By Joharah Baker
When late President Yasser Arafat declared an independent Palestinian state on November 15, 1988, it is fairly safe to say that the situation today is not what he envisioned. The bloodletting that took place in Gaza City on November 12 during which seven Palestinians were killed by fellow Palestinians is a disgrace by all standards – a disgrace that is so potentially self-destructive that, if it continues, will obliterate everything the Palestinians, Arafat and otherwise, have ever fought for.
On Monday, November 12, thousands of Fateh supporters took to the streets of Gaza City on the third anniversary of President Arafat’s death. The anniversary, one day before, is a day no Palestinian can overlook, whether one agreed with Arafat’s policies or not. The “father of the Palestinian revolution” Yasser Arafat was, and apparently still is, a force to be reckoned with. This was clear from the masses who flocked to the newly inaugurated mausoleum on November 11 at the Ramallah presidential headquarters and the Fateh supporters who demonstrated and rallied in his name.
However, Monday’s rally took a tragic turn when members of the Executive Force, a Hamas-affiliated security force, opened fire at the rally in central Gaza. The EF, which is the armed force under the deposed interior ministry, later claimed they were responding to hostile Fateh demonstrators who pelted them with rocks and fired at them with silenced weapons. According to Hamas officials, Fateh did not hold up their end of the bargain in terms of maintaining law and order. Rather, they chanted incendiary and inflammatory slogans against Hamas and exhibited aggressive behavior towards the security forces.
Whether or not these are allegations based on fact, nothing can justify the killing of seven people, including a 12-year-old child and the injury of over 100 more. The very fact that the Executive Force gave itself the right to take the lives of other Palestinians out in the streets of Gaza to commemorate the most long-lasting Palestinian leader yet is unacceptable and certainly unjustifiable.
Today, the Gaza Strip is in mourning as families continue to bury their dead. The Palestinians are a people who know the face of death and tragedy all too well, having been uprooted from their homes and cast out of their own country as refugees in 1948 and 1967, while those who remained have lived under an extremely oppressive military occupation ever since. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian mothers and fathers have buried their sons and daughters, killed by Israeli forces because any expression of resistance against their occupation represents a threat to the foundations on which Israel was created.
Still, the events that transpired two days ago in Gaza represent a trend equally if not more sinister than an enemy occupation. The deaths and injuries inflicted on those protesters only further indicate to the depths of the schism that has torn Palestinian society apart.
Again, the irony cannot be lost here. Tomorrow, November 15, marks the 19th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s speech in Algiers to the Palestinian National Council when he declared a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The declaration came less than a year after the first Intifada had erupted in the Palestinian territories and Palestinians everywhere held high hopes for a final breakthrough. Arafat famously coined the expression of [realizing a Palestinian state] being in “the last quarter hour” and that it was just “a stone’s throw away.”
To the Palestinians, those false hopes have long diminished. Regardless of whether many Palestinians rallied around Arafat in his final days or held him responsible for the train wreck called the Oslo Accords, no one can deny that the mayhem and devastation today was not part of this leader’s plan.
The question now, is how to stop the madness and somehow wipe away all the bad blood that has accumulated between Hamas and Fateh. For one, this situation where Gaza is, for all practical purposes, isolated from the West Bank, must end because the longer the separation lasts, the more the animosity will fester. Hamas’ deposed government is already showing signs of mania, living in its own hallucinatory world of absolute control where anything and everything is justified if their purpose is to keep the reins of power in their hands.
Meanwhile, the West Bank government under President Abbas is living in its own fantasy world. Abbas and company cannot believe for a second that they will enjoy any ounce of success if Gaza continues to be a breeding ground for incitement and internal strife, which by the way is spilling over into the West Bank with each passing day. Before this government puts all its eggs in one basket (in Annapolis), it needs to put its own damaged house in order, no matter what it takes. That means, if deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh calls for dialogue “among brothers”, even if his controversial colleague Mahmoud Zahhar vows to “take over the West Bank”, the government should not immediately brush aside the offer.
Nevertheless, the value of human life must and always has come first, which means Hamas has a moral responsibility to reassess its actions in the Gaza Strip. The lives that were taken cannot be restored, but measures must taken that will ensure this sort of tragedy is not repeated. If Hamas insists it is capable of ruling Gaza with a strong but fair hand, it must prove itself. Opening fire into the rally – regardless of how provoking they may have been – does not display sound leadership, but rather, a ruthless tyranny.
The people also have a responsibility to let their voices be heard. Once we start turning against each other, branding each other with names we previously reserved for our most bitter enemy, the path to national destruction will be well on its way. If our leaders are too blinded by their own agendas and greedy aspirations, we must not. The leaders of our revolution – Yasser Arafat, Abu Ali Mustapha, Khalil Al Wazir among dozens others– would never have condoned this battle between brothers.
The real threat has always been before us. Israel has not ended its occupation, has not torn down the wall or dismantled settlements. Our men and women continue to be arrested, assassinated and pursued. One look at an aerial map of the West Bank, speckled with Jewish settlements and sliced through by a nine-meter wall should be proof enough that our work is far from over and that any digressions along the way will cost us dearly.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (www.MIFTAH.org)