The Last Martyr

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At his death Yasser Arafat is reviled yet again in the American press, but the man who embodied his people’s dream of a Palestinian state will have the last laugh.

A Reflection by MARK CROMER

It has been more than a week since Yasser Arafat’s pulse faded and finally flat-lined, the old man slipping ingloriously into oblivion inside a military hospital on French soil. The perpetually grizzled guerilla fighter who survived enough Israeli assassination attempts to rise as an icon of the indestructible Palestinian dream of statehood was cheated in the end: he died on foreign soil, stripped of his gun, if not his pride.

Arafat’s fast and essentially mute departure from a struggle for self-determination that he shaped and dominated for more than four decades was beyond anticlimactic, it defied reason. It defied expectation. It short-changed our hopes. It let us down. There was no blazing Alamo-like glory at the Muqata in Ramallah, with Arafat bursting forth in his revolutionary persona Abu Ammar, clutching the Palestinian flag in one hand, a six-shooter in the other (or better yet, a saber a la Col. Custer), searing into us an image of one final act of total defiance to the occupier.

There was no Last Stand.

No, instead his aides asked Ariel Sharon’s government for permission that Arafat might leave his own country to seek medical help, and thus the world was treated to the sad curtain call of a trembling old man blowing kisses as he was lifted into a military helicopter, never to see Palestine again. Even as Arafat was flown to his deathbed in France, the American media marveled at the apparent benevolence of Sharon and his government for graciously not ordering Israeli snipers to blow Arafat’s head off as he was ushered out of his surrounded, crumbling compound. The Bush Administration was also feted in the press for “using its influence” to temper a trigger-happy Sharon. It was kudos all around for peacemakers Sharon and Bush.

The Israelis were verbally cautious in the immediate aftermath of Arafat’s death, cynically claiming a desire to avoid “inflammatory statements”—even as the so-called ‘Israeli Defense Force’ continued its brutal day-to-day occupation of Palestinian territory. While Sharon kept his glee on the lowdown, the IDF’s checkpoints, street sweeps, round-ups, house searches and the bulldozing of entire blocks of homes rolled on unabated. The IDF’s order to carry out collective reprisals against entire Palestinian villages in response to attacks from guerrilla fighters was not lifted. But Tel Aviv did cut back on the rhetoric.

The reason for this is clear: Israel under Sharon couldn’t care less about provoking Palestinians, a people who they humiliate and abuse daily and kill almost as frequently. Yet Israel does indeed care about American opinion and it worries deeply about the United States government, its perpetual benefactor, flexing to popular currents. Thus in order to maintain the charade that Sharon is a peace-seeking statesman who hasn’t had a willing dance partner on the Palestinian side, his government offered a façade of restraint, if not respect.

And Israel can afford to keep mum on the death of Arafat for the time being, since Tel Aviv clearly has so many surrogates in the American media willing to piss on the Palestinian leader’s grave for them.

Indeed, Arafat’s corpse hadn’t gone cold before the talking-head brigade on cable television pounced, alternately painting him as a failed man whose personal limitations prevented the Palestinians from achieving a state of their own; or a cold-blooded terrorist killer whose only real goal was more dead Israeli children in the street.

In a matter of hours, the unassuming civil engineer who rose to lead a people that had been scattered by war and shackled in refugee camps, was belittled as a greedy, conniving weakling. The irony ran deep as Arafat was disparaged by six-figure Madison Avenue mannequins who couldn’t load a gun to save their own lives, as he was smeared by cheap shills who wouldn’t last a week surrounded by mosquitoes let alone Israeli battle tanks. The Nobel laureate who dared to lay down his gun and talk with his adversary was subject to a wave of post-mortem ridicule that summarily tinted him more Idi Amin than Ho Chi Minh.

But this is not to call for the deification of Arafat, who even in his best moments was entirely capable of flirting with a dangerous cult of personality, replete with omnipresent posters of his likeness plastered throughout the occupied territories. Sometimes it seemed Arafat believed his own hype: prophet and savior, the embodiment of Palestine. In reality, his life became a manifestation of a people’s collective hope. His drive was tangible evidence of their yearning. But it was that desperate hope that Arafat reflected that was admirable and worthy, not necessarily the man.

Yet the shrill media pile-on in the wake of Arafat’s death was an ominous reminder of a darker undercurrent in American media. There was no nuance to the analysis. Virtually absent from the postmortems were any substantive critiques of Israeli policy or Sharon and Likud.

And what of Sharon? Well, our ‘partner in peace’ was played as a stubborn tough guy who has to play hardball with the Arabs. Not surprisingly, not a word was heard of the massacres of more than 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, atrocities that Sharon implicitly endorsed by allowing them to happen as Defense Minister. While Arafat was being immolated on American television for being a life-long ‘terrorist,’ not much was said about Sharon’s own roots, like his joining the Jewish paramilitary Haganah at age 14, his leading the infamous Unit 101 during the slaughter of more than 60 Jordanian civilians at Qibya during retaliation raids in 1953. Sharon’s units had orders to ‘maximize casualties’ in the Arab village and they carried those orders out with glee, making some villagers beg for their lives before being executed. Several Israeli soldiers present later reported that Sharon personally mocked some of the victims before they were killed.

Instead of balancing out Arafat’s resume with compelling questions about who he faced on the Israeli side, we were treated to Sharon the Happy Warrior. A swaggering soldier pictured cavorting with black-patched Moshe Dayan and reveling in victory. The message was clear: Israelis are soldiers and warriors. Palestinians are terrorists and criminals. It’s a message underscored by the curious Western notion that the side fighting with F-16 fighter bombers and armored combat divisions must be right when pitted against a side that can only muster stones and Molotov cocktails. Might makes right.

