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Encounters with Arafat

Yasser Arafat has been so thoroughly marginalized for so long by the U.S. and Israeli governments that I found myself reacting with surprise a couple of weeks ago when his instantly recognizable face suddenly appeared on the evening news. I don’t know why but I didn’t immediately think his health was the issue. The sound was down on all six TV monitors at the gym and I guess I thought he was being allowed to give his reaction to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral Gaza disengagement plan.

Still, the moment I saw that familiar grizzled countenance, I began traveling in my mind across the vast distance that lies ­ both geographically and in every other respect ­ between my own little world in a relatively safe and affluent American suburb and Arafat’s ruined compound in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

After years of reporting on the Middle East, I finally met Arafat two years ago, while on a fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine sponsored in part by the World Council of Churches. Our group met with parties on all sides in the conflict ­ from Israeli peace activists and Jewish religious leaders to Palestinian notables, both Muslim and Christian. Our only disappointment was that our requests for interviews with Sharon and his top lieutenants were flatly refused.

On our way to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, our group passed through the Qalandia checkpoint, one of more than four hundred Israeli army checkpoints located throughout the West Bank. Making our way through the traffic-clogged streets of Ramallah, which were predictably plastered with posters of Arafat, we traveled up into the hills to the Mukata, as Arafat’s compound is called, to a meeting I had doubted would ever take place. (I had been in exactly the same place only two months earlier for another confirmed interview with Arafat, which was cancelled at the last moment because the Palestinian leader was tired, I was told, and needed to rest.)

On this occasion, I remember feeling shocked at how much more damage had been done to the compound since my previous visit. The Israeli army had decimated the compound in March 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, its major reinvasion of West Bank towns and cities, following a string of Palestinian suicide bombings.

In the two months since my visit in August 2002, there had been still more suicide bombings against Israeli targets. Predictably, Israel had responded with retaliatory attacks which had further damaged the compound, specifically obliterating an enclosed bridge between the compound’s two remaining buildings.

Walking past burnt out cars and huge slabs of broken concrete, I was quite simply awed by the extent of the destruction and by the extent of Israel’s formidable military might. Once again, as I surveyed the compound I pondered a question I had asked myself many times before: How could any people’s so-called elected leader have ended up like this, holed up in a heap of rubble?

Once we had squeezed past the sandbags and oil drums partially blocking the entrance to Arafat’s living quarters, my skepticism about the interview dropped away, and I realized that this time the long-awaited meeting was actually going to take place as promised. It was even going to take place on time.

Cameras were examined and possessions put through a battered old x-ray machine. Then, almost before we knew what was happening, we knew we were being hustled up a narrow staircase and into a drab, windowless conference room.

Arafat greeted each of us at the door with a soft handshake and a weak, yet surprisingly warm smile. As soon as we were seated, the usual tiny cups of strong Arabic coffee appeared.

For the average person Arafat’s living conditions would have seemed unbearably claustrophobic. I had heard that when the Israeli onslaught was particularly fierce, Arafat had slept under the conference table where we now sat.

Clad in his trademark black-and-white checked keffiyeh and olive-green military jacket, Arafat had the pallor of a man who rarely saw the sun. (Later, when he grasped my hand like Prince Charming about to kiss it, I noticed that even his hand had an ashen color to it which almost matched his face.) To emphasize his rapport with Christian visitors, I had heard that Arafat sometimes proudly pulled a crucifix on a chain out from under the portion of the keffiyeh he kept wrapped around his neck. We were not, however, treated to this display.

It was almost as if he were a precious artifact, preserved as well as possible under the difficult circumstances and only brought out occasionally to be put on display for those ­ and admittedly there weren’t many of us left ­ who wanted to meet with him.

Fully aware that he was speaking to a delegation representing several major Christian organizations, Arafat began by reminiscing about how he used to travel to Bethlehem every Christmas until the Israelis placed him under virtual house arrest in 2001. The PLO chairman’s words were muffled by the steady hum of an oxygen machine in a corner of the room, an audible reminder of Arafat’s visibly frail condition.

A faded image of his former self, Arafat spoke hesitantly, bulbous lips trembling. At first his breathing seemed labored and his voice was little more than a whisper. Perhaps the oxygen helped, because as the briefing wore on his voice became noticeably stronger.

Peering through his thick, oversize glasses, Arafat selected a photograph from a foot-high stack of documents resting beside him on the long conference table. The picture was of a shell-pocked statue of Mary, Jesus’s mother, atop a church. Holding the photo in front of his wizened face, Arafat said he could not understand why Christians in the West ignored assaults by the Israeli army on Christian institutions throughout the Holy Land. (A sentiment I had already heard from ordinary Muslim residents of Bethlehem, who still mention what they perceive as a lack of response on the part of western Christians in April 2002, when the Israeli army besieged the Church of the Nativity to try to flush out Palestinian militants who had taken refuge inside.)

Arafat and I were both in Beirut during the early 1980s. Although we never met, to me it sometimes seemed like we had. I knew his henchmen and his lackeys and the young PLO guys who had established themselves in the Palestinian refugee camps dotted around Lebanon. Although I’d never felt it was essential to meet Arafat in order to report on the Middle East, this interview more than twenty years later somehow put a check in a certain box.

Still, I knew that in meeting with Arafat I was running the risk of being seen as a sympathizer or apologist. I remembered certain journalists who covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Young and female and usually from the European press corps, they were sometimes derisively referred to as “Arafat groupies.”

