Obituary: Yassir Arafat

Yassir Arafat, who has died at the age of 75, never achieved his childhood dream of “liberating” Palestine from the Israelis. He did not even succeed in his later, lesser aim of creating a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital. Yet through several decades it was he who kept flickering the flame of Palestinian nationhood, and at his death that hope had not been extinguished.

Arafat scaled the heights of international acceptance in 1993 when he stood on the White House lawn in the presence of US President Bill Clinton and shook hands with the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin to seal the Oslo peace agreement. The following year he and Rabin, and Israel’s Shimon Peres, were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize. Yet by the time Arafat died, he had sunk to a low point in international esteem.

With an unprepossessing physical appearance, topped by a trademark black and white headscarf folded in the shape of a map of Palestine, Arafat was hardly the revolutionary leader of romantic imagination. Yet, unlike more glamorous freedom fighters, he displayed remarkable staying-power, dominating his movement for more than a generation. He was an ambiguous and infuriating figure; a brilliant manipulator of the media and public opinion; a man capable of bold gestures for peace and squalid accommodations with violence and extremism.

His successors face a formidable task. After the hope of genuine peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, has come despair. The assassination of Rabin, Arafat’s “partner in peace”, in late 1995 dealt a body blow to a peace process that had it succeeded might have secured his niche in history.

Instead Arafat goes to his grave with diminished stature: marginalised internationally, his support base among his people fractured. He was widely blamed for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 when Bill Clinton again sought to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Conventional wisdom lays almost all the blame for the collapse of Camp David on Arafat, but the circumstances were more complex, reflecting the difficulties each side faced in bridging the chasm that divided them, especially on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.

Then came the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada or uprising, which Israel blamed on Arafat, accusing him of returning to his terrorist roots. The areas granted autonomy under the Oslo peace accords were re-invaded, Arafat was besieged for months in his West Bank headquarters, and Israel persuaded the US to join in ostracising him.

Under virtual house arrest in Ramallah, he was prey to fallout from the latest round of suicide bombings. Israel’s cabinet voted in principle to “remove” him. After Mr Clinton - who had been mostly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt - left office, he faced implacable hostility from the administration of George W. Bush, under the lengthening shadow of the “war on terror”.

The pockets of self-government in Gaza and the West Bank established by Arafat’s Palestinian “national authority” sank further into chaos and corruption. In the end, survival was an end in itself.

In a way, this was always Arafat’s story - from his days as student activist in Cairo through manifestations as guerrilla leader, terrorist, Arab potentate and putative peacemaker. Houdini-like he walked away from at least three bad car accidents, an aircraft crash, several Israeli attempts on his life, sieges, wars and efforts by Arab regimes to sideline or eliminate him.

There were many occasions when the world wrote him off - from Black September in 1970 when Jordan expelled the PLO from its territory, to his retreat from Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, to the 1990-91 Gulf war when Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait drastically undermined sympathy for his cause among the Gulf states which had bankrolled the Palestinian movement since its earliest days.

In every case, despite political blunders that would have destroyed lesser men, he found his way back to the limelight, guided by what he described as an acute nose for danger - and assisted by luck, manipulative skills and physical courage. An uncanny ability to turn defeats into victories was his most enduring hallmark.

Arafat’s rise to the top of Palestinian politics began in the late 1940s when he was an engineering student at Cairo’s King Fouad University. He was born Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat al Qudwa al-Husseini in the Egyptian capital in August 1929 to a merchant family from the Gaza Strip.

In his youth he was a distant observer of the unfolding Palestinian tragedy in which tens of thousands of Arab residents of British-ruled Palestine became refugees in the 1947-48 war that marked the birth of Israel.

In all, about 750,000 of a Palestinian population of 1.3m were displaced, fleeing to refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and the wider Arab world. Albert Hourani, the Middle East scholar, observed years later that the “shock of exile” had created a Palestinian Arab nation.

Arafat emerged in the early 1950s in Cairo as leader of an embittered group of Palestinian students in exile. In 1952 he was elected founder president of the Palestinian Students League, a post he retained until his graduation in 1956.

In those years he began honing his organisational and presentational skills. Student contemporaries spoke with awe of his almost encyclopaedic memory for the minutiae of Palestinian student life, and his frequent resort to histrionics to get his way in debates.

It was during this period, too, that Arafat’s gift for political myth-making began to take shape. Contemporaries said he was adept at inflating the rather paltry achievements of his student organisation and glossing over shortcomings. He became a tireless self-promoter.

The student leader and his comrades were contemptuous of the ageing Palestinian leadership of the time and of the Arab regimes that they believed were merely paying lip-service to the struggle for Palestine. In Cairo and then in Kuwait, where Arafat worked briefly as an engineer after graduation, they resolved to take matters into their own hands. In 1958, they formed an underground group named Fatah, focused on agitprop publishing and fund-raising up and down the Gulf and then on creating a military wing, Al-Asifa.

Arafat claimed later without much foundation that he became a “small millionaire” with his own contracting business in Kuwait. But he left formal employment in the late 1950s to devote himself full-time to the cause.

This would involve Fatah taking the fight directly to the enemy. Impetuous and hyperactive by all contemporary accounts, with a paltry number of in- experienced foot soldiers, no official Arab backing and a pathetic armoury of rusty guns, Arafat set out to launch an armed campaign against Israel from neighbouring states.

The first foray, planned for new year’s day 1965, was a damp squib: the Lebanese authorities arrested raiding parties before they set out. But that did not stop Arafat from distributing a pre-prepared communiqué to Beirut newspaper offices proclaiming the start of the “armed Palestinian revolution”.

