Gush Shalom activists at Arafat's compound
Gush Shalom activists sleep over at Arafat's compound.
Yom Kippur 2003 - From Haifa to Ramallah Gush Shalom activists sleep over at Arafat's compound.
[Here follows a description by Adam Keller and Beate Zilversmidt of their experience - from the shock of the Haifa suicide attack to spending the night at Ramallah as part of a group which provided a human shield for Arafat.]
Yesterday began as a routine Saturday, with news broadcasts focussing on the ongoing strike at Israel's seaports, the occupation pushed to the sidelines.
For several weeks there had been no major assassinations nor suicide bombings - though people on both sides did get killed in "routine incidents". And it seemed that Sharon did not create too big of a wave by pushing through the settlement encompassing route of the "Separation Wall", nor by the 600 tenders for new settlement housing. The Bush administration appears to lose interest in mediating between israelis and Palestinians, with the roadmap shelved until after the Nov.2004 elections.
But the Saturday siesta was suddenly shattered by the shockwaves of the terrible event in Haifa. Emergency bulletins disrupted the leisurely radio broadcasts, giving once again the gory details of a suicide bombing. This one claimed the life of nineteen people, with whole families wiped out as they sat at the restaurant tables. "Maxim" was a place jointly owned - and visited - by Jews and Arabs. Six of those killed were Palestinian Israelis, as were many of the wounded. (Did the perpetrator - a 29-year old woman lawyer from Jenin, reportedly seeking revenge for a dead brother and cousin - deliberately seek to strike at this oasis of coexistence? Or was "Maxim" chosen randomly, as a convenient place crowded with people?)
After about two hours, the ambitious Health Minister Danny Naveh spoke on the radio, urging the government to "seize this opportunity to get rid of Arafat." (He did not even bother to pretend that Arafat had anything to do with the bombing, for which responsibility was claimed by the Islamic Jihad.) Nave's lead was followed by a whole host of similar pronouncements by ministers, Knesset Members and officials, as well as "unofficial leaks" of "well-placed sources" at the prime minister's bureau. For us, that meant the urgent need to shake off shock and lethargy and mobilize in very short order a group to immediately set off for Ramallah. It is no easy matter to phone a person - even somebody who had earlier registered as being willing to act as a human shield - and say: "Now is the time. Be ready within half an hour."
In spite of several people being away from home in the Holiday weekend and some others getting cold feet, still the willing volunteers added up. Together with the Gush Shalomers came some young anarchists who have little use for Arafat or any other president but were convinced to oppose a move aimed at crushing the Palestinian people as a whole. Meanwhile the ISM was rallying its international volunteers, scattered in various West Bank towns and villages. Altogether, at 9.30pm there were some thirty activists at the dimly lit rendezvous point outside Ramallah: Israelis from Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, Californians, Canadians, Brits, Danes, a single Icelander...
We made some contingency plans for the possibility of being blocked by the army and getting into Ramallah by side roads - a bit of a risky act in the dark - but in the event getting past the military roadblocks proved almost absurdly easy. A short drive, and there we were - at the gates of the Presidential Compound, whose Arabic name "Muqata'a" has become well-known to Hebrew speakers.
Among the ruins of buildings destroyed in previous incursions by the Israeli army, were lurking a whole host of international journalists with TV-cameras, who immediately pounched upon Uri Avnery and other English speakers among the delegation. Just a few minutes after sneeking past soldiers we were in the midst of an impromptu press conference.
"We are here as human shields to protect
President Arafat," Uri Avnery was later quoted in Ha'aretz.
"We will stay here just in case Sharon
carries out an action." And in the Jerusalem Post he was quoted as saying: [we are here] "first and foremost to protect Israel from the catastrophe that would occur if Arafat were to be exiled, or killed. (...) If Sharon decides to kill Arafat, this would be an unprecedented historic catastrophe for the people of Israel."
Once past the journalists we were heartily greeted by Palestinian officials and activists. A whole lot of drinks and snacks were brought in and since most of us had skipped dinner we embarked upon the pitabread and humus. Then, we were conducted to the conference hall which had been converted into an improvised dormitory - a large room with completely new fittings, replacing those destroyed by the Israeli army in September a year ago.
And then, there was the long night to get through, with the attempt to read Sharon's intentions from the ambiguous reports monitored on a squeeking small transistor radio, and the ears alert to any alarming sounds from outside. Some of the Israelis and internationals joined the Palestinians on guard, and sat talking and exchanging views and anecdotes nearly the whole night through.
The morning, after a fortunately uneventful night, brought reinforcements. Meretz activist Latif Dori arrived from Tel-Aviv, as well as a group of Italians who soon embarked on a recital of partisan songs. (On the Israeli radio news magazine Likud Knesset Member Ehud Yatom complained: "I stayed awake the whole night and listened to the news expecting to hear of the expuslion of Arafat. I am terribly disappointed it did not happen. And these leftists who provide Arafat with a defensive shield, that is terrible, a terrible fissure in Israeli society.")
More Palestinians - not from the compound's staff - found their way to the Muqata'a. Ruwaida, a Ramallah boutique owner, came especially to distribute to the Israelis her own poem in Hebrew translation, a heartfelt appeal from a Palestinian mother to an Israeli mother. "I always give this to soldiers in checkpoints; these boys are already greeting me as 'Mom'."
At noon, there was a meeting with President Arafat and Prime Minister designate Ahmed Qurei, followed by a well-attended joint press conference. Both Palestinian leaders sharply condemned the suicide bombing as a crime also against the Palestinian people. Latif Dori emphasized that he had come to show that not all Israelis are taken in by the demagoguery of one who refuses to make peace and builds settlements instead. Uri Avnery denounced the outrage in Haifa: "Whoever sent that young woman to kill 19 innocent people must have wanted to put the entire region on fire - by way of providing Sharon with a pretext for targeting Arafat." ISM coordinator Huwaida Arraf explained that the internationals felt they were there instead of the UN peace forces which should have long ago been sent to protect the Palestinian people.
The Israeli and international human shielders decided to stay on in the compound throughout Yom Kippur, a time when there is a complete Israeli media blackout, which in the past was more than once the occasion of nasty surprises.
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