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2004-11-05

Arafat in Coma "Between Life and Death"

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As conflicting reports emerge about the condition of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, we take a look at the implications of his death on the Middle East. We speak with Palestinian Stanford University professor Khalil Barhoum, Israeli professor Neve Gordon and we go to Ramallah to speak with Israeli journalist Amira Hass. [includes rush transcript]

There are conflicting reports about the condition of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian envoy to France said this morning that Arafat is "in a critical juncture between life and death." She said he is in a "reversible coma" and that "he could or could not wake up."

Reports remain sketchy after Israel’s Channel Two television reported Thursday that Arafat was brain dead. Doctors at the French military hospital where he is being held have denied the rumors.

Arafat was taken into intensive care on Wednesday but the exact nature of his illness remains unclear. Several reports from French and international media outlets say his condition is one of clinical death. An anonymous doctor told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Arafat was in a coma that he would not recover from. CNN has quoted U.S. officials as saying he is on a life support machine.

At a press conference yesterday, President Bush responded to reports that Arafat had died.

  • President Bush, press conference.

President Bush speaking at a press conference yesterday. For three decades, the 75-year-old leader has been the symbol of the Palestinian struggle against Israel for a state. He has never appointed a successor and many are fearful his death could trigger a power vacuum and chaos. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinians were reportedly glued to radio and television broadcasts.

Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah are said to be engaged in talks over a successor. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has reportedly been assigned some of Arafat’s powers, making him the effective head of the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister, is reported to have taken over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will allow Arafat to return to his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah if he recovers. But he has made it clear he will not allow his old adversary to be buried on the Temple Mount–also known as the Haram al-Sharif–in occupied East Jerusalem.

  • Amira Hass, correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haa’retz and one of Israel’s leading journalists. She has spent much of the last decade living in Palestinian communities of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. She joins us on the phone from Ramallah.
  • Khalil Barhoum, professor and coordinator of African and Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Stanford University. He is the president of Association of Arab-American University Graduates. He is a Palestinian who was born in Bethlehem.
  • Neve Gordon, Israeli professor at Ben Gurion University. He joins us on the phone from Berkeley.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: At a press conference Thursday, President Bush responded to reports that Arafat had died.

GEORGE W. BUSH: My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush speaking at a news conference on Thursday. For three decades, the 75 year-old leader has been the symbol of Palestinian struggle against Israel for a state. He has never appointed a successor and many are fearful his death could trigger a power vacuum and chaos. In the occupied territories, Palestinians were reportedly glued to radio and TV broadcasts. Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah are said to be engaged in talks over a successor. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, has reportedly been assigned some of Arafat’s powers, making him the effective head of the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian Prime Minister, is reported to have taken over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will allow Yasser Arafat to return to his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah if he recovers, but he has made it clear he will not allow his adversary to be buried on the Temple Mount, also known as the Haram al-Sharif in occupied East Jerusalem. We first go to Ramallah to Amira Hass of Ha’aretz, the newspaper. Welcome to Democracy Now! Amira.

AMIRA HASS: Hello, hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what is happening now in Ramallah and what the latest news is of the condition of Yasser Arafat?

AMIRA HASS: Well, the latest news… I think that you cited the latest news. Just as you are, we’re all dependent on news which comes from Paris and sometimes these are conflicting news. But this is obvious that these are the last days of Yasser Arafat, as a leader, anyway. If he is going to make it or not, it’s for doctors to say. And I believe that Ramallah showed, during the last week, that it got healed very quickly to the absence of Arafat and you don’t see great manifestations of sorrow or grief of people missing him. It is not people are necessarily waiting for him to die, but Arafat has lost a lot of his credibility and popularity during the last years, during the Intifada, during the years of Oslo. So, people are not mourning him and people have discovered very quickly since he came to the occupied territories in terms of the Oslo agreement, that Arafat is mortal just like any other human being.

AMY GOODMAN: And right now, what kind of meetings are taking place? What kind of gatherings are taking place in Ramallah? This is the compound of Yasser Arafat.

