group of Israelis as well as internationals, may constitute one more factor influencing Sharon and his generals when they make the decision. If the other arguments for and against balance each other out, this factor may prove to be the decisive one.

(The next day, it was mentioned in the media that one of the participants in the “security consultation” had indeed raised this point. On Friday, Sharon himself told Jerusalem Post that the presence of Israelis at the compound is preventing action. )

The hour was already late and we were shown our accommodations. In a large hall that has been restored since the damage to the compound, mattresses were put along the walls, each one with a thick blanket. Next to the hall, new toilets had been built. On one side of the hall were tables with boxes of coffee and tea, bottles of light drinks, pitta bread, hard cheese and conserves.

One of Arafat’s assistants, Dr. Sami Mussalam, informed us that the Ra’is was sick and had stayed in bed today, but would receive us the next day. In the mean time, he saw to all our needs.

After the hours of organization and traveling, we were quite hungry and tired. We tried to get the news over Israel radio and chose mattresses for ourselves. There were different opinions about what was the best place in case of bombing from the air, as opposed to storming by soldiers. The toilets? The entrances? All of us slept in our clothes. Most did not even take off their shoes. For all events, the lights were not put out altogether.

It was possible to sleep only in fits. All through the night the mobile telephones did not stop ringing. People from America, Europe, South Africa and Asia kept asking for interviews. We had become, so it seemed, objects of international curiosity.

At six o’clock in the morning I was woken up by the ringing of the mobile phone. I ran outside, so as not to disturb the dozens of sleeping people. A young lady from one of the morning talk shows wanted to know if I was ready to give an interview at seven o’clock.

Generally I would not have been overjoyed by this, but this time I was in a good mood. A whole night had passed without anything terrible happening.

I remained outside. The courtyard was empty, except for a few soldiers on duty. I took a chair and sat in a corner.

Above me, in the gentle breeze, hundreds of small Palestinian flags were waving on strings, in addition to the larger flags in the roof. (Once they were called “PLO flags”, and anyone who had one in his possession was liable to go to prison for three years.) On the walls that surround the courtyard on three sides (two buildings left standing and the famous bridge between them) were colorful posters left over from the mass solidarity demonstration after the “removal” decision of the Sharon government.

“Our soul, all our soul, to the commander and symbol, brother Abu Amar” said one of them. Abu Amar is Arafat’s nom de guerre. Another, by the Ministry for Refugee Affairs, said: “For brother Arafat, the symbol of our struggle, the support of the tents of the Palestinian people”. On one of the posters were the pictures of the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Sepulcher. On all of the posters, Arafat with his famous keffiye (checkered headdress). The golden Dome of the Rock and the picture of Arafat are the two symbols of the Palestinian struggle, apart from the flag. The word “symbol” (Rams, in Arabic) appeared on all the posters without exception.

On one of the wall was hanging a two-storey-high cloth with hundreds of little handprints in the Palestinian colors – red, green and black on a white background, a present from the children of a refugee camp school.

That morning, all of this looked almost gay. The Mukata’ah was silent, the few guards seemed bored. Every soldier passing me said politely “Sabah al-Kheir” (good morning, in Arabic), and some even said “Boker Tov” (same in Hebrew). Perfect tranquility – but a deceptive one. The knowledge that all this could be shattered in a moment, with the pleasant picture turning into a scene of blood and death, lurked in the back of the mind.

At about 11 o’clock, we were told that the Ra’is had got up from his sickbed and was ready to receive the members of the Israeli human shield in the long meeting room.

Since then I have been asked dozens of times: How does he look? Well, he looked like somebody weakened after an attack of the flu: pale and thin. It seemed to me that it would have been better for him to stay in bed for another day or two. But he had obviously compelled himself to get up.

He received us with much feeling, smiling broadly, shaking our hands and hugging us. The fact that in such an emergency men and women from Israel had come to constitute a “human shield” had made a deep impression. He spoke about this repeatedly.

About a dozen TV teams were allowed into the room and started to record the meeting, which Abu-Ala (Ahmad Kurei) also joined. Arafat positioned him between himself and me, and then delivered a very strong condemnation of Saturday’s suicide bombing. The Emergency Government of Brother Abu-Ala, he promised, would take the strongest possible steps to put an end to such outrages.

