by Danny Rubenstein
Even in the eyes of his many acquaintances and close associates, Yasser Arafat remains, to a great degree, an enigma.There is no doubt he was one of the most well-known leaders in the world. During dozens of years of political activity, his image appeared constantly in the television broadcasts throughout the world, and hardly a week went by without an interview with him in one of the major newspapers.
There were always many contradictions in all of the reports and theories about him. He was said to be untrustworthy and a liar, an incorrigible terrorist who couldn’t be trusted; at the same time he was “the father of the Palestinian nation,” the historic leader who brought his people from nowhere to the center of the Middle Eastern political stage and to negotiations with the State of Israel over a partition of the country. Did he bring achievements to his people? Or did he bring disasters upon them? He was short, with a tendency toward putting on weight, his gestures were always theatrical, and his language was very limited. Within the Palestinian leadership, wasn’t there anyone better to lead the nation?
The Arafat enigma begins with the question of where he was born. He either said he was born in Jerusalem or avoided giving a clear answer, saying “My father was from Gaza and my mother from Jerusalem.”
The Early Years
Apparently the truth is that Yasser Arafat was born in Cairo, Egypt. At least one of his biographers found his Egyptian birth certificate. When it was presented to him¸ Arafat said it was a forgery. He did grow up in Cairo, with parents who had emigrated from Palestine, but he insisted that he was born in Jerusalem, and that his father forged the birth certificate so that he could study without payment in Egyptian schools.
He was born in August 1929 when he was 3, his mother died and he was sent to the home of his mother’s family, the Abu-Saud’s, near the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He lived for a while with his mother’s family, and also in the home of his father’s family, the al-Qudwa’s, in Gaza. After his father remarried, Arafat returned to Cairo, where he did his elementary and high school studies.This was very apparent in his Egyptian accent, which Arafat never managed to lose.Young Palestinians who joined Fateh after the Six-Day War in 1967 and who met Arafat for the first time were surprised: How come the head of the Palestinian revolution speaks like an Egyptian?
The formative experience of Arafat’s youth in Cairo was his meetings with a group of Palestinian exiles who lived there after World War II. The group was led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who spent the war years in Berlin, and Arafat’s relative (on his mother’s side) Sheikh Hassan Abu-Sa’ud. The 17-year-old Arafat established a special connection with Abdel-Qader al-Husseini, one of the Palestinian organizers of the Arab revolt against the Jewish yishuv (pre-state community) and the British regime in Palestine between 1936 and1939. Arafat spent a lot of time playing and reading passages from the Koran with the boy Faisal Husseini, Abdel-Qader’s son, who would one day become the PLO head at Orient House in Jerusalem.
In the winter of 1948, Arafat began to study engineering at Cairo University (then Fuad University), and the great shock of his first year of studies was the report that reached him in the middle of April that Abdel-Qader al-Husseini had been killed in the battle of the Kastel on the road to Jerusalem. Together with other Palestinian students, Arafat decided to stop his studies and join the Egyptians who had volunteered to fight in the war for the land. Arafat participated in the battle over Kfar Darom near Gaza, but two weeks later, on May 15, the Egyptian army invaded the country, and ordered all of the irregular units to cease their activities so as not to get in the way of the regular Egyptian army. Arafat would later describe how the Egyptian took his rifle, his personal weapon.
From the point of view of many Palestinians, including Arafat, not only did the Arab rulers fail in the war — they added a sin to their crime by preventing the Palestinians from fighting. For many years afterward, when Arafat was asked what caused the Palestinian tragedy, his answer would be, “The Arabs betrayed us.”
This was the background upon which Arafat (and many other Palestinians of his generation) developed their post-1948 worldview, which stated that it was forbidden to rely on the Arab regimes, whose sole goal was to exploit the Palestinian problem to benefit themselves. Arafat resolved to remain dedicated to the Palestinian people and to them alone.
During his political career, which began in 1950 as the chairman of the Palestinian Student Union at Cairo University, and continued through the establishment of Fateh in Kuwait in 1959, Arafat entered into dozens of conflicts and disputes with almost all of the Arab leaders. He was imprisoned in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and was relentlessly pursued in Jordan — always based upon his suspicion and distrust of the Arab leaders whom he thought were ready, at any moment, to sell out and sacrifice Palestinian interests in exchange for their own. Even with Egypt, the Arab country where he was born and to which he was closest, Arafat arrived at a severe crisis in his relations with the regime after its president Anwar Sadat, signed a peace agreement with Israel. There were even those who said, with a bit of exaggeration, that Arafat’s loyalty to the Palestinian cause turned him into an anti-Arab.
