Meeting Yasser Arafat

There were seven of us from Birmingham, all members of the City Council, visiting Ramallah at the end of January 2004. We were taken there in a mini-bus driven by Issa from Bethlehem. We had left the main highway from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem to go down what looked like a side-track. Up to then all the roads off had been blocked by huge boulders. The check point before Ramallah was crazy. Issa forced his way through the chaotic traffic . We saw long lines of pedestrians queuing up to get through the barrier manned by young Israeli soldiers. People in need of medical aid, such as pregnant women, had died in this situation

When we finally reached Ramallah we passed by what looked like a completely bombed out compound. We were told that this was Yasser Arafat’s Head Quarters. A few days later we were inside to meet the man, a long serving leader of the Palestinian State. Despite having brokered successive agreements on bringing about a peace settlement he had been brought to this state by the forces of occupation.
We went through a security check by the guards and handed in mobile phones. Inside there was a suite of small rooms, and finally the small state room where we gathered round a table to meet this small, slightly frail but very distinguished figure. We had heard that Mr Arafat’s health had not been good, but we found him to be in good spirits and very alert. We introduced ourselves from Birmingham. I told him that I was a Cabinet Member responsible for Transportation in Birmingham, and that I was being heavily criticised for being away while Birmingham was experiencing freezing conditions bringing traffic to a standstill. He beamed and said “but it’s important that you have come!”

We talked about a range of topics. Yasser Arafat thought that the damage to the precious murals on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem should be a priority for the Christian Church to restore. They had been damaged by Israeli gunfire during the siege when many had taken refuge there. This had not prevented the deaths of a number of people. We were later to visit this holiest of Christian shrines, and found it to be deserted. We discussed the Oslo, Camp David and other agreements, none of which had ever been honoured by Israel.
Yasser Arafat and our Palestinian hosts, found no problem in allowing Israeli representatives to look after us for a day. We had met members of the Jewish community in Birmingham, and one of their members, Ruth Jacobs, flew to Jerusalem to arrange a programme for us. This included a visit to the Tel Aviv Council House where we were able to meet members of the Israeli Labour Party. One Councillor, a member of the Green Party, was Yael Dayan, daughter of the famous General Dayan. She believed that Israel had the power and should take the initiative to act by restoring the 1968 boundaries.
Apart from our meeting with Yasser Arafat himself, we were to spend a considerable amount of time with one of his close aides. We heard about how arrangements were made to meet with so many of the world’s leaders past and present. It was difficult to take in that this man had met legendary figures such as Mao Tse Tung. Whatever the criticism of him is he is clearly a legend himself. Back in Birmingham you can see his picture among freedom fighters on the walls of offices. But what of his part in promoting “terrorism”.?
We were in Jerusalem as a bus was blown up. The person who did this came from Bethlehem. We heard while we were with Yasser Arafat that we might not be able to get into Bethlehem because of military activities there. Mr Arafat promptly invited us to stay for dinner. However we decided to go. At the check point we waited to see if we would be allowed in. There were watch towers all around, and we noticed a large armour-plated bulldozer. This, we learned, had been used to demolish the house of the Palestinian policeman who that morning had gone into Jerusalem to blow up the bus. Both Israeli authorities and British Embassy officials tried to persuade us not to go into Bethlehem because our safety could not be guaranteed. Issa was constantly in contact with others on one of his mobile phones and knew when it was or was not safe to proceed.
In Bethlehem we went to the house demolished by the Israeli army. We found grief-stricken family and friends sitting around wood burning braziers discussing what had happened. The father of the dead man had had repeated heart attacks, and had been taken to hospital only a few hours earlier. No one knew that his son, the only bread-winner in the family, was going to do this. No one agreed with terrorism, but in what seemed to be a totally hopeless situation, what else was left?
Arafat’s aide did not agree with our concern about the house being demolished. He told us that the ordinary Palestinian people suffered as a result of “terrorist” acts. So was Arafat behind these acts as people maintain? He seemed a mild-mannered person, deeply saddened by the situation he saw around him. Israelis too suffer. In Tel Aviv we met the victims of bombing who, one, a woman settler from the Ukraine physically and mentally scarred, the other an Ethiopian Jew confined to a wheel chair.
What was clearly evident was the terrorism perpetrated by the state. It was clear that Yasser Arafat was an easy target. Only his sudden illness has forced him out of his base. He remains a potent symbol of the Palestinian people and their struggle for justice. It has been an act of supreme bravery to continue to stay in Ramallah following the savage and repeated attacks which could have ended his life at any time.
We offer our prayers and support to the Palestinian people, who as Muslims and Christians live in harmony. Their deep humility and lack of bitterness, given their isolation, is deeply affecting.

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