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The Last Dance in Ramallah
Until November 2004, Israel lacked a partner for peace. President Arafat was locked up in a prison in Ramallah. He could admittedly receive international dignitaries from the whole world after Israeli approval. Israel often demanded that the dignitary first visit Israel and then leave for the home country to only return a couple of months later and visit the Nobel prize winner, one of the world’s most famous persons. The international community, including Sweden, accepted this moratorium theater without shame. Almost everyone obeyed the orders of the occupation power. There were, however, countries that rebelled against the folly, South Africa was one of them.
But in November 2004, the folly ended. Arafat died on the 11 November. Since Arafat was finally gone, normalized relations would be established and Israel would finally get a partner for peace.
In regards to taking action, a lot has happened since 2004. Many hugs and kisses have been exchanged in front of the large TV channels between the leader of the occupation power and the leader of the occupied, not to mention Palestine’s first democratically held elections, according to Jimmy Carter and Carl Bildt. Construction work has also taken off on the West Bank. The settlers need somewhere to live and the number of settlers has in the years 2004-2007 increased with almost 20%. The number of children in Jerusalem who have seen their houses chopped down by Caterpillars has also remained alarmingly high.
We are in a large hall, the walls are white, the ceiling white, cold marble under our feet. We are in the main hall, part of the building that used to serve as President Arafat´s prison during his final years. This is where he was shut away, restricted by the curfew put upon him.
A catafalk stands in the middle of the hall. This is where the coffin will he placed. The group of diplomats to which I belong are instructed by the protocol how to walk toward the coffin, bow and file past the new leaders and chief mourners.
Before this we have been escorted by guards through a vast sea of people. There must be more than a hundred thousand of them. Many have been waiting for days. Many have been stopped at checkpoints outside Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin, Qalqiliya. But they have found other roads high up in the mountains or taken narrow paths past soldiers on high alert. These are the mourners that just couldn´t stay at home and watch the last journey on television; these are the mourners who want to come close. But many never managed to get through and had to turn back.
We are taken to the landing ground for the two helicopters and see the place that has been prepared for the interment. A few days ago, the area was filled with rubbish; old cars and cement barrels serving as protection from possible attackers, but now the threat is gone and the myth is dead. Now other people need protection.
The diplomats are led away from the spot. The soldiers create an opening in the compact crowd that we can pass through. All is calm, all is dignified. In spite of the weapons around us, we do not feel anxious. We are part of one great sorrow. The people we see around us have come today to honor a man, and to remember. Internal conflicts are put aside. Today Arafat is seen as a father and a leader. Today all negative epithets are forgotten.
We are taken away from the crowds and escorted into the large, white hall. Here we will wait for the coffin to arrive. The final religious ceremonies preceding the interment will be carried out in the presence of diplomats, the new leaders and chief mourners. The people are to wait outside.
We hear the rotor blades of the descending helicopters. We hear volleys of shots, fired in the air in honor of the leader. We hear the cries and whistles of the crowd.
It is as if we wanted to protect ourselves, shutting ourselves away from the crowd. We hear that something is happening, but we cannot see anything. We know less than we would if we had stayed at home and watched the television or listened to the radio.
Then we hear the pounding at the gates. The few soldiers on the inside cannot resist the crowd, pressing against the gates. They are too many and the doors are forced open. The room is filled with men that were meant to be shut out.
And those of us who were supposed to honor the myth in the secluded calm of the hall, we suddenly find ourselves on the side, we have put ourselves aside. All our preparation and plans come to nothing.
Instead, the people take over the helicopter. They pull out the coffin and let it wander on top of the masses. It travels over everyone´s heads, as if playing a game with all of those who planned his last journey. It is as if he is performing a last dance, a tango in front of the world´s cameras. In front of those who loved him and those who were filled with hate, as if he, in spite of everything, finally surrendered himself to his people.
The Palestinian people who at his death were a people without a country.
MATS SVENSSON, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.