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The Post-Arafat Era

James Bennet is the former Jerusalem Bureau chief for The New York Times. He recently returned to the Middle East to cover the death of Arafat and the jockeying for power among the Palestinian factions.


Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2004: Interview with James Bennet; Review of Buddy Miller's new album, "Universal united house of prayer."


DATE November 17, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: James Bennet discusses the political future of the
Palestinians following the death of Yasser Arafat

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The death of Yasser Arafat marks the end of an era. Palestinians will vote
for a new head of the Palestinian Authority in an election now scheduled for
January 9th. We're going to talk about the death of Arafat and what it may
mean for peace in the Middle East and the creation of a Palestinian state. My
guest, James Bennet, was the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief for three
years. He left the post over the summer and is now a correspondent in the
Washington bureau. But he returned to the Middle East to cover the death of
Arafat and its aftermath. This morning, he went to a studio in Jerusalem to
record our interview.

Did you expect that it would end quite this way for Arafat?

Mr. JAMES BENNET (The New York Times): No, I don't think anybody expected it
to end this way, or so quickly. He'd been sick, and we were sort of used to
rumors of Yasser Arafat being sick. A year ago we went through a bout like
this. There were rumors even that he was on his deathbed, that he had stomach
cancer. It turned out, at least at the time, we thought, to be a bad case of
the flu, and he bounced right back. He looked very pale, but we all
attributed that to his incarceration, virtual incarceration--confinement, at
least--in the ruined compound in Ramallah, the Muqata. But obviously, he was
much more sick all along.

GROSS: Do you know why there's been so much mystery surrounding the actual
cause of his death?

Mr. BENNET: No. The rumors are rampant, of course, here and throughout the
Arab world now. The speculation has obviously been fed by the fact that no
information has been released. The man died of an undisclosed illness. Under
French law, it seems, his wife has the final say over whether any information
is going to be released. The Palestinian leadership has now called on the
French to start putting out some information about it, and hopefully we'll get
some clarity in the coming days.

GROSS: And there's also the issue of the money, that Arafat had a lot
of--millions of dollars, apparently stashed away someplace and nobody knows
where it is?

Mr. BENNET: He's said to. Again, there's a lot of bad information out there
about this right now, and not a lot is known. But he obviously lived very
simply himself. His wife, Suha Arafat, lived rather more grandly in Paris
over the last few years. She wasn't in Ramallah during the course of the
conflict with Israel. For the last four years she wasn't seen here with their
daughter. Some of the money went to here. There were PLO investments made
all over the world, in things like cellular telephone networks and other sorts
of enterprises. A lot of those were money-losing operations. Israeli
officials say there was also money parked in various accounts that Yasser
Arafat maintained control of, and that's money that they're trying to track
down now.

GROSS: You've been traveling around the West Bank and Gaza; are people in
mourning for Yasser Arafat? What are the visible signs of that mourning?

Mr. BENNET: The visible signs are things like posters that have appeared all
over the West Bank, in little towns like Qalqilya, bit cities like Nablus;
also in Gaza City. People are stringing black cloths from their power
antennas; things like that. The murals of Yasser Arafat have been freshly
painted on the walls of stores and other buildings throughout the territories.
Those are the tangible signs, I guess. There was, obviously, a tremendous
outpouring of grief around the time of his funeral itself.

But it has to be said that life is also going forward. It's not as though
people have stopped what they're doing completely. The--Yasser Arafat's death
coincided with the end of Ramadan, the holiday period known as the Eid. It
interfered, I would say, with business, which usually booms during the course
of the Eid, as people buy presents and things like that for one another. But
the holiday nevertheless went forward, and there's a mourning period that's
still under way in the territories, but businesses are open again, the streets
are busy in Gaza City and people are going on with their lives.

GROSS: My impression is that there were mixed feelings among Palestinians
about Arafat. He was a great symbol of the Palestinian resistance, but my
impression is he wasn't admired for the way he ran the Palestinian Authority.
There was a lot of corruption, mismanagement. Are there mixed feelings about
Arafat and his legacy?

Mr. BENNET: Well, I think you put it very well. There was real frustration
with governance, Palestinian governance in the territories, and the
Palestinian Authority, which was created by the Oslo Accords, brought Yasser
Arafat back to the territories from exile. He became president of the
Palestinian authority, but there was tremendous unrest with his management of
it, with the corruption, the mismanagement that was really rampant. And some
Palestinians say that one reason Yasser Arafat was comfortable with this
intifada, if he didn't start it, that he at least encouraged it, certainly
abided it, was because otherwise he feared an intifada against his own rule in
the territories because the frustration was so great. And he was very happy
to see that deflected toward the Israelis.

