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Yasser Arafat — Reflections on the Man of Palestinian Destiny
JEDDAH, 12 November 2004 — Yasser Arafat’s death marks the end of a Palestinian icon who, as long as I can remember, dominated the Middle East scene.
From that fateful year of 1967 when the Israelis invaded and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip until his very last breath, Arafat figured prominently on every Palestinian issue.
My recollections of him are vivid: As students, we were all supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and he embodied the cause.
I first met Arafat in September1982 . It was in Jeddah at the Guest Palace in Baghdadiah. I had gone to interview him for Arab News and its sister publication, Al-Majalla.
He was very different from the image portrayed by the media. A short, dapper man, he quickly disarmed you with his pleasant smile. He smiled often, something which men of lesser mettle would not be able to do — considering he had just lived through 88 days of hell during the siege of Beirut.
A quiet dinner followed our initial meeting. Arafat hardly ate, too preoccupied with narrating what had happened and what future course of action to take. At times it seemed he talked more to himself than us — describing in minute details the savage bombing by the Israelis of Lebanese and Palestinian civilian targets.
One could almost feel his intense emotions as he meandered from topic to topic, touching on incidents of valor and bravery and of the determination of the young PLO fighters and their patriotic Lebanese allies, willing to die for a just cause.
His eyes brimmed with tears as he spoke of the treachery that followed his departure from Beirut. The PLO fighters left Beirut so that its civilian population would not further endure the merciless slaughter by the Israelis who, by using freely provided American arms and ammunition, were intent on razing the entire city to the ground and adding one more chapter in their history of genocide against the Palestinians.
Throughout the siege, Arafat remained calm. His appearance and manners contrasted sharply with the loutish behavior of Sharon or the psychopathic gesture of Begin. He spoke not of revenge but of justice. For the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in diasporas, the need of the hour was a homeland of their own — not refugee camps.
Arafat was genuine. Throughout our meeting, he did not try to act the patriot or the arrogant leader. What I found was a man who sincerely believed in his cause.
Our conversation was interrupted by his interview on an American television network channel via satellite. He was asked questions that showed the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the journalists interviewing him — but he never lost his cool. Instead, he repeatedly asked the questioners not to be biased.
But the interviewers continued to reiterate the same old Zionist propaganda statements: The PLO is for the destruction of Israel; the PLO wants to kill all Jews, etc.
As these, and similar questions were asked, Arafat would sit back, fold his arms, look genuinely puzzled and ask about the authenticity of such statements. This match would go for a couple of minutes until Arafat would then pose a question himself.
It was always certain that the interviewer was trying to bait Arafat. It was also certain that Arafat never took the bait.
Throughout most interviews Arafat would patiently repeat that the PLO was not waging a war against Israel, but rather Israel was waging a war of occupation against the Palestinians. He repeatedly said it was the Israeli government, and not the PLO, that was playing an exterminator’s role. And he chided the United States for fully backing these ardent Zionists who were intent on destroying both the PLO and the Palestinians.
The terrorists in Tel Aviv and their allies, Arafat said to me during our dinner, may gloat temporarily at the PLO’s departure from Beirut, “but Sharon and Begin have only to turn the pages of history to find out where Attila and Hitler have gone.”
The will of the people cannot be suppressed, he told me quietly while reaching out for some grapes. The 88 days of Beirut somehow strengthened the Palestinians’ determination, he said.
I had several other opportunities to meet him at different venues — at Arab summits and conferences in Europe. He was always polite. At times he would cross security lines to offer a handshake.
Once, over a cup of tea in Dakar, I found him in a very pensive mood.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “I am just thinking about my family in Palestine.”
On another occasion, while having lunch together in Tunis, I asked him whether he would ever return to Palestine.
“Yes” he said, pushing his chair back. “You see, one cannot repress the will of a people who are trying to reclaim their lost rights. What about the massive US military, economic and political support for Israel?” I asked.
“That has temporarily stopped us,” he conceded. “But in the long run we will win — for several reasons.
First, because we are right; second, the American government will discover that what they are doing is absolutely wrong. Because by depriving a people of their God-given right of self-determination, they are negating all principles of justice.”
