Yasser Arafat's laconic statement that nobody could prevent him from reaching the Christmas mass in Bethlehem, spurred the IDF and the Israeli media into action. A few reports from Jerusalem said there was a convoy waiting "right now" to spirit him off on the forbidden journey. There were reports that soldiers at the checkpoints were told to look for Arafat masquerading as a woman. In Israel, it seemed, they were getting ready for a combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Hasambah, the Israeli childrens' series about a secret gang that fights the underworld and Arab terrorists.
But in Ramallah and in Arafat's office, no one knew about any such clandestine trip, with or without television cameras. True, some of Arafat's declarations to the TV cameras made his aides put on mysterious faces and add a few sentences that could have been interpreted to mean that plans were afoot to challenge the Israeli prohibition. But off-the-record private conversations made it clear that the only tactic they were taking seriously was lobbying the international community.
Arafat, the Number 1 citizen of the Palestinian Authority, has been experiencing in the past weeks what every Palestinian resident of the territories has experienced daily, since 1991: Israel's closure policies - absolute Israeli control over the basic right of Palestinians to freedom of movement.
There's a misguided view in Israel that before September 2000 the closures were put up and taken down as a result of terror attacks, and were always about preventing those attacks. Reality is more complex. In 1991, long before Oslo and before any suicide bombings in Israeli cities, Israel imposed a system of authorizations for Palestinians to travel between the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. Since then, the system has only become more sophisticated.
True, the toughening of the criteria since 1993 almost always took place within the context of terror attacks or attempted attacks. But the Israeli concept of limiting Palestinian freedom of movement was implemented during the first intifada, when repression had reached a dead end. On the one hand, the civilian uprising was blocked, but there was concern that without an Israeli political answer to the Palestinian issue, the armed resistance adopted by individuals would widen and spill over the Green Line.
Israel, as the occupying force responsible for the welfare of the occupied population, could not expand its military presence (the way it could in Lebanon, and the way it does now, when it argues that the Palestinians belong to a separate political entity).
Bureaucratic control over freedom of movement enhanced Israel's ability to track every Palestinian resident of the territories, and intensified the economic and social pressure on every member of the Palestinian community. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority turned the control over freedom of movement into an eternal bargaining card for negotiations and a means of control over the Palestinian economy and all its development plans. In the past year, the closed Gaza model has been applied to the West Bank. It splintered the West Bank into some 200 enclaves where the residents' movements are restricted to the minimum. This is a major change in Israel's system for controlling the areas, but it's only a quantitative change, not a qualitative one.
Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinians do what Arafat and his entourage did not; they take their lives into their own hands, risking being shot by soldiers; they break the siege and the closures and walk the valleys and wadis, over the hills, through the mud and rain. They waste hours and suffer endless humiliations trying to reach work or school or a doctor.
Up until this year, Israel provided senior Palestinian officials with VIP passes that gave them the freedom of movement that was denied to most of their constituents. That discrimination enabled the PA to establish commercial monopolies, and granted the senior officials, their relatives and their friends, the opportunity to open businesses that require freedom of movement. The officials made do with promises that these were temporary problems that would be solved with the establishment of the Palestinian state.
For these reasons, among others, despite the fact that closure became the dominating characteristic of Palestinian life, determining how the society developed, Palestinian society - its political and intellectual elite - did not come up with political and grass roots means of dealing with the closures. They did not make it a major issue that demanded world attention, for example, by comparing it to South Africa of the years of white rule. After all, Jewish settlers have absolute freedom of movement in the same territory where the Palestinians have none. They didn't try to prove that when Israel prohibits a Gazan from moving to the West Bank, it is not a matter of the fight against terror but a system of control, which over the years has become a political goal in itself - to force the Palestinians to accept the enclaves as the sum total of their political entity.
For those who live in the territories, it was clear that the tactics and strategies for a grass-roots struggle - which never evolved over the years and were never encouraged by the Palestinian leadership - were not going to suddenly burst forth overnight, for Arafat to use to get to Bethlehem.
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