Yet in death, Arafat has again given the world another glimpse of the institutional dynamic that runs between Tel Aviv and Washington, a political axis that results in the systematic brutalization of the Palestinian people. In Arafat’s passing we again see a flash of the powerful reach of an Israeli government that has no intention whatsoever of allowing a true Palestinian nation to rise.

There is no greater example of the scope of Israeli influence and power in America than the media.

Anyone watching television in this country for the past week might pause to ask how a nation that seems to manifest such a diversity of opinions on virtually every other issue could be so monolithic in perspective when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How could Americans be so united on an issue as geopolitically fractured as the Palestinian question? Especially in a free market system that ostensibly affords airing of a wide array of divergent viewpoints.

The answer is, of course, the country is not homogenous on the Palestinian issue at all: but the media is.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. A viewer would be hard-pressed to find a single broadcast pundit (let alone a broadcast or cable ‘reporter’) in the past few days who has dared to raise hard questions over Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, its treatment of refugees and its decades-long program of settling the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights in blatant violation of international law. From Dan Rather to Sean Hannity, from Jim Lehr to Tim Russert, from Peter Jennings to Chris Matthews, from Larry Elder to Tammy Bruce, not a single anchor, talk radio host or cable blowhard could be found to seriously explore the context of Arafat’s struggle and shine a light of critical thinking on Israeli complicity in Palestinian misery. Not a single suit among them could be found to ask what role Israeli tanks running over stone-throwing Palestinian teens might have in the desperate acts of suicide bombers.

Sure, there was the obligatory nod to the “tough conditions” that Palestinians have lived under for a half-century, but it is a burden that was quickly wrapped up and laid at the feet of Arafat. Tel Aviv’s policies were a result of Arafat, we were told, not in spite of him.

As a nation that once rightly scoffed at the pathetically uniform pronouncements of Pravda and Tass, America has found itself in an ideological soup line with unanimous blind support for Israeli policy cooked up by our media. It’s such an old and predictable dish that we now just hold up our cups for the next helping of propaganda gruel and quietly move on down the line.

Consider that while reflecting on Arafat’s alleged break from the peace process in late 2000, the talking heads somehow neglect to mention that the “sweetheart deal” he was offered at Camp David by President Clinton and Israeli Premier Ehud Barak left Israel in control of Palestinian airspace, ports and borders. It gave Israel a unilateral veto over Palestinian armed forces. It left Israel in control of a vein-like network of heavily secured roads that were to connect a patchwork of armed Israeli settlements inside this so-called Palestinian state. This was the “sweetheart” of a deal that Arafat was a “fool” to walk away from in 2000. And it was offered to him as a take-it-or-leave-it final settlement, not another interim accord that could later be adjusted.

In short, Arafat was expected to accept the Palestinian people being herded into South African styled “homelands” where they would remain subjected to de facto Israeli control, but could fly their own flag and pretend they were free.

And so it has gone for the past week, with Arafat being killed and buried in excrement on the American airwaves, only to be exhumed and shanked again repeatedly throughout the news cycles. Sharon and The Boys couldn’t give Arafat the Mussolini Treatment in Cairo or Ramallah, so they’ve left it to their assets in the States to string his body up in the square for public defilement.

Sharon undoubtedly feels he has been awarded the Last Laugh against his age-old nemesis Arafat. It has indeed been a very good year for the corpulent, bellicose Israeli leader whose nickname is ‘The Bulldozer,’ but whom militant Likudniks devotedly call ‘Arik, King of Israel.’

Sharon beat the rap on serious corruption charges brought by Israeli prosecutors. He sold Bush and the American Congress on authorizing the unilateral Gaza pullout and the permanent annexation of huge settlements in the West Bank. His Second Coming of the Berlin Wall continues to be built through prime Palestinian orchards and fields, annexing them into his dream of a ‘Greater Israel.’ Just like Saddam Hussein, Sharon defies numerous United Nations resolutions but unlike Hussein, Sharon’s government actually has weapons of mass destruction, including what the UN estimates to be ‘hundreds’ of nuclear warheads. Saddam is long gone and Iraq is dissolving into a feudal morass. Sharon is riding high and Israel now stands omnipotent in the region, staring at Tehran and asking Dirty Harry-like: ‘Do you feel lucky, punk? Well do ya?’

Now with Arafat dead and Bush back for another Biblically based term, Sharon must certainly feel he is riding the crest of a Perfect Storm, one that is unlikely to break anytime soon.

While Sharon’s dream may seem fulfilled, his vanquishing Arafat will prove to be a pyrrhic victory. The ghost of the Palestinian guerilla fighter is destined to haunt the Israelis for some time to come, as they hunker down in a country that has become an armed camp, a fortress-turned-prison surrounded by walls, mines, machine gun nests, razor wire and the sea. A nation that has become an Apartheid state governed by radical Theocrats who cite the Torah as a divine deed to the land.

But in death, Yasser Arafat will grow even stronger in the dusty warrens of Gaza and the West Bank that teem with angry young men. Someday the Israeli people will come to understand that he was, actually, perhaps their best hope for peace in this time. They will shudder to think that Arafat—and Arafat alone—had the power and the pull and the desire to make peace happen, if he had a willing partner like Yitzhak Rabin.

As Hamas and Islamic Jihad and dozens of other splinter groups escalate attacks in Israel, Arafat will increasingly appear to be the reasonable leader that Sharon and his zealots in Likud insisted he never was.

If he made paradise, Arafat, perhaps the last real martyr, will have to smile wryly looking down, for the Israelis will not just miss him, they will indeed yearn for him.