Arafat, the face of Palestine

Refugees mourn Abu-Ammar

AMMAN, JORDAN (12 November 2004) -- Today Amman awoke to news of Arafat's death. Life came almost to a complete stop, schools were closed and many businesses were shut to mourn the passing of a leader who has become the face of Palestine.

In the city, the streets were almost deserted; taxi drivers competed to get the attention of the few pedestrians who walked the near empty streets. The flags outside official buildings were at half mast.

People in the refugee camps raised black flags outside their homes, and "Aza" (houses for paying respects) were opened for them to go and give tribute to Mr. Arafat, who is more fondly remembered here as Abu-Ammar.

"How are the refugees reacting to the news," I asked Ahmad Awad, who is an activist for the right of return from the Jarash refugee camp

"Everyone was prepared for the bad news, it was expected. We are feeling a mix of disappointment and sadness and pride. We are proud to see the way the world reacted, the statements of condolences from all the heads of nations.

"It is nice to see them acknowledge that Arafat was indeed key to bringing the plight of the Palestinian people to the world's attention. It is good to acknowledge his place and his role. He was also a great fighter who never stopped and never tired."

Mr. Awad, a researcher and activist, has been in Amman since1968 when he arrived with his family from the ethnically-cleansed village of Yassour and moved into Hiteen camp, where his family still lives.

When I expressed surprise that Mr. Awad, who is one of 12 children, was able to defy all odds and complete a university education, he assured me he was not the only one. There are similar success stories at the camps, but no statistics as to how many people do make it.

Despite the hardships, many who had a chance to learn did so. UNRWA has always played an important role in offering education to the refugees. In the beginning only elementary education was available, but about seven years ago it was increased to the 10th grade.

Mr. Awad explained to me that in the 1970s many students from the camps were able to acquire from the Palestine Liberation Organization scholarships that enabled them to study in universities across Europe. Many feel indebted to Arafat for that.

I told Mr. Awad that I had visited some of the camps during the last few weeks and noticed that many refugees who were born in the camps are now parents, and some are even grandparents. "How much do these new generations know about Palestine or about Arafat," I asked him. "Why should they care if Arafat lives or dies?"

"Every Palestinian is politicized by virtue of their living conditions. They may not be academics or political experts, but they know why they are where they are today. They understand the plight of the Palestinians and they saw in Arafat the leader who worked hard on an issue of vital importance to them.

"The Palestinian Authority has always been clear on its position on the right of return. Not one member of the PA has ever alluded to giving up this right. It is a right protected by International Law; it is both a collective right and an individual right. There are nearly 10,000,000 Palestinians today, most of them living in exile. They are well educated, they are activists for peace, and they will not stop until their right is acknowledged."

I asked Mr. Awad how they plan to deal with Arafat's death and the looming Eid in the Jarash refugee camp. He said "People at the camp are sad and in mourning. The Eid will probably be celebrated as a religious event. All the rituals will be performed, but I doubt that anyone will have a heart to show overt joy. Things like baking Ca'ak (special Eid cookies) or dancing debka will not happen."

"There seems to be lots of joy in the streets of Israel," I said. "How do you feel about the Israelis celebrating Arafat's death?"

"The Israeli society became more right wing with the passing years. They completely destroyed the Oslo process. They are mistaken for dancing in the streets now and for claiming that the only obstacle to peace has been removed.

"They should search for the obstacles in their midst. It was always the right-wing Israeli government who were occupying the territories and who both provoked and created the violence. Their political agenda from the beginning was to bring the Oslo peace process to an end."

By noon, Amman was slowly beginning to return to normal. More and more people began to go out, and some of the bigger malls opened for business as shoppers tried to catch last minute bargains before the coming Eid.

What has been surprising throughout is to see some of Arafat's staunchest critics express sadness over his death. Even I, in spite of my repeated criticisms of Arafat, feel sad to realize that an important chapter of our struggle has ended.

But here's to new beginnings!

Samah Sabawi, originally from Gaza and whose permanent residence is now Ottawa, is a writer and activist with Canadian Friends of Sabeel. Her work also appears in several other electronic media. She may be reached at: samah@yayacanada.com

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