Some thoughts inspired by a brief encounter with Yasser Arafat thirty years ago

A year after signing the ground-breaking Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, the President of the Palestine National Authority, Yasser Arafat, visited Beijing in a bid to further cement Chinese support for the Palestinian cause.

Following his meeting with then President Jiang Zemin, Arafat held a press conference at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. As the Beijing correspondent for the South China Morning Post, I was invited to attend.

Arafat arrived in his trademark military fatigues and keffiyeh, accompanied by two discrete but highly impressive bodyguards who kept a close watch on proceedings. Arafat was very approachable and engaging with the press – a far cry from most heads of state visiting the Chinese capital at that time. Perhaps emboldened by the relaxed atmosphere, one of my American colleagues stood up at the end of the press conference and asked:

“Mr President, I notice that you still wearing your side arm. Can you tell us why that is?”

Arafat smiled and replied: “As long as there are people still trying to kill me, I will carry my weapon.”

I have been thinking more about that response recently as the cycle of violence and killing in the so-called Holy Land has escalated to horrifying levels. Arafat was right to be on his guard even after the Oslo Accords, in which the Palestine Liberation Organization renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace in return for a governing role in the West Bank and Gaza. The initiative was one of many internationally brokered settlements that offered a brief moment of hope but failed to provide a lasting settlement.

Just one year after Arafat’s visit to Beijing, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had co-signed the Accords with him, was assassinated by a Jewish rightwing extremist who believed God had decreed it was permissible to “kill anybody who was prepared to give the sacred land of Israel to the enemy.”

Israel, indeed, the whole world, was shocked by the killing of a Jewish leader by another Jew but rather than inspire peace and reconciliation, the religion of hatred and revenge killings only gathered momentum. Just a few months later, following a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 57 Israelis, and the killing of six Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, the Israeli government launched a massive counter-offensive in Lebanon called “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” which resulted in the deaths of at least 160 civilians.

A month later, Israelis went to the polls and elected Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister for the first time. The new prime minister paid lip service to the Accords at the time but, as been painfully apparent over the last three decades, Netanyahu is only interested in securing land for Israel and eliminating any threats to that land regardless of the cost.

The fundamental problem, I would suggest, is that when one group of people or one religion holds that a certain piece of land is sacred to them and an unalienable part of their identity, it can be difficult to accommodate other people or other religions on that land, especially if those other religions are viewed as the enemy. It is difficult but certainly not impossible.

As Karen Armstrong points out in her seminal book Jerusalem, it has been a measure of the rule of all monotheistic conquerors of the city how they dealt with the fact that it was holy place to other people before them. The great Jewish King David, she notes, was relatively benign in allowing the previous rulers, the Jebusites, to remain in the city – other Jewish rulers including the current government have been less generous. The Christian crusaders of course were appalling in his regard, and it was only the subsequent Islamic conquests of Jerusalem that allowed the Jews to return to their holy city.

There have periods of tolerance and calm in the holy city amid the madness of the last two millennia, and while the situation at the moment seems hopeless, it is important to remember that there have always been and always will be voices for peace. Back in 1995, in response to Palestinian overtures, around 700 prominent Israelis signed a letter that perfectly articulated the need for tolerance and recognition of the humanity of others:

Jerusalem is ours, Israelis and Palestinians—Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Our Jerusalem is a mosaic of all the cultures, all the religions, and all the periods that enriched the city, from the earliest antiquity to this very day—Canaanites and Jebusites and Israelites, Jews and Hellenes, Romans and Byzantines, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Mamelukes, Ottomans and Britons, Palestinians and Israelis. They and all the others who made their contribution to the city have a place in the spiritual and physical landscape of Jerusalem.

Our Jerusalem must be united, open to all and belonging to all its inhabitants, without borders and barbed wire in its midst.

It probably will not happen in my lifetime, but I hope one day those voices for peace will be listened to and acted upon, and the borders and barbed wire will start to come down.

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