Interference by suspicious Arab regimes bedevilled Arafat from the beginning, but his ill-trained followers were able to launch some pin-prick raids against Israel from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. They played their part in the build-up of tension that culminated in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. d4 The great Arab debacle in that war, in which Israel swept aside flimsy resistance and occupied great swaths of Arab territory in six days, was a watershed. It humiliated Arab leaders and strengthened Arafat’s argument that the Palestinians had to take their fate into their own hands. Israel, ironically, provided his guerrillas with the chance to show their mettle.

Retaliating against raids by Palestinians across the Jordan river, an Israeli armoured column attacked a guerrilla base at Karameh in the Jordan valley on March 21 1968, and in the ensuing engagement 28 Israelis were killed and several tanks were destroyed for the loss of about 100 of Arafat’s fighters.

It was hardly a victory but by the standards of the Arabs’ puny efforts in the six-day war Karameh resonated throughout the Arab world and a 38-year-old Arafat emerged for the first time into the public eye, appearing in wrap-around sunglasses on the cover of Time magazine as leader of “a powerful new force in the Middle East”.

He was on his way: money poured into Fatah coffers, recruits rushed to its banner and hostile Arab regimes began to take notice and even offer active support - a wave that swept him to the pinnacle of the PLO in 1969.

From the outset, his reign as PLO chairman was problematic. The movement was a fractious and chaotic coalition of militiamen and politicians which Arafat was unable - or unwilling - to control. It spawned aircraft hijackings and other terrorist outrages. Internal faction-fighting and tensions with host regimes saw him regularly mired in regional Arab conflicts, sometimes at the expense of what the Palestinians had proclaimed as the main task, confronting Israel.

After a ferocious civil war in Jordan in 1970, the movement moved to Lebanon, where Arafat presided unsteadily over a Palestinian state-within-the-state and a descent into violent anarchy. In 1983, after Arafat and his fighters were dislodged from Beirut following a lengthy Israeli siege, he faced an insurrection within his own Fatah faction promoted by Syria.

Arafat had his brushes with death but somehow survived. Meantime his organisation fought a bitter terrorist war with Israel, led by Fatah operating under the code name Black September. It was the latter group that masterminded the most notorious outrage: the seizure of the Israeli team headquarters at the 1972 Munich Olympics, ending with 11 Israelis and five of eight Palestinian gunmen dead.

Arafat always disclaimed direct responsibility for Palestinian terrorist activities, but they were run by some of his closest lieutenants and there is little doubt that he was broadly aware of planning for at least some of the PLO’s more spectacular terrorist coups.

The Israelis tried to eliminate him - in 1982 in the bombing of Palestinian strongholds in Beirut, and again in 1985 when they bombed his headquarters in distant Tunis.

Arafat has often been described as a tactician rather than a strategist, a devious manipulator more than a statesman, a follower not a leader. His bragging, sometimes intemperate manner and his tendency to say different things to different audiences did not readily engender trust among his interlocutors or foster a clear and consistent sense of direction among his followers.

But there is another side. From the mid-1970s, Arafat edged gingerly towards an attempted accommodation with Israel, beginning with his “gun and olive branch” speech to the United Nations in 1974 (”do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”), and including his 1988 renunciation of terrorism and recognition of the Jewish state.

These gestures won Arafat growing recognition in the west but were not reciprocated by Israel. Indeed, Arafat can be faulted for placing too much reliance on playing to western capitals and devoting insufficient effort to reach out to Israeli opinion

But after the 1991 Gulf war, secret Norwegian diplomacy and the coming to power of a Labour government in Israel changed the picture. The 1993 Oslo accords began a process that led to Arafat’s return to territories occupied by Israel and to negotiations for a settlement under which Israeli forces would withdraw gradually from the West Bank and Gaza.

Negotiations between the PLO and the Rabin government were never easy, but progress continued to be made. Yet the murder of Rabin in 1995 followed by Labour’s defeat in 1996 brought in a new Israeli leadership that turned its face against a genuine accommodation with the Palestinians. It encouraged an expansion of settlement-building in the West Bank and showed little sense of urgency about peace negotiations.

The atmosphere was not helped by terrorism in Israel that left dozens dead and the renewed violence that followed the collapse of the Camp David talks. The US co-sponsored a blueprint for peace - the road map - predicating the plan on Arafat’s marginalisation and his replacement with a more “acceptable” Palestinian leadership.

By the time of Arafat’s death, the road map had itself been eclipsed by a proposal by Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister and Arafat’s long-time foe, to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. His plan to uproot Jewish settlements in Gaza was passed by the Knesset only weeks ago.

Perhaps Arafat’s greatest failure was his handling of the experiment in self-rule. His Palestinian Authority could have become an embryonic government but it rapidly became a byword for corruption and arbitrary rule. And as attempts to sideline Arafat intensified, he manoeuvred constantly and destructively against others chosen to speak for the Palestinians to the point where he was no longer on speaking terms with some of his closest comrades-in-arms.

Despite all that, there can be no denying Arafat’s potency as symbolic leader of the Palestinians to the end. To his supporters, Arafat’s achievement was to give enduring expression - despite division and exile - to the Palestinians’ will for nationhood.

“How else,” asked one of his key supporters, “do you explain the decision of countless women to let their children die for the cause?”

Edward Said, the late Palestinian scholar and frequent critic of Arafat, regarded his main achievement as giving coherence, unity and national leadership to the cause of Palestine.

He may have secured a toehold for his people in their promised land, but Middle East circumstances conspired to deny him a bigger prize. His legacy is far from secure.

Arafat is survived by his wife Suha and their daughter Zahwa.

Tony Walker and Andrew Gowers are the authors of Arafat: The Biography(Virgin Books, 2003)

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