At 11:30 a.m. yesterday, an assistant to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat came into his office in Gaza, carrying a small note. Arafat, without glasses, carefully read the note. Then he turned the note over and placed it on the table. He did not want the contents of the note, regarding the death of the Romanian workers at the Kissufim border crossing, to cast a shadow on the meeting with the four Meretz MKs which was then in session.
Yesterday was a full day for Arafat in terms of Israeli issues. In the morning, he spoke with Yossi Beilin, and discussed the phrasing of a joint Israeli-Palestinian position paper, of Beilin’s school of thought.
After Beilin, the Meretz MKs arrived: Avshalom Vilan, Anat Maor, Mossi Raz and Hosniya Jabarra. Yisraela Porush, the secretary of the kibbutz of Nahal Oz which was recently hit by mortar shells, joined the meeting, as did I.
“The Israelis are making me tired,” complained Arafat. “I didn’t sleep last night. I’d finished working in my office at 1:00 a.m. and had just returned home when the phone was already ringing. Mohammed Dahlan was on the other end of the line and he told me of the Israeli shelling on Rafah. This was after 48 hours without Palestinian shooting, and suddenly, an attack.”
Twenty minutes after the Meretz MKs left, along with me, the time had come for a message from Sharon which took the form of a missile attack on the building of the general security forces and Fatah headquarters in Gaza.
I got an urgent phone call from Brig. Gen. Usama Ali, the chairman of the High Commission for Security Coordination in Gaza. “I’m phoning you so that you can hear the missiles exploding,” he yelled. “This craziness, shelling in broad daylight! Without warning! This is crazy.”
Arafat is in distress. The economic situation is difficult. “It has been nine months that Israel hasn’t released the monies owed us. With what am I supposed to pay Nabil, Nabil and Nabil,” he asked, referring to the three “Nabils” sitting beside him, Nabil Shaath, Nabil Abu Rudeineh and Nabil Amar.
He is also in diplomatic distress. “I am looking for any way to save the peace process,” he claimed. “We have to work hard together to stop the violence. I sent Saeb Erekat and Nabil Shaath to meet Shimon Peres. They talked and talked, and finally Peres said, ‘I have no mandate,’ and the talks were stopped. Now the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal is on the table. Also the Mitchell Committee Report is on the table. I’m prepared to begin the negotiations anywhere – in Washington, the Security Council, Sharm el-Sheikh, Paris or Rome. We have to move forward.
Yisraela Porush reminded Arafat: “You are firing mortars at my house, and I’ve still come to talk about peace.”
Hearing this, he jumped up from his seat: “We are firing mortars? The people who are firing are the people that Yitzhak Shamir, your former prime minister, trained, gave them power, gave them weapons.” He did not say the name Hamas explicitly, but it was clear he was referring to that organization: “They are firing, and now they continue to get arms and money from Iran.”
Yisraela Porush kept at it: “So how do we get out of this vicious circle? This is like kindergarten, each one blaming the next one.” Instead of an answer, Arafat chose a defensive tack: “Shells were also fired at my house.”
Porush was still not convinced: “Mr. President, God has given you the key to peace. What are you doing with the key?” And Arafat answered evasively: “I can’t find the door.”
The visitors would not let up. “And still, how can the shooting be stopped?” asked MK Vilan. “Go ask Amnon Shahak,” answered Arafat. “He sat here with me in Gaza, we decided how to stop the shooting, how to stop all the provocations. And then Sharon came. He, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer admitted they gave a free hand to the commanders of the sectors to operate and initiate operations.”
“I want to ask the Israelis,” added Arafat, and requested that I take this down: “Would you be prepared for me to give my officers a free hand to operate? I didn’t and I won’t give such instructions, because it’s dangerous.”
This answer did not satisfy Anat Maor who asked: “Children are being killed, babies in Khan Yunis and children in Tekoa. The violence must be stopped.” And then Arafat got angry and claimed with regard to the Tekoa murder: “Israel has officially notified us that it has not yet been proven that this is a terrorist act and that it is possible it was criminal activity.”
He also shook off the Katyusha boat captured by the Navy earlier this week. “This is not a good sign for the future,” he said. “This was the initiative not only of Syria, but of other Islamic countries as well. We have to stop these phenomena at once, otherwise the whole region will be destroyed.”
Arafat concluded and left the stage for his assistants sitting beside him in the room. Mohammed Dahlan, Head of Preventive Security Service in Gaza said: “Two or three days ago, we wanted to get the mortar operators out of the field, but your regiment commanders didn’t agree. They wanted to do the job themselves.”
The cabinet secretary of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Abdul Rahman said: “With Sharon and Uzi Landau one can’t make peace. Seven ministers in Sharon’s cabinet said Arafat is a terrorist and should be killed. What peace are you talking about? You want two countries – the State of Israel and a state for the settlers. In Netzarim for example there are only 26 families.” Arafat was quick to correct him: “Nine, only nine families,” he said and held up nine fingers
And Dahlan did not hesitate to declare: “I will not arrest even one Hamas man as long as the construction continues in the settlements. I once fought Palestinians to protect people like you, now I’m not ready to do so any more.”
This article appeared in Yediot Aharonot on May 12, 2001