As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lies on his deathbed in a Paris hospital, in a coma, lurched in that place between life and death, there is much cause for sober reflection in the Israeli and Palestinian camps. He was controversial in life, just as he will be in death when they try to find a proper burial place for him. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has already said that Arafat would not be buried in Jerusalem so as not bolster Palestinian claims to the city or the Temple Mount.
We are not sure if the last images of Yasser Arafat, the grey fox, the lion of Ramallah, sporting that dapper hat, will be the ones of him getting into the helicopter to be whisked away to Paris for medical attention. The few hundred onlookers who came to show their support during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan called out one of his favourite Palestinian sayings: the mountain cannot be shaken by the wind.
The stories of Arafat are legendary in this part of the world. There are those who still talk about the time Arafat kissed their hand. At the Muqata, his battered Ramallah headquarters, you are more likely to met by amiable security guards and be taken for dinner by his scheduler than find your life in danger. In the back of the compound there are metal poles several meters high encased in barrels of cement to provide a sufficient deterrent to Israel’s Apache helicopters from descending far enough to get a clear shot at Arafat. From there, you can see the parking lot which serves as a kind of make-shift museum of blown-up BMW’s, Mercedes and Fiats, almost curated, as if to serve as a critique of Israeli military aggression. From this perspective, the Muqata looks more like a gaudy, sprawling auto parts dealership than a palace befiting the President of a nation.
When the fighting did get tough, Arafat was quick to be on the phone with Egyptian President Husni Mubarek and French President Jacques Chirac pleading for diplomatic missives against Israel and support from abroad. When he was under siege in 2002, remaining steadfast, he again captured the attention of his people as a symbol of resistance at a time when his support was waning.
If Israel had really wanted Yasser Arafat dead, they could have killed him long ago just as Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Rantisi had been assassinated by the IDF earlier this year. The difference was that Arafat was the President and the international outrage would have isolated Israel and sent it further in the direction of a pariah state.
Arafat was basically under house arrest since late 2001 and had to seek permission just to leave the compound and get assurances from Prime Minister Sharon that he would be allowed back in the country after his medical treatment.
Arafat was not just the symbol of Palestinian aspirations, he was after all the controversial and misunderstood figure who defined “terrorist chic” for the Western world and who never felt totally comfortable with him. Dressed in his khafiya, surrounded by advisors, he was the face on the evening news after an act of violence. This told more the Western view of Arabs than being anything close to reality.
Arafat’s return was also associated with that method of dissent that so repulsed the rest of the world and made allies of the Israeli and Palestinian street - the suicide bomb. And so it was easy for those in the West to malign him simply as a supporter of violence. To do this, was to undermine the complexity of the situation. President George W. Bush, never one to grasp a complex situation, continued to vilify the weakened and increasingly irrelevant Arafat, the former Nobel prize winner.
Arafat was born in 1929 in either Jerusalem, Gaza or Cairo - nobody really knows for sure. His mother died when he was five and he was sent to live with his uncle in Jerusalem. He never speaks about his father.
One of his earliest memories are of British soldiers breaking into the house after midnight, beating members of his family and breaking furniture. He would later fight against the British and also the establishment of Israel in 1948 by fighting in Gaza.
Arafat went on to university in Cairo where he founded a Palestinian student movement. He presented a petition calling for Palestinian recognition to the Egyptian president written in blood. He settled in Kuwait where he worked in the department of public works and became a contractor. He soon began resistance activities and formed Al Fatah in 1958 and began publishing a magazine advocating armed struggle against Israel in 1959. By 1964, Arafat had left Kuwait for Jordan and began armed raids into Israel earning his stripes as a revolutionary guerrilla leader. It was also in 1964 that the Palestine Liberation organization was formed under the hospices of the Arab League, by bringing together disparate factions supporting a Palestinian state. He also had a brief stint in a Syrian jail.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Fatah emerged as the most organized Palestinian force and Arafat took over chairmanship of the more moderate Palestine Liberation Oraganization. At this point, the PLO ceased to be a puppet of the Arab states, but became an independent nationalist organization based in Jordan. Concerned that Jordan was being used as a base for violent attacks into Israel, King Hussein exiled Arafat to Lebanon after the PLO leader had effectively set up his own mini-state with a security apparatus within Jordan. The 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon sent Arafat and the rest of the PLO leadership to Tunis. To say that Sharon and Arafat have history would not do justice to the terrible human tragedy of that conflict.
As Arafat left Lebanon, he said he was “on his way to Palestine.”
And in a way, he was. Arafat was developing a mythic reputation by surviving an airplane crash, several Israeli attempts to assassinate him and recovering from a serious stroke.
By 1987, the intifada erupted and Palestinian aspirations once again percolated to international attention. What began as rock throwing in Gaza, turned into the political impetus for Arafat to redefine himself as the messenger of peace. 1n 1988, at a special session of the United Nations in Switzerland, Arafat declared that the PLO renounced terrorism and supported “the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbours.”
