We tend to know the Palestinian people and their problems through the figure of Yasser Arafat, and his governing structure of the Palestinian Authority. Always eager for the quickest and most high-profile interviews, the press naturally perpetuates this. Our leaders who don’t know who else to turn to when addressing the Palestinian people likewise enhance this. This is a symptom of great tragedy and great betrayal, and it is a vital challenge for the future.
One of the most shocking realities to observe is the plight of the Palestinian refugees. These people have been suffering in desperate and degenerate conditions for over 53 years, continually subsisting in the refugee stage. Their situation must be addressed before any lasting peace initiative can be realized. However, this appears to be quite impossible.
The Palestinian refugees, those who fled their homes from the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, are at the very bottom of the Arab world, and
are also the most in need of hope for a better future. Because they are a very emotional, passionate and angry group of people, they are a challenge for anyone seeking to keep them on the outside. For the moment, forget about Israel and all the issues of Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, and just focus on the Palestinians alone.
The permanent residents are those Palestinians who lived in the cities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip before the 1948 war. They are the established families, clans and tribes – wealthy, powerful and entrepreneurial people – and, as such, they are extremely hostile to anything that will empower the refugees. This would risk permanently settling the refugees in the areas of the West Bank and Gaza they now inhabit. As such, the refugees are cast outside.
There are also the Mafia-like groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others comprised of many Palestinians who fled to neighboring Arab countries in 1948. Over the years, they have become even more embittered and also more organized to fight Israel. This is because, as with the permanent residents, the host Arab countries are opposed to anything that will empower and enrich these Palestinians. Wars in Libya, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in which Arabs fought against the Palestinians have institutionalized this alienation, thus creating a constant pressure to be dispossessed, angry, militant and fanatical.
This all creates a serious problem. On the ground in the region, the Palestinians are oppressed and manipulated by their fellow Arabs. The refugees, the most desperate and dangerous segment of the Palestinian people, are also grievously oppressed by their own people. The outside mafias, like Arafat and the PLO, have come in and built their power on the basis of the permanent residents. All of this adds up to nothing of benefit for the refugees.
This has been graphically apparent since the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which Arafat created the Palestinian Authority in the process of “state-building.” As a result, all the resources for education, infrastructure and other positive
state-building efforts were redirected to build a massive police state. Israel tried to restrict this through diplomatic efforts, out of fear of seeing the institutionalization of terrorism within a police state.
Unfortunately, the whole outside world acquiesced.
The Arab countries poured money into Arafat’s agencies, while the United States and other Western democracies supported Arafat’s efforts to erect a state by any means. Consequently, the Palestinian people had a police state imposed on them. For example, Arafat now has over 14 separate internal policing agencies in operation. In Nablus, in the middle of the northern West Bank, Arafat created a Naval Intelligence agency (though for what navy on what waterfront remains a mystery). It is in fact a cover for a massive police state that has incorporated the most radical of the terrorist world in its ranks. Meanwhile, the refugees are pushed to the outside, dispossessed, and embittered further.
When you understand the plight of desperation of the Palestinian refugees, one thing you learn is no one is their friend. Their fellow Arabs oppress them and perpetuate all forms of suffering by pouring billions of dollars into the outside mafias. In Gaza, if you travel from the horrendously squalid refugee camps to the beach, there are amazingly beautiful and fabulously rich villas. Who lives there? The reality is both shocking and sobering: Arafat’s people, the mafia leaders of the Palestinian Authority, live there.
The United States as well has failed to be an adequate friend to the refugees. This isn’t because of our support for Israel, but because we seek to empower the Palestinian people through Yasser Arafat. What happens is every time the United States pushes for a deal, Arafat is legitimized, empowered and allowed to betray his own people. With this in mind, it becomes very clear why the Palestinian refugees hate not only Israel, but their fellow Arabs and America. Collectively, we oppress and impoverish them by our idealistic efforts to bring “peace” through Arafat and his mafia, the most grievous betrayer.
This is a rather amazing irony, because Arafat of all people has shown himself to be a very brutal dictator from Day One. For example, the majority of the Palestinian people killed during the first intifada that began in 1987 were killed by their own people who were acting on the orders of Arafat’s groups (later to become the Palestinian Authority) to quell any internal dissent. After the Oslo Accords, from 1994 on, Arafat has created a massive police state, frequently displaying violent brutality to the refugees and other Palestinians. Palestinians refer to Arafat’s consolidation of power in Gaza that year as “Arafat’s Bloodbath,” when just four months after entering there to take control, he ordered his forces on Nov. 18 to open fire on an unarmed crowd protesting against the P.A.’s abuses. Sixteen were killed and over 200 wounded.
His own internal auditors find over 40 percent of the PA’s budget is wasted or misused, the rest going to run the massive police state of Arafat’s. Palestinian activist Edward Said laments Arafat’s “corruption has stripped his own people of their resources, squandered their wealth, abused their lives further.” While the P.A. has argued the difficulties of arresting terrorists, one thing they never fail to do is arrest Palestinians who challenge their dictatorship such as human rights activists. The list of such notables is long and includes such prominent names as Raji Sourani, Iyad al-Serraj, Rawya al-Shawa, Bassam al-Shaka’a, and many more. These are the people who a future state must be built upon. Arafat and his mafia repress them ruthlessly, while never cracking down on terrorism.
In the past year, I saw this violence played out in Beit Jala and Bethlehem, which is largely populated with Christian Palestinians. They are some of the most ambivalent people I have ever met. They don’t want a future under Arafat and the P.A. because Arafat has often put in power the most radical of Islamic leaders, such as in Jericho or Jerusalem, the Mufti. But they also cannot be pro-Israeli because in 1993 they felt betrayed by Israel when the Oslo Accords turned them over to an Arafat-ruled authority. It might seem complicated, but it really is just about survival and wanting a hopeful future.
What the issue comes down to is something next to impossible for Americans to understand, that Arafat is an obstacle to accomplishing anything truly good and lasting for the Palestinians. They are a people deeply divided socially. Mafia-like leaders such as Arafat only perpetuate and institutionalize these divisions, creating nothing but despair and more terrorism. “There is no real law under the (P.A.), there is no due process, there are no real freedoms and democratic rights,” explains Said. “The cynicism of the (P.A.), with its thugs, its crooked deal-makers, and its huge army of incompetent bureaucrats, is worse, I think, than its collaboration with the Israelis.”
If we truly want to begin the process of building a better future, one that includes hope and improvement for the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat must be removed from power, and his police state must be dismantled. Israel will do this if they have to simply to protect themselves. But obviously, it would be much better if the United States would take the lead in addressing the real needs of the Palestinian people, beginning with the refugees.
Joe Roche is a graduate student studying history. Send comments to [email protected]