All that said, however, there's a tremendous reservoir of affection for this
man. Even when people were irritated with him, they called him `the old man.'
They called him by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar. They still do. There's a
feeling that people really had of a personal connection with him. And a lot
of the anger at the Palestininan Authority was directed at the ministers
around Arafat. You'd constantly hear the complaint that `It's not Arafat; he
doesn't realize what these people are doing, how they're taking advantage of
him. He's such a nice guy.'

That's what you're seeing now, this feeling of real loyalty to him, because
one thing most Palestinians, I think, believe is that Yasser Arafat always had
their interests at heart, that he always cared about them. That's not
something they feel about these other ministers around him who they saw lining
their own pockets, building nice villas, driving around in fancy cars. Yasser
Arafat lived simply, from their point of view, and particularly in the last
couple of years when he was a virtual prisoner of Israel, they felt he was
suffering in the same way they were.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about reaction to Arafat's death in Israel.
Do you think that Ariel Sharon is hoping that the new president of the PLO
will be a partner for peace? Sharon had said that Arafat was not a legitimate
peace partner.

Mr. BENNET: I don't doubt that he would hope that the new chairman of the
PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, would prove to be a partner for peace. It's not clear
that Ariel Sharon's definition of what constitutes a partner for peace could
ever be someone who would function effectively as a Palestinian leader; that
is, someone who could be popular, be regarded as legitimate by the
Palestinians. Ariel Sharon has set very clear tests for whoever's running the
Palestinian leadership for what he wants to see happen before he's willing to
negotiate substantively with the Palestinians. It's going to be very
difficult for this new guy to pass those tests.

GROSS: What do you think the new guy--what do you think the likelihood is
that the new guy will be Mahmoud Abbas?

Mr. BENNET: Well, he will certainly be the new guy for a while. I think the
question is how long he'll last in that capacity. The Palestinian politicians
around him, the next generation of Palestinian leadership, is very much
thinking of him as an interim figure. I'm not sure if that's how he views
himself. He is 69 years old. He's a longtime ally of Yasser Arafat. He was
essentially Yasser Arafat's deputy in the PLO, although he took a very
different view of the conflict. He's been a very sharp critic of the
Palestinian uprising. He briefly served as the Palestinian prime minister
more than a year ago. He lasted three or four months in the job at this
somewhat hopeful moment here as the White House re-engaged in the peace
process, but he quit after that period, blaming Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat
for undermining him.

GROSS: Well, elections have to be held within 60 days of Arafat's death, and
they're now set for January 9th. Who are the likely candidates, other
than--you know, besides Mahmoud Abbas?

Mr. BENNET: I'd say--first, I'd pause over the `have to.' They're supposed
to be held within 60 days, under Palestinian law. The Palestinians say they
want to hold them January 9th, but creating the conditions for these elections
is going to be very difficult, and I wouldn't be surprised if that date
slipped or even changed substantially.

GROSS: Well, we'll get to that in a second...

Mr. BENNET: Sorry. Yeah.

GROSS: ...about what are the problems with this election. But do you think
that there--who do you think will be likely candidates, in addition to Mahmoud

Mr. BENNET: We don't know right now. It looks like he may well be the only
major party candidate. Some other people will probably put themselves forward
as possible rivals, but probably no one with anything like his name
recognition. Hamas has said it will not participate in these elections.
Islamic Jihad, another militant faction, has said it isn't going to contest
the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Both those groups oppose the
Oslo agreement. They're both officially bent on Israel's destruction. And so
to run for this position, they think, would make them complicit in Oslo, would
force them to accept certain premises that they reject.

I think that Mahmoud Abbas--at least right now, he's likely to be the
consensus candidate of the dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's old faction,
Fatah. There are more popular men within Fatah than Abbas, particularly
Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israeli prison right
now. Some of Barghouti's loyalists have suggested he might run, but I don't
think he will.

GROSS: Do you think he'll have a lot of influence from prison?

Mr. BENNET: Yeah. And I think the reason that his loyalists have been
suggesting he might run--simply to send a signal to Mahmoud Abbas that he's
there, he wants his views taken into account, and he wants his people taken
care of in whatever new government is created.

GROSS: How does he do that? How does he use his power from prison?

Mr. BENNET: Well, he communicates to his supporters. He communicates
through his lawyer. Somehow, every now and then, he manages to get messages
out from prison, and he has people that know him quite well who function,
essentially, in his name, particularly in the West Bank.

GROSS: So what do you think it is that he'll want?

Mr. BENNET: Marwan Barghouti?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BENNET: We don't--again, we can't be sure. He's played a role,
including a year ago in the previous Mahmoud Abbas government. There was
briefly a cease-fire brokered among the militant factions. Marwan Barghouti's
voice was critical in making that happen. He's been a proponent of the
uprising, the leader of it, according to the Israelis. When I interviewed
him, he consistently said that he only supported attacks against Israeli
soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
He argued that those were legitimate targets under international law, and he
opposed attacks against Israeli civilians inside pre-1967 Israel. The
Israelis say that that's not the case, that he was also involved in those
sorts of attacks.

