The demonstrations in Ramallah became a nightly happening last week, but in the last few days, the Israel Defense Forces seem to have discovered the best way to stop them - they simply imposed no curfew during daylight hours. The days became filled again with the apparently normal sounds of a city - students and schools, stores and cafes, clinics and taxis. There are Palestinian road workers who stubbornly continue, between curfews and army vehicle chases after wanted men, to dig up half the city to link up additional neighborhoods to the municipal sewage system. When there is no curfew during the day, the pressure cooker has no steam to blow its lid in the evening.
But perhaps - said some of those taking part in the nightly demonstrations - perhaps what really brought people out into the streets was the siege of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Perhaps we were too hasty in welcoming the revolution that many had hoped for - the transition to an unarmed, creative popular opposition to the occupation. That, by the way, is what the supporters of Hamas had said in the first place and their absence from the nightly demonstrations was blatantly obvious.
A., a yuppie Palestinian woman, not a Fatah supporter, went out one evening in the direction of Manara Square, the site of the demonstration. In her neighborhood there are many Hamas activists. They stood in the doorways and watched the people who were energetically violating the curfew. "All this is only for Arafat," they replied when she asked why they didn't join too.
On Sunday Israel lifted the siege from Arafat, and the pilgrimage to the site of the ruins where he is still living ended after several hours. But several young people, not Fatah supporters, who had joined the preparatory meetings for the nightly demonstrations, had a tough time arousing any interest in their suggestions to continue holding them after the end of the siege.
Someone supplied this breakdown to describe the various demonstrators and organizers of the demonstrations, and their motives - supporters of Fatah and Fatah activists, who will always have an eye to their own gains in the internal politicals; a few who want to attract the attention of the foreign media (always present in Ramallah, but more come during crises); and the minority enthusiastic supporters of the idea of an unarmed popular uprising. Sometimes, of course, these identities intertwine.
At least the nightly demonstrations encouraged Ramallah to follow the example of Nablus and Jenin, and to announce that schools would remain open, with or without a curfew. During the week, people tried to vary the nightly demonstrations - candles, balloons, parades downtown.
After two evenings with the presence of curfew violators in the square sparse and disappointing, suddenly toward midnight the echoes of banging on metal could be heard in the wadi below the Muqata. Within seconds these were joined by the sounds of additional blows, on thinner or thicker metal. This quickly changed from a trio to a concerto for pots and pans and electricity poles, and the entire wadi was filled with the sound of the banging.
Dozens of people began to leave their houses for the dark street, and to gather in the square. There were women in traditional dress, children from the Al Amari refugee camp. Young people who banged with clear enjoyment on the iron shutters and the fences and the garbage cans. In Tul Karm there was a similar demonstration, with pots and pans. In other words, this was organized and coordinated ahead of time.
For about two hours the noise thundered, at a distance of several dozen meters from the jeeps and the APC blocking the way to the Muqata. The banging had an almost therapeutic character - a collective release of tensions and pressures. For a long time there haven't been so many people from such a variety of social classes.
They were smiling and rejoicing as if the United Nations had just declared the establishment of the Palestinian state. One of the demonstrators one evening swore he heard a soldier responding by firing into the air in the same rhythm as the banging on some door or garbage can. There was something personal and human in this reaction, and in the impression it left on the demonstrators.
People reported that during the daylight hours there was sometimes an exchange of calls between children and the soldiers who were posted between two large commercial buildings in the street that leads to the Muqata. "Get away from here," shouted a soldier at a boy who approached him while his friends were throwing stones. "You go back home," shouted the boy in reply. "Come here," said the soldier in a different strategy. "You come," answered the boy. Finally he approached the soldier, wandering curiously around the APC, until he was politely removed.
Another time, again between stone-throwing and an exchange of shouts and firing into the air, the pretzel vendor approached the soldiers. One soldier took out a shekel or two and bought a pretzel. Most evenings, the soldiers continued to obey the hold-fire instructions which they had apparently received. "If the soldiers had only reacted this way at the beginning of the intifada, and hadn't opened fire and killed stone throwers, maybe it wouldn't have deteriorated as it did," people remarked.
The soldiers used mainly tear gas and stun grenades in order to keep the demonstrators away from them. When the number of demonstrators decreased, they also fired rubber-coated metal bullets, but into the air. Except on Shabbat. A battery of young Fatah activists stood with its back to the soldiers, at a distance of about 200 meters. They held hands and prevented the younger boys from throwing stones.
One shot was fired, from the eastern to the western side of the street where an adult, obviously a foreigner, was standing and filming the action. The street was flooded with the lights from the military vehicles. The photographer could be seen clearly. Suddenly the shriek of a shot was heard - he was wounded in his right arm, from what turned out to be the only rubber-coated metal bullet fired that night.
