Dreams of a helpful America keep Palestinians hoping
With two days to go before the UN statehood vote, some are celebrating already
I'd just been to the old boy's grave – presumably he's not turning inside, not this week anyway – and then, less than 50 metres from Manara Square where Ramallah's concrete lions sit, mouths open in boredom, was Yasser Arafat himself.
Walking, living, breathing; Arafat's face – as near as you can get minus the awful growth of beard – his dull green battledress jacket, familiar keffiyeh scarf folded to resemble the map of the original Palestine over his head and right shoulder.
He was followed by a crowd of flag-waving kids, an almost perfect lookalike for the real thing in the tomb up the road, a fantasy Arafat for a fantasy state. "He used to wander around dressed like that after 'Abu Amar' died," the man outside the pastry shop remarked coldly. "Now only the children make a fuss of him – they think he's the real thing."
"Arafat" – in real life, 58-year-old Hebron businessman Salem Smerat – held out his hand to me, and I have to admit it had the same soft, damp feel of the 75-year old "President" of "Palestine" who died seven years ago, decades after I'd first met him in Lebanon.
"We will be a democracy among the guns," he told me once. And yes, he said then, he loved the United Nations.
In Ramallah yesterday, they didn't love the UN but they understood its uses. Quite a few shopkeepers, all men of course, even suggested that they wanted Barack Obama to veto a Security Council vote on "Palestine's" statehood, since this would finally prove to all Arabs that America was not their friend. No one suggested that Obama, who so blithely declared a new relationship with the Muslim world in Cairo and called for a Palestinian state by 2012, might – in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson – courageously support a vote for "Palestine", albeit at the cost of his re-election. But then again, that would be fantasy, wouldn't it?
In the streets, there were drums and recorded martial music and children who climbed on the tired lions, and youths who plastered the walls with posters showing an American fist holding the scales of justice. "Palestine's" golden tray was empty, of course, Israel's filled with the usual statistics (750,000 Palestinians detained since 1967, more than 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, Israel in full control of more than 50 per cent of the West Bank, 519,000 Israeli settlers in 144 colonies in the occupied "Palestine"...).
It was a kind of jamboree, which Majdi summed up rather well, although not so bravely that he wanted to give me his family name.
"These people are celebrating without knowing the outcome of the UN vote," he said. "We have to wait these two days to see if we should celebrate. Oslo was a waste of time – the only one who won was Israel. They only had 100,000 settlers here in those days. But American mediation has been a nonsense. They interfere in other Arab countries and support revolutions – but when it comes to Palestine, they don't care."
And Majdi, who sells gold jewellery, was superstitious. "Everything goes wrong for us in September," he said. "There was 'Black September' in 1970 and there was the Sabra and Chatila massacre in September 1982" – note to all readers: how many, in the aftermath of the 9/11 anniversary, recalled that this week marked the 29th anniversary of the slaughter of 1,700 Palestinians in Beirut? – "and there was the first intifada in September 1987, and then there was Oslo and now it's another September and we are going to the UN. But it's right to go and stir things up. If a baby doesn't cry – do you think it will get milk?"
But just then, outside the "Palestine" clothes store – opened by the owner's grandfather when Palestine did exist under British mandate – two men reported that tear gas was being fired down at Qalandria.
So off we sped to Qalandria, the mythical frontier between West Bank Area A (supposedly run by the Palestinian Authority) under the Oslo agreement – itself as dead as Arafat – and Area C (supposedly controlled by the Israelis), where 80 Israeli soldiers – citizens of a state that really does exist – confronted 20 youths who very definitely will not be citizens of a state this week if Obama and La Clinton get their way.
It was the usual mess of burning tyres, shrieking men, the cracking of 5.56mm steel bullets (rubber-coated) and the splintering of stones (non-rubber-coated) which landed among the 40 journos and sent a cameraman yelping off with an arm wound.
Ridiculous, of course, routine theatre for the TV crews – deliberately staged by both sides, I suspect – which culminated in the usual charge of riot-visored soldiers, mixed in with plain-clothes cops brandishing pistols, who grabbed two young men and thrashed them to the ground and kicked them and beat them and then dragged them off through the Qalandria checkpoint for – no doubt – a few friendly questions and treatment which undoubtedly met the highest standards of humanitarian care.
The tear gas drenched us all and I consumed the usual mouthful of lemon to clean my eyes and retreated to my room at the King David Hotel in west Jerusalem with smoke-blackened face.
But along my corridor, I couldn't ignore the old photos. There was the UN flag, proudly flapping from the King David's roof; it was taken just after the UN had voted for Israel's statehood. And there was Ben Gurion, beaming with pride in the hotel exactly a year later, celebrating the anniversary of his new state and his nation's victory at the UN. Qalandria, by the way, is five miles from Jerusalem – and more than 60 years away.