In the fall of 1991, a then-unknown Palestinian activist named Ziad Abu Ein organized what became known as the Olive Branch March. It was the end of the First Intifada, when the knot between the Palestinians and the Israelis still might have been undone. The idea of bringing thousands of people into the streets carrying olive branches made the PLO leadership in Tunis nervous. But Ziad got 100 friends, and 20 cars, and a picture of Arafat, and they began marching through the streets of Ramallah. “After half hour, when the people see us moving in the street, marching, this is a new idea,” he told me the first time we met, nearly a decade later. “Lights, flashers, bumping on horns, people holding Arafat’s picture, holding olive branches. After half hour, you wouldn’t believe it. Two thousand cars. Trucks filled with people. Women in the street marching. Dancing. People usshh—like free. Moving. From Bir Zeit to Al Amari Camp, to Qalandia, moving, moving, moving. Thousands. I believe it was at that time more than 40,000 people in the street.”
CNN broadcast the olive branch march live. Arafat called Ziad from Tunis. In Madrid, the leader of the Palestinian delegation, Dr. Haidar al-Shafi, told the assembled dignitaries that the people were in the streets, marching with olive branches. On the second day, the marchers attempted to enter Jerusalem with their olive branches but were barred by the Israeli military and police, and a minor riot ensued. However it ended, it was the first and last nonviolent mass demonstration by the Palestinian people inside Palestine in support of peace.
Abu Ein enjoyed remembering the day because it so perfectly expressed his delight in political jiu-jitsu and nonviolent protest and because it turned out exactly the way he wanted. “Where did this idea come from?” I asked him that day, over coffee. “From my mind,” he laughed.
It was a special mind, belonging to a special person. He died this week from an apparent heart attack while confronting Israeli occupation troops outside the settlement of Adei-Ad near Ramallah. It is unclear whether he was shoved or throttled by Israeli soldiers, or whether someone fired a tear gas canister at his chest, or whether his heart simply gave out after a lifetime of stress and heavy smoking. Whatever the cause, it is a tragedy. When I heard that the marchers were carrying olive saplings, I cried.
Almost a decade ago, I set out to write what I hoped might be the definitive journalistic account of Yasir Arafat’s legacy. I was drawn to Arafat because he was the father of the modern-day Palestinian nation and also perhaps the greatest no-limit poker player in the history of a region where survival depends on the ability to keep a clear head while clouding the minds of other players through fantasy, violence, bribery, and other dark arts that shape the political culture of the Middle East. Arafat’s skill at the poker table allowed him to shape and sustain the Palestinian national movement while parlaying a seemingly endless number of losing hands: the bad faith of the Israelis; the bad faith of the Arabs; the bitter internecine politics among the traumatized residents of refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere; his expulsion from Beirut; and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By playing his cards well, Arafat gave his people life when the State of Israel and most Arab nations preferred for them to disappear. Yet Arafat was no George Washington or David Ben-Gurion. The decisions that he made and the political culture that he created and controlled made it impossible for the Palestinian people to realize the dream of living as free citizens of an independent state.
I spent six months in the West Bank and Gaza talking to Arafat’s closest confidantes, family members, and friends, as well as to the Israeli politicians and spies who dealt with him, and to the American and international diplomats who spent endless hours trying to rope him into some version of a final deal that they all felt was reasonable. What the accounts of all these actors had in common is that Arafat outfoxed them—all of them. Some of them knew it and expressed their anger at his deceptions. Others admired his skill at cards. Others denied the extent to which they had been suckered. I found it both depressing and impressive that nearly everyone I spoke with had fallen under the spell of a man with such an extraordinary capacity for manipulation and deceit.
Ziad Abu Ein wasn’t a thief or an egomaniac. He was a struggler, whose dream was to bring an end to the conflict. His goofy, street-smart manner and missing front teeth gave him a semi-comic appearance that contrasted with the sincerity of his words and actions. I admired him—as a person and as a political player. A youth leader of Fatah in high school in Ramallah, he was arrested by the Israelis for the first time in 1977, at the age of 17. He was arrested for the second time in Chicago, and was extradited from the United States to Israel in December 1981 to stand trial for being a member of a Fatah cell that planted a bomb in Tiberias that killed two Israeli teenagers. Ziad was not a bomb-maker, but there was no question of his willingness to sacrifice his liberty for the cause at the instructions of leaders like Abu Jihad and Abu Amar, whose slogans he scrawled on the walls of Ramallah since he was old enough to write his own name.