Was it a deliberate hit, or a coincidence? For some reason, he felt it was something personal against him. A few hours earlier he had photographed a group of soldiers furiously chasing children who were breaking the curfew, and aiming their rifles at the children. But the presence of soldiers is not always enough to develop such "personal" relationships.
On Monday the soldiers returned and camped in some buildings around the Muqata. One APC on the western side, a few jeeps at the southeastern entrance (blocking off some residential buildings), and the building of the Palestinian Culture Ministry, whose roof on the eighth floor is an excellent lookout position. The soldiers sat in jeeps with their doors open, Palestinian cars passed them by, pedestrians walked alongside them.
Each group ignored the other - until the soldiers stretched rubber straps between the two sides of the street to prevent cars from crossing. Meanwhile they watched all the press cars and the cars of senior officials making their way among the ruins of the Muqata, and the bulldozers that began to remove fragments of concrete and piles of earth and barbed wire fences that the IDF had installed during the days of siege.
There is no doubt that the demonstrations in Ramallah, which ended with the lifting of the siege, are another proof of Yasser Arafat's public recovery, says one of the many members of the Palestinian Legislative Council who was active in trying to bring down the government that Arafat had put together.
Two weeks ago their determination led the government to resign, and Arafat promised to bring a new and better group of ministers before the council within two weeks. That was supposed to happen yesterday or today, but for understandable reasons, the council decided not to pressure him.
On Monday, council chair Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) visited him, and asked him to write a letter to the council asking for a two-week extension for presenting the new group of ministers. The names of professionals, experts, who are supposed to replace Arafat's political appointees - nearly all of whom have been serving as ministers for seven years - are being floated.
They are also being divided into several types - those who are corrupt, those who didn't bother to take care of the issues in their ministries, those who are not capable of serving in such a responsible job, and the minority who are doing good work.
Will a recovery in Arafat's status affect the nature of the changes in his government as well? The steps that led to the resignation of the government left Arafat angry and introverted, they say in Ramallah. "Sharon spoiled everything," said that same council member. "Arafat today is not what he was two weeks ago, and therefore the legislative council has to be very careful about its moves."
Nevertheless, he says, the council's situation is better than that of the central committee of Fatah. Level headed observers in Ramallah don't buy the version of the Muqata, that in meetings of the central committee and of other senior Fatah officials, a putsch was prepared against Arafat. Some in Ramallah think that it is simply the ruling elite's typical lack of sensitivity and its lack of communication with the public.
Where's my escort?
While dozens of people violated the curfew and took the risk of driving in their cars, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) didn't think twice, and as is his custom during every curfew, requested to be escorted by the Israeli Civil Administration when he drove to a political meeting of several senior Fatah officials in a residential building.
One of those who was supposed to participate in the meeting with him saw the Israeli escort jeep, was shocked, decided not to participate, and began to spread the rumor about the "Israeli connection." Nabil Amer, they say in Ramallah, and said at the nighttime demonstrations as well, is convincing the world and the Israelis with his arguments against the corruption, against the "No" at Camp David, and against the negative aspects of the system.
But he was for years a part of the system created by Arafat, and an especially fluent defender of it and of the politics of the PA. At the demonstrations, which turned into a street parliament, people knew how to point out the material benefits Nabil Amer accrued from his proximity to Arafat, and asked why he and his friends were not seen demonstrating.
That is further proof of Arafat's ability to evade the general disgust that people feel toward the tribal-patriarchal system that he created for decades. As hated as it is, and as hated as are those who benefit from it, Arafat remains the national symbol.
In the talk of the putsch that was or was not supposedly planned against Arafat, the existence of the Palestinian Legislative Council was almost forgotten. One of its most scathing criticisms of the government that resigned is that the government and Yasser Arafat informed the Western diplomats about the reform plan, but didn't bother to submit it to its first natural destination - the elected legislators.
The legislature is responsible for ensuring that the changes to be implemented are anchored in the organized legal framework that it represents, and that the choice of new ministers is made through consultation with all the Palestinian political factors, not only among senior Fatah officials, and in the context of the detailed reform program that the council itself formulated. Anything cooked up by senior Fatah officials during the siege on Arafat would have had to pass the legislative council in any case.
Observers who are not from the Fatah movement are convinced that the Fatah members of the council, who collectively came out against Arafat's threats and seductions and brought down his government, operated out of mixed motives: Some truly understand that it is time to change the tribal rules, or those of a royal court in which all compete with each other for the favor of the all-powerful ruler. And some operated as they did - to bring down the government - in order to participate in the reapportioning of the spoils, and after concluding that the chief has become weak.
In about another two weeks the council is supposed to hold the meeting at which the new government should be ratified. Because the council operated in the open its standing has improved in the eyes of Arafat and of the public. And Arafat, after the siege, is no longer as weak as he was before. Now it remains to be seen how the double strengthening on both sides of the barricade will affect the moves of the next two weeks.
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