If Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s illness and unexpected departure to France represents the end of an era, as some rashly noted, it is because the absence of Arafat, even as a living symbol, is a matter of great consequence. But that said, we must not indulge in misrepresenting the Palestinian struggle by reducing it to the legacy of one man.
It is still too early to assess Arafat’s contributions to the Palestinian march for freedom. It might take years before an accurate assessment is possible. The imperative now is to maintain the momentum of the Palestinian uprising and its ability to stand up to the awesome power of a rogue state.
For some Arafat is just another autocratic Arab ruler clinging to his position, refusing to share power or allocate responsibility to anyone but his cronies and with nothing new to offer save the worn out rhetoric about a “light at the end of the tunnel” and the “mountain (that) cannot be shaken by the wind”. But those who see only this side of Arafat ignore the heady political, cultural and intellectual mix represented in his person, his ability to mean many different things to many different people.
Arafat — whether deliberately or not — managed to associate himself with every hardship faced by Palestinians over the decades. From his early years as a student activist in Cairo, in 1949, to the momentous formation of the Fatah movement in 1965, Arafat was always present.
For Arab leaders, despite his fall-outs with some on occasion, Arafat was a godsend. His presence justified their absence. It was Arafat who insisted on referring to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the “legitimate and only” representative of the Palestinian people and Arab regimes passionately embraced the slogan. It was an exoneration of their utter failure to defend the cause of Palestine and its people.
Palestinians, of course — even those who oppose his political line and unconditional peace offerings — see Arafat in a different light. When a military helicopter hauled him out of his headquarters in Ramallah, ending a three-year-long Israeli siege, Palestinians silently observed Arafat’s most recent departure and connected it to the history of dispossession of which they have all been part. Palestinian commentators wrote about distant, yet unforgotten, history, relating Amman to Beirut to Tunis to Gaza to Ramallah and now to Paris.
Arafat’s legacy is one of undiluted symbolism — a symbolism at once substantial and meaningful. Even if he acted as though his journey to France was like any other Palestinians knew that this journey was different.
When Arafat was forced out of Lebanon in 1982 Palestinian fighters fired in the air. Arafat stood defiantly and told his comrades that the path to Jerusalem was becoming closer and that Lebanon was just another stop on their long journey back to the homeland. They believed him, and kept on firing.
The distance from Beirut to Tunis mattered little. Arafat’s presence lingered, not only among Lebanon’s refugees but in the camps of Gaza.
As a child I often witnessed Israeli soldiers forcing young Palestinians to their knees in my refugee camp in Gaza, threatening to beat them if they did not spit upon a photo of Yasser Arafat. “Say Arafat is a jackass,” the soldiers would scream. No one would exchange his safety for insulting an image of Arafat. They would endure pain and injury, but would say nothing.
It was not the character of Arafat that induced such resilience but what the man represented. This explains why Gazans stood enthralled as Abu Ammar spoke upon his return following the signing of Oslo. Retrospectively, it also explains the level of betrayal that many Palestinians felt when their icon, who in some ways had been deified in his exile, failed to live up to their expectations upon his return to the homeland.
It felt as if Arafat’s era was coming to a close following his return to Gaza in the mid-1990s. Such feelings were motivated not by his old age or faltering health, nor by Israel’s irrelevant designation of the man as a peace partner or otherwise. It was just that the man who promised the moon failed to deliver a desolate refugee camp. The man who promised Jerusalem was in negotiations over the small neighborhood of Abu Deis. The astute leader who spoke of the peace of the brave had little to say as the West Bank was once more overrun by the Israeli military machine.
It was never easy for Arafat to maintain the image of warrior and bureaucrat. Israel wanted him to crackdown on those who fought by him and for him. The United States wanted him to “condemn terrorism, not by words but by deeds”. But it was armed resistance that had sustained Arafat’s struggle for decades. Arab leaders pressured him, conveying the Israeli and American messages, completely sidelining themselves in what for decades had been the Arab cause. His cronies exploited him. His balancing act slipped and his aura slowly faded.
When Israel bombed Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and imprisoned him with the blessing of the US government it hardly intended to provide the aged leader with a platform to claim a heroic last stand.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and physical confinement of Arafat absolved him of political accountability before his people while reinvigorating his image as the warrior who never surrenders, even in defeat. Even as Fatah descended into power struggles and charges of corruption flared, Arafat remained immune. The head of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades told me during a telephone interview a few months ago: “Arafat is our symbol and our leader and nothing will change that.” When the Brigades burned down a Palestinian Authority building in Jenin protesting the PA’s corruption its fighters salvaged a photo of Arafat from the ruins and protectively carried it away.
Very few people can claim a legacy like Arafat’s, or his ability to cater to such competing interests. But even if his end is postponed for a little while longer the bottom line is that Arafat’s era is coming to a close.
In the days that follow Israel, the US and Arab regimes will be scrambling to ensure that the post-Arafat era serves them best. In the case of Arab governments this era must absolve them from any meaningful responsibility towards Palestine and her people. But Palestinians are resilient. They will learn how to deal with life without Arafat and his mystique. Their national unity remains and it will strengthen their fight, even in grief. Warriors, sages and leaders come and go, some linger a bit more than others, but the march to freedom will certainly carry on, for the “mountain cannot be shaken by the wind”.
RAMZY BAROUD is a veteran Arab-American journalist and editor in chief of PalestineChronicle.com and head of Research & Studies Department at Aljazeera.net English.