Yasser Arafat died as the leader of a country that does not yet exist, and therein lies the tragic nature of the former leader and the ongoing tragedy of the people of Palestine.
Arafat’s passion and commitment helped forge a Palestinian independence movement, putting the dispossession of his people on the political map in a way the world couldn’t ignore. Pundits are talking of him as merely a “symbol,” a strategy not only to ignore his real contributions but also to denigrate the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for justice.
Arafat had long carried those aspirations, for which he will be remembered. But at a crucial turn, he betrayed both principle and pragmatic politics by accepting the 1993 Oslo agreements, which left him not an independent leader of an emerging state but a subordinate to Israel in charge of policing his own people but with few other powers. The irony of the tragedy is that this fatal mistake is the one thing for which he is lauded in the halls of power in the United States.
When people hack through the propaganda that blankets the U.S. public, it becomes clear that the Oslo accords were an instrument of continued Palestinian subjugation; Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories more than doubled, suggesting that Israeli leaders preferred expansionism and were never serious about a just peace based on international law. An Israeli “matrix of control” — Jewish-only highways and Israeli checkpoints, enforced by an increasingly brutal occupation army — cut the occupied territories into isolated cantons, undermining the possibility of a functional Palestinian state. Arafat accepted these repressive terms in exchange for being allowed to continue to rule, the most corrupt of bargains.
The irony has been compounded in recent years, as Arafat was condemned in those same halls of power in the United States for failing to be a “partner for peace.” Translated: Arafat refused to accept completely Israel’s conception of peace based on Palestinian capitulation to Israeli domination.
To understand that requires clearing away the obfuscation around the so-called “generous offer” of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that Arafat refused at Camp David in 2000. That offer included Israeli withdrawal from Gaza but would have allowed Israel to annex valuable and strategically crucial sections of the West Bank and retain “security control” over other parts, including all Palestinian borders. The net effect would have been to institutionalize some of the worst aspects of the occupation. Arafat could not, and should not, have accepted it.
Many Palestinians had grown increasingly critical of Arafat’s inability to challenge forcefully Israel’s domination, but all understood that with the United States supporting Israeli intransigence — support that intensified under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, making claims that the United States could be a “neutral broker for peace” more laughable than ever — any Palestinian leader was working against tremendous odds.
So, Arafat remained the Palestinian leader, and remained an object of hatred in Israel. A Palestinian writer recently recalled that as a child in a Gaza refugee camp, he often saw Israeli soldiers forcing young Palestinians to their knees, threatening to beat them if they did not spit on Arafat’s photo. “Say Arafat is a jackass,” the soldiers would scream, but the children refused.
Arafat is gone, but the spirit of resistance to occupation that gave children the strength to endure pain rather than buckle to that brutality remains. The Palestinians have lost a founder of their movement for independence. Israel and the United States have lost a figure they could demonize easily when they wanted to manipulate public opinion and squash calls for real peace with real justice.
No doubt Israel and the United States will try to promote new “leadership” in Palestine that they hope will allow them to finish the project of solidifying permanent Israeli domination. No doubt Palestinian resistance to that project — a resistance that owes much to Arafat — will continue. Israel and its supporters in the United States would profit from recognizing that fact and committing to a real peace process that can bring into existence what so many Palestinians have dreamed of but Arafat did not live to see: A truly free Palestine in which peace is secured by justice not power.
Sylvia Shihadeh is coordinator of the Women’s Association for Middle East Understanding in Austin and a member of Women in Black and the Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.