Yasser Arafat’s serious illness, currently being treated in a Paris hospital, was not unexpected in view of his long and well-publicised history of ill health. Nevertheless it provoked a state of shock and grief amongst Palestinians and a storm of media interest worldwide. As news of his illness broke last week, a large posse of international journalists crowded into the area outside Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and all the world’s television stations and major press has covered the event ever since. This is a remarkable achievement for a man whom Israel and America (and increasingly the rest of the world) had discredited and marginalized and, since 2002, relegated to oblivion in a couple of tiny, poky rooms inside a bombed-out compound in a West Bank town. It is difficult to imagine that a sick Ariel Sharon (or any other Israeli) would command such attention Clearly, Arafat remains pivotal to the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite Israel’s best efforts to make him politically irrelevant. The humiliation of Palestine’s most famous political leader has been an insult and a source of deep anger to the Palestinians, irrespective of their own differences with him. It is astonishing that the demeaning imprisonment, denigration, and deligitimisation of this man, an elected leader of his people and their chosen representative, have become acceptable in Western circles. Arafat was elected in 1996 in democratic elections in the Palestinian occupied territories, judged by international monitors as free from corruption, (far more than can be said for any other Arab leader). And yet even tyrants like Chile’s Pinochet and Serbia’s Milosevic have been treated with more respect. It is easy to see why Palestinians feel this to be an expression of a Western racist denigration of Arabs and their leaders.
Israel traditionally viewed Arafat as an enemy and a “terrorist”. But with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Agreements he was briefly rehabilitated and, with Yitzhak Rabin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 2001, however, Sharon has instigated an intensive campaign of Arafat demonisation and political destruction, faithfully adopted by an ever pliant Washington and now, by Britain as well (though pointedly not by France which hosts Arafat now) In this demonising Israeli mythology, Arafat is the head of a terrorist network of suicide bombers, runs a uniquely corrupt regime, and is incapable of being Israel’s negotiating partner. To make the point, Sharon put him under house arrest at the end of 2001, bombed his compound, refused to deal with him and tried to bar others from doing so, and insisted that Palestinians appoint a “prime minister” as negotiating partner a ludicrous requirement for a people without a state. So effective has this demonisation been that it is a commonplace now for ordinary observers to reiterate the same allegations. It is nor fashionable to decry Arafat, call him “the obstacle to peace” and the master of terror.
The truth is of course that Arafat has done what no other Palestinian leader was prepared to do: to sign a peace agreement with the very state that caused the Palestinian tragedy and to engage in a peace process with it that endured until 2000. It was the Campo David talks with Israel and the US that year, which demanded of Arafat concessions over Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return he could not make, that caused the breakdown. Israel’s spin on this was that Israel’s negotiator, Ehud Barak, had made Arafat a “generous offer” which the other rejected because he was not interested in peace. He then proceeded to orchestrate the intifada, which erupted in September, and is responsible for the election of the hardline Sharon, the disaffection of the Israeli peace camp and the terrible depredations of his people since then. But had Arafat accepted the discontinuous segments of West Bank and Gaza territory Israel offered for a Palestinian state and agreed to sign away Palestinian sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, as well as negate for ever the refugee right of return, neither he nor any other Palestinian leader would have survived
The Palestinian attachment to Arafat does not stem from uncritical devotion or blindness to his faults, but from an understanding of his achievements. Through his efforts, he put the Palestinian cause on the world stage when it had been relegated to history. In the Britain of the 1950s where I grew up, even the word “Palestine” disappeared from the vocabulary and its people became obscure “Arab refugees”. The only nation or political cause was that of a fledgling Israel created in 1948. How thrilling therefore to see Arafat, accepted and acclaimed, deliver his gun and olive branch speech at the UN in 1974, and to feel the excitement at that validation of the Palestinians as a nation with rights. First meeting him in Beirut in 1976, when the PLO was at its zenith, I was deeply taken with his charisma, modesty and sharp intelligence, so different from the sinister image of him Israel promoted. As PLO chairman, he represented a dispersed and fragmented people, 60 per cent of them in exile, and managed to imbue them with a sense of belonging in the absence of a homeland. Westerners, who focus on his dishevelled, half-shaven appearance and poor English, never understood his appeal for his own people, especially the disadvantaged in the camps whose cause he espoused, and their admiration for his political agility in a treacherous Arab arena. No one doubts he made mistakes, of which arguably the most serious was his acceptance of the shoddy Oslo Agreements. His many Palestinian critics, like the late Edward Said, deprecate his autocratic rule, cronyism and refusal to delegate. But his loss would be irreparable. To Palestinians, he is an enduring symbol of their struggle and the father of their nation. For forty years, he has been their leader, the only one many of them have ever known. He has no personal life, despite his marriage and fatherhood, no home and no hobbies. Palestine is his sole, overriding preoccupation. In today’s desperate Palestinian situation of harsh military occupation, dwindling territory and fragmentation, he symbolises the unity of the Palestine cause and the negation of a Palestinian dissolution Israel so vigorously pursues.
