Despite initial claims that Yasser Arafat’s absence – as an ‘obstacle’ to peace – would reinvigorate the Arab-Israel peace process, events on the ground fail to point toward such a reality, one year after the powerful Palestinian leader’s death.
The Israeli government’s unfaltering commitment to unilateral action shows that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still deems the Palestinian leadership ‘irrelevant’ to the peace process, a label that was exclusively pinned on Arafat for years before his death on November 11, 2004.
But if Arafat’s mysterious illness and subsequent death in France represented the end of an era, it was because the absence of Arafat, even as a living symbol, was a matter of great consequence. That said, one must not indulge in misrepresenting the Palestinian struggle by reducing it to the legacy of one man.
To some, Arafat was just another Arab leader clinging to his position, refusing to share power or allocate responsibility to anyone but his cronies and with nothing new to offer, save the worn out rhetoric about a “light at the end of the tunnel” and the “mountain (that) cannot be shaken by the wind”. But those who see only this side of Arafat ignore the heady political, cultural and intellectual mix represented in his person, his ability to mean many different things to many different people.
Arafat – whether deliberately or not – managed to associate himself with every hardship faced by Palestinians over the decades. From his early years as a student activist in Cairo in the late forties, to the momentous formation of the Fatah movement in 1965, Arafat was always present.
For Arab leaders, despite his fall-outs with some on occasion, Arafat was a godsend. His presence justified their absence. It was Arafat who insisted on referring to the PLO as the “legitimate and only” representative of the Palestinian people and Arab regimes passionately embraced the slogan. This was an exoneration of their utter failure to defend the cause of Palestine and its people.
Palestinians, of course – even those who opposed his political line and unconditional peace offerings – saw Arafat in a different light. Arafat’s legacy was one of undiluted symbolism – a symbolism at once substantial and meaningful. Throughout the years, he was the only Palestinian leader that truly succeeded in unifying the Palestinians in their struggle.
When a military helicopter hauled him out of his headquarters in Ramallah to a Paris hospital late last year, ending a three-year Israeli siege, Palestinians silently observed Arafat’s most recent departure and connected it to the history of dispossession of which they had all been part. Palestinian commentators wrote about distant, yet unforgotten history, relating Amman to Beirut to Tunis to Gaza to Ramallah and finally to Paris.
In 1982, under intense US pressure and mediation, PLO leaders and fighters were forced out of Lebanon, the then headquarters of the PLO in exile. As Arafat left Beirut, the leader stood defiant and told his comrades that the path to Jerusalem was becoming closer and that Lebanon was just another stop on their long journey back to the homeland. The distance from Beirut to Tunis, their next interim destination, seemed to matter little. Arafat’s presence lingered, not only among Lebanon’s refugees, but in the camps of Gaza as well.
As a child I often witnessed Israeli soldiers forcing young Palestinians to their knees in my refugee camp in Gaza, threatening to beat them if they did not spit upon a photo of Yasser Arafat. “Say Arafat is a jackass,” the soldiers would scream. No one would exchange their safety for insulting an image of Arafat. They would endure pain and injury, but would say nothing.
It was not the character of Arafat that induced such resilience but what the man represented.
This explains why Gazans stood enthralled as the legendary leader returned, following the signing of Oslo. Retrospectively, it also explains the level of betrayal that many Palestinians felt when their icon, who had been deified in exile, failed to live up to their expectations upon his return to the homeland. It was as if Arafat’s era was coming to a close following his return to Gaza in the mid-1990s. Such feelings were motivated neither by his old age or faltering health, nor by Israel’s designation of the man as a peace partner or otherwise. It was just that the man who promised the moon failed to deliver a desolate refugee camp. The man who promised Jerusalem was in unending negotiations over the small neighbourhood of Abu Deis. The astute leader who spoke of the peace of the brave could do little as the Israeli military machine once more overran the West Bank.
It was never easy for Arafat to maintain the image of warrior and bureaucrat. Israel wanted him to crack down on those who fought by him and for him. The US wanted him to “condemn terrorism, not by words but by deeds”. But it was armed resistance that had sustained Arafat’s struggle for decades. Arab leaders pressured him, conveying the Israeli and American messages, almost completely absolving themselves of any responsibility toward what for decades had been an Arab cause. His balancing act slipped and his aura slowly faded.
When Israel bombed Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters and imprisoned him with the implicit approval of the US, it hardly intended to provide the aged leader with a platform to claim a heroic last stand. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and physical confinement of Arafat absolved him of accountability before his people while reinvigorating his image as the warrior who never surrenders, even in defeat.
Even as Fatah descended into power struggles and charges of corruption flared, Arafat remained immune. The head of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades told me during a telephone interview a few months before Arafat’s passing: “Arafat is our symbol and our leader and nothing will change that.” When the Brigades burned down a PA building in Jenin protesting the PA’s corruption, its fighters salvaged a photo of Arafat from the ruins and protectively carried it away. Very few leaders can claim a legacy like Arafat’s, or his ability to cater to such competing interests.
In the weeks and months that followed Arafat’s death, Israel, the US and Arab regimes scrambled to ensure that the post-Arafat era would serve them best. Various Arab and Muslim countries have openly begun a process of ‘normalization’ with Israel, despite the fact that the Israeli occupation is being constantly fortified and deepened. The Bush administration has conceded to Israel’s wishes of scrapping the peace process and a timeline for a Palestinian state indefinitely, until PA President Mahmoud Abbas passes Israel’s test in cracking down on Palestinian opposition. Abbas’s task in delivering on his countless promises of freedom and sovereignty simply cannot be realized considering Israeli-American control over the peace process.
It seems that it was not Arafat’s supposed defiance after all that stood between Sharon and peace and Bush and his recurring visions. But few are
honest enough to admit it. It remains to be said, as history has
proven, that Palestinians are resilient. Warriors, sages and leaders come and go, some linger a bit longer than others, but the march to freedom will certainly carry on, for the “mountain cannot be shaken by the wind”.
-This is a revised excerpt from Ramzy Baroud’s latest book, entitled, “Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle”, to be published by Pluto Press, London.