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Nostalgia undone: rethinking the legacy of Yasser Arafat

Nostalgia undone: rethinking the legacy of Yasser Arafat
6 min read
09 November, 2017
Yasser Arafat's strong words and apparent passion inspired and fuelled a generation, so it is no wonder criticising his legacy remains a sensitive matter to this day.
Criticising Yasser Arafat's legacy is one that remains a taboo among Palestinians [Getty]

As thousands mark the 13th anniversary of the death of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on Saturday, Palestinians everywhere are revisiting his legacy. 

Photos of Arafat in a kuffeya - the iconic Palestinian scarf - while holding up his signature peace sign are circulating online as people commemorate the “hero” who has become a grandfather figure to the Palestinian dream.

Despite having problematic elements, within the mainstream, Arafat’s legacy remains a good one. He is hailed as a resistance leader by some, a peacemaker by others and is commonly seen as the man who drove Palestinians to their still pending plight to statehood. However, his fallacies, including corruption and despotic rule, are commonly overlooked.

While pockets of criticisms of Arafat are beginning to appear more often, questioning his overall leadership ultimately remains a taboo in Palestinian politics and society. Not only is this preventing Palestinians from understanding the bitter reality behind his paternalistic persona, it is also helping stall much-need discussions about Palestinian leadership, which could lead the cause in the right direction of successful self-autonomy and a functioning statehood.

Despite this, it remains undeniable Arafat contributed greatly to putting the Palestinian cause on the map. His charisma, symbols, powerful speeches and ability to exasperate the Palestinian dream onto the already pro-Palestine pan-Arab movement is proof of this. His strong words and apparent passion inspired and fuelled a generation, so it is no wonder talking about his legacy in a critical manner remains a sensitive matter to this day.

Illegal settlements and Oslo

In the Western world, Arafat is known for signing the famous Oslo Accords with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. It was seen as the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and many Palestinians who hailed the accords had hope that Arafat was taking back a small part of what rightfully belongs to Palestinians - the move raised hopes for wider reformation in the Palestinian liberation project including the right of return.

But not many know that Arafat was searching for a historic deal with Israel prior to the First Intifada. In 1979, Arafat sought for avenues to broker a secret deal between himself and his Israeli counterparts via Norway - a country that was deemed to be a keen Israeli ally.

At his dismay, Israel was not willing to co-operate with his legacy building project at that time, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Arafat announced that the PLO officially recognised UN resolutions that granted Israel’s security, that talks had seriously begun.

While Oslo provides Israel with the security of recognition from Palestinians, it does not explicitly recognise Palestine’s right to exist in return.

When the accords were signed and the pictures of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands became a worldwide symbol, many anticipated further developments.

But nearly a quarter of a century later and the repercussions of Oslo are becoming more apparent. The Oslo Accords made no mention of the building of Israeli settlements. If anything, Oslo gave Israeli settlers the legitimacy they needed to violate international law and build more settlements on Palestinian land.

Settlements were not officially condemned, nor outlawed by the Oslo Accords. The discussion of the flagrant violation of international law was deterred until a “permeant status” in the negotiation process was to be achieved. Because of this, settlement advocates are able to declare that settlements do not violate the Oslo Accords, regardless of their illegal status.

Moreover, while Oslo provides Israel with the security of recognition from Palestinians, it does not explicitly recognise Palestine’s right to exist, in return.

‘Speak no evil’

The allegations of his corruption which remain overlooked, still shadow Arafat's legacy. From censoring intellectual material, to squabbling opposition factions and figures to leading the Palestinian Authority (PA) to bankruptcy, his legacy with his own people is far from perfect.

Edward Said, a renowned Palestinian academic recalled meeting Arafat:

“I went to a meeting he held in Beirut the other day,” he told journalist Robert Fisk in the 1970s. “And Arafat stood there and was questioned about a future Palestinian state, and all he could say was that ‘You must ask every Palestinian child this question.’ Everyone clapped. But what did he mean? What on earth was he talking about? It was rhetoric. But it meant nothing.”

While there are estimates that Arafat was worth an average of $3 billion, the real figure of his overall worth remains disputed.

In 1995, the PA began censoring Said’s books amid amplifications in his criticisms of the former Palestinian leader.

Meanwhile, the killing of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali is also one that many suspect is a PLO orchestrated murder. The Handala artist was known for his opposition of Arafat and was famous for being one of the Arab world’s most influential critics of the PLO. He was assassinated in London in August 1987 though the British police, who have this year re-opened the investigation into his murder, are yet to confirm the identity of the perpetrator.

A former colleague of al-Ali told The New Arab that a senior member of the PLO had threatened al-Ali for highlighting the organisation’s hypocrisy weeks before his death, demanding that he corrects his attitude toward the group.

While al-Ali’s investigation continues thirty-years on, it is clear Arafat had emplaced a system designed to hastily crackdown on all opposition.

In 1994, Arafat appointed Mohammed Dahlan as head of the preventative security force in Gaza - a post he held until 2002. During that time, Dahlan launched a crackdown on Gaza and became notoriously known for his torture of Hamas supporters, prompting locals to nickname the city “Dahlanistan”.

Allegations of corruption

But one of the biggest unsolved mysteries surrounding Arafat is how he had acquired his money throughout his leadership and where those billions went.

The Oslo Accords meant Arafat sat on $4 billion in donations from the US, the European Union and Japan, as well as Israeli sales tax that was passed onto the Palestinian leader.

While there are estimates that Arafat was worth an average of $3 billion, the real figure of his overall worth remains disputed. Following revelations surrounding the PA’s largest corruption scandal, an internal PA audit showed a quarter of the governing’s body for 1997 was “lost” as a result of corruption and mismanagement.

The bureaucratic nature of the PA meant that little oversight gave way for sharks to ultimately steal from Palestinian public money. After the 1997 audit was released, Arafat had demanded all future PA audits to be kept secret.

It is no doubt that Arafat’s charisma had left its mark on the Palestinian people. Despite being a controversial figure, exactly 13 years after his death, his charm lives on and the former Palestinian official is still regarded as a progressive and leader.

But Arafat had made serious mistakes during his leadership which must neither be overlooked nor dismissed. Palestinians must break the stigma behind criticising Arafat and critically analyse his leadership.

The nostalgia surrounding his speeches, at a time when he was harbouring widespread support in the 60s and 70s, must be put to the side to assess the true effects of his leadership and potential mistakes he made thereof on the Palestinian people and the future of Palestine.