Leaden skies cloaked Paris as General Christian Estripeau ventured into the chilly Thursday dawn. Throughout the night, a media pack had huddled at the entrance to Percy Military Hospital, located in Clamart on the southern outskirts of the French capital. It was 5:15am when Estripeau announced to the world that Yasser Arafat was dead.
It was 11 November 2004. An old man had died and the earth had moved.
Reduced to a sad caricature of the guerrilla fighter who had become a Nobel Peace laureate and then lost his way, Arafat had been airlifted two weeks earlier from the bombed-out remnants of his Ramallah compound, where he had been pinned down by Israeli forces for more than two years. Aged 75, the PLO leader had been unable to shake off what initially were described as flu-like symptoms. In Paris he developed nausea and stomach pain. A week later, he suffered a stroke which had dropped him into a deep coma.
The void left by Arafat was enormous. Despite, or perhaps because of, Arafat’s paranoia and autocracy, he and his people had endured. "We have made the Palestinian cause the biggest problem in the world," he said just weeks before his death. "One hundred and seven years after the (founding of the global Zionist movement at the) Basel Conference… Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them. We are not Red Indians," he responded when the veteran Middle East correspondent Graham Usher asked him to assess his legacy.
The resistance careers of the two most powerful Palestinian leaders had overlapped for more than 20 years, but Arafat and Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Mishal, had met face-to-face just three times. They spoke, however, by phone, especially in Arafat’s last years. "The Israelis and the Americans ganged up on him… and even some of his own people," Mishal recalled later. "We (were) Hamas, not Fatah. But when we saw what was going on, it was natural and moral for us to stand by Arafat."
Standing by Arafat, however, was not the same as standing by his corrupt and broken Fatah organisation. The two factions tried dialogue, but they could never bridge a yawning gulf that was about power as much as policies. There now was a job opening in Fatah for a leader with exceptional skills, but the man who finally stepped into the outsized shoes of the dead Palestinian Authority president was the hapless Mahmoud Abbas, the man who had been appointed prime minister in March 2003 on the urging of Washington and the Israelis — but had resigned six months later after finding his hands were tied.
Abbas was one of a dwindling band of survivors from the heady days of five decades earlier, when Arafat had founded Fatah. Abbas was elected as president and Arafat’s successor in January 2005, 16 months after he had quit as prime minister. In keeping with its opposition to all that emanated from the Oslo Accords, Hamas boycotted the election. But nonetheless, the movement had proved itself deft in grassroots politics and had steadily insinuated itself into many areas through the electoral process.
Since the late 1980s Hamas had fought politically to control the elected committees of a range of student, professional, and community organisations across the Occupied Territories. Toward the end of 2004, little notice had been taken of the fact that Hamas was standing candidates in the first Palestinian municipal elections allowed in almost 30 years. More than a hundred of these contests would be staggered over several months, but included among the first batch to vote — in the last week of December 2004 — was Silwad, the remote mountain village of Khalid Mishal’s childhood.
Much had changed in Silwad in the years since the Hamas leader’s family had fled in 1967. The isolated hamlets of the 1960s had merged to become an untidy urban sprawl clinging to a chalky ridgeline at the northern end of the Jerusalem Mountains. Intrusive Israeli watchtowers had been foisted among the stumpy limestone pinnacles and slender minarets of the high country. Like communities across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Silwadis compiled their own heartfelt catalogue of local land seizures, water supplies commandeered, and olive and other fruit trees uprooted as Jewish settlers, backed by the overwhelming power of the Israel Defense Forces, worked tirelessly to create their version of Greater Israel on Palestinian land.
Just to get up into the mountains from the coastal plain had become a logistical nightmare. In the gridlock of Israeli checkpoints, cars from Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Nablus experienced endless delays, or were forced onto circuitous back-roads. Sometimes they were unable to reach the villages. A Jewish settlement, Ofra, had been planted hard up against Silwad. In the evenings, its harsh security lighting glowed eerily in the soft mountain air.
Ironically, the first furtive steps to impose Ofra among the Palestinian villagers — making it an Israeli fact-on-the-ground without formal government approval — had been taken about the time that Khalid Mishal had last trodden the Silwad soil. It was in 1975 when, as a second-year university student, Mishal had been permitted to return to the West Bank for the summer vacation. Al-Asour, the mountain he had climbed as an 11-year-old to listen to the bombing of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, was out of bounds to Palestinian locals now. It had been crowned by a high-fenced Israeli military base.
