Israel's death festival

Such unabashed glee is disrespectful and dangerous

LONDON (12 November 2004) -- On November 5 1995, I went as usual to my office in East Jerusalem, next door to the Orient House, where the Palestinian leadership had its headquarters. I worked for the human rights advocate, Lea Tzemel. Lea and myself, two Jewish Israeli women working in a Palestinian neighbourhood, were already a familiar part of the street's scene. But this morning was different. When I went into the corner shop to buy cigarettes, the owner, Izzat Fraytah, greeted me with a grave face. "My condolences," he said. It took me a few seconds to realise he was conveying his sympathy for the death of the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated the night before by a rightwing radical.

Izzat was a sympathiser of the Islamist opposition organisations, and an opponent of the Oslo accords signed two years earlier by Rabin and Yasser Arafat, but his feelings were genuine. "It's a sad day for you," he said, "and for us." During the day, dozens of the street's residents climbed the four floors to our office to express their sorrow. Clients who came to inquire about the fate of their family members were apologetic for troubling me on this day of mourning.

I was overwhelmed by their decency, and embarrassed. I knew what a bitter enemy Rabin had been to the Palestinian people. He was the one, after all, who issued the order to "break the hands and legs of every stone-thrower" during the first intifada, which led Israeli soldiers to break the limbs of every young man in the villages of Beita and Hawara, leaving only one with his legs intact, so that he could run and break the news.

Many of the visitors who offered their sympathy had lost sons, husbands and brothers to Rabin's "iron fist" policies. Thousands were still, despite the Oslo accords, locked in Israeli administrative detention for "security offences". The permanent closure policy on the West Bank and Gaza was taking its economic toll on the people. And yet my neighbours' kind behaviour was not unique. One by one the leaders of the Palestinian Authority were interviewed by the Israeli media, talking of their grief. Arafat got special permission to visit the bereaved widow, Lea Rabin, in Tel Aviv, and sat with her, tears in his eyes.

All these memories came back to me as Yasser Arafat lay on his deathbed, unaware of the glee expressed by most Israelis. The Israeli government announced, as soon as he was flown to Paris, that he would not be allowed to be buried in Jerusalem. Inbal Gavrieli, member of the Knesset, shouted at Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Knesset, that Arafat was "a dog". Many Israeli politicians followed suit with insults directed at the dying Palestinian leader. Israeli comedians, who nowadays shy away from political satire directed at their own leaders, have been mocking Arafat with the most degrading impersonations. A festive atmosphere has taken over the country.

"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth," says the Old Testament, but too many Israelis are blinded by hatred and self-righteousness to remember these beautiful words. The consequences of Arafat's death festival will haunt us for years. And for this cruel folly Israelis and Palestinians are likely to pay in the currency of innocent blood.

Guardian, London, UK

*Daphna Baram is author of Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel. She can be reached at daphnun@yahoo.co.uk


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