Ziad was released from prison in 1985 and then a few months later became the first person placed under administrative detention by the Israeli government—a procedure that lacked any legal foundation (until it was later approved by the Knesset). The PLO wanted him to be part of the delegation to the Madrid talks, but Meir Dagan, then a military commander, refused to let him leave the country.
Ziad loved Abu Amar, the nom de guerre of Yasir Arafat, not because he shared Arafat’s interest in deceit, or because he was interested in power or personal wealth. He loved Arafat because he had the human touch in a political culture where it is common for leaders to treat their underlings and constituents like dogs. When Ziad’s father died, his mentor was there for him. “Arafat was calling me. ‘Oh, Ziad, believe me, if I could come to your house now I would come.’ He,” meaning Abu Amar, “is crying with you also.”
The political culture that Arafat created was a network of corruption in which Arafat held all the strings, and Ziad had no illusions about how it functioned. “If there is a meeting in Frankfurt, you need tickets. Where to go to get tickets? Go to Arafat,” he told me. “ ‘Hello, Arafat, I have an invitation from Germany for meeting about this and this.’ ‘OK, what do you need—you need the money for the tickets and hotel and so and so, OK.’ And he signs for you. ‘Oh, I have people, they demolish his house, he needs to rebuild his house.’ ‘I have a prisoner released from the prison, he needs some help, he needs an attorney.’ Everything.
“To be a minister, or to be a small guard, you need the signature from Arafat. And the people become practiced in this. This was the system. Arafat built it. So, right now, we have a problem, because we are accustomed to this system.”
Ziad and his fellow teenage revolutionaries from the West Bank and Gaza knew that Arafat had made some bad mistakes and that many of the people around him were faithless and corrupt. But in the end, they were still Abu Amar’s children. “When he died, a friend called me,” he told me, in one of our conversations. “He said, ‘Ziad, I hate him. I don’t like him. I don’t like his system. But the day when he died, I am crying. I am speaking about him very lovely words. I don’t know what is happening.’ ”
What came afterwards was the institutionalized system of corruption that Arafat fathered, minus the human touch that made it significant—and hopeful. The knowledge of how to pluck at the strings of human feeling, or to show people that their lives mattered, has always been foreign to Abu Mazen, Ziad told me. “I told Arafat’s office that I would be tomorrow morning released. Told his office, not him. After half hour, Arafat called me,” he explained. “Abu Mazen doesn’t make a call. Abu Mazen doesn’t care if you are sick in the house.”
As a member of the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy, Ziad kept his distance from the men who drove Audis and Mercedes sedans and concentrated his energy on the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and their families. He had been a prisoner himself, and the idea of lining his own pockets with money that belonged to people who were suffering for the Palestinian nation was repulsive to him. He believed that his experience of prison was a model. “We have a box for all the prisoners for what comes from outside, from the family, institutions, or the Palestinian Authority, so that the distribution will be equal,” he told me. “We have our independent state inside the prisons. We have democracy. We have law inside the prison. If one man has a problem with others, we have punishment inside the prison. We have an organization for smuggling cell phones inside the prison. I spoke with Arafat from the prisons. We have hundreds of mobiles inside the prisons now.”
“You smuggle them in piece by piece?” I asked him.
“Ahhhh,” he paused and smiled. “It’s your business?”
Once he told me the story of a big intifada inside the prison at Kitzaot, during which the prisoners hurled paving stones and chunks of asphalt at the guards. What was memorable about the story was his keen understanding of the power dynamics between the two sides. “Sometimes they speak, ‘we are officials, we have the power, we have right, we bring tanks,’ and so on. And we tell them, ‘do what you want.’ ” He understood that both sides had limits, and he was keenly interested in how leverage could be best exerted under circumstances that might have struck most people as hopeless. “Sometimes you boycott the official who is head of a section. He say hi, you don’t say hi to him. To live with you for a couple of days without to speak to him, it is a problem for him, and he becomes crazy. And at the end you need to have a quiet time and bring what you need inside the prison,” he explained. “Because in the end, in the Negev, in Kitzaot, we have about one thousand, five hundred prisoners, they can’t handle 1,500. In the end they need 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 persons, to speak with them, so they can know their names, and solve the problem.”
