Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Yasser Arafat's Burial Place

A few days ago, I wrote another post about Yasser Arafat's impending death and what it would mean for Middle East peace. In that post, I had surmised that Arafat was possibly in a brain-dead state from last week, but that there might have been some reluctance to pull the plug and announce Arafat's death due to controversy around where to bury him. According to Muslim custom, a person should be buried within 24 hours of his/her death, which would be difficult with people haggling over where to bury Yasser Arafat: his final wishes were to be buried in Jerusalem, a wish the Israeli government is unwilling to grant.

The "compromise" that was finally reached (if you can call it a compromise) has Arafat's funeral being held in Cairo (so Arab leaders who are sworn enemies of Israel can attend) followed by Arafat's burial inside the same Ramallah compound where he has lived for the past two years as a virtual prisoner under house arrest.

The Israeli justice minister Yosef Lapid aptly summed up the Israeli government's feelings with his statement that Arafat "will not be buried in Jerusalem becuase Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists." Mr. Lapid is correct about Jerusalem being the burial place for Jewish kings. It is also the burial place for a lot of more ordinary Jewish people: Jewish laborers, Jewish housewives, Jewish professionals, Jewish janitors, and even a few Jewish whores and murderers and thieves sprinkled in the mix too. And, it is also the burial place for countless Arabs, including those buried in the 1400 years Jerusalem was under Muslim rule. With all these others buried in Jeruselem, why can't they make a little room for Yasser Arafat? The answer is simple: pure spite.

The Israeli government is so caught up in the cycle of violence with the Palestinians they cannot see logic through the veil of their own hatred. They cannot see that they are missing a real opportunity to plant a seed of permanent change in the Middle East. You see, Arafat's death will undoubtedly result in change in the Palestinian position as new leaders take the stage. The only question is whether things will change for the better or for the worse.

The Israeli government is missing a real opportunity to hold out an olive branch to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, to say to them that Israel is willing to compromise and put aside their differences with the Arab world if the Arab world is willing to do the same for Israel. It would be foolish to think that a single act such as this would result in peace, but acts of kindness and respect do have a tendency to generate reciprocal acts of kindness and respect. By granting a 75 year old Palestinian man his final wish to be buried in Jerusalem, Israel could possibly entice at least a few of their "sworn enemies" to come to Jerusalem for the funeral, and perhaps pave the way for some further dialogue.

By relegating Arafat's burial place to the same compound in Ramallah where he has spent the last two years in a building surrounded by Israeli tanks, the Israeli government has created some unfortunate symbolism. Instead of Arafat's tomb in Jerusalem being a perpetual reminder of Israeli kindness, Arafat's tomb in Ramallah will be a perpetual reminder to Palestinians of Israeli repression and cruelty: a symbol to Palestinians representing the reason many of them have chosen to fight against Israel, and a symbol inspiring future generations of Palestinians to fight. It didn't have to be this way.

Arabs tend to be big on symbolism. The current Palestinian intifada was sparked by a single act of disrespect: Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount (also known as al-Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam) with an escort of a thousand armed Israeli soldiers. The same logic suggests that a major act of respect and kindness like allowing Arafat's funeral and burial in Jerusalem could have the same magnitude of effect, but in the other direction. If only the Israeli government could understand this logic.....

Achieving true lasting peace in the Middle East is a long journey, and it gets even longer when we're walking in the wrong direction.