It would be very interesting if he now raised his voice in an effort to try to
restrain the uprising, to limit the attacks to the occupied territories, and
prevent attacks on Israeli civilians.

GROSS: Why is he so popular among Palestinians?

Mr. BENNET: Well, it's interesting; he was not that popular before he was
arrested. He was very strong in Ramallah area, in the southern and central
West Bank, where he comes from a very large family. He'd been a student
leader at Birzeit University in Ramallah. He is a charismatic figure. He's a
little pudgy guy, but he has a kind of presence that made him a very effective
speaker. He's quite an eloquent speaker; speaks English and Hebrew, as well
as Arabic. So he was very popular in that area, but once the Israelis
arrested him, he saw his popularity grow considerably.

And one of the conspiracy theories among Palestinians is that Israel was
deliberately building him up. The trial was conducted very publicly; Marwan
Barghouti was seen raising his manacled hands defiantly over his head,
denouncing the Israeli occupation in an Israeli courtroom, and he became a
symbol of Palestinian suffering and steadfastness. which is to be--which is
to say he became a symbol very much like Yasser Arafat, not just in the
territories but throughout the Arab world, and that's when he really became a
household name.

GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, former New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief. He's now back in the Middle East. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Bennet. He was the New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief for three years. He left the position over the summer, but now he's
back in the Middle East, where he's been covering Arafat's death and its

Many people have said that peace would likely never happen with the old
leadership in power, with Arafat and Sharon. Arafat is out of the picture
now, and Mahmoud Abbas is the new leadership, although this might just be a
transitional period; he might not be the leader for a long period of time.
Does he represent something new? He's not exactly a new generation. Does he
represent anything new?

Mr. BENNET: Well, first, I would say Arafat was an excuse for a lot of
people, not just for the Israelis, but also for the Palestinians. He was a
reason not to do a lot of things. Whether they're actually going to now do
any of these things that they said they couldn't do when Yasser Arafat was
there is very much an open question. Mahmoud Abbas is different, very
different, than Yasser Arafat in that he opposes the armed struggle. He
thinks that the armed struggle has been a disaster for the Palestinians and
the world. He is a guy who wears a suit instead of a uniform. He doesn't
wear the kaffiyeh, the Arab headdress that Yasser Arafat always wore. And
he's been quite clear about opposing this kind of violence. He is not a
popular political figure. He's demonstrated very little skill in the past as
a politician, another thing that makes him very different than Yasser Arafat.
It's very unclear he's going to be able to deliver on his own stated goals.

GROSS: So it sounds like Mahmoud Abbas, who's now the chair of the PLO, will
be the main candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority, which
governs Gaza and the West Bank. What about the power plays behind the scenes?
What kind of competition for power is happening there?

Mr. BENNET: There's a tremendous amount of turmoil right now in the
territories. You're seeing Palestinian politicians, militants, security
officials all vying to either preserve their authority or increase their
authority now that Yasser Arafat has left the scene. Yasser Arafat so
dominated Palestinian politics that his really abrupt disappearance is
suddenly causing all these guys to kind of look around and say, `Well, what
next?' And the people that were his loyalists are feeling vulnerable in a way
they didn't before. People who are glad to see him gone are seeing an
opportunity to grab some more power.

And the real problem, Terry, is that a lot of these guys have guns, and they
have followers who have guns. And there is a considerable risk of violence
here. We've already seen a little bit of it. The Palestinian leadership has
said, `Well, everybody's been predicting this kind of civil strife. It's in
the interest of Israel to see it; therefore, we're really going to make an
effort to make this happen without any kind of violence.' The person who is
seen as causing it will be, they think, reviled by other Palestinians. But I
think there's still a great risk of it.

GROSS: So Mahmoud Abbas is now chair of the PLO. He's likely to run for
president of the Palestinian Authority. What is the difference in function
between those two positions? And if he wins the election, will he be both
chair of the PLO and president of the Palestinian Authority?

Mr. BENNET: Yes, he'll hold both those hats. He probably won't hold--wear
the third hat worn by Yasser Arafat, which was head of the dominant faction,
Fatah. The PLO is the Palestinians' umbrella organization. It's composed of
about 13 major factions. It does not include two big militant groups, Hamas
and Islamic Jihad, but it is the overarching Palestinian organization. The
Palestinian Authority is the institution created by the Oslo Accords with
Israel in the '90s to govern Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip. It's been dominated by Fatah, the main faction. The Fatah leadership
has essentially been the same as the leadership of the Palestinian Authority
up to now.

