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Struggle over the future of the movement begins
Palestine after Arafat

By Eric Ruder | November 19, 2004 | Page 7

PALESTINIANS POURED into the streets of the Occupied Territories to mourn Yasser Arafat's death last week. When Arafat's body was returned to Ramallah for burial, 10,000 mourners surged over the walls of the Muqata--the compound to which Israel confined the Palestinian leader for the last three years of his life--past guards who tried in vain to restrain the crowd.

"It was quintessential Arafat," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian parliament. "There was the global funeral. Then there was the incredible human and emotional farewell, with the feelings of loyalty, pain, sadness and love that always invigorated him."

But Israel's Arafat-haters also tried to put their stamp on the Palestinian leader's passing. Israeli officials denied Arafat's right to be buried at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque--one of Islam's holiest sites.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans for an anti-Arafat propaganda campaign in the wake of his death. "It is feared that after his funeral Arafat will become a national hero and freedom fighter," Sharon said. "We will launch a tough struggle to portray his murderous character and the fact that he is a strategist of world terror who hurt innocent people, both Israelis and American diplomats."

Sharon is a little late. For decades, Palestinians have regarded Arafat as a national hero and freedom fighter.

Israeli officials know this. They have come to use Arafat's towering stature for their own purposes, holding him accountable for every act of Palestinian resistance in order to justify his virtual imprisonment, as well as Israel's all-out assault on the administrative and security capacities of the Palestinian Authority.

But Israel benefited from Arafat's standing in negotiating the "peace process" of the last decade--used by Israel as a delaying tactic that allowed it to step up its drive to colonize the West Bank. Arafat's prestige allowed him "to shake hands and sign less-than-just interim deals with Israeli leaders of all convictions--including accused war criminals--without being seriously accused of treason," writes Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian political observer. "He always commanded the popular benefit of the doubt."

With Arafat gone, Israel faces a problem. There is no Palestinian leader who has the legitimacy to get the majority of Palestinians to accept a Palestinian state located on only a sliver of historic Palestine, while Israel occupies the rest--the so-called "two-state solution" that has been the starting point of all negotiations for nearly two decades.

"[O]nly Yasser Arafat could deliver the two-state solution mentioned in numerous peace initiatives," Barghouti wrote. "Such a solution, by its very nature, falls far short of the minimal requirements of justice for Palestinians... In the best-case scenario, if United Nations Resolution 242 were meticulously implemented, it would have addressed most of the legitimate rights of less than a third of the Palestinian people over less than a fifth of their ancestral land.

"More than two-thirds of the Palestinians, refugees plus the Palestinian citizens of Israel, have been dubiously and shortsightedly expunged out of the definition of the Palestinians to make this happen. Such exclusion can only guarantee the perpetuation of conflict."

Even before Arafat's death, Israel had to regard with alarm the growing number of Palestinians in Palestine and abroad returning to support for a one-state solution--the demand that Jews and Palestinians live side by side, with equal rights in a single, democratic and secular state in all of historic Palestine.

This is because Israel's success in expanding its settlements across the West Bank has made a viable two-state solution impossible. But that won't stop Israel from trying to shape the outcome of the debate among Palestinians.

With elections to pick Arafat's successor set for January 9, the clear frontrunner is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader closely identified with the Intifada who is languishing in an Israeli prison.

An Israeli court condemned Barghouti to life in prison June 6, accusing him of masterminding the murder of five Israeli civilians. But Barghouti has long criticized Palestinian attacks on civilians while defending the right to target soldiers and settlers, the front-line fighters in Israel's war against the Palestinians.

The Israeli establishment has essentially ruled out any role for Barghouti in the Palestinian leadership. Yet he commands the support of roughly a quarter of the Palestinian population, according to polls. The next closest contenders--Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Palestine Liberation Organization chair Mahmoud Abbas--register only 2 or 3 percent each.

Barghouti supported the "peace process" initially, but grew disillusioned with Israel's duplicity at the bargaining table, as well as the corruption, greed and incompetence of the Palestinian leadership. This led him to support the Intifada and, as a leader of Fatah-affiliated militias, allied him with Islamic resistance fighters.

Within days after Arafat's death, the stresses were starting to show--with armed Palestinian gunmen engaging in a skirmish last week that threatened the life of Abbas and killed two of his bodyguards. Israel would love to see Abbas as president, but many Palestinians consider him a sellout who opposed the Intifada.

The opening stages of the election period show that the Palestinian struggle is at a crossroads--with the coming weeks a crucial period.

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