After Arafat: refracted reflections

A man sits next to a poster of Yasser Arafat on the day the Palestinian leader was laid to rest in the Muqata’a compound in Ramallah, 12 November 2004. (Maureen Clare Murphy)


The death of any person is usually a time for reflection — on his or her life, its successes and tribulations, on memories of times gone by and conversations never to be had again. Deaths also provide occasions for accounting: for thinking about one’s own mortality, assessing one’s past and wondering about the future.

The death of a political leader magnifies such reflections and accountings beyond the personal to the national and even global scale. The mourning and funerary observances following leaders’ deaths are always highly ritualized. Formal observance of carefully sequenced rites allows the power, legitimacy, authority and “mystique” of the office of a head of state, president, or king to be preserved and safeguarded, even though the incumbent has departed the scene. Such rituals are not just about bidding farewell to the deceased, but even more so are meant to transfer power to his or her successor: “The king is dead; long live the king!” Succession rituals imply as well as preserve enduring institutional structures; they reconfirm the bounded framework of hierarchies and categories in which social roles and sociopolitical belonging have clarity and meaning.

The illness, hospitalization, death, funeral, and burial of Yasser Arafat have provided an alarming demonstration of how very unclear, unbounded, uncentered and uncertain things are in Palestine. Indeed, the death of the man who long symbolized the Palestinian struggle for liberation, rights, and statehood gives rise to troubling reflections about Palestine itself, not only as an idea or a hope but also as a set of institutions. Even Palestinians who knew and loved Arafat will admit that he kept too much information and power to himself.

Although Palestinian national institutions initially benefited from Arafat’s arrival on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, by the time of his death last week, Palestinian governance structures and lines of command were in very sad disrepair. Not all of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Arafat and the handful of cronies who have always drawn their power and authority from him, rather than generating leadership and legitimacy of their own or encouraging the leadership potential and political participation of younger Palestinians throughout the world.

Certainly the Israeli government and army bear much of the blame for the administrative crises besetting the Palestinian Authority (PA). Over the last four years, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have demolished the literal and figurative infrastructure of the PA, from schools to jails to police stations to museums to television studios to Arafat’s headquarters, al-muqata’a, itself. Despite the Oslo Accords, Israeli occupation, settlement building, and the construction of road networks for Jews only expanded dramatically. And let’s not forget the Apartheid wall’s deleterious impact on Palestinian communities’ economic and political structures.

For the current Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, the conflict with Arafat was never just political or military, but deeply personal. Sharon’s constant denigration and defamation of Arafat as a dangerous terrorist is highly ironic, given that Sharon is responsible for killing far, far more Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in violation of International Humanitarian Law than Arafat and the PLO ever killed. But refractions of perceptions and distortions of facts are the daily fare of the American media-policy machine that hourly fabricates political worlds that do not actually exist.

Watching CNN and BBC for the last four days, one could believe unequivocally that:

Arafat was a dangerous murderer, an all-powerful leader, a treacherous and cunning schemer personally responsible for every suicide bombing that ever happened;

or,

Arafat was the brave father of a nation, the founder of a state-in-progress, a noble leader of the unified masses.

In addition to counterposing these caricatures to one another in loud and senseless debate shows, the media have also implied that Arafat was Palestine and Palestine is/was Arafat. Ergo, if Arafat is gone, then Palestine must also be lost as well. Simplistic syllogisms like these, offered up by mainstream television and radio talking heads, miss the point entirely.

The Palestinian people accomplished some of their most noteworthy and admirable successes with little if any input from Yasser Arafat. The 1987-1992 Intifada, a largely non-violent struggle led by grass-roots civil society committees of women and men, young and old, was a truer example of state-building, democratic governance, and mass mobilization than anything undertaken under the compromised framework of the Oslo Accords from 1993-2000. And Arafat’s glory days of revolutionary leadership in Beirut were followed by misery, emptiness, anger, and a tremendous sense of loss in the wake of his departure from that battered city in 1982. It was hard to find any fans of Yasser Arafat, whether Palestinian or Lebanese, when I lived in Lebanon from 1993-1998.

A brief history of some demolished hopes

In 1992, I was conducting my doctoral dissertation research on municipal politics in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel. Given the political realities of Nazareth from 1974-1997, most of the people I interviewed and got to know were members of a coalition, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, dominated by the Israeli Communist Party. One day news came that Arafat’s plane had crashed in the Libyan desert. I assumed my friends and neighbors in Nazareth would be quite upset and worried about his fate.

A friend came by to take me to his brother’s house for a spring cookout gathering that afternoon. When we arrived at the house, five men and two women were circled around the TV, smoking cigarettes and eating sunflower seeds, listening intently as a Hebrew news presenter delivered the latest update on Arafat’s condition. Assuming he could not have surived a plane crash, I said “haram. allah yarhamu.” (“How sad, God have mercy on his soul”). Everyone turned around and stared at me. One man shouted at me: “What are you saying?! We hope he has died! The Palestinian movement really needs a new, enlightened leader and he’ll never get out of the way or hand power to someone else. This is the best thing that could happen!”

