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A Christian Delegation Visits President Arafat

Alex Awad

A Christian Delegation Visits President Arafat

We made our way through several Israeli checkpoints and crowded streets and alleys of Ramallah, the de facto commercial and political capital of Palestine, to President Yasser Arafat’s compound. Even before arriving at the half standing Muqataa (Mr. Arafat’s headquarters) we were moved at the visible suffering and incredible hardships of the Palestinian people. They observed the blocks and slabs of concrete that now lie alongside the main road from Ramallah to Jerusalem soon to be erected as the barrier fence that will separate Palestinians from their family members and loved ones on the other side of the street. The visitors were a Christian delegation led by Rev. Jim Hoogenboom from Arizona. I was invited to accompany the delegation representing the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land.

The American delegation was warmly welcomed by President Yasser Arafat, who took time to explain and illustrate the difficult conditions of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. He related how Palestinians are prisoners of the guardians of an unjust occupation. This includes Mr. Arafat himself, who was not permitted to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and most recently was denied a visit to Jerusalem to join Christians for Easter celebrations. The delegation was overwhelmed to see the strength of Arafat’s commitment to a peaceful solution in the face of the incredible daily humiliation that he and his people experience. Mr. Arafat presented the group with his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and answered several of the delegation’s questions.

Rev. Hoogenboom asked Mr. Arafat what the Christian community in the United States can do to help the situation in Palestine. “The only thing we are asking our brothers and sisters in the United States to do is to stand for truth and justice.” Mr. Arafat said. “Peace-loving and fair-minded Americans would be appalled to see what the Israelis are doing to us. We welcome those who want to know the truth to come and see the situation with their own eyes. We welcome Christian leaders in the United States from all denominations to come and visit us in order to discover the truth themselves.”

Near the end of the visit I asked Mr. Arafat the question that many American friends were asking me when I give lectures on the Arab Israeli conflict. I put the question to him exactly as I heard it. I said, Mr. President, why did you reject Israel Prime Minister Barak’s generous offer in the failed 2000 Camp David Peace Talks. Mr. Arafat took a big breath, chuckled a big laugh as if to express unbelief and then said to the whole delegation, “Mr. Barak claimed that he generously offered us Al Aqsa Mosque. But he only offered us the existing Mosque structure. Meaning the land upon which the building stands will not be included in the deal neither the sky over the building. In the future if something happens to the building, we cannot rebuild it because they (the Israelis) would own the ground and the sky above it.” Arafat continued, “I immediately called President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan and the rest of the Arab Kings and Presidents to ask them about their opinion of Arafat’s offer, they all, one by one, rejected the offer.” Arafat then looked directly at me and said, “How could I accept an offer that no decent Arab or Muslim leader would accept and that the vast majority of my people would consider an insult and a treason? Arafat then looked at the delegation and said, “If Barak truly desired peace, he would not through at us something so ridiculous.”

Mr. Arafat further explained that while the Israeli team was willing to return what seemed a reasonable percentage of Palestinian land, they expected to keep the larger Jewish settlements in the heart of the Palestinian entity and to keep control over the water resources, of the sky and of all the borders. “How could we have a sovereign state with all these limitations? Still, in spite of all of these setbacks, I never gave up on the possibility of continuing the negotiations and we did achieve progress in future negotiations (Taba and Sharm El-Sheik). But with the arrival of Sharon we were dragged back to square one because what little Barak had conceded to us, Sharon thought that it was too much. We continue to reach out to the Israelis with genuine peace on our hearts and on our minds. It’s up to them if they want to reciprocate,” said Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Arafat made mention of several American eyewitnesses to the negotiations who wrote extensively, highlighting the great effort that Palestinian negotiators made to bridge the gap with Israelis during the Camp David negotiations.

The delegation of Christian ministers ended their meeting with a prayer for the President, for the Palestinian people and for the restoration of peace to all the people who live in this land. On the way home, the delegation was treated to a sample of what Arafat had relayed as they spent two and a half hours waiting at the Kalandia Checkpoint before they could make the usual 20 minute trip across to east Jerusalem.