The Fateh organization that Arafat and his colleagues founded in Kuwait carried out its first attack on an Israeli target, the National Water Carrier in the Galilee, on January 1, 1965. Two- and-a-half years later, against the background of the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-Day War, the actions of the Palestinian organizations against Israel increased Arafat’s name as the head of Fateh became known to the general public in the spring of 1968.
The formative experience of Fateh under Arafat’s leadership was the battle of Karama, in which Arafat took part, in the eastern Jordan Valley in March 1968. The battle lasted for a number of hours, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was forced to retreat, leaving behind tanks and other military equipment in Jordanian territory. Arafat described the battle as a great military victory, equal to the Soviet victory over the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad during World War II dimension. Arafat appeared as a mysterious guerrilla commander, circulated stories of heroism, and his men held a parade with the equipment the IDF had abandoned. Arafat’s stories made a great impression on people. The reason was the tremendous yearning of the Arab masses for a little comfort after the humiliating defeat in 1967. The Arab and Palestinian public almost begged for heroic stories — and Arafat provided them with such stories in great abundance.
As the years went by, it became clear that Arafat survived in a manner that was almost beyond comprehension. He survived assassination attempts, and turned out to be someone whom no political enemy could defeat. Thus he survived the battles of the civil war in Jordan (known as Black September), lived through the IDF siege of Beirut during the Lebanon war (1982), and later overcame, though with difficulty, the rebels within his own Fateh movement who tried to eliminate him (1983) with the aid of the Syrian regime.
Arafat’s Greatest Success
In retrospect, it looks as if Arafat’s greatest success was in leading his people to the recognition of Israel (at the meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in Algeria, 1988), and to a peace process, at the end of which a partial Palestinian national rule was established in the homeland. In 1994, Arafat returned to Gaza and the West Bank to build the autonomy that was determined in the Oslo Accords (September 1993). He was also elected in the free and democratic elections that were held in the territories in 1996 as the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
With the establishment of the Palestinian governmental institutions in the homeland, Arafat made what appear to be the greatest mistakes of his long career. These were inefficient, wasteful and corrupt governing mechanisms.
The Failed Transition
Arafat did not succeed in making the transition from being the leader of an underground, revolutionary national movement to being the leader of a state with orderly institutions. He knew how to be the leader of a “future state,” but not of a state that in many respects had already been established. Despite the restrictions placed on the Palestinian autonomy, it actually contained many of the components of a sovereign state, and Arafat did not convert that into an orderly government. He considered the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to be an inconsequential body, the judicial system didn’t really function, and the Palestinian public rapidly developed a sense of alienation and even revulsion concerning the governing mechanisms that Arafat headed.
With his frugal lifestyle, Arafat managed to preserve the image of someone who had no private life, whose entire world was dedicated to the vision of Palestinian nationalism. But the anger and hostility of the masses toward the governing mechanisms that surrounded them continued to grow.
Despite the many accusations, in Israel and around the world, that Arafat planned and initiated the second intifada that broke out in September 2000, there is much evidence that this is not true. The PNA had invested $3 billion in tourist projects before the outbreak of the intifada. No one invests such large sums of money in tourism if he is planning at the same time for a war. If Arafat had actually planned the intifada, he should have accepted the Israeli and American proposals at Camp David for a withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, which would have enabled him to begin the intifada from a much more advantageous position. The fact that he didn’t accept those proposals indicates that the intifada was a spontaneous, unplanned development.
Arafat was a unique leader, not only because of his politics, but also because of his lifestyle. He devoted his life totally to his people, at the expense of all the other spheres of his life, both political and personal — at the expense of a loyalty to the general Arab cause, and also at the expense of Islam (when he accepted the idea of a democratic secular state), and, of course, at the expense of his personal life. While all of the other Palestinian leaders established families and had careers and businesses, Arafat had, in essence, no personal life.
The father of the Palestinian nation died during one of the most difficult times for his people, and only future historians will be in a position to objectively evaluate his actions.