But the PA, as it's called, has, at least on paper, a functional division of
government. There's a president, there's a Palestinian legislature; there's
also a judiciary which, unfortunately, is actually the weakest of the three
legs of the stool. The legislature--well, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will not
contest the presidency. They may run for positions in the legislature once
those elections are actually held.

GROSS: As you mentioned, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two very militant groups,
said that they will not take part in the presidential election. They're going
to boycott it. Does that mean that they're likely to try to disrupt the

Mr. BENNET: No, I don't think so. Both those groups--particularly, Hamas is
quite disciplined about not letting itself be seen as a source of civil
conflict. It's very important to Hamas that it be seen only as supporting the
Palestinian cause, whatever that might be, never turning its rifles in any way
on its own people. No, they're not likely to disrupt it. And as I said
earlier, they're presenting it as a matter of principle that they're staying
out of these elections. They don't want to run to be president of something
that's a creature of an agreement with Israel.

But there's very much a political reason for it, too. They're very happy
being what they're known as among Palestinians, which is `the opposition.'
They sit outside the government. They criticize the dominant faction, Fatah,
as being corrupt. They criticize it for mismanaging the government. But I
don't think they want to actually be in the position of having to deliver by
trying to run this operation that really is responsible for providing services
to the Palestinian people, picking up the trash, educating the kids, providing
health care.

GROSS: What are some of the difficulties the Palestinians are going to face
in holding fair elections in the West Bank and Gaza?

Mr. BENNET: There's a real logistical problem confronting the Palestinians
as they try to hold these elections. They're under very sharp, tight travel
restrictions now from Israel. The Israeli army is pervasive presence in the
West Bank. It encircles a lot of these cities. Israel has said it has had to
do this over the course of the conflict in order to stop suicide bombers from
reaching Israel. So you're going to need to see a real level of coordination
between the Palestinians and the Israelis for these elections even to take

There's a further issue, which is the question of the status of East Jerusalem
residents, Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, whether or not they're
going to be allowed to vote. The Palestinians are insisting that they should
be able to vote, as they were in previous elections in 1996, but some Israeli
officials have said, `Absolutely not.' They don't want to establish any kind
of new precedent that would suggest Palestinians have some sort of legitimate
political presence in Jerusalem, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, among
others, insists is Israel's eternal indivisible capital. Now, interestingly,
Mr. Sharon in the last couple of days has himself hinted that he might
countenance the idea of Palestinians in East Jerusalem voting, and we'll see
where the Bush administration comes out on this question.

GROSS: Well, the Bush administration asked Sharon to consider removing
Israeli security forces from Palestinian areas in order to facilitate the
Palestinian elections. Do you think that Israel will continue its incursions
into Gaza and the West Bank?

Mr. BENNET: It depends on the circumstances. I think yes, they will
continue them, almost certainly, but that doesn't mean that they won't be able
to loosen restrictions sufficiently to allow the elections to go forward. I
think everybody right now wants these elections to happen. Everybody
recognizes how important they are in terms of legitimizing the new Palestinian
leadership. And at least nobody wants to be seen as the obstacle to these
elections taking place, and that's a very powerful force that I think
everybody will be able to work with.

GROSS: James Bennet of The New York Times, speaking with us from Jerusalem.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, what it was like to be in the crowd at Arafat's funeral
after thousands of Palestinians torn down chain-link and barbed-wire fences to
get closer to his coffin. We continue our conversation with James Bennet of
The New York Times. And Ken Tucker reviews "Universal United House of
Prayer," the new recording by Buddy Miller.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Bennet. After
three years as The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, he returned to the
US over the summer. But now he's back in the Middle East, where he's been
covering the death of Arafat and its aftermath. This morning Bennet went to
a studio in Jerusalem to record our interview.

The Bush administration said that the war in Iraq would help create a climate
for peace in the Middle East; that if Saddam Hussein was gone and a democracy
was created in Iraq, then democracy would spread through the region and that
that would make a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis
much more feasible. So far what impact, if any, do you think what is
happening in Iraq now and the instability in Iraq is actually having on the
Middle East?

Mr. BENNET: It's really striking how little relationship there seems to be
between what's going on in Iraq and what's happening here, how little people
here talk about it on either side, how little impression it seems to have
made. Obviously the images from Iraq are important here. Saddam Hussein used
to contribute thousands of dollars to the families of suicide bombers. That
money is now gone. There's more Muslim anger here against the United States,
partly as a consequence of Iraq. And on the Israeli side, there's a
certain--it's enhanced a feeling of solidarity with America, I would say, that
they're seeing the Americans there. And there's also a certain grim
satisfaction in seeing the Americans wrestle with their own occupation of an
Arab people.

