Regional Programs > Israel & Palestine > Next Story

 Walking the Knife's Edge
 Gush Shalom, Israel
 May 11, 2002
Three days ago (at noon on Wed., May 8) we sent out a message which must have seemed cryptic to many of you:


A group of Israelis is being organized to go TODAY to Palestinian territory which may be targeted in whatever attack Sharon will get approved at the cabinet meeting tonight. For understandable reasons we don't write more details. This is an emergency action, requiring a considerable personal obligation to take (reasonable) risks and possibly to have to stay away from your home and daily life for several days. IT CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, in some of the situations which may develop, and it is worthwhile if you possibly can do it.
Meeting place: 3.00 in the afternoon at the Alternative Information Center, 4 Shlomzion Hamalka St, Jerusalem. If you can do it, come and bring with you whatever you need for staying several days away from home, and take care to have some cash in your pocket.


More than that we could not tell in a message spread widely over the net, with several army roadblocks on the way to our destination. Now we can tell that this destination was Arafat's Headquarters in Ramallah, a place recently freed from prolonged siege and which there were good reasons to think was threatened anew. All that day, there were repeated radio reports of Prime Minister Sharon "seriously considering the deportation of Arafat". The PM, en route back from Washington, had summoned the members of his cabinet to meet him at the airport immediately upon his landing, evidently impatient to get approval for whatever action he had in mind. Knowing Sharon, immediately upon his getting an authorization to attack Arafat he would be likely to send the army in—officially in order to capture the Palestinian leader, but with a strong possibility of Arafat being "accidentally" killed.

Altogether, five Gush Shalom activists were found willing to tear themselves out of daily life at such short notice; probably we could have gotten more if there had been more time for phoning. Despite the army's closure of Ramallah, it was not really difficult to get into the city; we had good guides, and the prolonged closure had forced the Palestinian inhabitants to develop many creative solutions. In Ramallah we were met by a sixth Israeli—Neta Golan, the young woman who had withstood the entire siege at Arafat's headquarters. We also met many of Neta's friends, the international volunteers from different countries who had been there during the siege and who had now rushed back to the spot.

It was strange to stand among these buildings which had so often appeared on the world's TV screens in the past month, to see them battle-scarred and with blackened spots, but peaceful with cars stopping, Palestinian officials and foreign diplomats stepping out—much as you could see at a government building anywhere. It was ominous to think that this quiet could be so easily broken, that within a few hours war and destruction might sweep back in here.

Now that we had slipped past the military roadblocks there was no reason to keep our presence secret, and in fact every reason to advertise it. Some representatives of the international media were already present on the spot, and we called up others. Back in Tel-Aviv, our friends were calling up the Israeli press. At 7.00 PM there was an improvised press conference on the outside steps of the headquarters building. Uri Avnery reiterated that we were there not only for the sake of Arafat and of the Palestinians, but also and especially for the sake of our own country; that we had come in an effort to prevent our government from committing a terrible mistake which would blight Israel's future for years to come: "Despite the massive campaign of lies conducted by the government of Israel, Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinian people, elected in internationally-supervised elections and recognized as their president by Palestinians of all factions. The recent siege imposed by Sharon actually enhanced Arafat's position among his own people. It is Arafat who led his people in war, in the very unequal contest of the past year and half. And Arafat is the only leader who is both able and willing to lead the Palestinians into peace: the kind of peace envisioned in the Saudi peace initiative, which was adopted by the Arab Summit and became the initiative of the entire Arab World—full withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for full peace. Of course, Sharon has not the slightest intention to accept such a peace, and his best means of destroying any last chances of peace is the killing of Arafat. Let there be no doubt: it is killing Arafat, not deporting him, which is our Prime Minister's true purpose. The killing of Arafat may unleash a cycle of bloodshed on a horrific scale, far beyond the horrific scenes we had already witnessed. Israelis and Palestinians alike will suffer and die, and other peoples in the region, and quite possible people further away. What little we here can do to prevent this terrible outcome is to let Sharon hereby know that there will be Israeli citizens staying tonight in this headquarters building, standing unarmed in the path of our country's troops if these come invading here. And so will our friends, the peace activists from France, the US, Italy, Denmark and other countries."

