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Refuge in the shadows of a legend

During difficult times for the nation - like now - articles, songs, and commentary about Yasser Arafat are everywhere. In death, as in life, he unites Palestinians in facing the common danger and finding common ground.

Last modified: 21 Oct 2009 11:43

Driving through Ramallah morning traffic is a nightmare. A town of 30,000 inhabitants, this number almost quadruples at the beginning of every business day. This town has become the center of political and commercial life for many Palestinians, so by seven in the morning, driving through Ramallah's old, windy, and narrow roads is more like a circus show.

Today was a bad traffic day. As I was driving my son to school in downtown Ramallah, I could hardly hear myself think. My 4-year-old son was enjoying the warm sunrays, playing hide and seek with them as we drove past buildings that hid the sun from him. We were reviewing the week days in the meantime. In the background, I thought I heard the voice of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. I told myself, you must be mistaken. There is no reason for local radios to start their day with such emotion-invoking material for the audience.

I saw my son off to school and I hurried back to the car, tuning into the same radio station. I wasn't imagining! The radio was playing parts of various interviews with President Arafat - Abu Ammar, or the Khityar, as he was known.

Khityar means the “old one” - in cultural terms, it is a reference to the elder or the wise one. Arafat gained this title long before he became an “elder”, but soon after he became a national symbol, a reference, and a headline of security for Palestinians in the Diaspora and the Occupied Territory. It didn’t take him long after he became the head of Fatah to become the “khityar”, transcending the boundaries of his factions and becoming a national figure. No other leader has come even close to claiming this title since - it’s one of Arafat’s many ironies and legacies.

Perhaps that’s why during difficult times for the nation - like now - articles, songs, and commentary about Al-Khityar are everywhere. In death, as in life, he united Palestinians in facing the common danger and finding common ground. That explains why these days more people file in to visit him at his mausoleum in Ramallah, where he has been temporarily laid to rest, awaiting the completion of his journey to East Jerusalem, where he wished to be buried.

That’s another irony Al-Khityar has left lingering, whereby his people find nothing but the shadows of his memory as refuge when times get tough and when all other destinations of hope or safety offer nothing but despair. Even in death, his memory can still invoke.

Options and disappointment abound

Palestinian leaders, factions, and ideas abound. Yet, while engaged in this bitter political division and a very public race for who can degrade his opponent better – they have become a source of pain and sometimes embarrassment for ordinary Palestinians. As the foundations of Israel’s 42 year-old occupation are cemented while its policies continue to create facts on the ground in the Palestinian homeland, Palestinian division creates despair and weakness. As Israeli bulldozers clear Palestinian livelihoods and destroy homes to create illegal settlements, Palestinian leaders are unable to build bridges of trust or plant hope for their people that tomorrow can be better.

The Goldstone controversy-turned-diplomatic victory is a prime example. Politicians surfed on the wave of public uproar over the postponement of a vote to endorse the Goldstone Report on the War on Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 2 October. They exploited genuine public anger and the lack of credible information, turning it into spears in their latest round of battles.

Palestinians hoped politicians would come to the same conclusion: That political unity and partnership was crucial to avoid such errors and ensure that all political players also share in the responsibility of defending the rights of all Palestinians -the dead and the living.

Even when the UN Human Rights Council convened an emergency session and endorsed the Goldstone Report, Palestinian factions failed to take this opportunity, to create a new reality of unity. It was a moral and diplomatic victory; a vote of 25 in favor and 6 against, with key countries like France and the UK skipping the vote altogether. Instead of moving on towards unity, the divided brethren competed over who should receive praise for this victory, instead of competing over plans of how best to turn this victory into a process that achieves justice.

The only certainty it seems is that the match of who can demonize their political opponent better will go on - as will public disappointment.  These factions share a reality under occupation. Yet, in their division, their people now feel stranded, oppressed, and abandoned. They are partners of division, plunging their people into further despair with every excuse presented for postponing the people’s priority: unity.

Unity has once against slipped away from Palestinians, who long for it like they now yearn for the security the Khityar provided. In their despair and in the absence of true and unifying leadership, they have written articles and poems calling on him to rise from the dead, blaming him – if ever so lovingly – for his untimely passing. But since their calls cannot be headed, these despair-stricken Palestinians look for refuge in the shadows of the memory of a legend. It’s a grim picture that invokes little hope; chilling in its implications.