Waiting For History To Happen

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GREGORY HEISLER FOR TIME

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Sharon's showy tour of the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, one of Islam's holiest places, home of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is what sparked off the intifadeh. A new intifadeh looked like a good bet to Arafat, or else he would not have fanned the flames by unleashing the Tanzim. The 1987-93 uprising he directed against Israel from Tunis was a watershed in Palestinian history. It made Israel start dealing with the P.L.O. "If you are reaching a historic agreement, you need a big shock first," notes an Arafat aide who was with him at Camp David. Says adviser Bassam Abu Sharif: "He thought he was cornering Barak. If he knows he will achieve a political point that will get him closer to independence and if that will cost him 10,000 killed, he wouldn't mind."

Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, 41, knows a lot about body counts. So far, 329 Palestinians have died in the uprising (compared with 57 Israelis), and he delivered fiery speeches at all the funerals he could attend. Barghouti is more popular than Arafat in the West Bank. They call him Napoleon. Despite Sharon's electoral win, he actually comes across as gleeful, an ambitious prizefighter finally getting a shot at the champ. As he wolfs down a plate of lamb and rice, too rushed to take off his black leather jacket, he rattles off the reasons to be happy. The intifadeh not only brought Barak crawling back to the table, he believes, but also pressured him to give new concessions until the violence drove him from office. Now Sharon's election will give Palestinians a chance to show Israelis that not even "the Bulldozer" can protect them. "Sharon can make speeches," Barghouti warns, "but he will discover when he receives the reports from his security services that the intifadeh will continue."

Barghouti and Arafat regularly communicate by phone and fax. The Tanzim leader makes it clear just how crucial the uprising is to Arafat's plans. "This intifadeh is strategic," Barghouti explains, tapping a forefinger. "Not for one month, two months. I think it will continue for one year, two years, more than people expect. "

My People, Your People
Arafat was clearly apprehensive about inflaming the streets. Three days before the intifadeh, he warned Barak personally that he would not be able to prevent the mayhem if Sharon went ahead with his visit to the Haram. "Please stop Sharon," Arafat pleaded during a dinner, according to an aide who was present. He instructed his chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, to bring it up with Israeli negotiators and U.S. mediator Dennis Ross the next day. Says Erakat: "I told Dennis, 'This is our worst nightmare, for you, for us and for Barak. Do something about it.' He said, 'I'll see what I can do.'"

Sharon's visit was a prod to the bitter resentment still harbored in every Palestinian household over injustices dating back to Israel's establishment in 1948. To Palestinians, it is al-Naqba, the Catastrophe, in which Jewish forces--among them thousands of immigrants escaping persecution in Europe who had poured into Palestine--sent 800,000 Palestinians fleeing into Arab countries as refugees. The U.N. counts 3.7 million refugees today, including 1.2 million people living in 59 camps, many still clutching keys to former homes.

Everything was supposed to change after Arafat signed Oslo. But while Israelis saw Oslo as the end of the war, Palestinians saw it merely as the first, conditional step toward peace. Today they still live with no state, no capital in Jerusalem. Israeli forces still occupy much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, requiring Palestinians continually to move through humiliating military checkpoints. Jewish settlements housing 180,000 Israelis dot the territories. Palestinians have seen economic decline, while Israel's GDP initially took off.

Although it was never agreed in writing, Palestinians expected they would at last achieve their cherished goal of an independent state by the May 1999 date set for fully implementing Oslo. Israel seemed committed to withdrawing from something like 88% of the West Bank before final-status negotiations, but deadlines came and went. As of last week, Israeli forces continued to occupy at least 55% of the territory.

When hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu took over in 1996, he made Arafat's life miserable. He delayed troop withdrawals and proceeded with construction of Jewish settlements. Later, under Barak, building continued apace. As Israelis became angry with outbreaks of violence and terrorism, ordinary Palestinians too grew disillusioned with the peace process. Palestinians felt Israel would never agree to their genuine independence. Without an end-of-conflict pact in sight, Arafat's place in history was never more on the line. When he signed the Oslo compromise, cries of betrayal arose from the militant Islamic group Hamas and such respected intellectuals as Edward W. Said.

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