One of Arafat's aides came telling us that the president wanted to see us as soon as his meeting with the EU mediator Moratinos was over. We sat in a big ante-room, chatting with the Palestinian troops guarding Arafat—friendly young men, most of them speaking good Hebrew acquired either in prison or while working as manual laborers in Israel. Then we, Israelis and internationals, were ushered into the big meeting room we had seen several times on TV last month, then pock-marked with bullet holes, now having been already repaired and repainted. Arafat sat at the head of the table, flanked by Uri Avnery and by the interntionals' coordinator Claude—the French woman who had been there during the entire siege. The Palestinian leader spoke with fury of the Rishon Lezion suicide bombing, and told of the Palestinian Police arresting Hamas members in Gaza. It was easy to believe that his fury was genuine, considering that whoever ordered the bombing took care to have it coincide with the Bush-Sharon meeting in which the future of Arafat himself was a central subject, and that the attack might have tipped the balance and let Sharon get an American "green light" for his unpleasant plans.

"This is the second time that they help Sharon. The bombing [in Netanyah] during the Beirut Conference gave Sharon the pretext to attack us all over the West Bank" said Arafat. "The enemies of peace on both sides, Hamas on the one hand and Sharon on the other, are cooperating very well with each other. Israeli and Palestinian seekers after peace should also cooperate, more closely", said Avnery. By the time our meeting with Arafat ended it was about 10 PM, which meant that Sharon had just landed and was convening his generals and minsters. A friend in Tel-Aviv called to let us know that our presence here had been mentioned on the Second Channel TV News, with Yoram Binur remarking that an attack on headquarters could result in harming Israelis. So, our message had gotten through. Once again we sat talking to the presidential bodyguards. We talked of many things, political and personal. Some recalled Israeli employers for whom they worked in the years before Oslo. "Shimon, who was my boss in Askelon, is really a wonderful man. When two man eat from the same plate, it is a friendship which will last forever. I still talk with him on the phone sometimes, even in the most difficult periods", recalled one of the guards. By a kind of unspoken agreement, we did not mention what was very much on our minds: what might happen in this building later tonight. About midnight, the sqweeky little radio told of the cabinet meeting's results. "The deportation of Arafat was discussed but not to put to a vote". Was that enough of a reassurance for us? And "operational plans presented by the army high command were approved, and the cabinet authorized the Prime Minster and Defense Minister to decide on the timing and manner of their execution". Exactly what did that mean? "With Sharon, always expect the worst" muttered somebody.

It was growing late, and there was little point in exhausting ourselves. We lay down on the mattresses spread along the big hall's floor, wrapped ourselves in excellent thick blankets and settled into an uneasy sleep, again and again being startled awake by what seemed to be distant gunshots. Imagination or some ordinary noise, magnified by a worried sleeping mind. Only the first light breaking through the sandbagged windows made it possible to sleep more quietly for a few more hours. Commandos prefer the dark. In the morning, the radio carried a long commentary on the cabinet meeting by Yoni Ben Menchem, a journalist known as one of Sharon's mouthpieces. He recounted that Army Chief-Of-Staff Mofaz wanted to attack Arafat, but the heads of the secret services felt it would be harmful to Israel. The Labour Party ministers were against deporting Arafat idea, but (of course!) would not have left the government even if it was adopted. Ben Menchem concluded: "Political circles in Jerusalem say that eventually the step of deporting Arafat will have to be taken." So, it was just a reprieve. We may have to come again, and next time it may not be a false alarm.

Before going back to Tel-Aviv we were given a kind of guided tour over the parts of the headquarters that had been occupied by Israeli troops. Much of the mess had been already cleared away, but we could still see devastated offices with smashed furniture and computers, and smell the rooms which our compatriots had used as latrines. A great variety of graffiti was left on the walls by the besieging troops. Nationalist Stars of David, "Isreal (sic) rules" in English and the words of the Israeli national anthem in Hebrew (also with several spelling mistakes). "God, we love you", one of the soldiers had written while another attempted humor: "Welcome to the headquarters of Limor" (popular Israeli TV comedian). Somebody made on the wall a drawing of a sad-eyed dog, and somebody (perhaps the same one?) wrote a plaintive "How long?" (Photos of the graffiti will soon be displayed on the Gush Shalom website).

PS: The Wednesday action had been organized very hastily. In just a few hours we had to take the decision, call up people, find our volunteers and get on the way. The next time—if there is one—will probably not be much different. Sharon will never leave us much time for preparing, nor will Hamas. If you would like us to call you up in future emergencies (connected either to Arafat's headquarters or to other places and circumstances), please send us a message, containing all the phone numbers by which you can be reached and any other information you think relevant, and write in the subject line "Consider me for Emergency Team". . . .

Statement issued by Gush Shalom pob 3322, Tel-Aviv 61033.