Palestine's champion

Print edition : December 03, 2004

Sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, at the Oslo City Hall on December 10, 1994. - MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Yasser Arafat put Palestine on the world stage, and his death perhaps marks the end of secular nationalist groupings in the Arab world.

YASSER ARAFAT would have no doubt liked to die with his boots on, not in a hospital bed far away from his beloved people. Arafat, the Chairman of Al Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and elected President of the Palestinian Authority, passed away after complications arising out of a blood disorder. (Palestinians on the street believe that he was poisoned.) His death, coincidentally, came in the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush as President of the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had on many occasions in the last couple of years issued dire threats against the Palestinian leader. Israeli intelligence had tried several times to assassinate him when he was in exile. Arafat had several close shaves with death, including an air crash in the Libyan desert, which killed his bodyguard.

Born Muhammad Abd al Rauf al-Arafat al-Qudwa on August 24, 1929, Arafat belonged to the Hussayni family, one of the oldest in Jerusalem. Arafat spent his youth in Cairo. It is said that as a teenager, he helped smuggle weapons into Palestine to help the resistance forces fighting the Zionists in the 1948 war. Arafat graduated from Cairo University in engineering. It was during his time in the university that he first got formally involved in Palestinian politics. At the university, Arafat headed the Union of Palestinian Students in the mid-1950s.

As a teenager. From the Palestinian Authority's archives.-AFP

In the late 1950s, Arafat went to Kuwait to seek employment. Within a few years, he managed to set up his own business and prospered. In the early 1960s, he used his own funds to set up Al Fatah, one of the first Palestinian groupings to champion the cause of an independent Palestinian state and espouse armed struggle. One of the main goals of setting up Fatah, which went on to become the biggest and most popular group in the umbrella PLO, was to free the Palestinian movement from the clutches of the Arab governments of the time. Arab governments of all hues, including progressive ones, had hijacked the Palestinian cause to serve their own ends.

By the mid-1960s, Arafat and Al Fatah started making an impact on the international scene. The Fatah publication, Faleshtuna (Our Palestine), was well received by the Arab masses. The first Al Fatah office was opened in Algiers in 1965. Arafat was inspired by the Algerian revolution, which had succeeded against seemingly overwhelming odds. He started travelling around the world to spread his message that armed resistance was the only option available for a people who had lost their land and livelihood. Before his arrival on the political scene, the international community had not accorded recognition to Palestinians as a separate nation and treated the Palestine cause as a refugee problem. The question of an independent Palestinian state was sought to be put on the back burner.

The defeat of the Arab states in the 1967 war with Israel firmly brought Arafat into the international limelight. The various Palestinian leaders propped up by the Arab governments stood discredited along with their sponsors. The most visible Palestinian face until then was Ahamad Shukeiry, the nominal head of the PLO and a confidant of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

With the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.-AP

By the mid-1960s, Arafat and Al Fatah had started waging a guerilla war against the Israelis. In 1968, Fatah fighters led by Arafat dealt a military defeat on Israeli forces in the "Battle of Kharameh". Arafat's stock among the Arab masses rose dramatically after that. Arafat soon took over as the chairman of the PLO with the help of Nasser. He changed the PLO charter to emphasise that the Palestinians had an independent, leading role in the struggle for statehood. Until then the Palestinian struggle was part of a broader struggle led by Arab states.

By the late 1960s, Arafat was convinced that Palestinians knew how best to conduct their liberation struggle. Most Arab governments and the West did not appreciate Arafat's, and the PLO's, independent style of functioning. The targeting of Israelis and the headline-grabbing hijackings of planes by various PLO factions brought the Palestinian cause wide publicity. It did not take the West long to attach the terrorist label on Arafat and the PLO.

Arafat's first serious stand-off with an Arab government took place in 1970, when Jordan turned its army on the Palestinian resistance forces. Arafat and the PLO had shifted their base to Jordan, from where they carried out attacks and guerilla raids into Israel. They were becoming a parallel centre of power in Jordan, where the majority of the population was Palestinian. King Hussein launched his brutal "Black September" crackdown on Al Fatah and other Palestinian groupings. Thousands of Palestinian civilians died in the Jordanian army's assault. The Palestinian fighters were expelled, much to the delight of the Israeli government, which had feared that Jordan would be taken over by the PLO.

Awaiting the results of the Lebanese National Reconciliation Conference in Geneva in November 1983.-GAMMA

The PLO shifted its base to neighbouring Lebanon, from where it continued to launch guerilla raids and attacks on Israel. During this period Arafat came to be called the "Che Guevara of the Middle East". The fragile political set-up that existed in Lebanon then initially helped Arafat and the PLO. However, Israel too had its cards to play in Lebanon. The Lebanese right wing Christian parties turned to Israel for help to check the growing clout of Arafat and the PLO. In 1978, Israel carried out a small-scale invasion of the country and occupied a small part of it. In 1982, the Israeli army, under the command of Ariel Sharon, launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon in order to inflict a decisive defeat on the Palestinian forces.

It was an epic struggle, but eventually Arafat and his fighters had to withdraw after Israel laid siege to Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Israel said that it would end the siege only after Arafat and his men left Lebanon. Arafat could have left Beirut much earlier, but he preferred to stay with his men and fight till the last day. He secretly returned to Lebanon a year later when his fighters were caught in a confrontation with Syrian forces. Again, he left Lebanon without surrendering.

