While a comatose Yasser Arafat lay in his Paris hospital bed right until his November 11 death, the media raised symbolic questions, unrelated to the central issues. Would Israel allow Arafat to be buried in the Haram al-Sharif mosque in Jerusalem’s old city? Or would they force his remains to lie in Gaza? Would Washington push for a compromise so that Arafat’s remains could lie in Ramallah on the West Bank? Outside his guarded hospital room, other PLO “leaders” debated the political implications of his burial site
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vetoed Jerusalem, emphasizing Israel’s claim of exclusive ownership of the old city another slap in the now dead Arafat’s face. Sharon would hardly concede symbolic status by allowing his rival to be buried there. “Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. It’s not a city where we want to bury an Arab terrorist, a mass murderer,” spat Israel’s Justice Minister, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. Although Western media portray him in those pejorative terms, Arafat was a serious historical figure, whose death will usher in unpredictable changes in the turbulent history of Palestine and Israel.
But before a patient dies, the doctors should ask: who made him sick? Although hospital authorities denied the theory, some knowledgeable insiders who asked for anonymity — speculated that the PLO equivalents of Brutus and Cassius poisoned Arafat (their puny version of Caesar) to grab not only his ambiguous political power but his reputed large fortune as well (Some newspapers estimated his wealth at $10 billion, $100,000 a month of which “sustained” his wife, Suha, in her Paris hotel). She fought with some PLO over who had the authority to pull the switch on his life support system.
Arafat’s death might actually open the door to political possibilities for Palestinians that were vitiated by his leadership. As a politician, for forty years he inconclusively struggled with Israel, the West, and other Arab states while simultaneously manipulating to maintain control internally.
Arafat did not address the succession question adequately, perhaps for the better. A new crop of Palestinian leadership without ties to the aging PLO bureaucrats might well emerge from the grassroots. But those who judged Arafat also share the blame for the Middle East morass. As the West has done with all of its former colonies after exploiting and oppressing for centuries, it places the onus for all “mistakes” in development or corrupt government on the occupied people themselves. The Palestinians thus bear the responsibility for removing “obstacles to peace,” which Washington and Tel Aviv define. The media pose the issue as if the Palestinians were one simple and irresponsible entity.
This framing of the issue begs a key question: who did Arafat actually represent? Although Palestinians elected him President in 1996, Arafat owed a decades-long debt to a small group of rich businessmen whose interests did not reflect those of the impoverished majority.
Since the mid 1960s, Arafat received financial support from this group of nationalist-minded entrepreneurs as well as from oil-rich and corrupt Arab governments, like Saudi Arabia. But from the outset, he personally dominated the politics of Palestinian independence. Like most third world nationalist movements, the PLO sought to bring Palestinians from colonization and defeat onto the stage of contemporary history.
In 1964, the Arab League backed a Palestinian base in Cairo to stir nationalist feelings within the diaspora, which formed in 1948 after militant Zionists forced them to flee their land and homes to neighboring Arab states.
After the humiliating defeat of Arab states by Israel during the 1967 war, the small group of nationalists transformed itself into a viable resistance movement committed to the liberation of Palestine. In 1969, the various and often fractious groups inside this coalition elected Arafat, who headed Al-Fatah (The Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine), as chairman of the PLO executive committee.
After 1967, the PLO operated from exile in an apparently hospitable Jordan. But in 1970, the late King Hussein, fearing that the size and power of the Palestinian movement there represented both a provocation to Israel and a threat to his own power, attacked PLO members. During a ten-day period known as Black September the Jordanian army slaughtered over three thousand Palestinians. Arafat then moved the psychically wounded and physically depleted organization to Lebanon. But in 1982, Israel invaded and bombed that country. The media reported the ensuing massacres by Israeli-paid Lebanese para-militaries of more than a thousand Palestinians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila.
