Arafat in Gaza

For all but the most elderly Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, portraits of Yasser Arafat, in outdoor posters, framed in public buildings, smaller pictures in the most humble homes of the refugee camps, have been a lifelong constant. Even those who quarreled with Arafat’s leadership or lack of it, his alleged corruption and cronyism, will concede that Abu Ammar, the nom de guerre Arafat adopted early in his career, always held steadfastly to the dream of a free and sovereign Palestinian nation—a dream that now still seems far from realization. Some of the simplest components of Arafat’s dream—like praying in a free Jerusalem—remain out of reach, both for ordinary Palestinians and for the Palestinian Authority’s president himself, whom the Saron government denied even burial in the Al Quds cemetery.

All through Gaza, Yasser Arafat’s face—the far-from-handsome, weather-beaten elderly face—smiles and flashes the victory sign from posters everywhere. The two weeks while he lay ill in Paris were marked by confusion surrounded by contradiction in the news reports. “Alive or dead?” people asked constantly—and the news sources inside and outside Palestine never concurred—he was stable but seriously ill, brain-dead, in a coma, sleeping, talking, recovering, even poisoned by assassins.

Until shortly before the end, his condition was a mystery. Initially suffering from what appeared to be a nasty flu—much like, said some close to him in Ramallah, an intestinal virus he had beaten last winter, press speculation worldwide went into overdrive on 27 October when his wife, Suha Arafat, rushed to his side in the battered Mukata compound where he has been a prisoner under siege for three years now. Mrs. Arafat and their young daughter left Ramallah for Paris early in the intifada, and her return and Arafat’s subsequent removal to a military hospital on the outskirts of Paris prompted a barrage of conflicting reports.

Early announcements from the hospital ruled out various serious illnesses, but there was—and still is– no diagnosis. Perhaps the most embarrassing press flap occurred on November 4 when the Prime Minister of Luxemburg announced Arafat’s death, then retracted his statement as a “misunderstanding” a few hours later. Even Ariel Sharon—widely seen as bearing a deep personal animus toward Arafat—cautioned Israeli officials against premature and unseemly statements.

During all the painful waiting and uncertainty, people seemed less concerned with a concrete answer than with near-constant demonstrations and informal gatherings praying for Arafat’s recovery. Prior to his final health crisis, Arafat enjoyed wide—but hardly universal—popularity in the Gaza Strip. His detractors were many and outspoken, yet their criticisms often coexisted with a deep, if sometimes grudging, affection. This was echoed by ordinary Palestinians throughout Gaza, the West Bank and even in the refugee camps outside Palestine. Even among the Islamic factions frequently at vehement odds with Arafat, there seems to be an unofficial moratorium on public criticism, as thousands through all of Gaza gather to express their grief and demand unity at this difficult juncture.

A few days before Arafat’s death, I asked Israa Muhaiseen, a 19-year-old girl from the Deir Al Balah refugee camp in central Gaza, what Arafat meant to her and she said, “I was born hearing about Arafat, and I have always lived in Arafat’s shadow. It’s enough for me that I was born hearing about Arafat.”

