Widespread revulsion among Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza against Yasir Arafat has been possibly the most surprising result of the accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). His domineering, autocratic ways alienate them while his hypocritical claims to democracy ("We are the one true democratic oasis in the Arab region") anger them. To register her dismay, for example, Hanan Ashrawi has effectively left the PLO to establish a human rights organization monitoring Arafat's activities.
What explains this sudden antipathy toward Arafat? In part, it has to do with his newly enhanced role. For twenty-five years, West Bank and Gaza residents could hazily picture the "old man" as a benign patriotic leader. Only since last September 13th have they had to deal with him as a powerbroker, and what they've found out about him - the egotism, the power mania, the pettiness - does not sit well. One PLO official who clashed with Arafat denounced his "paranoia of authority."
In part too, anger against Arafat derives from an extended experience with Israel - my subject here. For all the overheated rhetoric about Israel's "vicious" and "brutal" occupation, West Bank and Gaza residents have witnessed and grown to appreciate the workings of a liberal democracy. They have seen how the rule of law operates; how citizens choose their leaders; the subtleties of civil society; and the importance of minority rights. Intimate knowledge about Israel affects their view of a despotic personality like Arafat.
Interestingly, Palestinian appreciation of Israel did not start on September 13th. For some years already, Israel's most devoted enemies have spoken publicly about its political virtues. Their statements fall into two categories: those praising Israel as better than the Arab regimes; and those acknowledging that the Jewish state protects Palestinians from themselves.
Better than the Arab regimes. Palestinians sometimes admit that they'd rather live under Israeli control than under that of fellow Arabs.
Tribulations in Kuwait after its liberation from the Iraqis highlighted the contrast between the rule of law in Israel and the arbitrariness found in Arab countries. In Lines in the Sand, Deborah Amos quotes one Palestinian from Kuwait who minced no words: "Now I feel Israel is paradise. I love the Israelis now. I know they treat us like humans. The West Bank is better [than Kuwait]. At least before the Israelis arrest you, they bring you a paper." With less exuberance, Arafat himself concurred with this sentiment: "What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories." Kuwait's eviction of 300,000 Palestinians pointed up another salient fact: Israel expels criminal elements, not whole communities. A pro-PLO newspaper summed up these sentiments in 1991 by observing that "In Kuwait, Palestinians are receiving treatment even worse than they have had at the hands of their enemies, the Israelis."
Nor is Kuwait the only problem. Syria is worse. Middle East Watch notes, for example, that Palestinians in Syria are imprisoned at a rate twenty times that of Syrians. Even Ahmad Jibril, a Palestinian leader based in Damascus admits that "Here in Syria there are 300,000 Palestinians who cannot make themselves heard." For these and other reasons, Salah Khalaf (a.k.a. Abu Iyad) declared in 1983 that crimes committed by the Asad regime against the Palestinian people "surpassed those of the Israeli enemy." Two years later, at the funeral of a PLO figure murdered at Syrian instigation, Arafat addressed the dead man: "The Zionists in the occupied territories tried to kill you, and when they failed, they deported you. However, the Arab Zionists represented by the rulers of Damascus thought this was insufficient, so you fell as a martyr."
Generalizing about Arab regimes, a PLO official observes: "We no longer fear the Israelis or the Americans, regardless of their hostility, but we now fear our Arab 'brothers.'" Nor is this just talk: on several occasions Palestinians have taken refuge in Israel from fellow Arabs. In 1970, for example, they escaped Jordanian forces by crossing into the West Bank.
Protecting Palestinians from themselves. As the intifada degenerated into sheer fratricidal murder (dubbed the "intrafada"), PLO leaders increasingly appreciated Israeli's firm hand. Haydar 'Abd ash-Shafi', the head of the Palestinian delegation to the Arab-Israeli peace talks, made this remarkable observation (according to an unofficial transcript of a PLO Central Council meeting, published in the Beirut newspaper As-Safir): "Can anyone imagine that a family would be happy to hear a knock at the door in the middle of the night from the Israeli Army?" He went on: "When the infighting began in Gaza, the people were happy because the Israeli Army imposed a curfew."
Palestinians on occasion concede that they're better off under Israeli rule than living in an independent Palestinian state. Secular Muslims and Christians particularly appreciate Israel's rule of law at a time when Palestinian politics takes an increasingly fundamentalist cast. The French weekly L'Express quotes a Christian Palestinian to the effect that when the Palestinian state comes into existence, "the sacred union against the Zionist enemy will die. It will be time to settle accounts. We will undergo the same as our Lebanese brothers or the Copts in Egypt. It saddens me to say so, but Israeli laws protect us."
Again, these pro-Israel sentiments are not just talk. In what may be a precursor of events to come in the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinians fled to Israel in 1982 to avoid the PLO's tender mercies in Lebanon.
In brief, in word and deed, even anti-Zionist Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the most civilized state in the Middle East.
Jan. 2, 2008 update: For my related writings on this topic, including updates, see "Bibliography - My Writings on Arabs Appreciating Israel."