'We thanked God it was not an Arab' Palestinians relieved that Rabin's killer was one of his own

November 06, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank -- Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had the people of this small Arab town celebrating in the streets with a mere stroke of his pen. He had agreed to withdraw Israel's soldiers from Jericho, and residents happily marked the occasion by raising the red-and-black Palestinian flag from nearly every storefront.

Now the flags are faded, tattered or gone altogether amid the sobriety of self-rule, but none is at half-staff after the Saturday assassination of Mr. Rabin. Even though Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat have expressed sadness and shock, here on the streets where one need never be a diplomat, no one is mourning.

The dominant emotion instead is relief; not relief that Mr. Rabin is dead but that he was killed by one of his own people.

"When we first heard the shooting had happened," said Johnny Hatar, from behind the counter of his small shop on the town square, "the people here were not asking, 'Will Rabin live or die?' We were asking, 'Who did it?' And when we found out, we thanked God it was not an Arab."

It is not that Mr. Rabin was universally despised in Jericho. Many who were interviewed last night spoke with grudging admiration of the prime minister's courage in seeking peace, while others said it is a tragedy when anyone is killed over hatred and politics.

But this is a region where hatred, once engendered, dies slowly. And for most people here, Mr. Rabin's legacy will always be his leadership as Israeli defense minister during the first three years of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, beginning in 1987. That is when Mr. Rabin formulated the government's "iron fist" response, vowing to answer with "might, power and beatings."

This is why for Jamir Hassan, 25, the memory of Israeli soldiers an-swering stones with bullets remains more vivid than the image of Mr. Rabin's famous handshake with Mr. Arafat two years ago on the White House lawn.

"He was the one who had the 'break their bones' policy during the intifada," Mr. Hassan said. "Later, perhaps, he became a little better. He changed. And since the peace agreement, there has been a great change here. My life is a lot better now, and of course he deserves some of the credit. But it does not forgive what he did earlier. No, I am not mourning."

So, as usually happens in this part of the world, one side carried on life as usual while the other took stock of its loss. In Jerusalem, only 15 miles across the desert hills, television and radio broadcasts talked of nothing but Mr. Rabin.

In Jericho, rollicking Arab music blared from streetside speakers just as it nearly always does on nights like this one -- warm and pleasant, with a full moon rising in a cloudless sky over the palms of the town square.

Some worry that Mr. Rabin's death will slow or halt the peace process. Mr. Hatar, however, is confident that won't happen.

"It wasn't just Rabin," he said. "As long as his party, the Labor Party, as long as they stay in power, things will move along."

The same would hardly have been true if an Arab had shot the prime minister, said Kemal Remau, 41, who runs a small shoe store. That would have prompted a wave of arrests and roundups, he said, and months of economic blockade with a long closure of Israel's borders to Arabs from this town and other towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As it was, the Israeli government shut down access, but Mr. Hatar is optimistic that the closure will last only a few days.

Perhaps, he said, some good for his people might even come out of the shooting. Mr. Hatar cited the alleged assassin's background as a known right-wing agitator, and said: "Maybe there will be a reaction against some of these extremists. Now everyone will wait to see what the government will do to those people."

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