AMIRA HASS: I believe that political forces, mainly around Fatah and the Palestinian government, or so-called Palestinian government, and the Palestinian security forces organizations are all meeting in order to, first to make sure that the institutions function well, that there are no clashes going on or will go on and that there are security people, enough security people to guarantee that there are no clashes between rivals. But this is really — I mean, the last week has been quite quiet in the Palestinian internal arena. It’s not that — there have been Israeli attacks on Palestinians, but the Israeli prediction that Palestinians will start immediately when Arafat disappears, that they will turn their internal fight against each other has proven wrong. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. We hear you fine.

AMIRA HASS: Yeah. So, still, of course, the main — I think there is a lot of exaggeration to concentrate so much on Arafat and how it might influence the future because with Arafat or without Arafat, the main issue here is Israeli occupation and Israeli decision to continue with expansion of settlements and of colonies. This is the core issue and all the rest is some sort of footnote.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Prime Minister, General Ariel Sharon, saying that Yasser Arafat cannot be buried in Jerusalem. Does that anger people?

AMIRA HASS: You know, Palestinians are not allowed to go out of Gaza for studies, for medical treatment. Palestinian grandchildren cannot see their grandparents who live somewhere else in the occupied territories. I mean, to concentrate on this, of course he would not allow him. If he doesn’t allow — if the Israeli authorities do not allow a woman with cancer to get out of Gaza — so why would they allow somebody to be buried in Jerusalem? We concentrate all the time on the symbolic things and this has been one of the illnesses of the last 10, 12 years, that we replaced symbols to reality, to concrete steps and there was a Palestinian airport and everybody was so happy about the Palestinian airport and everybody forgot that after all it is the Israelis who give the permit or do not give the permit to leave the airport or not. And there are so many others who cannot even dream about getting to an airport because they wouldn’t even have the money to pay for the short drive between Gaza and Rafah. So, I feel that we — that this talk is kind of a spin to discuss symbols and external things rather than the reality of occupation. And the question of how Palestinians resist or fail to resist this occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Amira Hass. She is an Israeli Jewish reporter for Ha’aretz, is the only one who has lived for years in the occupied territories from Gaza to the West Bank. She is speaking to us from Ramallah, which is home of the Yasser Arafat compound. In our studio here at Stanford University, we’re joined by Dr. Khalil Barhoum, he is Professor and Coordinator of African and Middle Eastern Languages at Stanford University, he is President of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. He is a Palestinian who was born in Bethlehem. Welcome to Democracy Now!

KHALIL BARHOUM: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to right now the reports of Yasser Arafat somewhere between life and death, they say and what this means.

KHALIL BARHOUM: Well, Yasser Arafat has been on the Palestinian scene now for the past four decades and like him or not, he does represent the Palestinian symbol for resistance and the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism. Now his political legacy may be in doubt after his death, but his historical legacy, I think, will live on as a man who has dominated Palestinian politics and political and military struggle, if you wish, for the past four decades. The thing about the internal struggle among Palestinians, there are some Israelis who are predicting, I think, is overblown. That there was a scenario there may be some clashes between internal factions within Fatah, which is the leading movement in the P.L.O., which was started by Yasser Arafat. There is no question that there is a conflict right now between the older generation, the old guards represented by Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia, the are the two people who will be taking over from Arafat if and when he dies and the younger generation, the people who were born under Israeli occupation, or after 1967, and these people were represented mostly by figures like Marwan Barghouti, who is now serving in an Israeli jail, a life term. The other aspect to Palestinian maybe conflict, that some Israeli analysts have also been fearing and predicting is maybe a struggle between Fatah on the one hand and the other Palestinian factions, primarily Hamas and al Jihad Islam. My prediction is that — I agree with Amira Hass. I think that all these predictions are — they serve the Israeli interests and I honestly don’t think that the Palestinians will have anything approaching civil war. There will be a political struggle for the soul of the P.L.O. There is no question that Mahmoud Abbas does not have the same clout or leverage that Yasser Arafat has wielded within the P.L.O., nor does Ahmed Qureia, the current Prime Minister, have that kind of, you know, influence within the ranks of Fatah. But when everything is, you know, said and done, the P.L.O. has to move on and they have to put their house in order and Arafat will remain in my view, the tormenter of the Bush administration and Israelis even in death just like as he was in life. Because when he was still alive and very energetic, they declared him, you know, out of hand, irrelevant. Although they could not produce an alternative Palestinian leadership to this irrelevance of Arafat. Now after his death, the onus actually falls on the Israelis and the Americans to push the so-called peace process because now the obstacle to peace, Arafat, is removed. So, they have to produce something and I’m afraid that the people who are going to take over from Arafat, as I said, are not going to be as malleable as Arafat or as influential as Arafat in pushing any kind of peace agreement that the rank and file within the P.L.O. and within the Fatah movement are going to be happy with. Arafat had that clout. These people don’t. So, if the Israelis think that, you know, this impediment to peace is out of the way and now we can push some kind of half-hearted, you know, half-cooked peace settlement on the Palestinians and they have no choice but to take it. I think they’re very badly mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: On CNN this morning, they were talking about Yasser Arafat having in banks something — hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars and that a struggle is going on now, they were speculating between Suha, his wife, and the Palestinian authority over that money. What knowledge do you have, Dr. Barhoum of this? Is any of this true?