After a brief setback when the PLO supported Iraq during the Gulf War, Arafat was a signatory to the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Arafat once again denounced terrorism and recognized Israel.
On the White House lawn where the final agreement was signed, Rabin, the legendary Israeli, said, “We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battles stained with blood…, say to you today, in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough!…We, like you, are people - people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in affinity as human beings, as free men.”
To which Arafat replied, “Our people do not consider that exercising the right to self-determination could violate the rights of their neighbours or infringe on their security. Rather, putting an end to their feelings of being wronged and of having suffered an historic injustice is the strongest guarantee to achieve coexistence and openness between our two peoples and the future generations.”
This set the stage for Arafat’s triumphant return to Gaza in 1994 and the struggle for power sharing between the Tunis old guard and the new leadership that had emerged from the intifada. Arafat’s wife, Suha, remained in Paris. After crossing Egypt into Gaza, he left his car and kissed the ground after 27 years in exile.
Even with the failings of the Oslo Accord, the Rabin assassination in 1995 came like an earthquake. All the enthusiasm of the Western world that had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and was bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa was not going to see an historic settlement that would bring peace to Israel and Palestine.
Binyamin Netanyahu followed as the new Israeli leader and the peace process stalled. One last attempt by outgoing President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David ended up without a deal and no agreement on the right of return issue. The Israelis called it “Barak’s Generous Offer” and the Palestinians called it “Barak’s Big Lie.” The agreement after all would have come with fifteen pages of Israeli reservations. The Geneva Initiative, which has recently captured the attention of the elite builds on the framework of Camp David and forecasts what an agreeable final status solution might look like. It sits there, like a telegraphed pass in football, waiting to be knocked down.
A month after Camp David, the violence erupted when Ariel Sharon made his visit to the Temple Mount. September 11th changed the playing field and shifted American priorities related to the conflict. Bush and Sharon became tighter allies, further isolating Arafat. By 2002, Yasser Arafat was already a weakened leader when the Israeli siege took over the West Bank. New settlements continued to be constructed in the Occupited Territories. Police headquarters in Bethlehem and Ramallah were ransacked. Arafat was thrown legitimate charges of corruption, cronyism, of not being able to crack down on the violence, of not breaking the links between Fatah and the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Rival factions fought for control while Hamas solidified control of the Gaza Strip. The Occupation became more structured and solidified on the ground. The death toll continued to rise. Since the beginning of 2000, close to 6,000 Palestinians and Israelis lay dead as a result of the violence.
Israel benefited by maintaining a weakened Arafat and a weakened Palestinian Authority. Arafat, in turn, couldn’t find a find a way to quell the anger and end the violence. The situation on the ground continued to deteriorate. Israel was able to continue expansion into the West Bank and meet their security objectives unilaterally by building a Separation Wall and continuing incursions into Palestinian cities and villages which included assassinations and home demolitions without international intervention, while supporting a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In the short term, the Sharon gamble worked.
Even with Arafat’s own weaknesses and inability to show a unified front in the face of deep adversity, he succeeded at a number of levels. The two state solution is still the language of the day. Most international institutions and United Nations resolutions support the Palestinian aspirations for nationhood and view the Israeli government as the agressors. The International Court of Justice essentially declared the Separation Wall illegal.
If anything, the Arafat tenure as head of the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority even with its deep problems, was able to showcase the hypocrisy of Israeli policy in their dealings with the Palestinians and of the Occupation itself.
As the old adage goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And in a nation where even the Israeli state was preceded by terrorist organizations and a leader named Menachem Begin who went on to become Prime Minister, Arafat’s transformation from “terrorist” to Nobel prize winning statesman had its limitations.
When the heady days of the Oslo Accord were over and the reality of Rabin’s death and the meaning of it sunk in, the leadership on all sides contributed to the vacuum that was created in the late nineties. In a way, the violence that erupted in September 2000 was almost inevitable. It was a profound failure of leadership on all sides.
So now, as the Occupied Territories prepares for a Palestinian power struggle and a power shift from within between the Tunis old guard, the young Fatah activists, the Communists represented by the Palestine People’s Party, the more militant Hamas and other splinter groups, the Palestinian desire for self-determination will suffer in the short term. It will be up to people like Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qureia, Saeb Arakat and others to fashion a responsible leadership that will take the Palestinians to the place they aspire to be.
The Yasser Arafat that lies on his deathbed in Paris today, the one who has Jews and Arabs leaving him flowers outside his hospital, was not ever going to be the leader that brought home the peace or signed the final deal. As the Globe and Mail recently said, “It will be the Arafat legacy, that he kept the fight alive; but his dream unfulfilled.”
Yasser Arafat was what he was - and tomorrow’s another day.
Am Johal is a freelance writer from Canada recently working in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. Johal is working on a book, “The Grand Dissonance”, about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.