By then, the PLO had gained world recognition as a result of 8 members of the Black September group (later found to be tied to the PLO) kidnapping 11 Israelis hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
During the late 1970s, the Israeli government, fearful of Palestinian nationalism’s growing appeal, offered support to the religious Hamas, with the intent of undercutting the more secular PLO. Israeli intelligence officials believed that the Palestinian poor in the West Bank and Gaza would follow the non-political mullahs, since PLO ideology asked Palestinians for their allegiance, but offered little or no material benefits.
Hamas did begin to thrive. They reached the poor in the West Bank and Gaza while Arafat and company operated in Tunisia after Israel’s 1982 conquest of Lebanon. The PLO remained in North Africa until the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords. In September of that year, President Clinton pushed the reluctant Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin to shake hands at the White House lawn. People of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief: peace would have a chance. The Palestinians, it seemed, would have their state, however incomplete and weak.
But Arafat did little to set the stage at Oslo. Rather, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, some of whom did not take orders from the PLO, had staged a six year long Intifada (uprising), that pushed Israel to the bargaining table. Younger Palestinians led this non-violent movement that erupted in 1987. Within a short time, most sectors of Palestinian society supported it since they all shared the daily hardships of life under Israeli occupation and dissatisfaction with the PLO’s external leadership.
Two events, however, soon undercut the elation over the Oslo accords and the historic handshake. In 1995, Yigal Amir, assassinated Rabin proclaiming himself a patriot who had removed an obstacle in the path of the “greater Israel.” In addition, Israel surprised the PLO by expanding the construction of settlements on Palestinian territories.
Arafat had no control over Israeli fanatics, like Amir and Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 shot 29 Palestinians praying at the Mosque of Abraham. Had he and his staff read the Oslo accords they would have known that Israel had not explicitly condemned the building of future settlements nor pledged to stop them; nor did Israel agree to withdraw from all the settlements. Instead, the agreement read: “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.”
Israel also refused to address in the Oslo agreement the other contentious issues of the Palestinian right to return and the status of Jerusalem. Such indiscipline on the part of the PLO had become ubiquitous. As Israeli leaders plotted anti-PLO strategy with precision, some PLO leaders spent precious hours in Washington before key meetings eating and drinking in fancy hotels. They displayed arrogance by not consulting with brilliant Palestinian intellectuals in exile like Edward Said or with politically savvy allies in Washington. Arafat himself set the tone for this kind of behavior.
In September 2000, Ariel Sharon entered the Haram al-Sharif mosque and provoked the second Palestinian Intifada. Outfoxed again, Arafat found himself confined by the Israelis to his crumbling Ramallah compound. His status was deflated. Indeed, President Bush called him “irrelevant.”
Arafat seemed not to understand that because of its non-violent nature the first Intifada won world opinion to the Palestinian side and helped force Israel to make concessions. Under his supposed leadership, the second Intifada took a violent and inhuman course: suicide bombing, in which older men programmed young people to blow themselves up. The tactic unified a divided Israel and allowed Sharon to use his superior armed force to inflict ever heavier casualties on the Palestinian people. The decaying and stagnant Palestinian “leadership” no longer led. The growing and explosive nature of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade began to dominate Palestinian reality.
Arafat remained the symbol of third world nationalism and specifically Palestinian liberation. His determination and sacrifice for the Palestinian cause were inevitably diluted by the sources of PLO money, which led to corruption within the organization. He personally possessed the courage to face deprivation and death, while simultaneously lacking the discipline to do his homework before making decisive judgments (like signing Oslo and aligning with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War). These mistakes define leaders. While his Israeli adversaries worked tirelessly to spin issues in their favor, Arafat frittered away opportunities to persuade world opinion. Albeit the Israelis had far superior resources, Arafat disregarded the wisdom of brilliant Palestinians abroad in their efforts to guide him toward more effective policies.
Palestinians merit better, visionary leadership over the next decade. They and the Israelis will recognize that they share the same land. Eventually a one or two-state solution will emerge. But Yasser Arafat deserves his niche in history, alongside the universal struggle of peoples to self-determination.
Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.
Farrah Hassen recently returned from Syria where she worked for the UN.