But, in general, I'd say there's been very little impact. I saw an Israeli
intelligence officer who told me, `Look, we didn't really analyze Iraq as a
threat before the war. We don't look at it as a threat now. It's simply not
really relevant to what's going on here.

GROSS: Now there's two schools about Iraq in the Middle East. You know, one
said that only after Saddam Hussein is gone and there's a democracy in Iraq
can there really be peace in the Middle East. And another school says no real
change happens in a whole region until the Palestinian state issue is
resolved. From your position, having covered the Middle East for so long,
what do you think of those perspectives?

Mr. BENNET: Well, the Bush administration has never accepted the premise
that the conflict here drives some of the anger in the Arab world against the
United States; that it had anything to do with September 11th or any other
Arab Muslim terrorism around the world; that it's simply an excuse. I think
in either case, though, doing something about this conflict--that is, whether
this is a motivating force or merely an excuse--doing something about it would
take it off the table; that is either as a source of motivation or as an
excuse by Arab governments not to do things like to democratize, not to take
other steps. They simply point at the conflict here and say, `It's too
destabilizing.' They're not able to make those sorts of aggressive moves in
their own countries. Well, then the excuse would be gone if they were able to
achieve some stability here.

It's also true that--that is, I also suspect that the test isn't even
necessarily success. Bill Clinton didn't succeed here, but he tried awfully
hard, and by trying, he, I thought, clearly gained a lot of credibility for
the United States, not just here but around the world, as being intent on
productively trying to solve other people's problems.

Now, Terry, I think we talked about before there's a question of democracy in
the Arab world. It's obviously a tremendously complicated one. The US is now
engaged in this extremely difficult effort to achieve it in Iraq. There is a
case to be made that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are in a
unique position to really embrace democracy. There are relatively few of
them, three and a half million or so. They've lived all over the world.
They're a relatively literate and wealthy population because there's been so
much international assistance here. They've got a very developed civil
society. And they've had the experience of living next to Israel, which has
led many Palestinian politicians to conclude that democracy is the way they
want to go; that they resent Israel for denying their own rights, as they put
it, but they really admire Israel's democracy and the kind of robust debate
here, the freedom of the press. And they'd like to emulate that.

GROSS: How do you think the death of Arafat and the upcoming election might
affect Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza?

Mr. BENNET: I think Ariel Sharon is intent on proceeding with that plan,
regardless of who the Palestinian leadership is. He has set very clear tests
that he expects any leader to meet. He wants to see a definite crackdown on
terrorism, dismantling, as he puts it, the infrastructure of terror, putting
these Hamas guys, Islamic Jihad people and others, in jail before he's willing
to really start dealing with the leadership. I doubt that he will soften
those demands. And, in the meantime, I think he's going to proceed with his
unilateral withdrawal.

Now certain Palestinian politicians are saying, `Fine with us.' You know, `Go
right ahead and proceed. We don't want to negotiate this withdrawal with you,
but we want it to be the starting point for future negotiations.' These
people--and it's a fairly intelligent perspective, I think--are arguing that
if they now put the Gaza withdrawal plan on the table, Sharon will seek to
negotiate--seek to impose a million conditions before he'll do it. So they
say, `Why not pocket it? Why not take it for free and then insist on other
steps down the road?'

GROSS: Ariel Sharon's administration has been erecting a barrier around the
West Bank that Sharon says is necessary for Israeli security. Palestinians
say that it's walling them in; that it's almost making them prisoners in their
homes. Do you think that this barrier's going to affect the ability of people
to get around and vote, because you've got the barrier? You've also got
various roadblocks and checkpoints. So how is that going to affect the

Mr. BENNET: Well, it depends how many polling places there are, how they're
located. I think that the barrier itself probably won't be a huge obstacle to
voting. I think they'll be able to figure out ways around it. And, again,
the question is whether the Israelis will let Palestinians across checkpoints
in order to vote. I mean, for example, from the small villages outside
Nablus, will they have to go into the cit of Nablus in order to vote? The
barrier's not an issue there, but the Israeli armor that encircles Nablus is.
And there'll have to be some sort of provision for them to get back and forth
or else some sort of opportunity to vote outside, essentially, in the
countryside, which is much more thinly settled in those areas.

But you've seen some interesting changes. I was in the town of Qalqilya a
couple of days ago, which is in the central West Bank within sight of Tel
Aviv, and it is totally encircled by the Israeli barrier. There's a--concrete
running along one side that's about 25 feet, 30 feet high and guard tower, and
then there's fencing in the other places. And what the Israelis have now
done--Qalqilya was entirely cut off from a dozen or so villages nearby, but
what the Israelis have now done is to dig essentially a series of underpasses
under the barrier and under Israeli roads, so that people can pass within the
barrier from those villages into Qalqilya, move back and forth, without
crossing a checkpoint.

