Eye of the Beholder / Yasser Arafat Revisited

The PLO leader, a pale old man, thin and worn out, hosts bereaved parents in the ruins of his bureau

Last Tuesday around noon, I met Yitzhak Frankenthal near the Israel Defense Forces' roadblock at Qalandiyah. He was trying to get through in order to proceed to the government hospital in Ramallah. Our aim was to give blood, as a demonstration of our belief in peace and peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. Frankenthal is the father of a soldier named Arik who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in July 1994. A 51-year-old Jerusalemite and a member of Israel's business community, Yitzhak Frankenthal is a former owner of Tivol, a manufacturer of vegetarian products, and Snowcrest, an ice cream producer. He now spends all his time on improving relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and he is the driving force behind an association that already consists of some 400 bereaved families, half of whom are Israeli and half Palestinian. This forum operates the Hello-Shalom program, which is a unique telephone line for conversations between Palestinians and Israelis. Since it was opened a number of weeks ago, some 10,000 people have conversed on this phone line.

A few hours before Frankenthal found himself stuck on the Israeli side of the Qalandiyah roadblock, about 10 Palestinians appeared there. They were also members of bereaved families and they had come to donate blood at the Magen David Adom station in Jerusalem, as part of this same demonstration of belief in peaceful coexistence.

Frankenthal was part of the Israeli group that had entered Ramallah to give blood, but he had somehow been left behind. The Israeli soldiers at the roadblock allowed the other members of the group to go through. Frankenthal replaced his knitted skullcap with an old baseball cap, but he still did not look very much like an Arab. A reserve soldier at the Qalandiyah roadblock refused to allow him through. He was accompanied by Nir Yessod, whose mother was killed in 1987 in Kibbutz Misgav Am. Yessod as well was denied entry into Ramallah. The two did what Palestinians do under similar circumstances: They traveled to another roadblock.

Near the military courthouse in Beit El there is a narrow path, which is surrounded on both sides by an iron fence and which is designated for pedestrians with entry permits. The roadblock has been arranged to prevent the entry of Palestinian vehicles near the military courthouse and near the settlement adjacent to it. No one stopped us from parking our car near the outer wall of the courthouse. No one checked us. No one prevented us from entering Ramallah; in fact, nobody even gave us a second glance. By the time we arrived at the hospital, about half a dozen members of the Israeli group had already given blood, and an adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat urged Frankenthal to hurry to the Muqata compound, Arafat's headquarters.

In the plaza in front of the headquarters, bulldozers were already busy reconstructing the building; nonetheless, the scene of destruction was a very depressing sight to see. The remnants of the buildings looked like scenery in a war movie. No one barred entry to the building housing Arafat's headquarters. There were very few guards, and IDF personnel were nowhere to be seen in the immediate vicinity. The building's entrance, which never had any aura of national might, was now protected by sandbags and iron barrels; it was reminiscent of the front doors of homes in Jerusalem during the 1948 siege.

Beyond these barrels were more barrels and all sorts of junk, as well as tin cans, stretchers and Palestinian Red Crescent equipment. We ascended a poorly lit staircase and waited in a tiny room. Adjacent rooms contained beds, personal equipment and a large quantity of bundles and parcels. The staff of Arafat's bureau shared their experiences during the siege, telling us where they had been and what they were doing when they heard the first shots, how they managed over the next few days, where they slept, how they washed themselves and what they ate. They gave the impression that they had created an entire mythology surrounding the days of the siege. The group included a woman, May Saraf, President Arafat's adviser on European affairs. She had written a journal that will one day be the chapter of a book.

Arafat now works in a rather small room whose walls are bare. His desk is also the table around which the PA holds its meetings and perhaps is also used as a dining-room table: Underneath were cardboard parcels and all sorts of containers and crates. Beside the table was a huge pile of papers. In front was a box of Baby Wipes and a small scale-model of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock inside a transparent box.

Arafat has aged considerably since I last saw him some eight months ago. He was very pale and emaciated. His uniform looked a little too big for his shoulders. He has guests who cannot really be defined as senior foreign dignitaries. Last week he hosted the leader of the opposition in the South African parliament, Tony Leon. Since Leon is Jewish, Arafat invited his minister for Jewish affairs, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of the extreme ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, Neturei Karta, to join them. Leon, a young man with a great deal of charm and energy, felt in their company as if he were viewing a somewhat surrealistic sound-and-light show.

The blood donors were greeted in the usual fashion: a handshake, a kiss on the cheek and a photograph. Before Arafat posed for a photo, he carefully arranged the tiny flag on his jacket lapel in order to ensure that it would stand out in the picture. The whole business lasted about 10 minutes. Arafat looked rather burned out; he handled the ceremony skillfully, but mechanically. Frankenthal managed to whisper something in Arafat's ear and Arafat nodded his head in agreement.

Yasser Abed Rabbo handed Frankenthal a letter expressing support for his activities. Frankenthal told the media: "Our blood is no different from theirs. We share the same pain and the same future."

We had no trouble returning to Israel from Ramallah. We walked about 100 meters surrounded by a small group of Palestinians who were passing through the roadblock. No one bothered to check them. It may be assumed that this is pretty much the same way that the terrorists who murdered the loved ones of the members of the Israeli group managed to penetrate Israel. Even Frankenthal found the situation grotesque. For a moment, but only for one brief moment, he wondered whether he was not, after all, perhaps merely a Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Who's guilty of sedition?