Sharon understands this well and hence the drive to demolish Arafat as that symbol. The process started with the Oslo Agreement, when Arafat and the PLO leadership moved from Tunis to the “inside” in 1994. The exiled Palestinian majority and the refugees were left orphaned, without effective leadership, from which they have never recovered. This damaging division fulfilled an old Israeli ambition: to shrink the Palestinian problem down from national to local level and offload Israel’s responsibility for it. With luck, Arafat would become a village mukhtar, fobbed off with the trappings of state but no proper territory, and the right of return could be buried forever. Indeed since 1997, unpublicised discussions have been on-going with Arab and Western representatives to “solve” the refugee problem without cost to Israel. A hotchpotch of plans for patriation, compensation and emigration to the West are being aired, in blithe disregard of international law. Arafat’s departure, coming on top of this steady erosion of Palestinian rights, can only deal a shattering blow to the Palestine cause.
When Arafat dies, the question of his successor will pose a problem. Because he himself never prepared for this eventuality, it has been in limbo, and Israel helped in no small measure by its assassination and imprisonment policy of potential Palestinian leaders. His successor could never inherit his portfolio of Palestinian Authority president, PLO chairman and head of the security services, but emergency measures are in place: the constitution provides for the Palestinian parliament speaker to be interim president for 60 days. Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qurei, past and present prime ministers, have been designated temporarily PLO chairman and Palestine Authority president respectively. The PLO executive committee met on October 30, for the first time ever without Arafat as chairman. The danger of a power struggle and even civil war after this interim period is very real. The contenders for Arafat’s throne fall into two categories, those of the “Tunis generation”, the old guard of PLO fighters who cam back with Arafat and a younger group of home-grown figures who grew up under Israeli occupation; the latter include members of the Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Mahmoud Abbas, a 69-yaer PLO leader and pervious PA prime Minster is favoured by Israel and America, which may be the kiss of death for his hopes. Ahmad Qurei, the current PA prime minister is 66 and acceptable to Israel. Neither man enjoys much popular support. Of the second group, Mohammed Dahlan, 43 and born in a Gaza refugee camp, is ambitious and a keen contender. Until recently he was head of the PA security branch in Gaza and has the street cred of having been arrested and deported by Israel to Tunis, returning in 1993. Both Israel and America approve of him and Britain recently granted him “study leave” there a euphemism for grooming him to take over Arafat’s position in line with US/Israeli wishes. He is further tarnished by persistent rumours that he is too close to Israel. Jibril Rajoub, the 51-year old counterpart of Dahlan in the West Bank, is another prominent contender. He spent 17 years in Israeli jails, but is now in close contact with Israel, which favours him too, especially as he has come out against attacks on Israeli civilians and settlers. Neither of these men has the trust of the Palestinian street, whose greatest fear is that some US/Israeli stooge will be chosen to replace Arafat. The most popular and likeliest Arafat successor would have been Marwan Barghouti, had Israel not put him in jail for life. He is 45, personable and a proven fighter against occupation in the first and second intifadas. His fate will depend on Israel. The Islamists will also want a slice of the action, though they are not saying how as yet.
Meanwhile Sharon’s disengagement plan for Gaza is on hold. No one knows if he will delay because of the power vacuum in Palestine or whether his bluff for not resuming the peace process – “no Palestinian partner”- will be called by the appearance of a new “acceptable” Palestinian leader. At that point, his true intentions for the occupied territories, which many Palestinians fear will mean the end of their hopes for a state, will be revealed. It is all a charade in any case, created by Israel and its American backer to divert attention from the fact that Sharon does not want a settlement with the Palestinians except on his own limited terms. Both he and the Americans know full well that there is no alternative to Arafat who can deliver a Palestinian-supported settlement. Hence, removing Arafat from the equation means only one thing: that Israel is not ready to make peace.
What is certain is that the immediate next battle is for Arafat’s burial site, if he dies, which should be in Jerusalem, but which Sharon has already rejected. The Arab, not just Palestinian, reaction to this final humiliation may be overwhelming for both Israel and the Arab states.
GHADA KARMI is a Palestinian writer and academic living in London. Her latest book is a memoir, “In Search of Fatima” (Verso). She is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Her forthcoming book, ‘Married to a man: Israel’s dilemma and the one-state solution’, will be published by Pluto Press next year.