In death, as in life, Yasser Arafat lit the flames of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and dignity. If he did nothing else – he made certain that the Palestinian struggle for liberty and justice would be taken seriously by the rest of the world. When Golda Meir claimed that “there were no Palestinians” – he proved her wrong. And when Ariel Sharon labeled him ‘irrelevant’ – he demonstrated to the whole world that the Palestinian cause was as central as ever to international peace and security.
Arafat’s personal physical courage – even in his old age – was an inspiration to his people. He was free to pack his bags and head for Paris anytime he wanted to. But he chose to endure the last three years of his life as a virtual prisoner of Sharon.
It was easy for armchair generals and Arab intellectuals to second-guess Arafat from the comfortable distance of European and Middle Eastern capitals. But Yasser wasn’t running a public relations campaign – he was charting the destiny of his people. I, for one, am guilty of not showing proper respect for the fact that Arafat had earned something no other Palestinian or Arab leader possessed – genuine grass roots popularity among his people.
Arafat was obliged to lead a dispossessed people living either in exile or under the iron fist of a brutal Israeli occupation. He had to balance the needs of many constituencies – from urbane Palestinian intellectuals living in comfortable European exile to refugees enduring the privations of horribly over-crowded camps. On his broad shoulders, he carried the burden of the Palestinians in the occupied territories as they confronted home demolitions, Israeli assassination squads and a blockade aimed at humiliating and starving them into submission. He also had to concern himself with the plight of Israeli-Arabs living as second-class citizens in the land of their birth. He had to provide assistance to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and beyond. And he had to provide his people reason to hope that they would someday reach the Promised Land – and live as an honored people on the sacred soil that their ancestors called home.
It was not just Israelis who worked 24/7 to oppose the realization of legitimate Palestinian aspirations. American politicians bowed to the Israeli Lobby and spared no opportunity to denigrate the Palestinian cause. The hostile English language press took a sadistic pleasure in smearing Arafat’s image – even during his burial ceremonies. Arab leaders paid lip service to his people’s struggle. And the United Nations and the European Union openly collaborated in the repression of the Palestinian uprising that rose to challenge decades of life and death under a vicious Israeli army.
Out of a desire to create a safe haven for the Palestinians, Arafat had been willing to accept a two-state solution that left his people with only a fifth of their ancestral lands. But the Israelis weren’t inclined to accept any kind of a sovereign Palestinian State – especially one with East Jerusalem as a capital. They used the cover of the Oslo agreement to confiscate more land and build more settlements. After Rabin’s assassination, Israelis elected Netenyahu and gave him a mandate to sabotage the agreement. Arafat had made a generous offer that cost him dearly in political capital. In return, the Israelis ended up giving the Palestinians less than nothing.
When it became apparent that Oslo was a dead letter, a spontaneous insurrection took place after considerable provocation from hard line Likudniks – led by Ariel Sharon who went so far as to violate the sanctity of the Haram El Sharif.
Arafat was left to deal with a constituency that felt cheated and blamed him for his failure to deliver. On top of that, the Israelis waged a successful public relations campaign to blame him for the break down in talks, while simultaneously electing Sharon to wreak havoc in the West Bank and Gaza. Using their considerable resources at CNN, FOX and other mass media enterprises, Sharon’s Likudnik American cousins re-wrote the history of Oslo and widely disseminated the fiction that Arafat had refused a ‘generous offer’.
The Bush administration met Sharon’s rise to power with open arms. An attempt by Belgian courts to hold the Israeli Prime Minister accountable for war crimes in Sabra and Shatila was met by American threats of economic sanctions. Instead of making Sharon of Qibya pay for his crimes – they made Arafat the fall guy for the failure of Oslo.
The successful demonization of Arafat gave Sharon a free hand to pulverize the Palestinians. Before long, Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians were beamed in Technicolor from Jenin, Bethlehem, Rafah, Nablus and Jabalaya. The pain inflicted on the Palestinians was no secret affair. The whole world saw raw murder on their screens and yawned. It was common knowledge that the Israelis had a one-item agenda - to steal as much land and expand their borders to accommodate the real estate fantasies of right wing settlers from Brooklyn and Queens. But that obvious little detail seemed to escape the attention of both policy makers and pundits.
As they endured a regime of intensified institutional violence, the Palestinians were constantly advised to capitulate to Israeli demands. Anybody remotely familiar with modern Middle Eastern History was aware of Sharon’s career as a serial war criminal. The brute had a well-earned reputation as a psychopath who could barely control his temper or his blood lust. Even Begin, himself a documented war criminal, had called Sharon a compulsive liar. But the Israelis, to their everlasting shame, hired Arik for the precise task of leaving permanent scars on the Palestinians.
Those who bothered to pay attention watched in silence as American Jewish leaders combined forces to create a formidable constituency that campaigned in support of collective punishment, deliberate destruction of infrastructure, indiscriminate use of fire power, home demolitions and economic siege. But to speak out against them was an invitation to being libeled as an anti-Semite. For reasons ranging from bigotry to indifference, intellectual cowards from Washington to New York to London to Berlin kept their lips sealed while the Palestinians were being mauled on a systematic daily basis.
Throughout the last four years of the Palestinian uprising, the callous campaign to defame Arafat allowed George Bush to shrug his shoulder and embrace Ariel Sharon’s vision of battering the native people of the Holy Land into accepting permanent submission to a life within Palitentiary walls. The United States made Arafat the problem and allowed Ariel Sharon’s goons time to create facts on the ground – including a separation wall that confiscated 40% of the West Bank. Now that Arafat is no longer among us, Bush will no doubt find other excuses to dodge the responsibility of reigning in Israel’s compulsive tendency to engage in government sponsored war crimes.
When one takes into consideration the odds against Arafat – it is a wonder that he did not despair until his vital organs ceased to function. Even when confronted with the last stages of a terminal illness – he refused to leave for treatment in Paris until he secured international guarantees that he could return to Ramallah to share his people’s fate. The world might not have noticed his nobility, but the Palestinians did - and that was all that ever mattered to Arafat. Had he miraculously survived, he would have voluntarily returned to his cell and faced Sharon’s daily threats of physical liquidation.
Today, the Palestinians buried the father of their national movement in a temporary grave in Ramallah. At some future date, they will move his remains to their final and proper destination in the sweet sacred soil of Jerusalem. Arafat kept his promises to his people and they will spare no efforts to keep their promise to Arafat.
In offering my condolences to the Palestinian people, I am obliged to offer a humble apology to their late leader. If he made mistakes, it was for the Palestinians to decide how to hold him accountable. At his funeral, they demonstrated that on balance he had done an incredible job of keeping the Palestinian cause alive. They genuinely adored the man. In the past, I have called him ‘Yes Sir’ Arafat – because I thought both Oslo and the Road Map were a sham. But Arafat had to deal with the weak hand of an incarcerated leader. All I ever did was pontificate from my laptop. Arafat had to deal with immediate Palestinian needs and constant international and Arab pressures to capitulate – while facing daily threats of bodily harm from a thug like Sharon. All I had to cope with was a little hate mail.
I, together with many others in the Arab-American community, took Arafat to task when we should have been calling for Sharon’s hide. We should have concentrated our efforts on confronting our own callous political leaders that willingly collaborated with Sharon. We should have been louder and more insistent when talking back to the many pro-Israeli pundits who actively cheered on the slaughter of Arafat’s children.
Right now, all I can do is say “I am so sorry, Yasser”. I know this is a bit late. But it had to be said. Long may you live in the heart of the Palestinian people.
The Irony of Arafat by Sylvia Shihadeh and Robert Jensen
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