LIANE HANSEN, host:
In the September issue of Atlantic Monthly, journalist David Samuels writes about the rise of the late Yasser Arafat and his long leadership of the Palestinian people in an article titled, "In a Ruined Country: How Yasser Arafat destroyed Palestine." David Samuels joins us from our New York bureau.
Welcome to the program, David.
Mr. DAVID SAMUELS (Atlantic Monthly): Thanks so much for having me.
HANSEN: First of all, your article is some 30 pages long. It's complex. But can we begin by you giving us, please, just a relatively brief explanation of how it is you feel that Arafat destroyed Palestine?
Mr. SAMUELS: Well, I think that the Oslo Accords in 1993 really did offer a historic opportunity to create a Palestinian state and for a historic reconciliation between the Israeli and the Palestinian people. There was a tremendous amount of good will in the international community, and there was a tremendous amount of money available. Over the last 10 years that money could have been used for what it was supposed to go for, which is the creation of stable political institutions, a functioning economy and closer ties between Israel and Palestine. None of that, of course, happened.
More than half the money simply disappeared into the pockets of Yasser Arafat and his clique. Most of the rest of the money went to fund 12 or 13 different overlapping security services. The result on the ground is a ruined country. The trust--or the potential for trust that existed between the Palestinians and the Israelis is gone. And the Palestinian people have lost 10 years that could have been used for economic development, that could have been used to build stable political institutions. And in place of that they have a mess.
HANSEN: Now with all the challenges the Palestinian people in Gaza face to make things work there, do you think that the Palestinian people in Gaza will be able to live up to expectations?
Mr. SAMUELS: Well, you have to make a real distinction between the Palestinian people in Gaza and the state and political structures in Gaza. Gaza has people who have survived the sort of surreal nightmare that's gone on for almost two decades now of military occupation, of dealing with the settlers in the settlements, of dealing with sort of rapacious corruption. In my piece, the section on Gaza, I entitled it "One Big Prison." You can sort of imagine the situation there somewhat like this: You know, there's a big jail, and there's a town outside the jail where the jailers live. And there's a gang inside the jail that distributes favors and runs the prison, which is how things usually work. One day the warden and the guards decide that, `We don't want the jail anymore. We've had enough. Here, you take it,' to the inmates.
Well, the people in charge, Fatah, they're despised by the population in Gaza. The people who they have some respect for and who do form some kind of stable and coherent political entity--and it's Hamas. When Hamas says they they're going to raise money for suicide bombings, the money does go to suicide bombings. It doesn't go into someone's pocket. If they say they're going to raise money for soup kitchens, the money goes to soup kitchens or it goes to the mosque. That's the credible leadership in Gaza. So the people of Gaza are really caught between a rock and a hard place and not for the first time.
HANSEN: Is there a role Israel could play, perhaps, to help build a stable Palestinian presence in Gaza?
Mr. SAMUELS: The Israelis by withdrawing are washing their hands of Gaza. They're saying, `Look, we tried all these arrangements. We tried to set up industrial parks. We tried to have people employed on, you know--in the settlements. We tried to do policing. All of this was a disaster for us, and it was a disaster for the Palestinians. No more,' you know. The presence that's likely to replace the Israelis in terms of building stable, political institutions in Gaza is Egypt, if only because the Egyptians are very worried about a Hamas state on their border. The Egyptians have members of the Islamic Brotherhood currently suffering in Egyptian prisons. That's what Hamas is; it's just a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt. And so they don't want them to gain power in Gaza, and the hope, I guess, is that the Egyptians will provide money and guns and training to Fatah, which is the ruling faction in the Palestinian Authority, and help them keep Hamas down.
HANSEN: What about other Arab nations? Are there roles for them?
Mr. SAMUELS: Well, this is a victory for Hamas. Hamas led the resistance against Israel in Gaza. Hamas was not corrupt in the way that Fatah was corrupt. The Israelis are withdrawing. And Hamas has paid a terrific price in blood and is claiming a victory that, you know, will be widely seen by the people of Gaza as belonging to them. Unless other Arab states are prepared to send in troops with guns who will repress Hamas with force, it's hard to see what role they would play, aside from sending money.
But money isn't really a problem. Nobody's starving in Gaza and there's plenty of welfare money and free food to go around. The problem is: How do you build a functioning economy and political structure? The real hope that I see is just that, you know--in my time in Gaza I was enormously impressed by the resilience and good humor of the people I met and by the fact that people are clearly sick and tired of violence. And whether people can come together on a civic level and say, `Look, congratulations, Hamas. You did a great job getting the Israelis out, but now we want peace and quiet, you know. Enough.'
HANSEN: What about the Palestinian Authority? Mahmoud Abbas is heading that organization from the West Bank. Can he provide the sort of leadership in Gaza? Of course, he has to do it across the expanse of Israel that divides the West Bank from Gaza. But can he provide some kind of leadership here?
Mr. SAMUELS: He offers a different kind of leadership than the leadership that Yasser Arafat offered. On the other hand, he's hardly a charismatic figure. He has no wide personal following. He's sort of seen as a dull bureaucrat. And he is hardly free of the taint of the corruption of the Arafat years. He was hardly the most corrupt person around Arafat, but he's not Gandhi. So I think that he faces a very difficult problem in terms of being a credible leader who's going to get people to do things that they don't want to do, and surely Hamas is a much more credible force inside Gaza than Abbas.
What he'll try to do, of course, is say, `Here's billions of dollars in aid that's going to come in from the US and from Britain and maybe from some of the other Arab countries. And I'm delivering that aid, and look how much better things are. And let's make sure everybody gets a slice of the pie and calm down and build something here.' And that's what he's trying to do, it seems, but he's got a very difficult tightrope to walk.
HANSEN: David Samuels' article, "In a Ruined Country: How Yasser Arafat Destroyed Palestine," appears in the September issue of Atlantic Monthly. He spoke to us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for your time.
Mr. SAMUELS: Thank you.
HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.
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