Palestinian Affairs: Of faded memory?

On the first anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, Palestinians waver between nostalgia for and cynicism about the legacy of the revered 'Rais.'

arafat 88 (photo credit: )
arafat 88
(photo credit: )
A public opinion poll published this week by the Bet Sahour-based Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed that 73 percent of the Palestinians miss Yasser Arafat. The poll, which covered a random sample of 825 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was conducted on the eve of the first anniversary of Arafat's death.
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Commenting on the results of the poll, a Palestinian legislator, known as a longtime critic of Arafat, asked cynically: "What do these people miss about Arafat? Do they miss the corruption and mismanagement of his regime, or do they miss him simply because they think that things haven't improved since his departure?" True, many Palestinians continue to regard Arafat as a unique and legendary symbol of their cause, but the general feeling is that his memory is rapidly fading away - a mere year after his death. Moreover, some accuse Arafat's successors of actually helping the people forget Arafat through a series of actions, including removing his portraits from several public places. In the wake of such criticism, the Palestinian Authority is expected on Friday to inaugurate a project that will turn Arafat's tomb in the Mukata "presidential" compound into a grand mausoleum consisting of a spacious mosque and museum. The main purpose of the project, the cost of which is estimated at more than $1 million, is to refute claims that Mahmoud Abbas and his henchmen are involved in a scheme designed to scrap any memory of Arafat. It's not clear how many Palestinians will attend Friday's memorial service in the Mukata. But what is evident is that over the past few months there has been a sharp drop in the number of people visiting Arafat's tomb. In the first few months after Arafat's death, hundreds of thousands Palestinians converged on the tomb almost on a daily basis. "On the first anniversary of Arafat's death, some serious and legitimate questions are being raised regarding his future commemoration," said Samih Shabib, a historian at Bir Zeit University. "The legitimacy of such questions stems from the fact that there are attempts to drive Arafat out of the people's minds." Pointing out that the PA wasn't doing enough to keep the late leader's legacy alive, Shabib said that there was a "real threat to the memory of a great man like Yasser Arafat." He explained: "Although we have heard about projects to build a large tomb and committees that have been established to collect his private belongings for preservation, and although Arafat's pictures continue to hang on the walls of several institutions, all this could disappear in the near future. There is a strong possibility that Arafat is about to be forgotten." MANY PALESTINIANS seem to agree. Asked if she was planning to attend the memorial service in the Mukata, Rasha Shaheen, a university student from Ramallah, replied: "We want to look forward, not backward. We loved Arafat as a symbol, but more and more people are beginning to realize that this is a man who led us from one disaster to another over the past 40 years." Of course, such reactions never make their way into the PA-controlled media, despite the fact that these are not lone voices in the desert. Nor do they appear in most of the foreign media because many people still think that it's wrong to "hang dirty laundry in public." Consequently, the only statements that appeared in the PA and the foreign media this week were those of Palestinians heaping praise on Arafat and his legacy. Palestinian writers used almost all available accolade to describe Arafat: "lion," "eagle," "symbol," "hero," "genius." Those who miss Arafat are quick to note that, contrary to all expectations, the Palestinians' conditions have not improved since his death. They even argue that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has in fact worsened under Abbas. "Some people miss Yasser Arafat because they see Abu Mazen [Abbas] as a total failure," said Hassan Lam'ah, a lawyer from Nablus. "What has Abu Mazen done for the people? Nothing at all!" What is most disturbing for many Palestinians is the growing state of anarchy and lawlessness that has plagued the PA-ruled areas since Arafat's death. More than 250 Palestinians have been killed in domestic violence since Abbas took over, prompting many Palestinians to demand immediate action against local gangs. But the main problem that Abbas faces is that most of the gangsters roaming the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not from Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but are members of the PA security forces and his ruling Fatah party. "Today the situation is in a quagmire; the Palestinian territory is under anarchy which is heading toward the level that can be described as the 'Somalia model,'" said Khaled Duzdar, Palestinian co-director of the Strategic Affairs Unit of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. "Political factions and militia do as they please; the cities and towns are divided into vandalizing feudal Lords with the absence of law and order. The Palestinian security forces do not control - and in some cases were themselves involved - in a number of incidents of misused force, only adding to the sense of total chaos." Like many Palestinians, Duzdar cited Abbas's failure to take decisive measures as one of the main reasons behind the deterioration. "It seems that the Palestinian president is 'dancing with the wolves' by trying to negotiate and mediate between them to end the lawlessness, while the wolves are attacking his flock at night," he added. "President Abbas should reconsider this tactic. If the wolves attack and threaten his flock, he should find a way to protect them from the disobeying wolves and not to appease the wolves. Ultimately he has to fight those who oppose law and order. He must be adamant in enforcing law and ending all signs of anarchy and armed militias. President Abbas has to end this situation immediately; with no more procrastination. If not, the rapid disintegration and chaos will turn his tenure into another Palestinian experience in failed governance from which the Palestinian people will continue to suffer." No wonder, then, that a growing number of Palestinians have begun looking back with nostalgia to Arafat's days.