At times, Arafat would ramble, and his use of the English syntax was poor, and he constantly labored to improve his language.
Once, while meeting with some Western journalists, he kept reiterating something about the “Israeli military junta.” I quickly pointed out that no such thing existed in Israel.
During the last few years, Arafat found himself vilified by the many pro-Israeli commentators in the United States who, at the behest of the Israelis, tried to demonize him.
It is true that few modern figures were as controversial as Arafat.
One of his failings was to try to please everyone. For this he was often rebuked — not by the Arabs, but by his own people.
For example, his support of Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait cost both him and the Palestinian people dearly.
He once said it was difficult to do business when under pressure from friends. It was a vague statement but I understood what he meant.
There is no doubt that Arafat missed many opportunities. His critics argued that had he agreed to the Wye peace talks organized by former President Bill Clinton, he could have achieved something for the Palestinians.
Throughout his life, Arafat was a humble man who lived simply, but he was surrounded by an enormous entourage whose lifestyle contrasted differently with his and that of those in the Palestinian refugee camps.
His personal propriety was never questioned, but some of his financial decisions aroused suspicion.
Throughout most of his life, the Israelis and their allies tried their best to denigrate him. By using their media “outlet” in the United States, they hoped that whatever support there was for the Palestinians would dissipate. This never deterred him, and he put together a group of well-educated, articulate Westernized Palestinian spokespersons who knew how to stand their ground.
It is unfortunate, for both Arafat and the Palestinians, that Israel has become a domestic issue in US policy.
No candidate can gain ground in a US election without pandering to Zionist interests or by advertising his or her pro-Israeli leanings. Arafat thus became a punching bag for both Bush and Kerry in their interviews and debates.
But whatever people said about him, it did not diminish his image in the eyes of his people and to millions of supporters of justice for the Palestinians.
On the contrary, the more viciously Arafat was attacked, the more fiercely he was supported by both his people living in the refugee camps outside Palestine and among the3 . 5million Palestinians living under the oppressive and brutal Israeli dictatorship in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arafat was no saint. But he kept the Palestine issue alive.
He was its symbol. His failing was his refusal to delegate, and his inability to accept his own mortality.
At his death, he had one simple request: He wanted to be buried in Jerusalem. It is sad that the descendants of those from the ghettoes of Danzig and Warsaw have deprived him of that wish.
Now that he is gone, it is up to those who will follow in Arafat’s shadow to keep the Palestinian cause in center stage.
Arafat may be no more. But the image of that frail old man with his mischievous smile trapped by Sharon’s murderous forces in Ramallah and yet emerging again and again to wave at the camera, while maintaining his dignity and decorum — will remain embedded in the minds of future Palestinians, and many others throughout the world.
Allah Yarhamak ya Abu Ammar.
GAZA CITY, 12 November 2004 — The world will bid farewell to Abu Ammar, Yasser Arafat, as one of the towering figures of Arab politics embarks on his final journey with a state funeral in Cairo today followed by a solemn burial ceremony in Ramallah.
Heads of state and government leaders from some 100 countries will be on hand in Cairo to pay tribute to the Palestinian leader who died in Paris early yesterday.
Last night the United Nations General Assembly took the rare step of paying tribute to Arafat with a minute’s silence followed by a eulogy from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The measure was seen as a unanimous endorsement of the Palestinians’ right of self-determination by the world community.
Arafat’s passing was seen by leaders and analysts alike as the end of a chapter in the region’s history and the opening of a new one filled with uncertainties. While many voices spoke of new opportunities and new hopes, others warned of darker days ahead, especially if the Palestinians fail to quickly develop a new united leadership.
This morning, the mortal remains of Arafat, flown overnight from Paris in a French military aircraft, will pass through the streets of the Egyptian capital in a solemn cortege to King Faisal Mosque for a special memorial service. The Palestinian leader’s remains will then be flown to Jordan en route to Ramallah, in the West Bank, where he would be buried close to his Muqataa compound tomorrow.
