by Mamdouh Nofal
The passing of Yasser Arafat came just a few months short of the 40 years since he first launched the armed resistance for the liberation of Palestine, together with his brethren in the Palestinian Liberation Movement (Fateh). Arafat was a man who embraced life, yet did not fear martyrdom for the sake of Palestine. His patience was his strong feature; his deep faith helped him throughout his highly eventful life, especially during the last three years, when he faced up to Ariel Sharon and his military machine as they tightened their siege on his headquarters [in Ramallah]. He would say, “They want me a fugitive, and I want to be a martyr, a martyr, a martyr.”
Yasser Arafat — whose name was Mohammad Abdel Ra’uf al-Qudwa —was born on August 24, 1929. He grew up in Jerusalem in the household of his maternal uncles, the Abu Sauds. On the personal level, Arafat did not care much for mundane matters and lived frugally, even recklessly. His style of living did not change even though his financial situation improved considerably after he graduated from university and worked as an engineer in Kuwait in the mid-1950s, and despite of his many achievements later on, like the launching of the uprising, the declaration in 1988 of the state, or his election as president of the Palestinian state in 1989. For 60 years he remained single and used to boast about being married to the cause. When he finally decided to marry, he opted for a simple, unostentatious ceremony. It was not until the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994 that his colleagues could prevail upon him to have a modest annual celebration for his birthday.
The political history of Abu Ammar (Arafat’s nom de guerre), on the other hand, is highly eventful, hectic and full of surprises. After assuming the leadership of Fateh in 1965, he survived several assassination attempts, both on the part of the Israelis, as well as on the part of some of his brethren. He even escaped certain death when his plane crashed in the Libyan desert in 1992. In addition he constantly had to contend with Israeli, international, Arab, and Palestinian attempts to destabilize his leadership within Fateh and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But his Machiavellian abilities, his capacity to preempt political storms, and his qualities as a tactician who could make and unmake alliances as the need arose all helped him elude the political traps along the way. He succeeded in resisting all attempts, internal and external, to check his authority and reduce him to a figurehead stripped of all powers. Ever vigilant, he oversaw all security arrangements pertaining to his person, and thus managed to survive for such a long time.
It is no secret that there was no love lost between Arafat and regional and international powers, especially the U.S. If they managed to prevail upon Sharon and his security forces not to harm Arafat, it was only due to their recognition, based on in-depth analysis, of Arafat’s centrality to Palestine and the region, and his capacity to impact the course of events. And so, although criticized, and even hated, by many for his stances and conduct, his tenacity in the face of adversity tells another story. He was merely a man, a father, who struggled to achieve freedom and happiness for his people, his family; and he worked actively for the formation of an independent Palestinian national movement within the broader context of an Arab liberation movement.
Launching a Liberation Movement
In 1959, together with Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, Yusuf al-Najjar and a few others, he founded the Palestinian Liberation Movement (whose anagram in Arabic is Fateh). In due course, Arafat came to head both the political and military wings of the movement, and led four consecutive generations of Palestinians on the road to freedom and dignity. He succeeded in putting the name of Palestine on the map, and in convincing the world of the justness of of his people’s cause and their right to independence. He thus made Abu Ammar — the man and the name — the symbol of Palestinian struggle.
When the Arab armies were defeated in June 1967, Arafat met in Damascus with his brethren and Palestinian leaders in the Arab national movement and other factions. Morale was at its lowest, especially following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s defeat. Some said to Arafat, “All is lost, the cause is finished,” to which he retorted, “You are wrong. This is not the end, it is the beginning. We have to rethink our position, to form parties and to get rid of certain slogans.” Arafat recognized that the June war and the defeat of Abdel Nasser’s Egypt confirmed the fallacy that “Arab unity is the way to the liberation of Palestine.” Instead, he embraced the mottos, “Palestinian armed struggle is the way to liberation,” and “The liberation of Palestine is the key to Arab unity.” These were met with a large dose of skepticism by his companions, who thought it was just an attempt at morale building, since everybody was left deeply shattered by the destruction of the Arab armies along with the hopes and aspirations of Abdel Nasser.
At the time, Arafat succeeded in pushing the Fateh central committee to endorse the preparation for an armed popular uprising in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Together with some followers he collected weapons and explosives from the Golan and sent them to the West Bank. Wasting no time, he infiltrated into the OPT immediately after the war. There he began establishing a popular base, training camps and underground resistance cells against the Israeli occupation and its civil and military rule. He modeled his strategy on the experiences of such figures as Sheikh Izzeddin al-Qassam, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the leaders of the Algerian revolution. For a long period, his font of inspiration remained the 1936 Palestinian Revolt and the popular revolutions of China, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.
Adopting a Headdress
Arafat made the city of Nablus and its countryside his headquarters and came to be known by the local inhabitants as Hajj Abu Mohammad. With the narrow, winding and crowded streets of its old city, the Qassaba, Nablus seemed an ideal base for guerrilla warfare. Another reason was the rich history of the city which had distinguished itself during the fight against British occupation and Jewish immigration, especially during the 1922, 1929, 1936 and 1939 revolts. Nablus became the launching pad for Arafat’s activities. From there, he would scour the length and breadth of the West Bank, from Jenin in the north, to Ramallah and Jerusalem in the center, down to Hebron in the south. His contacts also extended to towns and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, and to areas in the Naqab (the Negev), the Triangle and the Galilee. He donned peasant clothing and adopted the kaffiyyeh as a headdress, which only left him on very rare occasions. He had first chosen a solid white color, along the lines of Palestinian personalities and elders. When he left the West Bank, Abu Ammar shifted to the black-and-white checkered pattern and his comrades followed suit. This kaffiyyeh was to become both a slogan and a symbol of the fight for Palestinian freedom.
