Muhi al-Din Sharif, a senior and well-known Hamas mujahid, was buried in the Palestinian town of Ramallah on April 2. He was martyred by Israeli agents in Ramallah on March 29, in an assassination disguised to look like a bomb explosion. As usual, his death and funeral were marked by renewed Palestinian anger against the Zionists, expressed through demonstrations, clashes with Israeli troops and police, and pledges to avenge his death.
However, there are other features of this particular incident which merit consideration. One is that the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally and repeatedly denied any involvement. This is in sharp contrast to their usual gloating about such successes, for example after the assassination of Yahya Ayash in January 1996. However, Israel’s formal denials were undermined by openly celebratory articles in the Israeli press expressing congratulations and gratitude to ‘whoever’ was responsible.
The official Israeli reaction clearly reflects the zionist State’s deep-seated fear of the Palestinian Islamic movement and its standing and popularity among the Palestinian people. However, there is no doubt that the zionists were responsible, directly or indirectly.
This killing follows closely after the botched assassination attempt on Hamas political leader Khalid Meshal in Amman last September and Israeli minister Ariel Sharon’s subsequent pledge to ‘finish the job,’ and the arrest of Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agents in Switzerland in February for trying to plant listening devices at the home of a senior Islamic leader. Sharif’s assassination was probably an attempt by Mossad or Shin Bet (Israel’s security police) to regain some credit following these very public failures.
The two-faced reaction of Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA) also merits notice. On the one hand, PNA figures joined openly in popular mourning for Sharif’s death, despite Arafat’s constant condemnation of ‘terrorism.’ The official press mourned his martyrdom and Faisal Hussaini, mayor of East Jerusalem, attended his funeral. Even Arafat’s wife, the Christian Suha Arafat, sent a message of condolence to Sharif’s family, hailing him as ‘a martyr for Palestine.’
Arafat himself, however, refused to comment directly on Sharif’s death. Having initially announced that Sharif’s autopsy has shown that he had been killed by three gunshots to the chest and legs some three hours before the explosion, which had been detonated by remote control, the PNA authorities also changed their position later in order to avoid contradicting the Israelis. This included suggestions that Sharif had been preparing a bomb which exploded prematurely (detonating nearby ammunition which happened to hit him in the chest!) or that he was actually killed by Hamas traitors.
The extent of Arafat’s fear of the Israelis was revealed on April 5, when he circulated a message to Islamic groups pleading with them not to retaliate against Israel for Sharif’s death. This followed threats by Netanyahu that the PNA would be held responsible for any retaliation as they are supposedly responsible for security in the West Bank, and that the ‘peace process,’ which is considered to be at a ‘crucial stage.’
Arafat’s real problem, however, is not with the Israelis. The Israelis may insult and abuse him, but they will not sack him because they know that he is their only friend among the Palestinians. Arafat’s problem is with the Palestinians whom he claims to lead, and whose co-operation, however limited and grudging, is essential for his political survival. Should the Palestinian people turn against him, and refuse to co-operate with his attempts to appease the Israelis in the hope of receiving some crumbs for his trouble, his political value to Israel and the west would be finished.
The fact that the Palestinians retain the greatest regard, respect and affection for the mujahideen of Hamas and other Islamic Palestinian groups which was demonstrated following the death of Muhi al-Din Sharif, is Arafat’s greatest problem. The PNA was forced to join in the mass grief because it could not afford to be seen not to be sharing it. Even the Israelis and the west understood this, hence their diplomatic silence on the subject. Under normal circumstances, PNA participation in the funeral of a ‘terrorist’ would have brought the wrath of the world upon Arafat.
The fact that the Palestinians are refusing to accept Arafat’s line, logic and leadership, all the more so for its obvious failure since the Oslo accords, was demonstrated once again in the elections for Palestinian university student councils held in late March and early April. These, particularly the elections at Al-Khalil (Hebron), are generally recognised as a fair reflection of Palestinian public opinion. For the eleventh year in succession, the Al- Khalil vote was won by Hamas ahead of Fateh (the latter is PLO’s local political organization). In other universities also, Hamas won overwhelmingly against Fateh.
Considering the parties’ respective record, this in itself is hardly news. But the styles and tones of their campaigns were telling. Hamas campaigned largely on the basis of its determination to liberate the whole of Palestine. Its rallies were dominated by the dark green flags and banners of the Islamic movement, and punctuated by Islamic slogans and rounds of takbir. US and Israeli flags were burnt, and speeches focused on the need for continuing the armed struggle.
Fateh, by contrast, tried to campaign on the basis of building a Palestinian nation-State on the West Bank in the framework of the Oslo accords, to exist alongside Israel. Its rallies were dominated by Palestinian national flags and pictures of Arafat. Activists handed out coloured balloons and candies and talked of establishing Palestinian civil society, economic independence and prosperity, and gaining full recognition by the United Nations. The nearest the Fateh could come to expressing support for struggle against Israel was by trying to claim credit for the intifadah of 1987-1993, which was actually as much a reaction to PLO inaction as Israeli occupation. By and large, the public response was a loud, incredulous silence.
Palestinian disillusion with Arafat’s approach is such that it seems increasingly unlikely that any successes in the ‘peace process’ will be able to save him. But even this seems unlikely, largely because of Netanyahu’s stubbornness. Netanyahu is still negotiating about terms for fulfilling the promises Israel made in the original accords. US mediator Denis Ross and secretary of state Madeliene Albright are making great show of putting pressure on Netanyahu, while actually doing precisely nothing. Arafat, meanwhile, is so desperate for something he can call success that he is now saying that Netanyahu’s simply agreeing to meet him in a Washington summit later in the year would be sign enough of progress.
Whatever may happen in the future, the Palestinian people are unlikely to be deceived by such transparently empty political games.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1998