It was in Lebanon that the United States officially interceded in a big way to defuse a crisis involving the Palestinians and the Israelis. The Americans guaranteed the safety of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon provided the Palestinian guerillas left the country. After the departure of Arafat and the PLO leadership to Tunis, the Israelis and the Phalangists (right-wing Lebanese) entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Shabra and Shatila and went on a killing spree, which lasted for more than two days. All that Arafat could do was to watch the horrific events on television from his base in Tunis. More than 2,200 Palestinian women, children and men lost their lives.

In November 1988, the PLO's Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers declared that Palestine was a state and that Jerusalem was its capital. Shortly after the declaration of an independent Palestinian state there was a marked shift in Arafat's diplomatic and political stance. With the Cold War winding down, the odds seemed to be increasingly stacked against the just Palestinian cause. Under American prodding, Arafat publicly rejected "all forms of violence" in the quest for an independent Palestinian state.

By 1974, the PLO had been given observer status in the United Nations. Arafat himself made a dramatic address to the U.N., wearing his trademark kaffiyah (headgear) and olive green military uniform, and said that he was willing to offer an "olive branch" to the Israelis. At the same time, he said he would keep his gun with him to protect the olive branch. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand," he warned.

With leaders from over 40 countries at the fourth Islamic Summit Conference in Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1984.-GAMMA

In 1989, the Palestinian Central Council declared Arafat the President of the state of Palestine.

A serious rethinking on priorities had started in the Palestinian leadership after the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Arafat had stuck his neck out by expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people and government at that time. The consequences of his decision had left the Palestinians isolated, making Arafat and the Palestinian leadership more vulnerable to pressure from Washington.

BY 1991 the PLO had started peace talks under American and Russian auspices in Madrid. At the same time, Arafat had opened up a secret diplomatic track with American, Norwegian and Israeli negotiators in Norway. This led to the dramatic announcement of the Oslo accords of 1993, taking the international community by surprise. Many in the PLO, including some of Arafat's close associates, thought that the "Old Man" (as Arafat was affectionately called) had made too many concessions. In retrospect, they seem to have been proven right.

Although the Oslo accords gave Arafat briefly a statesman-like halo in the West and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, the dream of nationhood remained unfulfilled. Palestinians involved in the struggle, such as the late Edward Said, pointed out that there were too many legal loopholes in the agreements initialled by Arafat. The PLO had agreed, under the accords, to accept less than 28 per cent of original Palestinian homeland.

With Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.-GAMMA

Under Israeli occupation, the West Bank and Gaza became pock-marked with Jewish settlements. After the Oslo accords, the Zionist state accelerated its road-building and settlement activities. It was evident that Israel only wanted Palestinians to inherit a country divided into "Bantustans". This perception has been reinforced in the years following the Oslo accords, especially after Ariel Sharon started the construction of the apartheid wall. After Oslo, Arafat was allowed to return to his homeland. Elections were held in 1996 in West Bank and Gaza, and these were considered to be the most transparent in the Arab world. Arafat won more than 86 per cent of the vote.

THE spontaneous outpouring of grief witnessed during Arafat's burial in the presidential compound in Ramallah showed that Palestinians, despite their differing political orientations, still revered Arafat as their Rais (leader). After having made one concession too many at Oslo, Arafat in his last years seemed determined not to compromise on fundamental issues such as Jerusalem, the right of refugees to return, the illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, borders and water. The tough stance he took on these issues at the summit in Camp David in 2000 led to the irreversible slide in Israel-Palestine relations and the deterioration of the political situation in the region.

President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak claim that they had offered Arafat immediate Palestinian statehood provided he gave up the Palestinian claims on Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees. There are suspicions that the Israeli Prime Minister never seriously contemplated the existence of a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel. While Barak was going through the motions of talking peace, he was secretly conspiring with Sharon to destabilise the process. Barak had given the go-ahead to Sharon to make a provocative visit to the Al Aqsa mosque with armed escorts and supporters, in the process sparking off the second intifada (uprising).

As the second intifada gained momentum, Arafat saw his authority being gradually diminished. With a "born again" Christian President in the White House, who from the outset refused to do business with him, Arafat reverted to his defiant mode. The right-wing Likud-led government of Ariel Sharon had declared him "irrelevant" to the peace process and placed him under house arrest from March 2002. Arafat had to live in a 100-square metre unventilated room with bad sanitary facilities for the last three years of his life. It also doubled as his office. His headquarters was badly damaged by repeated Israeli military assaults. There were concerted attempts to demonise him by repeating unverified stories about his corruption and nepotism. The whole idea behind these stories was to discredit Palestinians on the world stage by painting them as unfit to run their own independent state.

Waving the Kaffiyah in celebration, at the sixth anniversary of the Palestinian Independence declaration, at Al Azar University in Gaza City in November 1994.-FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

The secular PLO, which in its heyday enjoyed unparalleled popularity, today has to play second fiddle to radical Islamist groupings such as Hamas. The demise of Arafat could signal the final curtain call for secular and nationalist groupings in the Arab world. The decline started with the death of Nasser, entered the final stage with the overthrow of the secular Baath government in Iraq, and is now complete with the passing away of Arafat. Arafat, to many, was the second tallest leader after Nasser in the Arab world.

Arafat's passing will not change the ground realities for the Palestinian people, 3.5 million of whom continue to live under brutal Israeli occupation. Millions of Palestinians live in exile, not allowed to return to their homes. With Arafat gone, the political situation could change dramatically. "Arafat is the only leader who could sell the Oslo peace process and the two-state theory to the Palestinian people," said a Palestinian official. "Now we are back to square one. We will demand the entire homeland."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor