In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

Later that evening I meet Nasser al-Kidwa, Arafat's nephew and the new Palestinian foreign minister, in the lobby of the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah, a regular hangout for the new Palestinian elite. Men sit on pastel-suede lounge furniture and smoke cigarettes beneath a fresco of smirking putti holding a swagged cloth. Al-Kidwa has little time for frivolities. With his round face and small features, short arms, and tiny fingers, there is something disconcertingly fetal and half-formed about his physicality. Family was never important to him or to his uncle, he tells me. All that mattered was the success of the cause. He invites me up to his bare hotel room, where he informs me about the contents of his uncle's medical files.

"The funny thing is, I brought them to New York, and then brought them back to Gaza, and then from Gaza to Ramallah," al-Kidwa remembers of the large binder—500-plus pages, with tabs of several colors, containing x-rays and medical charts—that he was given by the French authorities. "No one believed they are in my damn suitcase, including the Israelis. I just passed through the checkpoint without telling anybody anything."

When I ask him whether he read the files, he shakes his head. "I didn't look at them because I knew that we wouldn't find a single word that was inconsistent with what we were told," he says. "I personally think that it is probably an unnatural cause."

"So the Israelis poisoned him?" I ask.

"I can't say that, because, again, this is too serious to just be said like that," al-Kidwa answers.

He understood his uncle as a great actor who took pleasure in his performances. "He succeeded in turning the cause of the refugees into the cause of the century, while his enemy is probably the strongest actor in the world, in modern history if not beyond," al-Kidwa explains, his voice falling almost to a whisper.

"That enemy being the United States?" I ask.

"No," he says. "Israel. And its supporters. The Jewish community around the world."

Even here, in Ramallah, he is careful to whisper. When I ask him to explain the achievements of his uncle's rule in the context of the Palestinian national movement, his voice returns to normal.

"He set some rules—noble, I think," al-Kidwa says. "For instance, no one will be deprived of his salary, even traitors. If you shoot at him, still your family will get your salary, and your kids will still go to school."

One Big Prison

My trips to Gaza, a teeming seaside strip of land with a distinctly Egyptian flavor, provide the most striking evidence of the economic consequences of Arafat's misrule. The Erez checkpoint, where I enter, is like a wound that has been opened and reopened. Twenty-five-foot-high sections of concrete barrier of the type that are being used for the wall in Jerusalem stand next to a sandbagged pillbox that has been reinforced with steel. A decade ago, after the first intifada, the guard post here was a white-painted wooden shack on the road. Now, past the elaborate security barriers on the Israeli side, a long, dank, tin-roofed corridor stretches toward Gaza like a passageway for cattle. At the end of the corridor is a ramshackle guard post. The Palestinian soldier at the post wears green army fatigues and a knit wool hat embroidered with the words "Top Gun." Aided by the light of a single bulb, he laboriously inscribes the passport numbers of entering visitors with a worn pencil in a spiral-bound notebook. On the wall behind him is a framed photograph of the Old Man.

To the right of the checkpoint is the Erez industrial area. One of the few tangible results of hundreds of meetings to figure out a way to help Israeli and foreign manufacturers tap the Palestinian labor market, the industrial area is nearly abandoned after a series of suicide bombings. A wet, acrid haze from untreated sewage and burning plastic hangs over Gaza during the daylight hours, and gets worse at night. The sewage-treatment plant in Beit Lahia is working at three times its normal capacity.

It takes me only two hours to travel the entire length of Gaza. My destination is the city of Rafah, which lies half on the Israeli side and half on the Egyptian side of the border. Rafah is a tropical place with famous hothouses that grow flowers for export and excellent vegetables. Egyptian flags fly above the high wall that marks the border, which is a magnet for smugglers. Israeli raids to stop the contraband have turned the neighborhoods of Rafah nearest the border into a moonscape of shattered concrete. It is easy to see why Rafah has become a byword for the misery of the Palestinian people since the beginning of the intifada.

Said Zourub, the mayor of Rafah, is a middle-aged man with a handsome black moustache, who is wearing a black turtleneck in the 90˚ heat. Riding in his Ford Explorer, we stop frequently as groups of men warn of an incursion by an Israeli armored unit. Rounding the corner, we find two armored Israeli bulldozers knocking down a building that was used as cover for a smuggling tunnel.

The Rafah school is pockmarked by heavy-caliber bullets, many of which date from a memorable firefight in which the armed men of the refugee camps established positions there.

"Here was a tunnel," the mayor says, pointing to a flattened pile of rubble. On a wall nearby is English-language graffiti memorializing "Rachel who came to Rafah to protect our camp," a reference to Rachel Corrie, an American volunteer who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in March of 2003 when she attempted to prevent a house from being demolished. Next to the graffiti about Corrie is the word "Fuck."

Zourub remembers the day when Abu Ammar made his triumphant entry into Gaza, in 1994.

"My son asks me on that day, 'Baba, why did Abu Ammar come back here?'" Zourub tells me, as we drive through the ruined streets of his city. "I tell him, 'Abu Ammar came to make things better for the people.' Now, when Abu Ammar dies, he tells me, 'Baba, you are a big liar. Abu Ammar failed to achieve anything.'"