I noticed the Israeli flag on his chest. A month ago, during another visit, I saw that he was wearing on the breast-pocket flap of his uniform jacket several emblems of crossed flags: Palestine-Canada, Palestine-Italy and so on. I removed from my shirt the Gush Shalom emblem – the crossed flags of Israel and Palestine – and placed it in front of him. He picked it up at once and put it on, above the others.

I was surprised that he had left it on and was still wearing it on that day. (Two days later, at the swearing-in of the Abu-Ala government, he bore this Israeli flag on his chest.)

After the meeting, Arafat invited us and the international volunteers to lunch in the hall above our sleeping quarters. On the long tables were the traditional dishes: mutton on rice, Sinia (minced meat in tahini), baked chicken pieces. At the end, real Kenafeh from Nablus, considered the best in the world, was served. (Kenafeh is an Arab sweet with cheese).

My wife Rachel and I were placed on either side of Arafat. Generally he eats very little and offers with his hands choice morsels of meat or vegetables to honored guests. This time he sipped only chicken soup that had been specially prepared for him. He told Rachel that he sticks to a strict diet of chicken soup, which is the best remedy after the attack of viral flu had affected his stomach.

Among the guests at the Mukata’ah that day were the members of an Italian choir. Before and after lunch they performed the songs of the Italian partisans who had fought against the Fascist regime and the Germans. Emotions in the room ran high when everybody, including Arafat, held raised hands and joined in the singing. When they had finished, one of the internationals, a young Japanese, rose and sang a beautiful Japanese peace song. It appeared that Naoto, whose exact age I could not guess, has studied sociology but decided instead to become a singer. He is also a perfect mime, and his good spirits and innocent good-heartedness made him the darling of all the group.

In the end, a group photo was taken, and all Israelis and internationals gathered around Arafat. It was hard to believe that this was no birthday party, but a meeting of people who were risking their lives for peace.

Yom Kippur passed quietly. We saw the parade of Palestinian personalities come and go, while the task of forming the government progressed slowly. It was obvious that Arafat’s and Abu-Ala’s decision to form a narrow Emergency Government, consisting of only eight members (apart from the Prime Minister) had disappointed many central functionaries who remained outside. All of the dignitaries greeted us warmly.

Arafat’s close assistant, Nabil Abu-Rudeina, was asked by journalists to what extend Palestinians could rely on the United States, the Arab countries, Europe or the United Nations. His answer: “We rely first of all on our Israeli friends.”

During the entire day, journalists called me from abroad (and from Israel, too, but I am not going to tell on those who called me on the holy Yom Kippur) and asked about the state of Arafat’s health. It seemed that a lot of rumors, some of them quite crazy, were being spread outside. I was asked whether it was true that Arafat had been poisoned by Israel. I answered that Arafat himself had not mentioned this during lunch.

At a corner of the courtyard an ambulance is permanently parked (as was the practice in Israel during the days of Begin.) In the evening, another ambulance came in. A lone figure got out and approached the building with unhurried steps. I was told later that this was a friend of the Mukata’as resident doctor coming to visit him. After some time he came back out, went to his ambulance, put on the flashing red light and drove off.

Within an hour I was receiving frantic calls from Tel-Aviv. Was it true that Arafat had suffered a heart attack? Was it true that he had been rushed to hospital? I could answer with certainty that there was no truth in this. Afterwards the rumor spread that he had suffered a light heart attack a few days before. I am not a doctor, but judging by impressions, also seems untrue.

On the morrow of Yom Kippur, the Abu-Ala government was sworn in. We, the members of the Israeli group, stood in the first line, in the part of the hall reserved for the media who were represented in force. We wore the large sticker of the Gush, also consisting of the flags of Israel and Palestine.

The ceremony started late because of last minute problems (Palestinians, like Israelis, cannot do anything without last minute problems). Immediately after the ceremony was over, Arafat saw us, went directly up to us and hugged the Israeli activists before the massed cameras of the world.

That was a personal gesture, but a political one, too. The Palestinian leader wanted to show the world that a settlement with Israel is the first item on the agenda of the new government.

For us it was clear that with the setting up of the government, the imminent danger to the life of Arafat had – for the time being – passed, together with the terrible results his assassination would entail. After three days and nights we went home, ready to return if the need arises, in order to do everything possible to prevent an act that would be a disaster for Israel. For us, that is the most effective way we can serve our country.