Sad Ramallah found a semblance of its old self today, after Yasir Arafat prayed with everyman at a local mosque on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The street market in front of the Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque had been empty—unheard of for a Friday, according to longtime visitor Adnan Abraham, who waited out front for Arafat to come out. By the time the president emerged, the promenade was packed, and the regular Friday procession to an Israeli settlement for a brief tussle was set to begin.
If the television pictures of Arafat ducking into his Mercedes on Fridays are a familiar sight, so is the action that followed. Thirty or so Palestinians, most of them under the age of 18, hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers hidden in Jeeps behind large mounds of dirt. The whole exercise, practically speaking, looks absurd: Palestinian rocks (which, thanks to the Israeli incursion, are in ready supply) seem never to hit their intended targets, and maybe two or so bounce harmlessly off the hood or door of a heavily armed Jeep. But the 12-year-olds know the Israelis are itching to rumble, and in no time, one Jeep becomes four, and tear gas and compression grenades give way to live ammunition. Two hundred thirty-eight children have been killed in this latest intifada. Luckily today there are only minor injuries.
“Eat shit!” one elderly Palestinian woman yells toward the soldiers, before dragging an obstinate five-year-old away from the battle by his ear.
“It’s like a movie,” says George Ishmael, the Palestinian owner of a Jerusalem taxi company. “All of it—Arafat under siege, emerging victorious, the Israelis invading, the daily fighting, the suicide bombings. It’s . . . drama.”
But down the street from the Ramallah mosque, the current state of things is nothing so innocuous as a movie. In the Palestine Cafe, patrons glare wearily at a television, all intifada, all the time. Mostafa Ali, 12, considers pictures of Arafat. “He’s garbage,” says Ali, who wears the conflict over his left eye, where he was struck with an Israeli Defense Force bullet. Above his right eye sits a scar he says he received from an Israeli soldier in April. He declares his affiliation with Fatah, Arafat’s party, but he is fed up with Abu Amar (Arafat). Across the street in the Cafe Arabiyya, the toll is higher. At least eight regular patrons died during Israel’s April invasion, according to manager Sami Hassouni, and most of them were students, not fighters. “I don’t really feel like talking about it,” he says. “Maybe I can e-mail you their pictures instead?”
Ten minutes from the cafés in the center of Ramallah, an unmarked office serves the Palestinian drama’s two newest players, Diana Buttu and Michael Tarazi, the chosen voices of official Palestine. They were “instrumental”, they say, in the submission of Yasir Arafat’s important February 3 op-ed piece for The New York Times; today, they are drafting the PLO response to Israel’s new policies restricting movement for Palestinians. Americans watching television in April will have seen them dueling with the likes of Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball, and former presidential candidate-cum-talk show host Alan Keyes. What is striking about the Buttu and Tarazi duo, apart from their top-shelf law credentials, is how American they sound. And in a conflict that may be as much about culture as anything else, this is no small thing.
Buttu, 31, is actually Canadian. “After Camp David,” she says, “I didn’t really believe in negotiations.” Of the two, she is the uncensored one; twice during the interview, Tarazi stops her to make sure her comments are on the record. “The law doesn’t seem to matter,” she says of the Palestinian struggle for recognition. “No one seems to care.”
Formally, the two are lawyers with the Negotiations Unit of the PLO, researching the frontline issues—refugees, settlements, water, etc.—that will decide a final agreement. But Tarazi, soon after joining the team last year, realized that the Palestinians were having great trouble with “the message,” and started a separate communications department. He and Buttu soon wandered into perhaps the nastiest propaganda war in politics, and despite death threats and the limitations of the talk-show format, they believe their efforts may finally be bearing fruit. Both cite newspaper editorials debunking the myth of Ehud Barak’s generous offer to the Palestinians as proof that their campaign, aimed at journalists, citizens, and Capitol Hill, will ultimately prevail.
“We’re fighting an ossified narrative, and it’s really an uphill battle,” says Tarazi, who gave up a lucrative legal career in New York to return to Palestine. He and Buttu possess something else that makes them better equipped to wage the media war. “We didn’t grow up with the sense of occupier and occupied,” he says. Buttu agrees, saying, “There is nothing in the Canadian or American experience that teaches you how not to be free.” As a result, the two are able to avoid the same eggshells that negotiators like Saeb Erekat seem forced to walk.
“When they tell me the Palestinians haven’t compromised, I say, OK, let’s compromise: 50-50 instead of 78-22,” says Tarazi, referring to the proposed division of the two states. And the two of them repeat their message ad nauseam. A just settlement to the conflict can only be reached through international law. Up till now, the struggle has been about power alone. “We’ll observe the law,” Tarazi claims the Israeli negotiators told the Palestinians at Camp David, “when we’re forced to observe the law.”
Ramallah is now hard-pressed to hang on to talent like Buttu and Tarazi. Over a third of the city’s 40,000 residents are Palestinian Americans, educated abroad and expecting, as do most Palestinians, better days. Many have already left. One 21-year-old who preferred not to give her name says she is certain she will leave once she receives her finance degree from a local university. “Life has become impossible here, and I want a life.”
Elsewhere the war of slingshots and shotguns is beginning to wane. Three of the Israeli Jeeps have disappeared, and the boys are beginning to look bored with the battle. Many have stopped to buy ice cream from the vendor dodging gas canisters to make a shekel. A few head back to Arafat’s smashed compound to collect scrap metal from demolished cars. Will the boys be back next Friday? “If they’re still over there, then we’ll be back.”