The mayor eases his 4x4 around a corner, as if the machine can delicately sense danger. We stop, and a large group of men gather around the mayor's vehicle to complain that a tank has destroyed a manhole. A man in a tan sweater and a black jacket rides his bicycle past, followed by a man in a donkey cart.

The drive back to Gaza City takes four and a half hours. I spend the night in a luxury hotel by the beach, a short walk from the four-story multimillion-dollar villa constructed by Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, on land that was designated for use as a public park. The next morning I meet with Iyad Sarraj, a human-rights activist and the director of the leading mental-health organization in Gaza. In the 1980s, during the first intifada, many of his patients were prisoners who had been tortured by the Israelis. In the 1990s the prisoners he treated were victims of torture by the Palestinian Authority's principal militia, the Preventive Security Service. When Sarraj complained about the poor state of civil liberties under President Arafat, he was jailed three times, beaten, and tortured. A handsome secularist in his forties, he wears a black-leather motorcycle jacket and smokes constantly during our interview, which is held in his office overlooking the Mediterranean. His eyes are tired.

"Palestinians have lost the battle because of their lack of organization and because they have been captives of rhetoric and sloganeering rather than actual work," he says. "I believe that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in one way or the other is between development and underdevelopment, civilization and backwardness. Israel was established on the rule of law, on democratization, and certain principles that would advance Israel, while the Arabs and the Palestinians were waiting always for the prophet, for the rescuer, for the savior, the mahdi. Arafat came, and everyone hung their hats on him without realizing that there is a big gap between the rescuer and the actual work that needs to be done. This is where the Palestinians lost again the battle. They lost it in '48 because of their backwardness, ignorance, and lack of organization in how to confront the Zionist enemy. They lost it when they had the chance to build a state, because the PA was absolutely corrupt and disorganized."

Documents captured by the Israelis give a very detailed picture of the vast protection racket set up by Arafat and his henchmen to govern Gaza. At the top of the pyramid were Arafat and his inner circle. Below them were the Gaza security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, and the Gaza intelligence chief, Amin al-Hindi. Dahlan's deputy, Rashid Abu Shabak, who was responsible for terror attacks on Israelis as well as for the murder of Palestinians, controlled the Karni checkpoint, demanding exorbitant bribes for allowing goods to pass in and out of the Gaza Strip. Dahlan, Shabak, and the other heads of the Preventive Security Service apparatus profited from their joint investments with a businessman named Ihab al-Ashqar. Together they controlled the Great Arab Company for Investment and Development, which imported gravel through the Karni checkpoint; the al-Motawaset Company, which bought gravel from the Great Arab Company and made cement; and the al-Sheik Zayid construction project. Large sums of money regularly changed hands among the partners. Additional sums came directly from Arafat himself.

"To the brother the Rais, may Allah protect him," wrote Muhammad Dahlan on January 1, 2001. "Please instruct the payment of $200,000." Arafat's reply, "Ministry of Finance: pay $150,000," is duly noted.

The results of this system of payoffs and theft are written in the rubble fields of Rafah and on the walls and utility poles of the Jabalya refugee camp, near the Erez crossing. The flags that flutter over the camp represent the different Palestinian factions. Green is for Hamas, black for Islamic Jihad, yellow for Fatah, and red for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A wall banner reads Hamas congratulates the Islamic nation for the al-Fitr feast. Teenage martyrs are everywhere in the camp. Their solemn, unblinking eyes stare out from commemorative posters that promise the sweetness of everlasting life and the sureness of divine vengeance.

My guide, Ismail, is twenty years old, quiet and well-spoken. With his jean jacket, gelled brown hair, sideburns, sharp nose, and olive skin, he looks like a singer in a Latin pop band. He works in a bakery, though he once dreamed of joining the Preventive Security Service. His family refused their permission. "The reputation of the Preventive Security has been destroyed by the Death Group," Ismail explains sadly, referring to the notorious unit headed by an officer named Nabil Tammuz.

As we wait by the Erez checkpoint, three kids pass us on a donkey cart, laughing and having a wonderful time as they circumvent the roadblock by going off into the fields, where cars cannot follow. "The Jeep is nothing compared to the donkey cart now!" they call out. Since the beginning of the intifada the price of a donkey-cart ride in Gaza has more than tripled.

When I ask Ismail if he ever thought of leaving this place, his watchful face goes slack, and a dreamy look comes into his eyes. "This is the wish of my life," he answers simply. As our driver inches forward, a disembodied voice orders in Hebrew, "Lachzor"—"Go back." Gunfire crackles over our heads and into the fields. After another forty-five minutes of waiting I decide to walk across the road, with a friend who has accompanied me here. We pass a thin gray line of workers coming out of the Erez industrial area—fewer than a hundred, in an area that was made for thousands—and then we stand and wait for an hour and a half or so at the Palestinian end of the checkpoint, where a gangster with huge gold-rimmed sunglasses balanced on his long nose is bringing in a shipment of cars from Israel. A heavy-caliber Israeli gun opens up over the road, pumping jackhammer bursts into the fields.

"Night fire," my companion explains. "They are keeping the barrels warm." As I trudge through the dark, echoing tunnel that leads back to Israel, I pass two Arab boys arguing over money. "You stole three shekels," one says. "I am not a thief!" his friend answers. The next evening a suicide squad attacks the guard post, and three attackers die. When I come back to Gaza, everything is the same, except for a ten-foot hole and a new pile of rubble.

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David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.

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