About six months ago, two Channel 10 correspondents, Emanuel Rosen and Ben Kaspit, went to Umm al-Fahm, where they taped an interview with a 16-year-old boy who told them that he was prepared to become a shaheed (a martyr in the Palestinian struggle against Israel). A half-hour after the journalists left his home, the teenager already regretted having given them this interview. He did not really want to become a shaheed, he confessed to his parents. With a lawyer acting as intermediary, the boy's father demanded that the interview not be broadcast. But Channel 10 was not prepared to give up such a wonderful scoop, and agreed only to blur the boy's face on the TV screen. The blurring proved to be of little avail: The Israeli authorities believed that the boy had to be punished for this statement.

Last Thursday, the boy was brought in for questioning by the police. The interrogation began at 5:30 P.M. and continued without letup until 11:30 P.M. When it was over, he told his father that the interrogators had regarded him as someone who wanted to engage in terrorism. They treated him with deliberate rudeness, screaming at him, threatening him and insulting him. Although they did not beat him, they did demand that he say out loud, "Death to the Jews!" The boy refused, claiming that, while he was opposed to the occupation and to discriminatory treatment of Arabs, he did not want to see any Jews die. Besides, he explained, his father, who works for B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories - has many Jewish friends. The boy said that one of those friends was Ha'aretz correspondent Gideon Levy. At this point, one of the police interrogators replied: "Gideon Levy cannot be considered a Jew."

The interrogators forced the boy to undress completely and ordered him to face the wall. At the end of the interrogation, he was released on bail. He was charged with "sedition." His defense attorney might possibly argue that, if a charge of sedition is warranted in this case, the charge should not be directed at this youth, who tried, through the services of a lawyer, to prevent his statements from being televised, but should instead be directed at the television station that broadcast them.

The following response was given by Superintendent Yossi Hasson, a spokes-person for the Israel Police's Valley Sub-district: "The suspect, in presenting false claims, is attempting to distract attention from the serious suspicions that have been attributed to him. If the suspect had acted in accordance with the statement he made when Channel 10 taped his interview, he would have caused many casualties, injuring and possibly killing innocent civilians. The only appropriate response is to reject, with utter disgust, the suspect's claims."

`We castrated you, Mohammed!'

In the mid-1940s, a popular song among the members of the Palmach was entitled "We castrated you, we castrated you, Mohammed!" That song is remembered even today. During the 60 years that have passed since that time, various theories have surfaced about the song's origin. However, it was commonly assumed that members of the Palmach had tracked down and then castrated an Arab who had raped a Jewish woman. This was not an isolated case. In his biography of Yitzhak Sadeh, Zvika Dror writes that the commander of the Palmach even sent some of his men to a special course that was given at the Mendele clinic of the Kupat Holim Clalit health maintenance organization. "We would go there at 8:30 P.M. when the clinic was empty," Dror quotes his source. "A physician and a nurse taught us anatomy and afterward we practiced a castration procedure." (From "The Life and Times of Yitzhak Sadeh" published by Hakibbutz Hameuhad)

Now it is official: A book by Gamliel Cohen, "Undercover: The Untold Story of the Palmach's Undercover Arab Unit," published by the Ministry of Defense and the Galili Center for Defense Studies, reveals, with amazing precision, who the mythological "Mohammed" was, whom he raped, who authorized the rapist's castration, who performed the castration and how precisely the "surgical operation" was carried out. Cohen eventually joined the Mossad. He describes how the Palmach's undercover agents performed their liquidations; the same procedure is being used today in the territories.

The rapist who became part of Israeli folklore and who was known as "Mohammed," is identified in Cohen's book as Araf Ahmed Shatawi, a broad-shouldered, muscular man who lived in the village of Bissan, where the town of Beit She'an is presently located. Shatawi was suspected of having attempted to rape a young woman from Kibbutz Messilot. According to Cohen, the suspicions were based on intelligence data. Shatawi was alleged to have spotted the woman as she descended from a bus and to have dragged her into the bushes. She struggled and managed to thwart the rape attempt. Since the atmosphere in the kibbutz was already highly charged and since this was not the first attempted rape, the supreme command of the Haganah decided that it would provide an effective response to the incident. At first it was proposed that Shatawi be assassinated; however, because of the fear that an assassination might set off a chain of blood vendettas, it was decided, as Cohen puts it, "to deal with him in accordance with the biblical principle that calls for the chopping off of a thief's hand and which, in this case, would call for attacking the organ he used to perform the crime, namely, for castrating him."

The plan was submitted to Shaul Avigur for approval. He was somewhat hesitant, in view of the cruel nature of the proposed action; however, Yehoshua Palmon, who later became the prime minister's adviser on Arab affairs, persuaded him, and Avigur gave the plan the green light. According to Cohen, who quotes documents preserved in the IDF archives, the two individuals who carried out the castration procedure were Yohai Bin-Nun, who later became a major general and the commander-in-chief of the Israel Navy, and Amos Horev, who also later became a major general, the chief scientist of the defense establishment and the president of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. There was a third man, named Yaakuba Cohen; however, according to the Ministry of Defense version of the incident, he did not actually participate in the castration but instead stood guard over the rapist's family, while Bin-Nun and Horev dragged him from his home into an open field, where they castrated him. Before they set off for this mission, they were briefed by the chief physician of the communities of Tel Yosef and Ein Harod. Cohen does not name him. The book then goes on to provide a detailed surgical description of the castration, which sounds almost like a "do-it-yourself" manual. In the final analysis, according to the Ministry of Defense version, the "operation, it was pointed out, proved highly valuable because it had an immense impact on the entire Beit She'an Valley and horrified the Arab population."