Ziad was not a sentimentalist or a religious fanatic. He was a man of his people and of his time. He believed in a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians could and would live together in peace. He saw the Israelis as the enemy with whom he would have to live, and not as demons. “We believed in negotiations with the Israelis,” he told me in 2005. “At the same time, the Israelis are just wasting time. They continue to establish settlements, continue to keep people in prison who should be free. The Israelis are cheating the Palestinian people by speaking about peace, and they continue stealing lands and building settlements.” His assessment of the situation and of the Israeli national character struck me as true. “All the Israeli politicians just argue,” he told me. “They argue with each other. With God they also argue. God tells them to bring a cow, they argue. ‘What color?’ ”
He was equally incisive and unsparing about his own side. “Before the Palestinian Authority came, most of the people are VIP,” he once put it. “After the Palestinian Authority came, just a few people become VIP.” The Second Intifada, he explained, had two audiences: the Israelis, and the Palestinian leadership. “Some of the leaders were starting to cooperate as businessmen with the Israelis. The people who are negotiating with Israel should not have any interests in business with Israel, first. Secondly, the people who deal with Israel should not have any other official work.”
In the end, his message to both the Palestinians and the Israelis was the same: “Give me ending the occupation,” he told me, when I interviewed him for the Arafat piece. “Before that, you want me to take off my jacket, to take off my trousers, to take off my shoes, to undress my wife—OK, but at the end, clearly enough you must also speak about ending the occupation with the creation of an independent Palestinian state so that our country is ours. That’s it. And I need the Palestinian Authority to be clear before the whole world: We accept the right of the Israeli State to have its existence and continue life and so on and so on and have its security. Clear. We need a Palestinian State to live side by side in peace with the Israelis in the 1967 borders. Clear.”
Clarity, alas, was never Arafat’s style. So, Abu Ein, who took pleasure in the subtle arts of nonviolence, found himself by the side of his friend Marwan Barghouti, jailed leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the most charismatic and talented leader of his generation of street-smart Palestinian revolutionaries, as an architect of the Second Intifada, which was a disaster for both peoples. “In secret, we trying to plan this Aqsa intifada to be continuous, to solve our problem,” he told me. “We want the people to continue the intifada, to increase our will, to raise the ceiling. In Taba, we upped our ceiling very high. So, the intifada succeeds in raising the Israelis to the top of our aims in December, but it also killed its partner. So, it succeeds in part, and not in other part.” Then Sept. 11 happened, and the Palestinian cause was dead. Internally, the logic of violence favored Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not Fatah. Ziad understood that clearly, and he knew it was a disaster.
That the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will continue to warp and embitter the lives of both sides is the logical outcome of having two peoples with legitimate legal, historical, and emotional claims to the same strip of land, which under nearly all imaginable conditions seems too small and freighted with symbolic meaning and yearnings to ever be shared in peace. But what I learned from Ziad was that the outcome we have now is contingent. It didn’t have to be this way.
“We understand Israeli thought and personality and ideas probably better than people from abroad,” he told me, the last time we met. “I spent 12 years of my life inside the prison, in negotiations with Israelis about the prisoners, making strikes, hunger strikes, fighting sometimes, sometimes throwing stones, sometimes eating together, negotiations together, sometimes drinking together. Yanni, we become practiced, you know. Good fighters, and good negotiators. This is our life. Even if you are workers here, you have some mentality of negotiations with Israelis. Your price will be higher, and your price will be lower. We who grew up under occupation know how to behave here when the troops stop you, know how to behave when the businessman come, or with Israeli tourists in the West Bank, or being tourists inside Israel, when the Israelis call you, arrest you, speak with you, threaten you—the different circles of life. We know how to speak Hebrew well, know how to speak with them, we are not afraid of them, we know how to deal with them.”
It is sobering to think that his was the last generation of Palestinians for whom those statements will be true. What we have now are the fanatics of Hamas who have turned Gaza into a missile base run by Islamic mafias and fanatics in Israel who burn Arab children alive.
The way Ziad died was a logical and meaningful outcome of the way he lived and of the things he believed in. He died with Palestinian marchers holding olive branches, who did and do exist—contrary to the mindless propaganda spouted by many arm-chair Jewish critics—but never even remotely had the ability to influence the big events that shaped their lives. His generation lost the battle for control of the Palestinian national movement. They influenced the hearts and minds of Israelis, but not enough.
Ziad knew that his generation had failed the day that Arafat died, if not before. He blamed the Israelis, of course. But his core bitterness was reserved for the corruption and lack of human feeling that characterized the Palestinian leadership. He expected Israeli contempt, but not the contempt of the people whose slogans he scrawled on the walls and chanted while throwing stones at soldiers, and at whose direction he had suffered in jail. “We remembered not just their names—even the names of their kids,” he told me, speaking of the aging heroes who returned to Ramallah from Tunis. “We remember everything about their story. We remember their songs, their poems, their speeches, their beliefs, their thoughts. Even the numbers of their shoes we remember. They don’t even remember our names.”
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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.