Disengaged

On Sunday, January 8, it is raining hard at the Muqata, the former Ramallah headquarters—and now the burial place—of Yasir Arafat. The courtyard has become a building site. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) is constructing a vast mausoleum and mosque around Arafat's tomb, which now stands on a muddy island, unreachable by the trickle of visitors. A short ride away, Arafat's old nemesis, Ariel Sharon, lies in a medically induced coma at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. A young Palestinian guard in a khaki uniform who keeps watch over Arafat's tomb, and who calls himself Muhammad, absentmindedly twiddles an olive sprig plucked from one of several dwarf-sized olive trees planted around it. To Israelis, olive trees signify peace; to the Palestinians, they are a symbol of sumud, or steadfastness on the land. When I ask Muhammad what he thinks about Sharon's condition, he shrugs. Pressed for an opinion, he says: "It will be better if he dies. He was no good for the Palestinians."

Muhammad's lack of sympathy for Sharon is typical around these parts. Just a few weeks ago, veteran Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif told me that Sharon was "a criminal and a butcher." Most Palestinians will remember Sharon not for dismantling settlements but for building them; for his 50-year war against the Palestinian "resistance," resulting in massacres from Qibya to Sabra and Shatila; and, more recently, for his unilateralist construction of the West Bank separation barrier or "wall." "Some of us may have wished him well, just to be polite," says Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib.

But inherent in the shrug with which Muhammad initially responds to my question is an ambivalence that reflects a more general attitude here—a belief that, in the end, Sharon's stroke will probably neither help nor hinder the Palestinian cause. For most ordinary Palestinians, on the eve of their own parliamentary elections on January 25—the first in ten years, barring last- minute cancelation—Sharon's sudden exit from the political stage makes no difference at all. That, they say, is because they are already living their worst-case scenario, one in which they are out of hope and no longer able to envision a peace with Israel or an independent state that will be negotiated on their terms. The sense is that, with Sharon's unilateralism or his determination to shape the future without engaging the Palestinians, Israel has turned its back on them. The election will not be about Israeli-Palestinian relations, but rather purely about the Palestinians themselves.


TODAY IT IS Sharon who is incapacitated. But, 14 months ago, it was Arafat who was lying in a coma in a Paris hospital. At that time, too, Ramallah residents shrugged and said things like, "Allah gives, and Allah takes away." That was because Arafat had already effectively abdicated as a leader, having holed up in the Muqata and left his people to their fate. Once he was buried, a Palestinian public opinion survey carried out in December 2004 by respected Ramallah pollster and analyst Khalil Shikaki indicated that optimism about the future was on the rise. Arafat, the "obstacle to peace," had been removed, and, overnight, Shikaki says, an additional 15 percent of Palestinians saw a renewed possibility of reconciliation.

But Sharon's government declared Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor, a "nonpartner" for his failure to act against the Palestinian terrorism networks. Unless that situation changes, the assumption in Jerusalem is that Israel will feel free to continue on a unilateralist path, ultimately dictating Israel's final borders, and, by implication, the confines of a reduced Palestinian state. In a December 2005 survey, Shikaki found that his ongoing optimism index had gone down to "the level of the worst days," bulldozed into a state of deep skepticism and ennui.

Yasir Ayad, who runs the Flowers Supermarket across from the Muqata, is convinced that Sharon's stroke will not change anything. "They have a map from 50 years ago," he says of the Israelis, "and they are going with it. The plan is to take over not only Palestine, but all the Arab world. They're all the same—Sharon, [Ehud] Barak, [Bibi] Netanyahu, [Shimon] Peres. There's no difference between them."


AS THEY HAVE become increasingly alienated from Israel as a result of Sharon- style unilateralism, the Palestinians, mired in poverty and armed chaos, are trying to take their future into their own hands. The issues dominating the upcoming election illustrate that. Ramallah is festooned with campaign posters. None of them, however, promise—or even mention—peace. Arafat's protege, Marwan Barghouti, who heads the Fatah candidates' list while continuing to serve five life terms in an Israeli jail (convicted of terrorism charges) appears on posters, urging people to vote for him as the engineer of the intifada and the symbol of the resistance. Huge orange placards for the Independent Palestine Party, headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, promote civil society, education, and democracy. And the posters for fundamentalist Hamas' "Reform and Change" list, featuring three bearded sheiks running in the Ramallah district, pledge in Koran-like verse to champion the oppressed, root out corruption, and uphold women's rights.

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West, has done exceedingly well in Palestinian local council elections and is expected to make a strong showing in the parliamentary ballot--its first test at the national level, having boycotted the 1996 elections. Palestinians credit Hamas for its militancy and for getting the Israelis out of Gaza. But the party also gets votes for its social welfare programs and its perceived honesty in financial matters, compared with the past decade of legendary P.A. corruption and growing anarchy under Fatah rule. In El Bireh, a relatively prosperous town abutting Ramallah, Hamas won a majority on the city council in mid-December and has installed one of its own as mayor. "Even many Christians voted for us, because they want real services and honest government," Omar Hamayel, the 29-year-old Hamas mayor, told me on his first day in office. (Of El Bireh's 44,000 residents, Christians make up about 4 percent.)

It is these internal issues of good governance and the economy that will preoccupy Palestinian voters on January 25. Having been "disengaged" from Israel, the Palestinians are focusing on themselves. "Palestinians think Israel and the United States will do what they want anyway. They don't see any solution, so this is not a priority in casting their vote for parliament," says Bashar Hamayel, the owner of a hardware store in El Bireh. Shikaki concurs. As he explained to me, at the moment, economics, corruption, and law and order rank as top priorities. Then comes the issue of how to deal with the occupation, through violence or not. The peace process—namely the consideration of who can best deliver or reach agreements—comes last.

For the Palestinians to regain faith in a peace process, they would have to see evidence of progress on the ground. And, so far, he says, the evidence in the West Bank is "all negative," consisting of more Israeli settlement-building and the ongoing security closure and checkpoint regime. Ramallah and El Bireh are themselves edged by a string of significant-sized settlements, such as Psagot and Beit El. The adjacent hills are out of bounds for Palestinian construction. Abdul Jawwad Saleh—an ex-mayor of El Bireh, a former P.A. minister, and a veteran secularist politician—says that, in a few years, "We will not have a place to bury our dead." Even Sharon's potential legacy—the prospect of further Israeli unilateral withdrawals--does little to encourage him. Regaining "some of the West Bank," he says, "means nothing at all."

Back at the Muqata, the work goes on to preserve Arafat's memory in concrete and stone. Muhammad, the guard, says that the mausoleum and mosque should be completed in five months' time. After his funeral, Arafat was said to have been buried in an easily removable tomb so that, one day, he could be reinterred in Jerusalem, the eastern half of which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state--and which is now sealed off from Ramallah by Sharon's security barrier. The construction underway here further attests to the fact that the Palestinians do not expect that day to come anytime soon.

Isabel Kershner is an associate editor at The Jerusalem Report and author of Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.This article appeared in the January 23, 2006, issue of the magazine.