The Army came quietly. Those in and around the Ramallah presidential compound were packing up after evening meetings when shouts cut through the dusk. “There are jeeps in the front and back!” sounded the warning. It was not fast enough.
Heavy gunfire cut down two guards as officials and workers raced back inside the three-story building. The siege of the muqata’ had begun – and with it a Palestinian reawakening sown of indignation and wounded pride.
In many ways, the close Israeli encirclement of the compound housing interior ministry offices, guards’ barracks and the quarters of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was nothing new. Israeli tanks and jeeps had invaded the town of Ramallah on June 23 and the president has not left his headquarters since. Over the last two years, Arafat himself has spent months in his own buildings under Israeli guard.
And so, as this siege began, the veterans told stories as they checked the supply of water, food and cell phone batteries. Arafat himself sat in his office calmly reading news releases as they arrived, continuing to sign the stack of papers demanding his attention and taking calls of solidarity from his ministers outside. Almost immediately, the wheels of diplomacy were set into motion. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called to say that contacts were underway with the Americans. Minister Nabil Shaath was already in touch with the European Union. United Nations representative Nasser Al Qidwe was asked to explore bringing the issue to the Security Council, and the necessary calls were then made to Palestinian ambassadors in London and Paris.
It might have all seemed like business as usual but for the deafening explosions that periodically shattered the night. “They were the kind of explosions where you would have to open your eyes and make sure you are standing to see whether the bomb was in the room with you, or just next door,” said one of the officials in the building. The inhabitants were forced to listen for meaning in the sounds; to look was just too dangerous.
Outside the muqata’ Ramallah residents readied themselves for more days of unbroken curfew and life inside four walls. “It’s the same old story,” sighed an elderly Palestinian.
“Let them take him,” said another woman, speaking vehemently of Arafat. Her life had become consumed by nightly battles with her adolescent son, who refused to do his homework because he was certain the next day would be one more curfew day. She didn’t care what the Israelis did, she said. Just let them finish.
That night, September 19, and the entire next morning were punctuated by blasts and gunfire. It was all Israeli fire, it seemed. The men in the compound were not resisting. Helicopters hovered overhead, as demolition squads laced the muqata’ structures with explosives, slowly chipping away at the walls left standing in previous Israeli invasions. At one point, the demolition work became too much for President Arafat to bear and he burst out angrily, “What do they think they are doing?” He whipped out his handgun and made for the door as if to fight back, but was quickly blocked by his bodyguards.
Ever artful, Arafat entered this siege flanked by men who are symbols in their own right. Hani Al Hasan, one of the founders of Arafat’s faction Fateh, played the role of old stalwart at a time when Fateh has been rife with dissent and even rancor towards the president. On Arafat’s other hand was Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad, liked by the United States and representative of the process of Palestinian government reform. Both were in the building by chance, but neither departed with a small group of “guests” negotiated safe passage by Palestinian officials. As if to send a quiet message, the Palestinian leader was photographed daily with these men by his side.
A turning point
Palestinian officials have said privately that never, in all the months of name-calling and military pressure, have they felt that the life of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was truly in danger. This time, too, Israeli reports emphasized that the Israeli cabinet had not discussed harming or exiling the Palestinian leader. According to military analyst Amos Harel, the army had been ordered to chip away at Arafat’s own building until his living conditions were miserable. Publicly, Israel was calling for the hand-over of first 19, then 50, wanted men it said were inside (now it is clear that Israel did not know exactly who was in the building).
But as the hours passed, and the edges of the main muqata’ building began to crumble under the digging machines, the tenor of the confrontation changed. On Saturday night, Palestinian officials were worried. The international response had been disappointing and, if the bulldozers continued, political exits from the building would be few.
“I felt really there was a danger in the evening,” recalls Fayyad, speaking by phone from the compound. “That is not to say that we are out of danger now, but it was very serious.” After earlier exploding two buildings near the president’s office where Fayyad and the others were holed up, the Israeli army announced on loudspeakers that everyone inside must come out. The long necks of digging machines pecked at the two corners of Arafat’s building. Residents in the vicinity of the president’s compound were told by the army to open their windows in anticipation of a loud explosion.
At 12:20 exactly, Al Jazeera satellite announced that the army was giving those in the muqata’ ten minutes to leave the building before its demolition. It is unclear from where the Arabic news station received word of a specific countdown (Fayyad says he heard no time limit from the army), but the effect was electrifying. Millions of viewers in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and all over the Arab world watched the geopolitical game of chicken. Who would blink first?
Inside and outside the compound, Palestinian officials fought a frantic game of diplomacy. But United States officials were nonchalant. They were refusing to intervene unless Palestinians first dropped their push for a Security Council resolution critical of Israel. The Americans wanted the stage clear for their performance advocating war on Iraq.
Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib had a clear message to convey from those in the compound. Speaking on Al Jazeera, he said that he had been told that no deal was in the offing to turn over those inside. He wanted Palestinians to know that they should not worry that those inside were going to capitulate.
“The Sharon government wants to cut off the head of the Palestinian Authority from its body,” an official said later of the military operation. “I think that they were trying to get President Arafat to leave for Gaza voluntarily or to surrender those wanted men, both of which would have been political suicide [for the president].” There did not seem to be much in the Israeli government’s way.
A public revival
But in Ramallah, something had stirred. Perhaps the scenario was too familiar. So often in recent months, Palestinians had watched, trapped in their homes, as Israeli tanks surrounded buildings where their fighters were holed up, firing at the men until the Palestinian ammunition was exhausted and then threatening to blow them sky high unless they surrendered. And they surrender they did, coming out with their arms up only to be stripped down to their underwear by the occupying army. For Israel to expect the same result from this last stand was simply just too much. “When that ultimatum came out,” says political analyst Ali Jarbawi, “the people had had enough.”
In nearby neighborhoods, mosque loudspeakers came alive in the wee hours of the morning, calling on Palestinians to leave their homes and break the curfew. Church bells tolled and a crowd of young men beating a pot made their way loudly up through town, stopping in front of houses until those inside were roused.
Broadcast live on television, young men, girls and older women led one procession to the city center, straight towards one Israeli tank. Al Jazeera, whose offices overlook the demonstration, filmed silently as the tank turned away, and then gunfire and teargas aimed at the marchers from a side street scattered the crowd. Tens and then hundreds chanted, “With soul, with blood, we will sacrifice for you, Arafat.”
And sacrifice they did, offering up four dead before the dawn. In Rafah, where 24 hours earlier 37 people were injured and two killed when helicopters fired down into civilian homes in retribution for the injury of an Israeli tank crew, several hundred people came out in the dead of night to demonstrate. In Gaza City, the demonstrators – many of these armed – numbered in the thousands. Even in Israeli prisons Palestinians were demonstrating, one cellblock leader reported heatedly over the air. Suddenly, there was the kind of energy and enthusiasm for resisting the Israeli onslaught that had not been seen in the Palestinian public for months.
“It was not to be expected,” admitted Fayyad, who watched the awakening on television as he sat next to the president. “These people have been going through a lot, and to see them going out and breaking the curfew – that was a very humbling thing.”
The next morning, the last of the muqata’ was still standing. “Imagine a big birthday cake with a single candle,” one photographer described. “The Israelis have eaten all of the cake around the candle and the only thing left is to eat what is underneath.”
Voice of Palestine reporter Isam Altilawi, 30, and Issa Ismaeel, 28, had been shot in the chest and killed in Ramallah. In Nablus, Israeli troops opened fire at Riyad Alhashash, 19, of Balata Refugee Camp. He was shot in the head and left to bleed to death. Wounded Muhammad Al Khatib, 17, was snatched from an ambulance by Israeli soldiers and taken to an unknown destination. In Tulkarem, Israeli forces opened fire on demonstrators, fatally wounding Ahmad Radwan, 18, in the head.
Still, the signs of revival continued, with demonstrations in Gaza and throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem. On Sunday afternoon, another young man from Nablus was killed in continuing demonstrations. By late afternoon on September 24, the bulldozers had been moved back from the president’s building. Diplomacy had finally found traction, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi and Jordanian leaders all calling the White House to complain.
Still, Palestinians did not claim a victory. “They destroyed all that they wanted to destroy,” says analyst Jarbawi, dismissing the importance of the demolition crew’s departure. “Second, the Americans exerted pressure because they don’t want a shift in importance of events from Iraq from here.” Jarbawi also gives some credit to the signs of Palestinian resistance, which he believes made Israelis worry that its military operation was actually reviving the Intifada – just in time for its second anniversary.
President Arafat and some 200 others remain trapped in a few rooms. “No one can come in, there are hygiene problems and we are in very close quarters,” says Fayyad. “The noise of the bulldozer has subsided, but as long as the operation is continuing, nothing is ensured.” Palestinian officials are predicting that the standoff will continue for some time. Perhaps, too, the future will contain a compromise. Israeli officials insist that “either Arafat will leave his headquarters or the terrorists who took sanctuary there will turn themselves in.”
But what has changed is that the Palestinian public is enjoying an empowering rebirth. At midnight in curfewed Ramallah and Nablus on September 23, the noise in the streets is suddenly deafening, with pots and pans, metal lampposts and steel poles all singing out a chorus of defiance. The army responds with its own song: sound bombs.
“It was unbelievable,” says that same elderly woman who was exhausted by the prospect of one more Israeli siege. She describes her neighborhood come alive with whistles and horns and drums. “I didn’t sleep at all,” she says in pure glee. Just when journalists thought they might be writing the Intifada’s eulogy, it seems to want to continue on.
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.