Monday, May 23, 2011

Jibril Rajoub

They say that birds are descended from dinosaurs. It may be that some humans have also undergone such transformations. Jibril Rajoub, once supreme tough guy and the head of security in the West Bank under Yasser Arafat, is today the head of the Palestinian Football Federation and the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Abu Rami”, as he is better known, has successfully managed the shift from confronter of Hamas, to leader of youth and sports activities in Palestine. Indeed, as Palestinians increasingly aim for the symbols and realities of statehood this year, Jibril’s efforts to bring international football teams to play in Palestine, and to give coherence to his national football league, can only be seen as part of this living current: the slow and belated search for statehood for the Palestinian people.

Abu Rami was not always so benign. He was arrested at the tender age of 17 for having thrown a grenade at an Israeli bus in an act of resistance against the occupation. The explosive did not go off, but the attempt was enough to land him 17 years in jail. There, he learned Hebrew and formed his character, firming up his toughness and acumen enough to become a leader - a skill that has served him well as a member of the Fatah Party.

Jibril has known the full spectrum of knocks in life. He was exiled from the West Bank in the late 1980s and unceremoniously dumped in southern Lebanon by the Israeli government for his troublesome activities. From there, he made his way to Tunis and the offices of Yasser Arafat and the PLO, before returning to the West Bank with the Palestinian leader during the Oslo accords. From there he rose to the highest positions of national security of the Palestinian Authority.

All those efforts wasted away in a few deadly months in 2000 as Israel crushed the Palestinian Intifada that followed the Camp David negotiations, and, along with it, all of Abu Rami’s security institutions in the West Bank.

Since that time, Abu Rami moved slowly but surely away from pure politics. But he retains an important position on the Fatah Central Committee, and has since made the best of his positions as leader of athletics in his burgeoning nation.

A trip to a football match with Abu Rami is a thrill ride. A fight between players caused President Rajoub to leap from his imperial balcony (where he presides over the game) and rush the field to split up the players and create the calm needed for the game to go on. Undoubtedly, this is an intervention he had practiced in jail, and later in the West Bank, before applying it on the grass of the stadium at Al-Ram.

But these are just the professional depictions of the man. Those who know him well describe him as generous and buoyant personality, with a deep, gravelly voice, fitting of a member of "The Sopranos". He possesses an intimidating presence that makes everyone from young women to ministers cower near him. Indeed, there are some who have very difficult memories of his time as head of security in the West Bank and the abuses that came with that.

Still, an invitation to Abu Rami's diwan (with daggers and scimitars hanging from the walls) for a meal of every fowl and fish available in Ramallah, is an opportunity to know the power of traditional Arab and Bedouin generosity. It's also a chance to know the large heart of a man who, after all his travels, will always be from the village of Doura, near Hebron.

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