Arafat,75 , died after almost a week in a deep coma in a French military hospital in Clamart, near Paris. A brief statement by the general commanding the hospital did not mention the cause of the death.\Palestinian officials announced 40 days of mourning for Arafat. Shortly after news of the death was announced, a wave of grief swept across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets, clutching Arafat’s pictures, crying and wondering about their future without the man who embodied their struggle for statehood.
Black smoke from burning tires rose across the Gaza Strip and gunmen fired into the air in grief. Palestinian flags at Arafat’s battered compound in Ramallah were lowered to half-mast. Church bells rang out, and Qur’anic verses were played over mosque loudspeakers.
The death of Arafat, who ruled firmly over rival Palestinian factions for four decades, left Palestinians without a strong leader for the first time. It raised concern that the scramble to claim Arafat’s mantle could fragment the Palestinian leadership or spark chaos and factional fighting in the streets.
In a hurried effort to project continuity, the Palestine Liberation Organization elected former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as its new chief, virtually ensuring that he will succeed Arafat as leader of the Palestinians, at least in the short term.
The Palestinian legislature also swore in Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh as caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority until elections can be held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law.
Saudi leaders paid tribute to Arafat and offered condolences to the Palestinian people. In a message addressed to the Palestinian leadership, King Fahd said he shared the pain of the Palestinians over the loss of their leader. Crown Prince Abdullah and Defense Minister Prince Sultan sent similar messages.
President Bush said the passing of Arafat was a “significant moment” in Palestinian history and expressed his hope that Palestinians would achieve statehood and peace with Israel. “During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Arafat’s death could serve as a “historic turning point in the Middle East” and expressed his hope the Palestinians would now work to stop “terrorism”. In a sign of the enmity the two men shared even in death, Sharon refused to mention Arafat by name. French President Jacques Chirac eulogized Arafat as a “man of courage and conviction who, for 40 years, has been the incarnation of the Palestinians’ combat for recognition of their national rights.”
So intent was France to show its attachment to Arafat that his mortal remains were given a full military escort en route to the Villacoublay airport from the hospital. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Foreign Minister Michel Barnier were on hand, to pay tribute to the deceased Palestinian leader.
Arafat was flown to the French military hospital on Oct. 29after his health began deteriorating last month. It was the first time in nearly three years that he left his compound in Ramallah, where he was held a virtual prisoner by Israel.
Palestinian officials initially insisted he had a lingering case of the flu, but they grew increasingly concerned when he did not recover.
Neither his doctors nor Palestinian leaders would say what killed him. “He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people,” said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears as he announced Arafat’s death.
The Israeli military said it would restrict access to the burial, allowing only Palestinians with permits to attend, but would allow mourners to hold processions in towns and refugee camps.
As much as his life was filled with controversy, so too was Arafat’s death.
The Palestinians had demanded Arafat be buried in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Israel refused, fearing a Jerusalem burial would strengthen Palestinians’ claims to a city they envision as a capital of a future Palestinian state.
In a compromise, the Palestinians agreed to bury him at his compound in Ramallah, battered and strewn with rubble from repeated Israeli raids. But they plan to line his grave with soil taken from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, said Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah leader, and he is to be interred in a cement box, so he can be moved to Jerusalem for burial when the opportunity presents itself.
Arafat became one of the world’s most familiar faces after addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in1974 , when he entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a twig. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Two decades later, he shook hands at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel’s right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
But the accord quickly unraveled amid mutual suspicions and accusations of treaty violations. A Palestinian uprising that erupted in the fall of 2000has killed some4 , 000people, three-quarters of them Palestinians.
A resilient survivor of war with Israel, assassination attempts and a plane crash, Arafat was born Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat Al-Qudwa Al-Husseini on Aug.24 ,1929 , the fifth of seven children of a Palestinian merchant killed in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. There is disagreement whether he was born in Gaza or Cairo.
Educated as an engineer in Egypt, Arafat served in the Egyptian Army and then started a construction firm in Kuwait. It was there that he founded the Fatah movement, which became the core of the PLO. After the six-day Arab-Israeli war of1967 , the PLO thrust itself on the world’s front pages by sending its gunmen out to hijack airplanes, machine gun airports and kill Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
“As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than refugees standing in line for UN rations, it was not likely to respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles the situation has changed,” Arafat explained.