GROSS: I imagine that gets a mixed reaction, and here's why. I mean, on the
one hand, it makes getting through easier. On the other hand, it's just,
like, illustration of a two-tiered society.

Mr. BENNET: It's an astonishing thing when you see it. The reason Qalqilya
is surrounded is that it sits, as I said, right on the boundary between Israel
and the West Bank. There are also some Israeli settlements within the West
Bank very close to Qalqilya. So Israel says that it needs to protect those
settlements by encircling Qalqilya. And they've now tried to solve this
problem of cutting off from the villages by digging what is, in effect, a
tunnel. So the economy's improving a little bit in the city. People can now
get in from the villages. They can now fairly easily reach Qalqilya, bring
their produce for sale in the market, buy televisions and what have you in
downtown Qalqilya. But at the same time it is this--you look at it and you
see the Israeli vehicles passing on the roads overhead; the Palestinians
driving beneath them within this fenced in closure. And they're occupying
just completely different dimensions of the same small space. It's just an
amazing thing to see.

GROSS: One more question about Mahmoud Abbas. He opposes violent opposition
to Israel. He opposes suicide bombing. Do you think that it is likely to be
safer, that this is likely to be a safer period, for Israelis with Mahmoud
Abbas as chair of the PLO and as the likely president of the Palestinian

Mr. BENNET: The pattern of the last few years has been that whenever there
was new hope for movement forward in the peace process here, when the Bush
administration got more engaged, when Colin Powell came to visit--whenever
those sorts of things happened, there was inevitably a spike in violence.
There were more suicide bombings, there were more shootings at Israelis on the
road. Israel would respond with incursions into the Palestinian territories.
What happens is that the militant groups who don't want to see a peace
agreement with Israel--they don't want to see progress move forward--take this
kind of thing as a challenge and do what they can to disrupt the process. And
I'm afraid we may well see that again.

Now they're less able to do that than they used to be. It's much harder for
militants to launch attacks against Israelis now, partly because of the new
barrier, partly because the Israeli army is so pervasive, particularly in the
West Bank, and partly because the Israelis have taken the advantage of the
massive arrest raids they've conducted in the last few years to build up an
extraordinary intelligence network in the territories. And one final factor
is that the Israelis have conducted this campaign of targeted killings against
the leadership of these groups. So they're under tremendous pressure, and
it's a lot harder for them to carry out these sorts of attacks. But I think
and I'm afraid that we're going to see them try.

GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, former New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief. He's now back in the Middle East. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bennet. And he was The
New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief for three years. He left that position
over the summer and is now a correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau.
But right now he's back in the Middle East and has been reporting on the death
of Arafat and its aftermath.

You actually covered the funeral of Arafat. Can you describe where you
positioned yourself and what it was like when thousands of people broke
through the security fences.

Mr. BENNET: It was one of the most amazing things that I've ever seen, the
funeral. I was positioned in a six-story building next to the Muqata,
Arafat's compound, over the morning and into the afternoon, watching from an
upper floor. And the building itself was partially overrun by gunmen over the
course of the day, as these guys wanted to get their own good vantage point to
watch the funeral. They began pouring into the building, climbing through the
windows and crowding in among the journalists, who had secured positions
earlier in the day. The Palestinian security was trying to push them out of
the building.

I stayed there over the course of the morning and into the afternoon, as the
crowd built around the compound. And it was amazing to watch as initially
people were held outside the walls. There was a security perimeter around
within the wall. People started climbing on top of the wall. They found
their way on top of the ruins of the compound itself. They gradually started
moving in closer and closer to this vast paved area inside the compound, where
the burial site is, where the helicopters were supposed to land. And at a
certain point by midday, it just looked like the security was breaking down
completely. People had crowded in onto that paved area. They were getting
closer and closer, and it got hard to imagine how the helicopters would ever
land and the burial would take place.

Finally, in sort of midafternoon, a great whistling started going up from the
crowd, and we didn't know what it was at first. It turns out that somebody
had spotted the helicopters. As a colleague of mine later observed,
Palestinians have gotten very good at spotting helicopters at a great
distance. And, sure enough, these two gigantic, yellow, Egyptian helicopters
came swooping in over the crowd, which parted beneath them. And somehow these
Egyptian pilots managed to land them without hurting anybody. At that point,
as soon as the helicopters touched down, I ran out of this building and into
the compound and into the crowd. And I managed to get quite close as they
loaded the coffin onto a truck and they brought it through the crowd, cutting
a channel through these thousands and thousands of Palestinians. It went
right by me. And it was--men were sobbing. Other men were emptying M-16
clips, you know, against the sky--tremendous tumult, women crying.