KHALIL BARHOUM: I have no access to these accounts. And I’m just being facetious here. I don’t think anyone in the P.L.O., other than Arafat had access to them. And that — and therein lies the secret of his, I think, durability, that the fact that he bought political allegiance over the years with money. And no one had control over these bank accounts except Arafat, and this was actually a great concern among the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership that if Arafat does not pass on these, you know, secrets to his finance minister, or the people who are going to be taking over within the P.L.O., the money may end up in, you know, in the Swiss banks for good. But these are the rumors. I’m not sure that anybody really has a grip on how much money, how many bank accounts, or whether this is actually the case.

AMY GOODMAN: And Neve Gordon is also on the line with us, Israeli professor at Ben-Gurian University from Berkeley. And very quickly, your response. Usually you are in Israel and now you’re here in California.

NEVE GORDON: Well, I think Israel now is at a juncture. I think Israel has created a myth in the past four years called the "null partner" myth, that there is no one to speak with on the other side. It has portrayed Arafat as a terrorist, as a corrupt person, and as an authoritarian ruler, and it has said that the peace process has collapsed because there is no one to talk with on the other side. And now that Arafat is going to pass away — and I agree with a Mira Hass that the days are numbered — Israel has to make a decision. It has to decide whether it wants to change its course and to address the real Palestinian claims, the Palestinian demands and grievances: Withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian refugees, or whether it wants to create an alternative myth, a new myth, one that would again divert the public’s gaze from the real issues and enable Israel to continue expropriating Palestinian lands and destroying the population’s infrastructure of existence. Now I believe that Prime Minister Sharon will choose the latter option, and then the only question that now lies is what this new myth will be.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to give Professor Barhoum the last word as we move into this weekend.

KHALIL BARHOUM: I agree with both Neve and Amira. The occupation remains the real issue. Since the beginning of Palestinian struggle, the Israeli policy has been based or predicated on two, I think, pillars. One is the de-legitimization of Palestinian leadership, no matter which leadership emerges, and the second is the dehumanization of Palestinian people. And in the process, since 1967, what we’ve seen is a continuing and progressive kind of march towards the legitimatization and normalization of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The whole world now has come to realize that that’s really the crux of the problem in the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration follows suit. Whether they start realizing that and addressing it or whether they continue to fall behind Sharon, right-wing policies and Israel for the term, as long as Bush is President. And that would be a real catastrophe, not just for the Palestinians, but I — I would dare say to the Israelis as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, professor Khalil Barhoum of Stanford University, thank you for joining us. Also President of the association of Arab-American University Graduates. Neve Gordon is Israeli professor from Ben-Gurion University speaking to us from Berkeley and Amira Hass in Ramallah right now of Ha’aretz newspaper.

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