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Among Israelis, a Few Feel Pity, but Most Are Glad to See Arafat Go

November 12, 2004
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In Yasser Arafat’s death, Palestinians lost a national symbol, and Israelis lost the face of the other side. For so many years, Arafat — often shown grinning under his trademark kaffiyeh while overseeing the struggle against Israel — was the opponent Israelis somehow loved to hate. A post-Arafat landscape is a murky one, mixing hopes for renewed peace efforts with fears of Palestinian infighting and chaos.

Israelis and Palestinians rode out a week of uncertainty over Arafat’s condition in a French hospital until the Palestinian Authority president’s death was announced early Thursday. Now they are coming to terms with what his absence might mean.

Edna Bar-Or said she is not grieving for Arafat, but adds that his legacy is not as simple as many Israelis think.

“I’m not crying over his death,” said Bar-Or, 54, surrounded by rows of freshly cleaned and pressed clothes at her dry cleaning shop. “But he cannot be dismissed simply as a terrorist.”

“He was the one who worked to establish a Palestinian state and he was the one who shook hands on the idea of two states,” she said. “He lived the revolution of the Palestinian people.”

For Yoanna Shofel, Arafat was simply a dictator who missed his chance to make history.

Emerging from her morning workout at a Tel Aviv gym, Shofel said she holds out few hopes for peace even now that Arafat is dead.

“I don’t thing it will change anything,” she said. “Until the Oslo peace accords he was a symbol, and he should have stepped aside then and there. Ever since he returned to Gaza and the West Bank he has only caused damage. It’s too bad: He could have done something for his people.”

In his first public comments after Arafat’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon struck a hopeful chord.

“The recent events could be a historic turning point for the Middle East. Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay,” Sharon told reporters, adding that the fate of peace efforts hinges on the Palestinians’ ability to halt terror.

Shimon Peres, who alongside Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize following their signing of the Oslo peace accords, also saw Arafat’s death as a possible watershed.

“I think a period has ended in Palestinian history and for the Israeli and Palestinian nations a new era can now come,” Peres told Israel’s Army Radio, “but it won’t be easy.”

Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank ahead of Arafat’s burial, scheduled for this weekend in Ramallah, as one of a number of security measures taken in case of unrest.

During a break at the café where he works, Erad Omer, 30, said the reality of Arafat’s death had not yet sunk in, but that he was hopeful it might symbolize a new era.

“When I was a boy he was a symbol of everything bad. As I grew up my opinion changed at the same time as he seemed to be maturing and changing,” Omer said. “But he made mistakes and was not brave enough to overcome the extreme within his society. Now it’s time for a leader from the younger generation.”

Azmi Bashara, an Israeli Arab member of Knesset, faulted Israelis for demonizing Arafat. Israeli Arabs in Nazareth reportedly were planning to hold a symbolic funeral for Arafat and to declare three days of mourning.

Earlier in the week, Mordi Peretz, 44, a deli owner in Tel Aviv, reflected out loud on the long road Israel had walked with Arafat — from pariah to possible peace partner and back to pariah. When he saw the 75-year-old Arafat, frail and ill, wave goodbye as he boarded a helicopter that would take him on his last journey out of Ramallah for medical treatment, he felt mixed emotions.

“He was everything negative and achieved none of things he could have,” Peretz said.

“But when I saw him waving goodbye,” he adds, “I felt a certain sympathy, and I felt badly for the Palestinians. Israelis, though they despise him, will still feel the loss of his image as the symbol of the Palestinian people.”

Mordechai Kedar served for 25 years in the military intelligence branch of the Israeli army and now teaches at Bar-Ilan University. He spoke of the feelings Israelis are experiencing.

Borrowing from a joke about a man’s mixed emotions as he watches his mother-in-law plunge off a cliff in the man’s fancy car, Kedar said that it’s like “we are watching Arafat riding our Mercedes over a cliff.”

In the short term, Arafat’s death may throw uncertainty into the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, his death could result in a chaos that prevents the Palestinians from quickly resolving their internal affairs, delaying their ability to turn toward Israel in a renewed peace process, Kedar said.

“His personal game is finished. The question is what will people think is his legacy,” Kedar said.

Arafat seemed to seal his fate with Israelis, and perhaps with the world, when he rejected the peace proposals at Camp David in the summer of 2000, instead giving the nod to renewed violence against Israel.

That has become the four years of intense fighting known as the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Almost 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have been killed.

Israelis who supported the peace process and thought Arafat would be the key to resolving the conflict feel betrayed.

“As a Jew and as an Israeli, I see him as a murderer and I am happy to see him die,” said Robert Hannuna, 24, a university student. Hannuna said he can’t forgive what he sees as the mistakes Arafat made when it came to trying to forge peace with Israel.

“He was a hero to the Palestinians, he is the one who put the Palestinian issue on the world agenda, but he missed the chance to make peace,” he said.

Despite the twinge of sympathy felt by Peretz, the deli owner, distaste for Arafat is one of the few things that seems to unite the left and right in Israel.

On the popular Israeli satire show “Sold Game,” contestants were asked how they would remember Arafat.

One brought out a small battery-wound yellow chick, its head wrapped in a kaffiyeh and said, “Like a little chicken.”

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