In The Mukatah

Uri Avnery

The most dramatic moment occurred the evening after Yom Kippur. We were sitting in the courtyard of Arafat’s Mukatah (compound): a group of Israeli peace activists and Palestinian friends. A mild wind was blowing after a hot day. We were talking about the situation (what else?) and the latest gossip on the Palestinian leadership. From time to time a senior Palestinian Authority official joined us, in between visits to the President.

The tall figure of Jibril Rajoub emerged from between the sandbags that defended the entrance to the building. He had just seen Arafat; he joined our group for a few minutes. ‘We have heard that the Israeli Cabinet is about to meet,’ he announced darkly.

A meeting of the Cabinet – what could it mean if not an attack on the Mukatah?

Rajoub got into his black car and sped away. We exchanged a few words about the possibility of an attack – and then all the lights in the compound went out. A dead silence ensued. Then we heard the approaching drone of a plane.

Nobody said anything. I caught myself thinking: ‘So that’s it!’

And then the lights came back on. The plane passed overhead and flew on in the direction of Amman. We went on talking.

At noon, one of the volunteers had come back to the compound and said that he had been sitting in a coffee shop when shouts were heard: ‘The Israelis are coming!’ The owner of the shop urged his customers to run without stopping to pay. Soon after, two Army jeeps appeared. Ambulance sirens could be heard. The jeeps turned into the narrow street in front of the Mukatah, and drove up and down it. Inside, the rumour spread that it was a reconnaissance patrol before the attack. The jeeps went off to Ramallah’s central square. The children of the neighbourhood threw stones at them – a matter of routine. Calm returned.

We had decided to hurry to the Mukatah on Saturday afternoon, as soon as we heard about the atrocity in Haifa, in which whole families were killed. Within an hour, a group of ten Israeli peace activists was organised. We managed to get into Ramallah, even though it was surrounded by the Israeli Army. With us were thirty peace activists from many countries. If we had had more time, the group might have been larger. But it was the Jewish holiday season, so many potential participants were abroad and others could not join at such short notice.

It was clear that Sharon would try to exploit the latest outrage in order to realise his dream of many years: killing Arafat. This was so obvious that the question immediately arose: was this the real aim of the initiators of the Haifa bombing?

The suicide bomber was a young female lawyer who wanted revenge: both her brother and her cousin had been 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 don’t need a political motive. An Israeli who orders the killing of Palestinians must know that this may well be the result.

In this case Islamic Jihad has taken responsibility for the action: the personal vendetta 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. The Israeli Government has already officially decided to ‘remove’ Arafat. (Abroad, this has been falsely rendered as ‘expel’.) Only the Americans are preventing this, for the time being. But after a major outrage the American red light might change to green, or at least to yellow. For Sharon, the slightest flicker of yellow would be enough to allow him to execute his plan.

A Palestinian organisation that sends a suicide bomber out in such circumstances knows that its action will not only kill and wound dozens of Israelis, but may also lead to the death of the Palestinian leader. It seems that the Jihad – or somebody within the Jihad – desires this. He hopes that the killing of Arafat will lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, general anarchy throughout the country and the creation of hundreds of terrorist cells in the Palestinian territories, and raise Jihad’s prestige sky high.

The interests of Jihad meet the interests of Sharon. In order to realise his policy – the removal of the Palestinian Authority, the expansion of the settlements and the domination of Israel over all the Palestinian territories – he needs anarchy. Arafat is an obstacle, and therefore he wants to ‘remove’ him – to the next world.

An Israeli peace movement worth the name must do everything it can to prevent this. The killing of Arafat would be a historic disaster for the state of Israel, because it would mean the elimination of any chance of peace for generations to come and the increase of bloodshed to dimensions unknown until now. We decided to prevent this disaster with the only resources at our disposal.

The reception at the Mukatah was tumultuous. Dozens of TV teams from all over the world, especially the Arab world, were crowded in the courtyard, and pounced on us. Questions came at us in several languages. ‘Do you believe that you can stop an attack by Sharon?’ we were asked again and again. We all answered candidly that we didn’t know. We cannot stop tanks, warplanes, trained soldiers or disabling gas. But we hoped that the presence of a group of Israelis in the compound, as well as internationals, would be one more factor to add to the scales when Sharon and his generals made the decision. The next day, it was mentioned in the media that one of the participants in the ‘security consultation’ did indeed raise this point, and in an interview published in the Jerusalem Post on 10 October, Sharon said: ‘The likelihood of expelling him without harming him is low, not only because of his security guards but because he would be surrounded by a human chain of Israelis.’

The hour was late and we were shown where we were to sleep. In a large hall that had been restored since the destruction of the compound in June 2002, mattresses had been placed along the walls, each with a thick blanket. Next to the hall, new toilets had been installed. At one side of the hall were tables with boxes of coffee and tea, bottles of soft drinks, pitta bread, hard cheese and conserves.

One of Arafat’s assistants, Sami Mussalam, told us that the Rais was sick and had stayed in bed for the day, but would receive us the following morning.

After the hours of organisation and travel, we were hungry and tired. We tried to get the news on Israeli Radio and picked out mattresses for ourselves. There were different views as to what would be the best place in case of bombing from the air, as opposed to storming by soldiers. The toilets? The entrances? We all slept in our clothes; most of us did not even take off our shoes. For safety, the lights stayed on low.

It was possible to sleep only in fits. All through the night mobile telephones rang. People from America, Europe, South Africa and Asia kept asking for interviews. We had become objects of international curiosity.

