By Fouad Ajami, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies and author of “The Dream Palace of The Arabs”
March 29, 2002
The Arab summiteers in Beirut were on their way to dinner, it turned out, when
a young man from the West Bank town of Tulkarm struck at Netanya for that
terrible “Passover massacre.” In a land soaked with blood, this was a deed
whose memory will endure for years to come.
The man of Tulkarm struck within “Israel proper,” behind the “green line,” away
from the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the fault lines of Jerusalem.
But then in this war with no clear front lines, all of the land is contested
land: Those were Zionist “usurpers” that the terrorist from Tulkarm had come to
slay. He had chosen “martyrdom,” and the ethos of his world, the culture of his
national movement, had given him a writ for this most terrible of deeds.
The man of Tulkarm did not descend from the sky: He walked straight out of
the culture of incitement let loose on the land, a menace hovering over Israel, a
great Palestinian and Arab refusal to let that country be, to cede it a place
among the nations. He partook of the culture all around him – the glee that
greets those brutal deeds of terror, the cult that rises around the martyrs and
Umm al-shahid (the mother of the martyr), his mother will henceforth be
known. Abu al-shahid shall be the appellation of his father. Honest men and
women will proclaim him and take him as their own, more sly types will
equivocate but then say that the good boy of Tulkarm had been led there, all
the way to Netanya, by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The leaders of the Palestinian Authority, most notably Yasser Arafat, the figure
at the center of this cruel whirlwind, would issue a tepid condemnation and
then let the world know that the “armed struggle” and the shahids, the martyrs,
are writing glorious chapters in the annals of the history of that national movement.
Mr. Arafat feeds this cult of terror, this affliction. He is in his elements,
he loves the “siege of Ramallah,” he glories in the celebrities and the people of
media and diplomacy who call on him, he sees this war, which he lit up back in
September 2000, as his finest hour.
He had not sought to govern or to build; that quality was never in him. He loves
the arsonist’s work, it is a skill he perfected in Jordan and Lebanon years ago,
an attitude he brought with him to Israel and the Palestinian territories when the
Israelis plucked him from bankruptcy and disgrace back in 1993 and granted
him a turf, “partnership” in capping the troubles.
The first intifada of December 1987 had been an eruption on the land. He had
been in Tunisia then, written off as a figure of the past and of exile.
This second war is his own: He claims it. And through all the terrible
deeds, through Mr. Arafat’s subterfuge, his method and intent could be
discerned: He had built, right alongside Israel, a fairly efficient instrument of
war. Mr. Arafat wages a brutal war; he aims for Israel’s soul, to wear it down.
He had brought down Ehud Barak, an exemplary soldier who had offered Mr.
Arafat back in September 2000 all the Israeli body politic could yield and then some.
Mr. Arafat now wages a similar war against Ariel Sharon. An odd
satisfaction comes to him that he has emerged as the arbiter of Israeli political
life, granted a power over the great political choices of Israel.
“If I go to Beirut I will be king, if I stay among my people I shall be emperor,”
the megalomaniacal Mr. Arafat proclaimed as the crowd hung on his
utterances. He shows no mercy for his own, he offers them an old, failed
history, a harvest of sorrow, but in a peculiar demonstration of the limits of
reason in human history, his people rally to him. “With our blood and our souls,
we redeem you, oh Arafat,” the crowd chants, granting him an exemption from
any calculus of gains and ruin.
He was offered statehood some 18 months ago. He walked away from it and
unleashed a phantom of incalculable power: the Right of Return, a claim not on
the West Bank and Gaza, but on Jaffa and Haifa and Galilee, a way, insinuating
and understood by his people and by Arabs beyond, of contesting Israel’s very
existence and statehood.
An old hard-liner of Mr. Arafat’s entourage, Farouk Kaddoumi, a man who in
the nature of such titles and honorifics, passes himself off as the foreign
minister of Mr. Arafat, cut to the heart of the matter in recent days: “The Right
of Return of the refugees to Haifa and Jaffa,” he said on the eve of the Arab
summit as he met with the leader of Hezbollah (the Party of God) in Lebanon,
“is more important than statehood.”
With this, the logic of things is laid bare: Whatever the summiteers wish
and say, a foul wind blows through Arab lands, a conviction has taken root in
the popular Arab imagination that Israel is on the run, that perhaps the verdict
of the war of 1948 (not the verdict of the Six-Day War of 1967) could be undone.
It is hard to know when this logic took hold. There is a consensus of sorts that
this new conviction emerged after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May
2000. There is some truth in that: Israel had given up on that Lebanon venture,
for she had had no territorial claims on Lebanon. But the “Arab street” had seen
that as the beginning of a broader withdrawal, perhaps a millennial fulfillment of
the idea that the Jewish state was not destined to last.
The week that the summiteers thought would be their own was claimed by the
Tulkarm man, Abdel-Basset Odeh, a member, it is said in the way of such
pronouncements, of the “military wing of Hamas.”
He knew the way to Netanya, it would appear; he had worked in its
hotels. He came back to repay those who had employed him, and their
neighbors, in the currency of blood and ingratitude.