The Meaning of Yasser Arafat

Bassam Abu Sharif is a Palestinian fighter, journalist and the current press officer for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Originally a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), he eventually aligned himself with Yasser Arafat and became one of his closest advisors. His recently published narrative titled Arafat and the Dream of Palestine tells of his involvement in the Palestinian struggle focuses primarily on his years as Arafat’s advisor. Part military history and partly political, Sharif details the juncture of these two elements of the Palestinian struggle against occupation while simultaneously detailing his journey from participant and planner of some of the PFLP’s most spectacular military operations to confidant of Arafat. The story is one of a shifting allegiance within the PLO that is based on a changing definition of what Sharif believes possible in terms of Palestinian statehood. It is also one of continuous deception by the Israeli government as it proceeds on its path towards the construction of a Greater Israel and duplicity from supposed allies among the Arab nations.

Mr. Sharif introduces the reader to Arafat in 1967. While Fateh battled over who should be their leader, Arafat slipped into the Occupied Territories to consolidate his status. Impressed by his daring and commitment, he was elected to the position. This is followed by an description of the early interactions between the author and Arafat–a period that included the events leading up to and including Black September. For those unaware of this time in Palestinian history, it was when Jordan attacked the Palestinian camps located inside their territory, unleashing a war that spread to Amman and set back the movement for years. Intertwined with this narrative is a history of the Palestinian people from 1948 on with the emphasis being the story of that history after the formation of the PLO.

This story is worth repeating. Attacks, diplomacy and all. Bassam Abu Sharif provides details known only to someone in his position about PLO hijackings, operations against the IDF, the Iranian revolution, the machinations leading up to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the eventual departure of the PLO fighters, the Oslo negotiations and the siege of Arafat’s house in the months before his eventual exile and death. It is a story of frustration, anger, patience, and unremitting recalcitrance of the PLO’s foe. It is a tale not unlike the stories of other nations and their struggle for independence yet unique to the unusual situation of the Palestinians. There is tragedy just as there is heroism. Fighting united against the common enemy and quarreling inside the organization, not to mention with the established Arab nations. Through the entire text, the reader sees Bassam Abu Sharif’s respect for Arafat grow along with an allegiance and friendship that placed him in the perfect position to write this history of Arafat and the movement he came to signify.

When Sharif expresses his opinion on an event or strategy he is describing, that opinion is in the context of his support for what he believed to be the best way forward for the Palestinian people. He writes about his opposition to suicide bombing and his belief that Saddam Hussein was tricked by Washington into attacking Kuwait in 1990. While discussing the Oslo negotiations, he makes clear his distrust of the Israeli government and suspicions about Washington. His description of the Israeli siege of Arafat’s home is laced with anger and concludes by voicing the suspicion that Arafat was poisoned.

Despite its largely uncritical nature, Arafat and the Dream of Palestine is an interesting and useful work, especially in the West where Tel Aviv’s version of events tends to have a greater grip on the popular imagination. A true journalist, Bassam Abu Sharif rarely embellishes the facts of his story, telling it in a straightforward yet compelling manner. Then again, it is a story that needs no embellishment. It is not only the story of Yasser Arafat. It is also the story of the last forty years of the Palestinian struggle. After reading Sharif’s account, it becomes even clearer why the Israelis and their US backers wanted him removed. His relationship to the Palestinian struggle is comparable to that of Ho Chi Minh’s to the Vietnamese people’s long war against occupation or Nelson Mandela’s to that of South Africa’s black population.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.