Rashidiya Sorbeki, her face horribly burned from a war she will not end, held her baby daughter in her arms Saturday morning and screamed in the streets against the Palestinian leader she once worshiped.
“Arafat is a coward! Arafat is a spy! Arafat has sold Palestine for dollars!” the 37-year-old Palestinian woman chanted along with 100 or so other Palestinian refugees outside the Damascus embassy of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
“We will trample underfoot the advocates of surrender. The traitor should be hanged,” they shouted.
For Sorbeki, a veteran of the intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip, Saturday’s officially sanctioned demonstration was a personal catharsis--the burning of the portrait of a man she now believes has betrayed millions of once-loyal Palestinians living in camps outside the Israeli-occupied territories.
Her own face, she explained, was burned beyond recognition in a fire of her own making, when Israeli troops pushed her into a Jewish settler’s car she had firebombed in the Gaza Strip at the height of the intifada. She spent the next two years in Israeli prisons and then on a refugee trail through Jordan that ended here, at one of Syria’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps housing nearly half a million men, women and children.
Sorbeki’s was just one of many angry faces of a growing opposition here to the historic plan for Palestinian self-rule to be signed Monday at a Washington ceremony including Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
But Saturday’s demonstration also offered a glimpse of a far more important face of potential opposition to the historic accord--Syria’s powerful president, Hafez Assad.
If Monday’s signing ceremony in Washington is to “change the entire landscape of the Middle East,” as President Clinton predicted Saturday, most analysts in the region agree it will need Assad’s support.
Underscoring the importance of Syria’s stand, Clinton telephoned Assad on Friday evening--a conversation that Damascus’ tightly controlled government media featured on the front pages of every newspaper Saturday.
And yet the mercurial and durable Syrian leader, who controls the most powerful Arab army on Israel’s borders and who remains officially in a state of war with the Jewish state, has stopped short of publicly taking sides on Arafat’s “Gaza-Jericho first” agreement.
Assad refused to endorse the plan after Arafat came to Damascus seeking support a few days after he publicly confirmed an agreement negotiated in secret. Through his presidential spokesman, Assad, who has long been suspicious of Arafat, said only that the plan is good if it is good for the Palestinian people.
Assad has sent clear signals to Washington in recent days that he and his allies in Lebanon intend to pursue the peace process in an effort to regain the strategic, Israeli-held Golan Heights and Israel’s self-declared “security zone” in southern Lebanon in exchange for similar peace pacts with Rabin.
But, as Saturday’s demonstration on the streets of Assad’s tightly controlled capital made all too clear, Damascus has also been sending strong hints of its displeasure over the Arafat agreement, which violated Assad’s most basic principle in the peace talks--that the Arabs maintain a unified stand against Israel.
“Syria reaffirms its commitment to and importance of the comprehensive process,” said the lead headline on the state-run Syria Times on Saturday.
In Saturday’s editorial, the Syria Times appeared to criticize Arafat indirectly for breaking ranks with his fellow Arab leaders and cutting a separate deal for himself--an accusation that was leveled at Syria when it was said to be close to a deal with Israel for the Golan Heights several months ago.
It reinforced the position that Assad has taken consistently throughout the two years of negotiations with Israel: that the Arabs must never succumb to Israeli tactics of “divide and conquer” through the peace process.
Behind those headlines, Assad has kept open other, more concrete options for opposition. His government is not abandoning its support for the 10 radical Palestinian groups now using their bases in Damascus to condemn Arafat’s plan and organize opposition to it.
Those groups, including Islamic fundamentalist organizations that have vowed to continue their attacks on Israelis in the occupied territories, have been afforded public platforms in the official Syrian media in recent days.
But none was so dramatic as Saturday’s rally, which was closely guarded by police and could not have taken place without high-level government approval.
For several hours, Palestinian refugees called for Arafat’s blood and chanted against a plan that offers nothing to refugees who lost their land in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. A visit to the capital’s largest refugee camp Saturday showed widespread discontent with the plan, which would grant self-rule at first only in a small part of the occupied lands.
“The uprising will never stop, and Arafat’s blood will flow,” Horiye Tamim, a grandmotherly refugee who fled what is now northern Israel for Syria in 1948 at the age of 9, said as she sat with her daughters in a modest, two-story home in the Yarmouk Camp.
Tamim lost four of her sons to the uprising, all of them shot to death by Israeli troops.
“All of the blood of the martyrs--the blood of my sons--has gone for only Gaza and Jericho. I cannot accept this,” she said. “I can only accept an agreement that allows me to return to Palestine.”