Many Palestinians doubt that any one person can replace Arafat. Whether one looks at Mahmoud Abaas (Abu Mazen), a diplomatic pragmatist whose brief tenure as Prime Minister was seen to accomplish little, or to the younger and dynamic Mohammed Dahalan, supported by Arafat’s Fatah party, or the present Prime Minister Qurie, none of them gets much of a vote of confidence. The Palestinian constitution provides for the speaker of the Palestinian legislature to assume interim authority in the event of the President’s death for a maximum of 60 days in which to organize elections, and this has formally taken place. Of course, no overt campaigning will occur during the official mourning period. However, everyone is well aware that however tidy the process is on paper, the reality of the Occupation and four years of armed conflict, which has decimated the Palestinian security forces and made the logistics of running civil institutions near-impossible, is going to complicate the transition. Lest we in Gaza forget our occupied status for a moment, the IDF has been on high alert ever since Arafat was hospitalized and, especially on the Rafah-Egypt border zone, have continued their random shooting and shelling at the civilian neighborhoods that line the destroyed no-man’s-land.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie visited Gaza on November 6 to meet with the leaders of all the Palestinian political factions. Whatever disagreements surfaced in their private talks, the result was a united public front. Qurie, Abbas, and other high officials announced their plans to travel to Paris to consult directly with Arafat’s doctors—and possibly with the president himself, but were thrown into confusion by a pre-dawn phone call from Suha Arafat directly to al Jazeera in which she denounced their trip as “planning to bury her husband alive.” The very emotional, indeed, screaming wife of the president was, people noted, enough in control to pick her moment well. During the fasting month of Ramadan, that is the hour when observant Moslems—that is, the vast majority of Palestinians—wake for a final meal and turn on the TV or radio. Many wondered if her insistence that Arafat would recover and lead “revolution to victory”—a phrase harking back to the early days of the PLO—was an attempt to turn the Palestinian struggle back to its more militant roots. Prime Minister Qurie and his party, told that Arafat’s condition precluded their seeing him, initially cancelled their plans, then, late afternoon on November 8, reversed themselves and set off to Paris.

Of course, the Sorbonne-educated daughter of a wealthy Palestinian Catholic family that Arafat married 14 years ago, has been almost as controversial a figure as her husband. Ridiculed as “the first lady of Paris,” she was always viewed with suspicion, or ignored entirely, by her husband’s entourage of lifelong comrades and colleagues. Despite her considerable charity work, especially for disabled children in Gaza, she was hounded by reports of wild spending sprees. Pictures in the British press of the Arafats’ private quarters in Gaza City from 1999 show a European style parlor. The three-bedroom flat was far less lavish, the reporter noted, than the mansions of many other Palestinian ministers. Since taking up residence in Paris shortly after the start of the Intifada, Mrs. Arafat became the subject of a French government inquiry into the transfer of Palestinian government monies into her personal accounts. This further fueled reports of personal greed and corruption. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Qurie and his party reconciled with Mrs. Arafat during their Paris visit and Qurie spent two hours at Arafat’s bedside.

Still, charges of government corruption are likely to continue. Unquestionably, Arafat was loathe to transfer financial control to the bureaucracy. Nonetheless, according to the Minister of Financial Affairs, one of Arafat’s last orders before leaving Palestine for what turned out to be the last time was that all government workers should be paid before Eid al Fitr, the celebration ending Ramadan.

When Israa Muhaiseen, the 19-year-old woman from Deir al Balah, was asked if Arafat could be replaced, she said, “I don’t trust anyone for that position at all. We don’t want anyone from the engineers of the Oslo agreements.”

The 1993 Oslo accords, granting Palestinian autonomy to Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, created growing disappointment, a stalled peace process, and finally the second Intifada which continues to this day. After operating from various Mid-East locations—Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and finally Tunisia–Yasser Arafat, the revolutionary who founded the Fatah movement in 1958 and was elected chairman of the PLO in 1969, renounced terrorism and formally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist in 1988. As the locally controlled first intifada dragged on inconclusively, Arafat had been quietly negotiating with Israel since 1987, but this daring public turnaround ended the United States’ 13-year ban on talking with the PLO.

In 1991, a Russian and US-backed peace initiative began with talks in Madrid and a Palestinian delegation was included in the Jordanian team. After two years with little accomplished, Israel and the PLO began secret, direct talks in and around Oslo, culminating in the Oslo agreements signed with great fanfare in Washington in 1993. Arafat returned to Palestine in 1994, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres, and was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996.

Unfortunately, progress faltered and finally stopped entirely once Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Throughout his two terms, US President Bill Clinton and his negotiating team remained deeply involved in trying to re-start peace talks, culminating in the Camp David meetings in 2000 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat, and their respective negotiating teams.

