MAXWELL: A powerful symbol at Arafat’s compound
9/25//2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The powerful symbolism of raising a flag atop a building or planting one in a piece of terrain should not be underestimated.
A few days ago, I watched along with the rest of the world as Israeli soldiers pulled down the Palestinian flag over Yasser Arafat’s compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and replaced it with Israel’s national banner.
The raising the Israeli flag represents more than occupation. It symbolizes both the powerlessness and degradation of the Palestinian people and the unbridled might of Israel.
The immediate result of the act was that more than 20,000 Palestinians took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza in protest of the takeover of the headquarters and in support of their trapped leader.
Israelis seized the compound following two suicide bombings that killed seven people and seriously wounded scores of others. These were the first such attacks on Israeli soil after six weeks of relative calm.
Driven by a bankrupt policy of reprisal and the isolation of Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with mere handslaps from Washington, continues down a path of destruction for his people and the Palestinians. He also is dragging the United States deeper into a war over land _ land that is more than 6,000 miles from our shores.
This lastest entrapment of Arafat is the third in 10 months. The symbolism should be noticed. The militarily powerful Israel uses tanks, mortars, American-made aircraft, bulldozers, checkpoints and blockades to limit Arafat’s movement. And yet, the resilient PLO chairman keeps going, and going and going.
A picture of the theater of the absurd has emerged from these scenes of suicide bombing and trapping Arafat without water or food. Adding to the absurdity are the words of Israeli leaders. Listen to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres speaking on CNN’s Late Edition of Arafat: “We don’t want to expel him. We don’t want to hurt him. The majority of the government decided against expulsion.”
Here is Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri on Arafat: “We’ll give him a one-way ticket in a dignified way.”
On what grounds does the Jewish state decide who stays and who leaves the West Bank and Gaza? Despite Israeli soldiers hoisting their flag atop the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah, Palestinians have legitimate claims to the land. To them, the Israelis are invaders.
Just as Palestinians have no moral basis for blowing up Jews inside Israel, Jews have no moral authority to tell Palestinians how to run their lives on their own land. Neither do Israelis have the moral authority to determine who should or should not live on land that belongs to others.
Israel’s authority comes directly from the largess, real and symbolic, of the United States and our willingness to turn a blind eye to policies and practices we condemn in other places.
If the symbol of Arafat being cut off from his people _ literally trapped on one floor of the teetering building _ is supposed to accelerate the speed of his demise, then those who planned this absurd endgame are in for a long nightmare.
Arafat is being helped by all of this official wrongheadedness.
Seeing their leader humiliated has turned Palestinians who had been calling for Arafat to move aside into spirited supporters. Even Jews who thought they had seen the end of Arafat’s regime now fear that Sharon’s clueless actions have given the chairman more time.
A Haaretz headline the other day, for example, read: “Sharon saved Arafat.”
Each new stone removed from Arafat’s compound gives the old warrior more resolve to reject Israeli demands. He has told Israeli officials outright that he will not turn over the 200 men trapped in the compound with him.
Here is more absurdity: Prior to this most recent siege of Arafat’s headquarters, small but significant reforms were taking place inside the Palestinian Authority.
For example, Parliament, convening for the first time in months, forced changes in Arafat’s cabinet. High-level meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, including Sharon, had been scheduled. The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations had floated a plan for a provisional Palestinian state by 2005. All would be monitored by a world body.
Now, because of Sharon’s lack of a long-term plan and Arafat’s instinct to survive, all bets are off. Conditions are more hopeless than they have been in a long time. The world is witnessing a live absurdist drama with Sharon as director.