I got into the room where Arafat was supposed to lie in state, but there--so
crammed with people, they finally gave up on that. But I did find Yasser
Arafat's mother-in-law in there also in tears, and she told me that she'd just
spoken to his daughter, who'd asked in French, `Is he really dead?' And she
said, `Yes, mon cherie, he's really dead.' And she said, `Well, what's to
become of him now?' And she assured her that he'd become an angel in

GROSS: How did you get through the crowds of people?

Mr. BENNET: Just pushing and shoving, like everybody else. I mean, it was
all--it was a tremendous smell of perspiration and spent gunpowder. You know,
it was just shouting, pushing, all of those. And so, you know, we were all
kind of shoving to get close to it, and I just joined the grand shoving match.

GROSS: When you were in the middle of this incredible crowd of people, were
you confident that it was going to be relatively peaceful?

Mr. BENNET: No, guys were already shooting. It was pretty--it was scary and
exhilarating and fascinating and also depressing at the same time. It was an
astonishing kind of atmosphere of mourning and carnival and celebration.
People were having a good time. Some were just in utter despair and sobbing,
but others felt like it was this great kind of public celebration that they'd
defeated the authority that was trying to keep them out of Yasser Arafat's
burial and that they'd gotten to participate in it. It was, as many
Palestinians there said--and many Israelis would also say, I think--the
funeral that Yasser Arafat deserved. They would mean different things by
that, but I think they all drew the same conclusion. I think Israelis found
it deeply disturbing. They watched this anarchy, these guns going off, and
they wondered, `Who are these people?'

GROSS: You said that during Arafat's funeral, a lot of people were firing
their guns in the air. And I think that's a fairly standard thing in that
part of the world at funerals as well as at celebrations. What happens to
those bullets?

Mr. BENNET: This is one of the enduring mysteries, at least of the Middle
East. It's true that at all these funerals, there's a lot of gunfire in the
air. Although the Palestinian Authority has passed laws against it, it
continues. And at Yasser Arafat's funeral, there was a tremendous amount of
gunfire. Israelis were making dark jokes about being pleased to see the
Palestinians spend their bullets. And other people were wondering if this
meant peace was really coming because people were willing to use up all their
ammunition. I don't know. I saw guys shooting entire clips from their M-16,
popping the old one out while the shells were still clattering on the pavement
and shoving a new one in and firing that one off, too. And as far as I know,
nobody got shot, nobody was hit. But the bullets have to fall somewhere, and
as I remember my own high school physics, conservation of force of energy
would suggest they'd return to Earth with the same energy with which they left
the gun.

So it seems tremendously dangerous, but I guess the terrain over which they're
distributed is large enough that they--they're said to be--when Arafat came
back to Jericho in the mid-'90s under Oslo, there was also a tremendous amount
of celebratory shooting, and one guy was killed, I'm told, that day by a
bullet that returned to Earth. But that's the only case that I know of or
have been told of in which that happened.


Mr. BENNET: It was particularly scary, I might add, on the day of Arafat's
burial because a lot of people were in elevated positions. They were standing
up on the wall. People were perched on top of light posts. And there were
journalists doing live shots from the tops of the surrounding buildings. And
a lot of these guys were firing on an angle, not straight up and down. So I
was really worried about some of my colleagues, but everybody emerged

GROSS: Arafat had hoped to be buried in Jerusalem. The Israeli government
denied him that, and he's buried in Ramallah. Do you think that this is
likely to be negotiated in any future peace settlement, that it's possible
that his body would be moved to Jerusalem sometime in the future?

Mr. BENNET: Well, presumably, if the Palestinians are ever able to get some
sort of sovereign presence in Jerusalem, a portion of the city as their
capital, and they had their own state, then they'd be perfectly within their
rights, one would imagine, to move Arafat's body there. Some Palestinian
officials said there are actually hooks on his coffin, in addition to the
Jerusalem soil that was placed under it, so that it'll be easy to pick the
coffin up and move it when that day comes. At the moment it seems an awfully
long way off.

Arafat, in the end--people did say he had the burial he deserved. But his end
is certainly not one, I don't think, that he would have wanted. He died far
from Jerusalem, far from the Holy Land in general, in a Paris hospital after
this kind of farcical battle between his wife and his aides. I don't think
it's the end that he would have picked.

Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us again. I really appreciate it.

Mr. BENNET: Thank you.