The talks collapsed when—according to much of the world press—Arafat summarily refused an offer by Barak granting Palestine “95% of what they wanted.” In fact, the reality was far more complex. Some analysts have suggested that Clinton was over-eager to finish his scandal-plagued second term with the stunning achievement of brokering a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. As a result, he insisted on forcing the pace. Certainly—-something rarely discussed in the US media but a simple matter of fact—the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams, which had been quietly meeting for years before the Camp David conference, continued to meet secretly after the 2000 Camp David talks and were making progress. But once Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli Prime Minister, he denounced Arafat as “an obstacle to peace” in increasingly strident tones.

The election of President Bush in 2000 continued the process of demonizing Arafat in the US media. Partly from personal conviction and, many analysts say, partly to distance himself as much as possible from Clinton’s policies, the Bush administration abandoned—in fact, if not in words—any impartiality. Through Bush’s first term, Sharon has been a frequent visitor to the White House while the US President refused even to speak on the phone to the duly elected president of the Palestinian people. Two months after the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2001, the Israeli army encircled Arafat in the Mukata, his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, and IDF troops destroyed his fleet of helicopters in Gaza, with, all assumed, the tacit approval of the Bush administration. While other Western governments sent their Foreign Ministers and Secretaries of State to Arafat’s ceremonial funeral in Cairo, the US continued the snub by sending only an Assistant Secretary of State.

Despite Arafat’s frequent denunciations of Palestinian attacks on civilians, Sharon has insisted that Arafat has supported and encouraged suicide bombings. The peace process, he said, was stalled because “there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.” In April 2003, under heavy international pressure, Arafat appointed his first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned four months later. His successor, the present Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, also had a difficult relationship with his boss. Neither of them are viewed by Palestinian citizens as dealing effectively with either Tel Aviv or Washington—and that may be putting it too kindly. Many see them as little more than the hand-picked puppets of the Sharon-Bush alliance.

Nonetheless, Yasser Arafat’s status as the symbol of the Palestinians’ fight for their own homeland has never been challenged. But who, really, was Yasser Arafat? Unquestionably, he was a man of contradictions, from the profound to the trivial—he was forever rumpled and seems never to have had much interest in his appearance, yet his trademark kuffiya is worn by progressive activists all over the world. He was corrupt, greedy, and self-serving, said some—yet he refused to leave the harsh conditions in the near-ruin of the Mukata. He was a lifelong bachelor who stayed single, he said, because he was married to the Palestinian cause, yet late in middle age married an outspoken woman a generation his junior. He was, according to some, a terrorist; he holds the Nobel Peace Prize, beyond a doubt.

So who was our late president, Yasser Arafat? Start reading about the man and you can find an answer to suit any viewpoint. It is harder, but perhaps more revealing, to find Palestinians who actually had long-standing personal relationships with Abu Amaar. One such is 71-year-old Abdulshakor al Tawil of Khan Younis refugee camp, who knew Arafat from their student days in Egypt and remained close to him for all the decades afterward.

“Arafat was a good colleague who was studying with me in an Egyptian college,” Al Tawil said. “I was in the first level of the faculty of law, and Arafat was in the third level of the faculty of engineering when I got the chance to know him in Egypt.”

Arafat never said much about his family or childhood, but “He comes from an Egyptian mother, and spent his early years in Jerusalem, ” said Al Tawil. One of the few recollections Arafat has mentioned publicly is the memory of his family’s home being invaded and vandalized, and his family members beaten by British soldiers. Arafat’s mother died when he was only a few years old, after which his father brought the children to Egypt where they were raised by relatives. “Arafat has a very great way of gathering people around him and inspiring deep loyalty, lifelong friendships. Even in college many students were drawn to him and were always with him,” Al Tawil said.

Of course, this personal touch was perhaps as much a curse as a blessing. The “Abu” nicknames, so popular among the early figures in the PLO, means “father of…” While many of the other “Abu’s,” like Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abaas, changed with the times and traded in their fatigues for designer suits, left the battlefield for mansions and diplomatic receptions, Arafat, a.k.a., Abu Ammar, lived a spartan life and insisted on running the Palestinian government like, some say, a large extended family of which he was the patriarch. About Arafat’s nom de guerre, Al Tawil said, “They called him Abu Ammar because after college, he was a construction worker in Kuwait. ‘Ammar’ means someone who rebuilds something that was already damaged.”

