THE LOSS OF ARAFAT: A DISATER WAITING TO HAPPEN
Yasser Arafat’s serious illness, currently being treated in France, was expected in view of his 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 carried coverage of 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 Ramallah. Few other world leaders 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 (and many Muslims), 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 foreign 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.
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, Ariel Sharon has instigated an intensive campaign of Arafat demonisation and political destruction, faithfully adopted by an ever pliant Washington and now, regrettably, by Britain too. In this Israeli demonisation, Arafat is the head of a terrorist network of suicide bombers, runs a uniquely corrupt regime, and is incapable of being a genuine 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. So effective has this portrayal been that it is a commonplace now for ordinary observers to reiterate the same allegations.
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 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. Though 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”. How thrilling therefore to see Arafat in 1974, accepted and acclaimed, deliver his gun and olive branch speech at the UN, and 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. Unlike other Arab leaders, he cultivated non-aligned and Islamic countries, like India and Pakistan, (the last Indian JVP government was an aberration), and was a well loved figure there. No one doubts he made mistakes. 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. His dedication is legendary. He has no personal life, 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 and leaderless, and remain so. This damaging division fulfilled an old Israeli ambition: to whittle down the Palestinian issue 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. It never worked and the overwhelming grief and support for the Palestinian leader tells its own story. His successor will be difficult to find and the danger of a power struggle and even civil war is very real. If he dies, the Palestinians will need their friends in the Third World more than ever before.