GROSS: James Bennet spent three years as The New York Times' Jerusalem
bureau chief. He returned to the Middle East to cover Arafat's death and its
aftermath. He spoke to us from Jerusalem. Bennet is now a correspondent in
The New York Times' Washington bureau.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by Buddy Miller, a guitarist and singer
best known for his alt-country albums recorded with his wife, Julie Miller.
Now he has a solo album with a gospel tinge. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Buddy Miller's new album, "Universal United House of

Buddy Miller's country songs have been covered by everyone from the Dixie
Chicks to Brooks & Dunn. He's played guitar in Emmylou Harris' band for eight
years. Along with his wife, Julie Miller, they've carved out a career as
admired cult artists. Miller has a new solo album called "Universal United
House of Prayer," which he's called his most personal record ever. And rock
critic Ken Tucker says it's different from anything he's done before.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BUDDY MILLER: (Singing) It's the demolition derby. It's the sport of the
hunt. ...(Unintelligible) dance, it's a slow smile that the bully gives the
runt. It's the force of inertia. It's the lack of constraint. It's the
children out playing in the rock garden all dolled up in black hats and war
paint. And sometimes it feels like bars of steel I cannot bend with my hands.

Mr. MILLER and Mrs. JULIE MILLER: (Singing in unison) Oh, oh, I worry too
much. Somebody told me that I worry too much. Oh, oh, I worry too much.
Somebody told me that I worry too much.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Buddy Miller may have a tendency, as he puts it in that song, to worry too
much, but his worry doesn't have a deleterious effect on his music. Quite the
opposite. Miller's pensiveness, a habitual questioning of how he fits into
the world, into his relationships, combines with an instinct to pare
everything down to its essence. As far as music goes, that means writing and
covering songs that feature stark guitar lines and easily howled choruses for
his limited but very effective, appealing voice. The metaphors that he and
his wife and musical partner, Julie, use most frequently tend to derive from
their Christian faith: images of rivers and rocks, hellfire and Ascension,
inner doubt and torrents of passion.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Is that you, my Lord? Is that you, my Lord? Is that
you, my Lord? Is that you, Lord, talking to my heart? I can hear a sound.

Mrs. MILLER: (Singing) Over the water.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) I can hear a sound.

Mrs. MILLER: (Singing) Coming on the rain.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) I can hear a sound.

Mrs. MILLER: (Singing) Whisper on the wind.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Sounds like the Spirit calling out my name. It's
calling to me...

TUCKER: "Universal United House of Prayer," named for a church in Nashville,
is distinctive from Miller's previous collections of non-establishment country
music. Alt country is the music biz term, but Miller isn't a biz type of guy.
No, this album has more of a gospel feel. Much of that feeling is supplied by
the choral voices of Regina and Ann McCrary, sisters whose father is the
Reverend Sam McCrary, one of the founders of the great gospel group The
Fairfield Four. It's one of Buddy Miller's gifts that he can take a piece of
music by one of the whitest gospel duos in country music history, the Louvin
Brothers, and add them the McCrary sisters' African-American voices to create
a galvanizing chunk of music.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) When burdens seem to overcome...

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) ...who's faithful and refuses none...

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) ...then why ask men to help you through?

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) They're helpless pilgrims just like you.

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER and McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's singing,
shouting, walking, talking. There's a higher power. Lay down your soul
'cause Jesus is calling. There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Amen.

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) Amen.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Amen.

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) Amen.

Mr. MILLER and McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) There's a higher power.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Amen.

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) Amen.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Amen.

McCrary Sisters: (Singing in unison) Amen.

Mr. MILLER and McCrary Sisters: There's a higher power.

TUCKER: I don't much like being preached to in my pop music and have little
use for the often-watery, pious stuff the industry calls contemporary
Christian music. Fortunately, neither does Buddy Miller. His faith harks
back to a time before singing about Jesus and professing a need to give
oneself over to a higher power was hijacked by the politicized Christian

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) The earth can shake, the sky come down, the mountains
all fall to the ground, but I will fear none of these things.

Mr. MILLER and Chorus: (Singing in unison) Shelter me, Lord...

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) ...underneath your wing.

Mr. MILLER and Chorus: (Singing in unison) Dark waters rise and thunder
pounds. The wheels of war are going around. And all the walls are crumbling.
Shelter me, Lord...

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) ...underneath your wing.

Chorus: (Singing in unison) Shelter me, Lord. Shelter me, Lord.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Hide me underneath your wing.

Chorus: (Singing in unison) Shelter me, Lord.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Hide me deep inside your heart.

Chorus: (Singing in unison) Shelter me, Lord.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) In your refuge, cover me.

Mr. MILLER and Chorus: (Singing in unison) ...(Unintelligible) Lord, I'm
making you my higher grace. The wind can roar, the...

TUCKER: If you need to know where Miller stands, you can listen to his
dirgelike cover of Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" with its withering
contempt for warmakers. It's a song Miller has taken to doing in concert
since the onset of the Iraq War, but as far as the album goes, he didn't even
need it. It's so good, it transcends politics, religion or the genre
pigeonholing of country or gospel to become--well, to become transcendent.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is the film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed
"Universal United House of Prayer" by Buddy Miller.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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