I guess I should not have been so surprised at their reaction. In January 1989 I had traveled to Tunis with a delegation led by Sen. George McGovern to meet with key Palestinian Liberation Organization figures, including Arafat, in the wake of Chairman Arafat’s historic 1988 speech recognizing Israel and a two-state-solution. George H.W. Bush was now president, and through what I can only imagine had been some convoluted back-channel networking between incoming officials at the State Department, Arab American organizations, peace and justice groups, journalists, and the PLO office in Washington, DC, it was decided that better coordination of views and ideas between Palestinians and Americans was needed.

At that time, I was working in Washington, D.C., as Senior Programs Coordinator at the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR), and had become, by inclination or default, NCUSAR’s liaison person on Israeli-Palestinian and human rights issues, including all UN related developments and meetings on the question of Palestine.

It was the height of the first intifada, and, looking back, a time of hope and expectation. I was in my late 20s and very interested in peace and justice issues, conflict resolution, “Track Two” (people to people) diplomacy, interfaith dialogue, and the nuclear freeze movement. A summer spent in Jordan, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Syria on an archaeological expedition in the early 1980s had alerted me to the suffering of Palestinians and the extent to which their history, cause, interests, and demands were misunderstood and even maliciously distorted in the US media.

While working for NCUSAR I had been tasked to attend meetings at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, where I soon became secretary of the National Cathedral’s Committee on Israeli-Palestinian Peace. It was a wonderful experience that enabled me to meet people I’d only heard about up until then, such as Merle Thorpe, founder of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and journalist/scholar Helena Cobban, among others.

About the same time, Senator Grassley (R-Iowa, then as now) had convinced the US Senate to officially deem the PLO office in DC unkosher for any American to deal with legally, ethically, journalistically, or institutionally. A number of pro-Palestinian and peace groups in DC responded to this Israeli lobby-inspired diktat by patching together a task force to disseminate information about Palestinian human rights, the intifada, UN resolutions, and violations of international law and US law in the Israeli occupied territories. I soon became a member of that task force, which met during lunch breaks a couple of times a month in various offices over falafel sandwiches, olives, and ginger ale.

I once came up with an idea that we should fund an public awareness campaign, featuring placards to be displayed on the DC metro (subway) system with the heading “Breaking Bones/Breaking Laws” to highlight Yitzhak Rabin’s call to IDF soldiers to break Palestinians’ bones, and to list all the major international laws and UN resolutions that Israel was breaking day by day, including the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Given our loose, informal structure and our lack of funding for anything besides falafel lunches, nothing ever came of my idea. Such was the fearful power and cunning of the pro-Palestinian lobby in Washington, DC in 1988.

(As I discovered more than a decade later, upon teaming up over the telephone and through e-mail with EI co-founders Nigel Parry, Ali Abunimah, and Arjan El Fassed, quite a lot can be done with little money and minimal institutional structure to mount effective public awarenesss campaigns.)

One Monday morning in January 1989, I got a call from a friend from an Arab-American organization, another member of the aforementioned task force, asking me what I was doing on Wednesday. I looked at my calendar and said “not much,” assuming he was scheduling another working lunch of our task force.

“Want to go to Tunis and meet Arafat and PLO leaders?” he asked with a laugh.

I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

I asked my boss, who gave me the green light to go, since I had to set up a summer study tour for high school honor students and college professors in Tunisia anyway. So 48 hours later, I found myself aboard a Lufthansa jet with Sen. George McGovern and 10 other people, most of them members of various Arab-American organizations. We were all fizzy with excitement — a sudden, unexpected trip to Tunisia in the middle of January! And a chance to be present at a key moment in US-Palestinian diplomatic history.

Arriving at the Tunis airport, we got special VIP treatment and were whisked away in a nice bus to Sidi Bou Said, an exclusive, upscale area of Tunis, where we stayed at the most luxurious hotel I’d ever seen — lovely low white buildings graced by arches and mosaic tiles, surrounded by gorgeously landscaped gardens giving way to breathtaking views of the azure Mediterranean. We had much of the hotel to ourselves.

The first night we all gathered to have dinner in the beaufiful dining room. I ended up sitting next to George McGovern, and was happy to tell him I’d spent the fall of 1972 as an eighth-grader distributing campaign literature for him in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and that my father had put up a sign announcing “Aww shit! Four more years!” in our front yard the day after his defeat by Richard M. Nixon.

“You obviously have a very intelligent father!” he commented as he poured me some more wine.

The next day, we were supposed to meet with Arafat and four other top PLO officials. But when? Where? For how long? No one knew. Some of our delegation were on the phone to Bassam Abu Sharif and went off to see him. Others of us cooled our heels in the coffee shop or took walks on the promenade overlooking the beach. I read through the latest UN reports I had gotten from the West Bank and Gaza.

The hours dragged by. More people arrived from the US for our meeting. We hung out in front of a fireplace in the hotel lobby, laughing and talking. Then falling silent and looking at our watches. Eleven o’clock gave way to midnight. Then it was 1 a.m.

Finally at 2:30, some officious-looking men in very nice suits and a guy wearing a khaki uniform burst through the hotel doors and said “Yallah! Let’s go!”

We piled into four or five shiny new Mercedes, and headed into a foggy night in Tunisia, speeding up and down hills and around bends until we came to an office in a suburb of Tunis. Armed young guards lounged on either side of the front door. They were smiling broadly and looked like they wanted to high-five us rather than do any security checks.

Our delegation filed into the main room and down a short flight of stairs to the right. A burgundy sofa-set curved around half of the room, in the middle of which was an office chair on wheels. In it sat Yasser Arafat, devoid of his trademark kaffiyeh. He was in high spirits, despite the late hour, and welcomed those he’d met before with kisses and hugs, and then shook hands and hugged the rest of us, giving special attention to Sen. McGovern. He looked at me and asked, out of the blue, “Are you Irish?”

“Half,” I mumbled, completely flustered to be in his presence.

Then we sat down to a 3 a.m. meeting that was devoted, surreally, to pro forma greetings and introductions. Sen. McGovern did most of the talking, and then Khalil Jahshan, who was then an editor of Palestine Perspectives magazine in DC, got to the heart of the discussion about how to best communicate Palestinian concerns and needs to the American people, not just the American government, at this new stage. He made a marvelous summation, raised very important questions, and proposed brilliant strategies and ideas.

But he did not get much response from Arafat and the others present (Abu Mazen and Yasser Abd Rabbo). Arafat seemed more interested in having fun, laughing with us, and basking in the attention of a foreign delegation. I don’t think he really grasped much of what Sen. McGovern and Khalil Jahshan had said, and language difficulties were not the problem. He just did not seem interested in or focused on the reason for our visit.

Then came the obligatory photo sessions — all of us pictured with Arafat (he put his kaffiya on for this), each of us photographed alone with Arafat…But not much serious discussion.

Before we left, it was decided that the next day we would meet with some PLO officials to discuss the key issues. Aaah, so the real work had not yet started, I thought, as we filed back out the door to the waiting Mercedes. By the time we got to the hotel, it was nearly 6:00 in the morning.

The next day’s meeting was not very satisfactory. The officials we met with seemed more interested in telling us what the agenda and the proper approach were than listening to our recommendations. Abd Rabbo in particular seemed to want to lecture to us as though we were rather dim and in need of his instruction. None of the PLO officials who met with us had had much experience of life in the US, let alone a grasp of US media complexities or the politics of perception in Washington, let alone “beyond the beltway”. It was a deflating and frustrating experience, all in all.

But the surroundings were quite nice: our “working” meeting was held at Arafat’s main office. We sat in a salon on beautifully embroidered chairs and had a nice view as we sipped coffee and tea.

By the time we all got back to the hotel, it was already evening. We were exhausted, as well as depressed. I for one was wondering at the disjunction between the luxury of our surroundings and the situation in which most Palestinians found themselves in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention all the refugee camps. It was clear that a lot of money had been spent to fly all of us to Tunis, put us up in a posh hotel, drive us around in Mercedes, and let us eat and drink our fill at the hotel restaurant, coffee shop and bar. Yet the purpose of our coming all this way seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

After dinner on our last night there, a few of us voiced our feelings of disappointment, and then started to envision the future of Palestine in sardonic tones.

“The Minister of Education in the future state of Palestine will be Muhammad al-Jahili (Muhammad the Ignorant)” said one Palestinian-American.

“And the Minister of Energy will be Mustafa al-Kaslaan! (Mustafa the Lazy)” I chimed in.

As one Palestinian-American said to us as we ran out of funny names for future officials: “Let’s face it folks: we have just lost our political virginity here!”

We returned to Washington, DC feeling glum and less than hopeful about the PLO’s ability to make a dent in public diplomacy, the US media, or US policymaking.

So it should not have come as any surprise to me when my friends in Nazareth, three years later, expressed dismay that Arafat had survived his brush with death in Libya.

“We have the most just cause, but the lousiest ‘lawyers’ representing us!” said my friend Mu’een as we shut off the television that April night in 1992 in Nazareth.

As Arafat is finally laid to rest, the Palestinian cause will not be buried with him, but rather, will continue to be one that is eminently and fundamentally just. Let us hope that the best possible representatives come forward and do justice to and for a people who have suffered so long, and so unfairly, not only at others’ hands, but also at their own.

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    Laurie King-Irani, a social anthropologist, is one of the co-founders of the Electronic Intifada.