Last night, the cities of Ramallah and El Bireh didn't change their tempo, which is still dictated by the Ramadan fast and not the reports of Arafat's deteriorating health. Everyday civilian life went on, apart from the political furor provoked by his absence.
As usual on Ramadan, the streets were empty between 5 and 6 P.M. during the iftar meal, which breaks the fast.
Apart from a handful of journalists, no one left the family table to go to the Muqata to try and distill the truth from the rumors about Arafat's condition. The Muqata workers and Arafat's associates were not waiting either - the iron gates were shut to anyone not employed there.
No one came out to report on the story coming from France. Was it perhaps because they knew no citizens would come to display their sorrow at the gate of Arafat' home/prison of the last three years? After 6 P.M., the streets filled up, first the traditional cafes, then the stores. No air of mourning could be sensed.
"True, people feel no connection to Arafat," confirms Dr. Saleh Abd Al-Jawad, from the department of political science at Bir Zeit University. His TV set was off. "People's absence from the Muqata last week, when Arafat was flown to Paris, and today, are a kind of public opinion poll. It's their way of expressing discontent at the Palestinian Authority and Arafat's functioning. The only thing that preserved his prestige was his confinement in the Muquata and Ariel Sharon's constant attacks."
Last week, Al-Jawad noticed people talking in clusters at the university, on the streets, in the markets. He assumed they were talking about Arafat's condition, but on listening closer, he discovered they were talking about different things entirely.
But alongside the apathy, there is concern about the way the incoming leadership will be shaped and its influence on people's lives; not only a concern for safety, but for the character of the regime. "Since the second half of the 19th century, external powers have influenced the Palestinian leadership," says Al-Jawad. "I'm afraid the U.S., Israel and reactionary forces will produce a banana republic leadership."
The only way to counter this is through elections, which will usher in a legitimate leadership. Israel and the U.S. will find it difficult to act against such a leadership. But Abd Al-Jawad is concerned that elements within Fatah will act to sabotage elections, in order to preserve their economic and political interests that are often bound to Israel.
There is also concern about the weakness of the leader who is establishing himself as heir. "The fact that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is the alternative is symptomatic of the problem. He does, in fact, want to improve peoples' lives, and is one of Fatah's founders, but his agenda is not one of national liberation. He is old and unwell and does not like to deal with the nuts and bolts of governing. I'm convinced he thinks Israel and the U.S. hold all the cards, and that the Palestinians must work within this framework," says Al-Jawad.
The impoverishment of large sectors of the Palestinian public has excluded them from taking an interest in politics; they are too concerned with survival.
The carving up of the Palestinian territories has encouraged the rise of leaders who are only useful at the narrow local level, Al-Jawad complains. Ramallah's display of life as usual seems to be part of the same trend of disengaging from politics.
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