At 6 a.m. I was woken by my phone. I ran outside so as not to disturb the dozens of sleeping people. A young woman from one of the morning talk shows wanted to know if I was prepared to give an interview at seven o’clock. I agreed because I was in a good mood. A whole night had passed without anything terrible happening.

I stayed outside. The courtyard was empty apart from a few soldiers on duty. I took a chair and sat in a corner. Above me, in the breeze, hundreds of small Palestinian flags were waving on strings, in addition to the larger flags on the roof. (Once they were called ‘PLO flags’, and anyone who had one in his possession could go to prison for three years.) On the walls that surround the courtyard on three sides (the two buildings that are still standing and the famous bridge between them) there were colourful posters left over from the mass solidarity demonstration that took place after the Sharon Government announced its ‘removal’ policy.

‘Our soul, all our soul, to the commander and symbol, Brother Abu Amar,’ one of them read. Abu Amar is Arafat’s nom de guerre. Another, from 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 pictures of the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Sepulchre. On all of them: Arafat with his famous keffiye. After the flag, the golden Dome of the Rock and the picture of Arafat are the two chief symbols of the Palestinian struggle. The word ‘symbol’ (rams, in Arabic) appeared on all the posters. On one wall hung a cloth two floors high, covered with hundreds of little handprints in the Palestinian colours, red, green and black on a white background – a present from the children of a refugee camp school.

That morning, all this looked almost cheerful. The Mukatah was silent, the few guards seemed bored. Every soldier who passed me said politely, ‘Sabah al-Kheir’ (‘good morning’ in Arabic); some said ‘Boker Tov’ (‘good morning’ in Hebrew). Perfect tranquillity – but deceptive. The knowledge that all this could be shattered in a moment lingered in the back of my mind.

At about 11 o’clock, we were told that the Rais had got up from his sickbed and was ready to receive the members of the human shield in the long meeting room. Since then I have been asked dozens of times: how does he look? He looked like somebody weakened by an attack of the flu: paler and thinner. He would have done well to have stayed in bed for another day or two. But he had obviously forced himself to get up. He received us, the Israeli peace activists, with much feeling, smiling broadly, with much shaking of hands and hugging.

About a dozen TV teams were allowed into the room to record the meeting. The interim Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Ala (Ahmad Qurei), also came. Arafat put him between me and himself and delivered a very strong condemnation of the previous Saturday’s suicide bombing. The Emergency Government of Brother Abu Ala, he said, would take the strongest possible steps to put an end to such outrages.

I noticed the Israeli flag on his breast. A month earlier, during another visit, he had been wearing several emblems of crossed flags on the breast-pocket of his uniform: Palestine-Canada, Palestine-Italy and so on. I had removed the Gush Shalom emblem – the crossed flags of Israel and Palestine – from my shirt and put it in front of him. He had picked it up and put it on above the others. I was surprised to see that he was wearing it today. He was still wearing it at the swearing-in of the Abu Ala Government two days later.

After the meeting, Arafat invited all the volunteers to lunch in the hall above our sleeping quarters. On the long tables were traditional dishes: mutton on rice, sinia (minced meat in tahini), baked chicken. And then the sweet: real kenafeh from Nablus, considered the best in the world. My wife, Rachel, and I were placed on either side of Arafat. Generally he eats very little. This time he ate only chicken soup.

Among the guests at the Mukatah that day was an Italian choir. Before and after lunch they sang songs by Italian Partisans who had fought against the Fascist regime and the Germans. Everybody, including Arafat, raised their hands and joined in the singing. When they had finished, one of the international volunteers, a young Japanese man called Naoto, stood up and sang a beautiful Japanese peace song.

Afterwards, a group photo was taken, and all the Israelis and internationals grouped themselves 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 watched a parade of Palestinian personalities come and go – the task of forming the new Government was progressing slowly. It was obvious that Arafat and Abu Ala’s decision to form a narrow Emergency Government of only eight members had disappointed many central functionaries.

Arafat’s close assistant, Nabil Abu-Rudeina, was asked by journalists how 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.’

All day, journalists called me from abroad (and from Israel, though I am not going to tell on those who called me on Yom Kippur) and asked about the state of Arafat’s health. It seemed that a lot of rumours, some of them quite crazy, were circulating. Was it true that Arafat had been poisoned by Israel? I said that Arafat had not mentioned it during lunch.

An ambulance is permanently parked at a corner of the courtyard (as was the practice in Israel during the days of Begin). In the evening, another ambulance arrived. A man climbed out and approached the building in unhurried steps. I was told later that this was a friend of the resident doctor who lives in the Mukatah. After some time he walked out of the building, went over to his ambulance, put on the flashing red light and drove off.

An hour later there were frantic calls from Tel Aviv. Was it true that Arafat had suffered a heart attack? Was it true that he had been sped to hospital? Afterwards the rumour spread that he had suffered a light heart attack a few days earlier. I am not a doctor, but I thought it unlikely.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, the Abu Ala Government was sworn in. The members of the Israeli group stood in the first row, in the part of the hall reserved for the media, who were there in force. We wore the large sticker of the Gush.

The ceremony started late because of last-minute problems (Palestinians, like Israelis, cannot do anything without last-minute problems). When the ceremony was over, Arafat came straight up to us and in front of the world’s cameras hugged the Israeli activists. It 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 new Government’s agenda.

For us it was clear that with the setting up of the Government, the immediate danger to Arafat’s life had passed, together with the terrible consequences his assassination would entail. For the time being. After three days and nights we went home, ready to go again, ready to do everything possible to prevent an act that would be a disaster for Israel. It is the most important patriotic thing we can do.