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Sunday, 24 March, 2002, 12:59 GMT
Arafat's travel dilemma
Relatives mourn at the funeral of Yitzhak Cohen
Palestinians think Israeli resolve will collapse first
test hello test
Martin Asser
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online, in Jerusalem

Yasser Arafat, the besieged Palestinian leader whom Israeli forces have kept in the West Bank city of Ramallah since December, has two diplomatic carrots dangling in front of him.

He is invited to attend a summit of Arab leaders in Beirut on Wednesday and has also been offered a possible meeting with US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Egypt.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat is seen as static, symbolic figure
Both meetings would normally be very much to Mr Arafat's liking - the first to mingle with supportive Arab leaders after a period of unprecedented isolation, and the second to jam a toe in the White House door for the first time since the elections of George W Bush and Israel's Ariel Sharon.

But for either event to take place, he must agree with Israel and the US to rein in the armed Palestinian uprising against Israel's domination of the Palestinian territories - if necessary by force.

So while Palestinians have been following the political manoeuvring with some interest, they do so without any hope that either rendezvous may bring an end to their daily suffering as result of Israel's occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Whither 'Mr Palestine'

Yasser Arafat is seen by most Palestinians as a static, symbolic figure, rather than an effective statesman in whose hands their fate is secure.

As such people are angered by the perceived Israeli insult of his confinement in Ramallah - but they do not necessarily see it as something that damages their national interests.

Instead, the calculations people make about his possible travel abroad follow these lines:

  • If Mr Arafat was allowed to leave, and was allowed back by Israel after making a conciliatory speech in Beirut and currying favour with the Americans, that would not reflect the popular mood
  • More suicide bombings or statements praising armed resistance may force Israel to block his return - which may turn him into an even more powerful symbol of Palestinian struggle
  • Compelling Mr Arafat to remain in Ramallah might also make Israel look bad, seeming to wreck the much-vaunted Saudi-Arab peace plan before it got off the ground
  • The wrecking of the Saudi plan may be good, because it might be just another US-inspired scheme to recreate the status quo ante of an unending peace process which mainly served Israel's interests
The thing that all these calculations have in common is a deep disillusionment with peaceful negotiation, the Americans, Israel, and even Mr Arafat and the other PLO leaders who returned to the land in 1994 under the Oslo accords.

Popular support

For Palestinians a solution based on giving security to Israel without addressing their problems is not a solution.

That is why there is a surge of support for the suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks that have brought fear to Israel's streets and have bludgeoned the army in recent weeks.

Women mourners at the funeral a Palestinian gunman
Most Palestinians have lost faith in the diplomatic process

"Yes, we want peace," people say. "But we don't want to go back to how we were before the intifada."

In the meantime, many people believe that the Palestinians are better equipped to handle the attrition because morale is intact and "right is on our side".

Israel on the other hand is likened in popular thought to a demoralised "harami" or thief, who has stolen the land and therefore will more easily give it up when faced with "righteous anger".

Indeed, this war has left both sides clinging to ugly stereotypes of the other, as evinced by the numerous Israelis who told the BBC that Palestinians were nothing more than "Jew-hating Muslim terrorists" seeking the total destruction of Israel.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Middle East
Terror attacks harden Israeli opinion
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Picking up the pieces in Ramallah
16 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel's stay-at-home culture
20 Mar 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Inside al-Aqsa
20 Mar 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Blast hits Israeli Arabs
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israelis sceptical about US diplomacy
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