The old fox escaped the hencoop again. For almost two weeks, Yasser Arafat has paraded through the ravaged streets of the West Bank as if he had won Palestine’s war of independence. It was like old times, with Sharon squeezing him, then letting him go. King Hussein of Jordan had let him off too, after crushing his commandos and bombarding his refugee camps during Black September in 1970. Arafat escaped to Lebanon, where he called the shots until Sharon’s army rolled up the coast in 1982. After killing thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese, Sharon put the old man under siege in Beirut. He said later he wanted to kill him, but he let him march out grinning to the music of Kalashnikovs firing victory salutes. Then President Assad of Syria, the greatest of Arafat-haters, slaughtered Lebanese and Palestinians in Tripoli to get at him, but at the last minute let him cruise away aboard the Odysseus Elytis.
Arafat’s post-Lebanon exile, Tunis, was too far for his Katyushas to hit Galilee, but close enough for Israel’s air force to bomb him and its death squads to assassinate his senior advisers. Yet by 1994, Arafat was in the Holy Land, leading an administration that liberal Israelis were grooming for a kind of statehood. Then, last year, Sharon became prime minister, and for the last five months Arafat was locked up in Ramallah. Sharon declared Arafat irrelevant, and his army destroyed the infrastructure built in the West Bank since 1994. It was all over again for Arafat.
Next thing, Arafat was free again, the Harry Houdini of Palestine. “The more destruction I see,” he crowed, “the stronger I get.” The people, who had suffered for him and from his bad judgment, applauded him at Sheikh Zayd hospital, where they treated hundreds of wounded, and at the cemetery. But he did not go to Jenin’s refugee camp. He didn’t feel safe, because in the camp were the people he sold out.
Arafat was out because he had done a deal. He had done deals before. One, brokered by President Nasser of Egypt with King Hussein in 1970, called for him to move his forces out of Amman, enabling the king to annihilate them in the Ajloun woods the following summer. Another, guaranteed by the US in 1982, obliged Sharon to stay out of west Beirut and away from 250,000 undefended Palestinian refugees if Arafat went peacefully. Sharon took a bunch of Lebanese Christian fanatics into the Sabra and Shatila camps to slaughter the innocent.
What was the bargain this time? It seems the American negotiators accepted Arafat’s partial freedom in exchange for giving up the UN investigation of the deaths in Jenin. One live Arafat for scores of dead Palestinians. Saving Sharon and his subordinates from evidence at their war crimes trial was not quite enough. Arafat put six of his loyalists, accused of assassinating an Israeli minister, into Anglo-American custody in Jericho. The deal made the British and Americans Sharon’s partners in the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Then Arafat let Sharon send the Palestinians who had endured the siege of Bethlehem into exile. Arafat, meanwhile, is ready for another deal. He seems to believe, as Egypt’s President Sadat did, that the US will give him the land he wants. Sadat had an army that Israel feared; Arafat doesn’t.
TE Lawrence wrote of the Arab revolt of 1918 against Ottoman rule: “I had preached to Feisal from the beginning that freedom was taken, not given.” Someone should preach that to Arafat. Did he learn nothing from trusting Bill Clinton, the Arkansas flim-flam man? For seven years after the Oslo agreement of 1993, Arafat debased himself. He arrested Palestinians whom he or Israel suspected of resisting military occupation. He received as honoured guests Israelis who had advocated building new settlements and maintaining an army to protect them, within the borders of the statelet he desired to govern. He must have noticed the settler population double under his tenure to 400,000. For seven years, until Palestinians rose against occupation and the Oslo accords, he acted like a “good Indian” to Americans and Israelis.
When Israel granted Arafat responsibility for policing and collecting the rubbish in what were called the “A areas” of the accords, the Israeli Defence Force posted signs in Hebrew at the fenced entrances to Arafatland. They informed Israelis on shopping trips to Ramallah that Palestinian policemen could not arrest them. In the event of a dispute, they were to call the IDF. In the B areas, where the Palestinians collected rubbish and the Israelis policed, and the C areas, where the Israelis performed both tasks, Israeli tourists did not have to worry. Israelis could arrest Palestinians in areas A, B and C. Arafat’s powerless police preserved an order in which his subordinates took a personal share of the public treasury.
Arafat, incompetent and harmful to Palestinians under his temporary rule in Jordan and Lebanon, had credentials. He was brave. He fought. He risked his life as often as he risked theirs. He flew the flag of Palestine when the whole world connived in the fiction, in the words of the late Golda Meir, that there were no Palestinians. He led a national movement that helped to unite and create a nation, if not a state. The people of Lydda and Gaza, of Ramallah and Jericho, of Ain el-Helwe refugee camp in Lebanon and Baka camp in Jordan, people with passports from Israel, Jordan, Syria, even America, people with useless UN identity papers, people under occupation and in exile – all united under the name Palestinian during Arafat’s tenure as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. His guerrilla war failed. His diplomatic strategy of cooperation with overwhelming power – first the Soviet Union, then the US and Israel – failed. Yet he survived. He allowed Palestinians in the refugee camps, the prisons, the universities, the thousand outposts of their dispersal and under Israeli occupation to dream.
If they no longer dreamed of a Palestine in which no Zionists had ever come to displace and occupy them, as their grandparents did, they could imagine a world in which they too had a country, a passport, a flag, an anthem, the right to travel like anyone else, to take a job in their own land, to buy a house, to build a business, to teach their children their history and to be treated as equals by the Israelis who drove them out and by the Arabs who never welcomed them. Much of that acceptance of the lesser dream was his doing.
For seven years, Arafat was the Palestinian PÃ©tain. Sharon’s violent policies transformed him for a moment into De Gaulle. Palestinians in Ramallah cheered the man who stood up to the Israeli bombardment. One week later, the refugees in Jenin booed the man who jailed dissenters, tortured opponents, protected the settlements and allowed his officials carte blanche to steal. Which Arafat will emerge now? PÃ©tain, with whom Israel can collaborate, or De Gaulle, whom his people will follow? “La France a perdu une bataille,” the great general told his countrymen in 1940, “mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre.” Arafat won a battle but his people are losing the war.
Charles Glass has been in Israel and the occupied territories researching Death’s Pale Flags, a sequel to his 1990 book, Tribes With Flags. He was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993
(c) Charles Glass 2002