Despite Sharon’s urging caution in their public statements on Israeli government officials, plans for Arafat’s funeral—the funeral, that is, the Israelis would permit—were widely leaked from the earliest days of his hospital stay. Arafat let it be known before leaving for Paris that he wished to be buried in Jerusalem in the cemetery area near Al Quds mosque (called Temple Mount by the Israelis) but the Israelis unequivocally vetoed that. There was talk of allowing burial in the Abu Dis suburb of Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side of the apartheid wall, but that too was vetoed. “Jerusalem,” said Israeli minister of justice Tommy Lapid, “is the burial place of Jewish kings, not of Arab terrorists.”

Saeeb Erekat, chief negotiator for Palestine, initially responded that a discussion of Arafat’s funeral was inappropriate while the man was alive. Nonetheless, the Israeli press was full of plans for the kind of funeral Sharon’s regime would permit the president of Palestine in Gaza, including provisions for permitting other heads of state to attend. However ghoulish all this public talk of funeral plans may have been, even Sharon had to acknowledge that Arafat was widely recognized at the duly-elected head of state of Palestine. Finally, the Palestinian officials accepted Egypt’s offer of hosting a state funeral for Arafat on the outskirts of Cairo, followed by burial in the courtyard of his Mukata compound.

In the week before Arafat’s death, however, the old Khan Younis cemetery became crowded. The international press corps, photographers in tow, showed up in force to investigate Arafat’s family plot which holds the graves of Arafat’s father and sister. By all reports, Arafat was not close to his father and did not attend his funeral in 1952. The cemetery is actually overgrown and poorly-maintained, especially since the economic collapse of the last four years.

Certainly, Arafat’s death now has to be seen as a questionable blessing for the Sharon government. Prior to Arafat’s sudden collapse on October 27, Sharon had frequently said the president could indeed leave the Mukata—and Palestine—but wouldn’t be allowed to return. So now one hears talk that the virtual battlefield conditions in Arafat’s compound played a part in his deteriorating health and his reluctance to seek hospital treatment. Some of the militant factions are still issuing statements that Arafat was poisoned, despite the French doctors’ clear statement ruling that out. No doubt such talk will continue until and unless the doctors who attended Arafat’s final illness actually disclose a diagnosis.

It seems clear to people here that Sharon’s endless talk of Arafat as an “obstacle to peace” may yet come back to haunt him. Now that the “obstacle” has been removed, Yasser Arafat, now beyond anyone’s accusations, may expose Sharon and his policies in a merciless light he could not achieve in life.

People in Gaza are first and foremost expressing their genuine grief in street demonstrations and, in many places, mourning tents. Abu Ammar’s burial—his temporary burial—in the courtyard of his battered Mukata compound was widely called “chaotic” and “a mob scene” by the American press. It was, in fact, uniquely Palestinian. Despite initial plans for a well-organized ceremony, some 20,000 Palestinians swarmed into the courtyard and Arafat’s personal guards quickly gave up any attempt to stop them. The crowd was fervent but respectful, and the flag-draped casket was passed hand-to-hand from the helicopter. ABC’s Peter Jennings was one of the few to point out that the crowd never became bad-tempered or angry. Contrary to Islamic custom, Arafat’s casket was encased and buried in a larger cement vault to enable its transfer someday to Jerusalem.

Most Americans, of course, must have been baffled by the sight of Arafat’s personal guards cementing the tomb closed, and stopping work briefly when overcome by grief. For a country like the US where state funerals are precise affairs where even the bereaved family remains stoic, Abu Ammar’s interrment may have seemed strange indeed. Nonetheless, it was marked by sincerity, devotion, and hope for the future. All that had to take place, did—possibly not in a way that suited Western tastes, but it happened peacefully and sincerely. Perhaps we can take that as a good omen for a future when—however difficult the present—Abu Ammar will finally rest in Jerusalem. The man has left us, but the dream and determination of his people is as strong as ever.

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