Theater of the absurd in the Occupied Territories

This year will certainly be remembered in the Palestinians’ history annals, not only because of the direct effects of Sept. 11 on them, but mainly because all hell broke loose on their occupied land, way before Sept. 11, and no one came to their rescue. It has been a sad Christmas, and an even sadder Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.

There have been deaths on both sides, but nobody bothers counting the underdogs anymore. One day it’s five, one day it’s six. The funerals look exactly the same; for all we know we could be watching the same footage é- over and over again é- of Palestinian youths carried on mourners’ shoulders before reaching their final resting place.

Palestinians have spent the month of Ramadan deprived of the most basic of human needs, as usual. Their fasting extended beyond sunset, the blockade being in full swing.  Eid al-Fitr was not a feast for them: under bombardment and under siege, they could not even perform their prayers on the very holy grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the same mosque to which Ariel Sharon and his soldiers have open access. 

Suicide bombers have taken innocent lives, and the homes of their families have been razed to the ground, while the family of Rabin’s Israeli assassin is still enjoying the warmth and comfort of its home.  Countless other Palestinians, who have committed no crime save that of being Palestinian, become homeless as they watch from a pile of debris the posh Jewish settlements they dare not even dream of rise in front of their eyes.

If it weren’t so tragic, the current situation in the Occupied Territories would practically be comical, setting the stage for a masterpiece of theater of the absurd that future generations might one day read and wonder about.  In particular, they might wonder why in the midst of all this misery, this year’s Christmas Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, drew more attention than it did in other years. Examining a screen shot of St. Catherine’s on Dec. 24 will not explain why an empty chair, covered with a keffiyeh, had so much significance.  Who was its intended occupant? A man who since 1993 has done practically everything his occupier asked of him to the detriment of his own people.

And where was its intended occupant? He was, and still is, under practical house arrest in Ramallah since Dec. 3, mere miles away from Bethlehem, but light years away from the already pathetic goals he set for himself eight years ago in Oslo.

Yasser Arafat is now supposedly irrelevant for Sharon’s Cabinet, publicly being given the blame for every act of violence. Israel would have the world believe that it’s Arafat’s fault not only that people blow themselves up and that stones are thrown at tanks, but that children are torn apart by booby-trap bombs and that F-16s (of which Israel has just bought another 52) roam Palestine’s skies and bomb indiscriminately.

Arafat is indeed responsible for many matters, but he certainly cannot take credit for even the smallest pebble being thrown in utter frustration and despair at the occupying Israeli Army. At Arafat’s instigation, with the Oslo Accords, any semblance of justice which the international community supposedly condones (starting with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, not to mention 478!) has been overlooked in return for minute executive perks, including a private airport in Gaza and invitations to dine with the world’s most powerful men.

Since long, the only violence for which Arafat has been directly responsible is that of his own police force toward the Palestinian people, be they activists or under-age demonstrators.

Still, many of Israel’s friends decide to believe that Arafat actually has the power to inspire anyone to do anything, be it good or evil. Therefore, they say that if Arafat says so, Palestinians will meekly go back inside their tents and very fragile homes and quietly wait for their lives to get better. They forget that most Palestinians have been doing exactly that for over half a century, their lives constantly getting worse.

International opinion having taken the bait, Israel gives Arafat an ultimatum, telling him to put a stop to the violence. Ever helpful, Israel explains how: by arresting “suspected terrorists” -é i.e. practically everyone (since anyone who tries to get Israeli armed forces and illegal settlements out of occupied Palestinian land is a “terrorist”). Also, Arafat had to call publicly for an end to an uprising that he had nothing to do with in the first place.

Needing no encouragement, the idea of hitting two birds with one stone being very appealing, Arafat called on Palestinians to “end the violence” and had “suspected terrorists” jailed or simply killed. If having the leader of the Palestinian people volunteer to do the occupier’s dirty work was not absurd enough, Israel opened the next act with a particularly ridiculous scene: the man who was willing to carry out mass arrests of his own people found it somewhat difficult to do so, being under siege in Ramallah, forbidden to move, watching helplessly as Israeli jets demolished everything around him and all he holds dear, including his helicopters. Before arresting their compatriots, Palestinian police officers first had to dig themselves out of the rubble of their demolished stations and duck the missiles.

Sharon, enjoying every minute of the scene, watched as Arafat frantically waved a white flag, pushed into a corner, calling every person in every Cabinet he could think of. Surely, he thought, Christmas Mass in Bethlehem would bring an end to this punishment.

But we all know that Sharon does not care what the world thinks of him, that he does not pay any attention to urging from Western governments, nor does he deign even giving any respect to Pope John Paul II’s wishes.

Like a grounded child who has not done his homework or gotten bad marks in his last report card, Arafat thus remains grounded by Sharon until he behaves more like a true Israeli collaborator would.  Arafat’s melodramatic discourse about going to Bethlehem on foot if necessary only ensured that more Israeli tanks blocked access in and out of Palestinian towns. 

And thus Arafat’s chair in St. Catherine remained empty on Dec. 24, and another act has come to an end.  But at least the world seemed to be watching with interest as the Israeli government exercised its might and arrogance in the Occupied Territories. It also watched how the Israeli government completely ignored the world’s most respected personalities requesting leniency. It still watched as Bethlehem was sadly empty on this most special of occasions, devoid of joy, devoid of any pilgrim. The world surely figured that in Bethlehem, it is not stones that are feared.

But the most encouraging aspect of the story is that most people agreed that it was absurd to deprive someone (even Arafat) from performing a simple and humble religious duty. The international chorus of disapproval was uplifting, and Palestinians have at least won a moral victory.

It will be worth the wait to find the same international support when Arafat finally leads his people, by foot if necessary, to perform the same simple and humble religious duty of praying in Al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock mosques in Jerusalem in the next Eid. It will be heartening to see international opinion show again its support to this most basic of requests.

Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.

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