In Ras Ali, at the northern end of the ridge, the flat-roofed stone building which the Hamas leader’s family had shared with another branch of the clan, was shuttered and somewhat rundown. Over sweet black tea spiked with wild sage, which their children fetched from nearby Wadi Zaitun, the villagers liked to boast that for its size Silwad had given more than most communities to the Palestinian struggle. A calendar published in the lead-up to the municipal election celebrated the memory of 16 locals who had died in clashes with Israeli forces. A pamphlet adorned with red roses and bent prison bars commemorated another 70-odd who had been jailed.
But in the local pantheon of resistance heroes there was a fine balance between the two dominant and rival organisations. Hamas and Fatah had two local heroes each. Astonishingly, all four came from different lines of the same extended family: Khalid Mishal’s own Hamed clan.
Apart from Mishal, who operated from exile in Damascus, there was also Ibrahim Hamed, who at the time of the 2004 elections had been on the run from the Israelis for almost six years. Hamed was celebrated as the leader of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank. Israel had accused him of masterminding a series of car bombs and suicide missions that had claimed more than 60 Israelis’ lives and wounded hundreds.
Aged 39, Hamed had been a toddler when Mishal, who lived just a stone’s throw away at the Ras Ali end of the ridge, left Silwad. On the Fatah side, the feisty Qadura Fares was emerging as an influential member of a frustrated younger Fatah generation positioning itself to wrest control of the faction from the Arafat old guard.
The other Fatah hero was known simply as "The Sniper". Most in the village had wondered about his identity since the day in the spring of 2002 when a mystery marksman had secreted himself behind an olive tree on a hillside terrace, high in a nearby gorge known as the Valley of Thieves. The importance of Nablus Road, running through the gorge, demanded the presence of Israeli security forces which often ran a checkpoint at an old British police post that could be seen from near Mishal’s house.
The first shot rang out at about 6:30am on 3 March. With a hunter’s expert eye, the shooter first picked off soldiers on the checkpoint; then reinforcements as they arrived; and next, stunned Jewish settlers as they slowed their vehicles on approaching the checkpoint. Incredibly, the marksman’s 25 single shots, fired over 25 minutes, killed seven Israeli reservists and three settlers. Four others also suffered direct hits, but they survived. He shot so precisely and got away so cleanly that settlers and investigators alike wondered if the killer was from the Irish Republican Army or perhaps had been trained as a marksman by the IRA.
Later there were unconfirmed reports that he had died while making a bomb. But when IDF and Israel Security Agency units finally moved into Silwad to arrest the Sniper in the weeks preceding the local election at the end of 2004, the man who was thought to have been an IRA mercenary was revealed as Thaer Hamed, just another 20-something Palestinian desperate to avenge the death of a much-loved uncle who had died in a clash with Israeli forces during the first Intifada.
Mayoral candidate Taleb Hamed, who described himself as a "former" Hamas activist, was another from the clan of the same name. He ran on a modest platform of needing to complete a half-built hospital, to improve local schools, and to lure a bank to Silwad. But these contests across the Occupied Territories were about more than filling local potholes or whether Silwad might get an ATM.
Historically Silwad had been a Fatah fortress where, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, young men grew up in the thrall of Yasser Arafat. More recently, however, Hamas held sway. The Islamist movement had swallowed the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Khalid Mishal’s father had joined briefly in the 1940s. Hamas also had won control of many of Silwad’s institutions and associations. When votes were counted in the local poll, Silwad’s Fatah loyalists were slack-jawed as Hamas edged ahead, capturing seven of the 13 council seats to take control of the municipality.
These town and village polls were the curtain-raiser to a more defining test of popular support for the two factions claiming to be the true guardians of the Palestinian dream. With an election for members of the Palestinian Authority scheduled for mid-2005, under the leadership of new President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah saw the local ballots as an important first step in hauling its legitimacy back from the Arafat grave.
In the circumstances, Hamas — and particularly Khalid Mishal — had decided the time had come for a comprehensive review of the movement’s odd policy on PA elections: it had consistently refused to stand candidates, but it did not interfere with the conduct of the elections. Hamas tossed and turned for months. As the intense debate unfolded, the movement made promising gains in the first two rounds of local voting. The final decision to participate in the Palestinian Authority elections was taken in the easy knowledge that Hamas had already made a strong preliminary showing — taking control of 16 local councils against Fatah’s 20.
The decision to stand candidates was announced in March 2005. Finally, Hamas would put its money where its mouth was. The movement had driven the Fatah cadres demented with its oft-stated claims that it represented anywhere up to a half of the popular vote. Now, all its barking would be put to the test.
This is an edited extract from Kill Khalid by Paul McGeough (Allen and Unwin).
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