Following a long stay in the West Bank, he was tracked down and pursued by the Israeli authorities throughout the towns and villages and, he came close to being caught on several occasions. Arafat decided to relocate to the East Bank in Jordan. He set up Fateh bases all along the Jordanian-Israeli border as well as in the Wadi Riqad area and the Yarmouk River along the Syrian-Israeli border. Thus the Jordanian Ghor, the heights of the town of Salt, the environs of the city of Amman, and the refugee camps of Baqa’a, Sweileh, Zarqah and Irbid became a field for covert factional and military activity.
The stated position of Fateh leaders was always the independence of the Palestinian movement and the non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries. Nevertheless, Arafat and his colleagues Abu Sabri, Abu Jihad and Abu Yussef al-Najjar managed to establish strong and secret relations with a large number of highly placed Jordanian officers. The Palestinian leaders were able to bank on this during the battles that broke out between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian guerrillas in September 1970 (Black September), just as they had done before when they used the East Bank to infiltrate into the West Bank to carry out operations against the Israeli occupation forces. The collaboration between the two parties reached its apex in 1968 during the Battle of al-Karamah when, together with the Jordanian army, the Palestinians succeeded in repulsing the invading forces of then-General Moshe Dayan.
In the wake of this victory, Arafat saw his position and that of Fateh as being greatly enhanced. This prompted him to consider taking over the PLO after having rejected the notion for years, as he viewed the organization as an Arab product and a tool in the hands of Abdel Nasser. Nonetheless, Arafat succeeded in assuming the leadership of the PLO and declared it the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
A Wealth of Experience
For the better part of 40 years, Arafat championed the struggle for independence. Along the way he acquired a wealth of experience in political matters, as well as in resistance capability. With such experience, Arafat was able to consolidate his position among the Palestinians, leading them especially through the very turbulent period of the latter half of the 20th century. He was able to simultaneously control Fateh, the Palestinian Authority, and the entire national movement.
It is hard for any one man to accomplish on his own what Arafat managed to achieve. Were it not for him, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the highest Palestinian legislative authority, would have found it quite difficult to initiate a peace process in 1988 when Arafat declared the establishment of a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and recognized the existence of the State of Israel on the rest of the land of historical Palestine. He was the only person who could have signed the Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement reached in the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP), culminating in the Oslo Accords. In 1996, Arafat prevailed upon the PNC to adopt a resolution abolishing the clauses of the PLO Charter that ran counter to the letter and spirit of the Oslo agreement, some of which called for the destruction of Israel. It is the opinion of this writer that Arafat would have been the only Palestinian leader with the power to sign an agreement dealing with final-status issues to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including making certain historic concessions, such as giving up part of the al-Aqsa wall (al-Buraq), and other matters.
A ‘Terrorist’ Striving for Peace
Even before the onset of the peace process and the conclusion of the Oslo agreement, Arafat had always been branded by both Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist, heading a terrorist organization, and he was later accused of corruption. In the wake of the Oslo agreement, Arafat was, nonetheless, transformed overnight into a man of peace who believed in a peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. He even exhausted his life in the pursuit of this aim. And it is this same man who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize (1994), and was received at the White House more than 25 times, meeting with American presidents more often than any other world leader.
As a leader, Arafat’s position as a symbol of the Palestinian national struggle — a 40-year battle for freedom, independence and a state — cannot be challenged. This protracted fight has earned him his historical legitimacy. His legal legitimacy he acquired through democratic elections. He did not inherit the presidency of Palestine.
During the past decade, the international community came to realize Arafat’s pivotal role in the quest for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The claim by Sharon and the Israeli right that he was an obstacle to peace is a flimsy excuse. Essentially, Arafat’s vision of a final settlement predicated on two states for two peoples coincided to a large extent with that of the United Nations and the European Union. They all differ quite substantially with Sharon’s concept and that of his ally, President George W. Bush.
Official Arab circles regarded him as a troublemaker and a source of problems; Sharon and Bush denounced him as a terrorist, leading his people to perdition. Arafat will, nevertheless, go down in Arab history as one who awakened his people from deep lethargy, and opened their eyes to the strategic perils besetting them. A person who won a prize for peace, specifically because he believed in a peaceful resolution to the conflict and worked tirelessly to achieve that aim, cannot be a bloodthirsty terrorist bent on destruction. In any event, Arafat’s personal and political fate must necessarily go in tandem with the Palestinian question, not be isolated from it.
Despite the criticism that can be leveled against his style of governing and his position regarding institution-building, it is undeniable that he has succeeded in unifying his people under the banner of the PLO, and in imparting in them a sense of pride in their Palestinian identity. His other achievement was to revive the national cause and to give it a place of priority on the international agenda after it had been languishing for years in the archives of nations and governments. Finally, it is thanks to those who have struggled during the Arafat era and under his leadership that the Palestinian question cannot be swept under the carpet anymore, nor can the Palestinian people be denied their right to a state. Those who have tried, and failed, to sideline Arafat can but recognize the legacy he has left behind.