At the risk of being consigned to such a category, I have nevertheless pursued interviews with various Arab leaders, both well known and lesser known, in the hope that my ensuing reports would do something, however limited, to foster a greater understanding of the Middle East in general and of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in particular. (But I would never have gone as far as one journalist I know, who emerged from the compound, Arafat by his side, the two of them flashing victory signs for the cameras. If nothing else, this would be the kiss of death to most American journalists’ careers.)

Although most of the time little of any substance emerges from such “celebrity” interviews, my hope has always been that, with any luck, the ensuing reports will help to further the notion that the individuals involved, no matter despicable they may seem to us, are multifaceted and sometimes even ­ God forbid ­ rather charismatic personalities. At the very least these leaders are invariably far more complex than our media’s presentation of them (which is usually as caricatures — the various bogeymen of the moment that we can all love to hate.)

Unfortunately, focusing on middle eastern “personalities” can also have the undesirable effect of obfuscating the issues surrounding the Middle East crisis, the principal one being the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, no matter who the bogeyman — or, as some Christian Zionists might say, the Antichrist — of the moment is, the problems of the Middle East will remain unchanged until the Palestinian issue, that festering sore -­ or rather cancer — on the body of the region is somehow cured or excised. (The Israeli option of “transfer” or ethnic cleansing may be what Dr. Sharon and others want, but this kind of “surgery” is of course — morally, ethically and legally — a totally unacceptable “cure.”) But until a truly satisfactory solution is reached, despots small and large, plus various other middle eastern “personalities” (including stateless ones like Osama bin Laden and, more recently, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi) will keep emerging to frighten us.

While in Gaza, I visited the PLO shop, as it’s called, which sells souvenir items (although needless to say tourists are nonexistent in Gaza.) There I purchased an item called an Arafat whoopie cushion ­ it’s really just an inflatable balloon with a likeness of Arafat’s beaming face. Not surprisingly, the thing is poorly made and will not stay inflated. But when will any other Palestinian leader be marketable enough to have his face printed on balloons? Although hardly a male model, Arafat’s famous and infamous visage has had incalculable value — at least symbolically — for the often faceless Palestinians.

It may be a very long time before another face is identified in the same way as Arafat’s with the Palestinian cause. Of course there’s always a possibility that another charismatic personality, perhaps one even more charismatic than Arafat, will eventually emerge to champion the Palestinian cause. For the Israelis, having a specific Palestinian leader to blame or demonize is useful, but having no recognizable Palestinian leader who commands the allegiance of the people is a situation which also has its advantages.) Nevertheless, with or without a Palestinian leader of Arafat’s stature, the central issue remains stubbornly unchanged ­ there will be no Middle East peace until the Israelis end their occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Arafat’s death must be a relief in some ways for U.S. officials in particular, who have worried out loud for some time that Israel might provoke a crisis by assassinating or deporting him. Until the time of Arafat’s departure, these options were being openly discussed, both in the Knesset and even among ordinary Israelis, as if both were perfectly reasonable courses of action and in no way a flagrant violation of international law.

It is obvious that Arafat would like to see the Oslo peace process as the crowning achievement of his long and rather dubious career. I intentionally gave him an opening to reminisce about what he clearly regards as his glory days on the White House lawn when I asked him whether he thought the Israeli-Palestinian situation would be different today had Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

“Definitely,” Arafat replied. “He was my partner. My partner in peace.” The peace of the brave, Arafat used to call it. Rabin paid for that peace with his life, while “the cat with nine lives,” as I so often think of Arafat, escaped many close calls, but escaped nonetheless.

When I asked whether there were other Israeli politicians he might be able to work with, Arafat responded emphatically that there were a number of such leaders, although he, perhaps pointedly, did not name his known arch-nemesis Sharon.

In the search for Arafat’s positive contributions, his greatest achievement ­ and yes, there were some — may have been his 1988 declaration at a special session of the UN ­ scarcely remembered today it seems — formally accepting Israel’s right to exist.

This milestone has been thoroughly eclipsed by the myth of the “generous offer” Arafat rejected twelve years later at Camp David. Arafat’s rejection of the Camp David offer is often portrayed as an effort to save himself from Rabin’s fate, when the reality is that he rejected the Camp David offer because Israel would concede nothing on the issue of settlements, Jerusalem or the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

A church representative who met Arafat shortly after I did acted as dazzled as if she’d just met a movie star. ” He was kind and gentle, someone who truly seems to care about his people,” she enthused. Certainly Arafat’s demeanor in recent years had done much to belie his earlier reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.

Along with Arafat’s alleged failure to stop terrorism, perhaps the possibility of him being seen as an almost kindly grandfather figure is one of the reasons the U.S. Administration and the Israelis have worked so hard in recent years to marginalize the late PLO leader. Indeed, portraying a genuinely feeble (although still mentally alert) Arafat as a terror mastermind was becoming an increasingly hard sell, especially when he continued to say as forcefully as he could to anyone who would listen that he and his people accepted Israel’s right to exist and desired nothing more than a modest state on less than a quarter of historic Palestine.

PEGGY THOMSON is an American journalist who worked in London for twelve years for a number of news organizations, including the London-based magazine Middle East International. She has also reported from the Middle East for newspapers and radio. She can be reached at:


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