In the trenches with Arafat

In the trenches with Arafat
Yasser Arafat was always committed to the liberation of his homeland - and when he embarked on a path towards peace, he never abandoned his weapon.
5 min read
10 Nov, 2014
Arafat's legacy lives on [Getty]

Yasser Arafat detonated the modern Palestinian revolution and elevated Palestine to a major issue both in the corridors of political power and on the field of combat.

Together with the Palestinian people he wrote an heroic epic under adverse conditions, struggling against campaigns of siege and isolationism. He returned Palestine to the forefront of global politics and made the figure of the Palestinian refugee, the traditional keffiyeh headdress, and the gun, an integrated indivisible symbol.

He fought, advanced, and won. He negotiated and backtracked. Sometimes he was right and at other times he made mistakes, like all human beings. His life was full of victories, but kin and comrades left him besieged and disappointed in his final days. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast and honest to his principles until he fell, in his own words, "a martyr, a martyr, a martyr".

     He believed in the cause of his people and homeland.

Arafat's long march featured several detours. Some were forced upon him and others were made by choice. But he was always obsessed with staying amid the action and not watching from the sidelines. He believed in the cause of his people and homeland, and that he could change the balance of power, continue his march, and bring justice.

Change in course

The first major detour came at the end of 1973, in the aftermath of the October war with Israel. I recall that at the end of December we organised a training course for students of the Lebanese universities in Masyaf refugee camp, in Syria. The course, supervised by Dr Hanna Michael - also known as Abu Omar - attracted a lot of intellectuals and political groups, preoccupied by peace talks in Geneva.

The debates raged on as heavy storms, typical of Masyaf at that time of year, thundered overhead.

During one stormy night, Arafat arrived in the camp. He was angry. News had reached him of a large debate under shelter of a huge tent, where more than 200 students had gathered to meet their leader. He took the podium, struggling to make himself heard above the din of thunder and rain. 

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"There is a political settlement coming after the October war," he said. "We must be part of it and must accept a Palestinian state, even if it is just in the city of Jericho."

He reminded the assembly of what happened in 1948, when the Gaza Strip was attached to Egypt and the West Bank annexed to Jordan, which prevented the creation of a Palestinian entity as a base for liberation.

The majority of the students disagreed and considered this acquiescence a drift away from the goal of liberating the whole of Palestine, to create a democratic Palestinian state in which all religions could coexist. The general view was that these goals could not be realised except through armed struggle, and a long-term war for liberation.

Moreover, they said, the Fatah movement was launched before the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were occupied [in 1967], so restoration of those areas was their primary duty. After the return of those lands, Palestinians could establish their authority without embroiling the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in negotiations with, and recognition of, Israel.

Essentially, the students argued that the PLO should remain devoted to its original goals.

The debate got very heated. Some of us even broke the limits of courtesy. Arafat concluded: "That means you want us to leave the West Bank to King Hussein [of Jordan]."

He labelled us "neo-Hashemites" and accused Abu Omar and other speakers of corrupting the minds of the students, and threatened to hold us all accountable.

When the course concluded we returned to Beirut. Arafat did not carry out his threats, but continued to listen to the students' criticism of his ten-point programme. The sound of the public address system at the Arab University of Beirut easily reached his nearby office.

The political direction of Fatah and the PLO had started to shift, and gradually backtrack.

     The basic obsession was how to reserve a seat on the train to a political settlement.

The basic obsession was how to reserve a seat on the train to a political settlement. Our enemies were intelligent enough to propose just two seats - over which three parties were forced to compete, Jordan, Syria and the PLO.

It was a game of political musical chairs, which saw a rotation of alliances among the three parties.

Recognising futility

Despite the zigzagging route of Arafat's march, he should be credited with never abandoning his gun. He fought the fiercest of his military battles with Israel while simultaneously seeking to board the train to a political settlement, while attempting to improve his negotiating position. He also recognised the futility of the Oslo accords.

Following the Camp David talks in 2000, he became aware of the chasm between what he was aspiring to and what he was being offered - a gap that he could not leap. He therefore sought to encourage the second Palestinian intifada, supporting its militarisation, in an attempt to get quick results and force his enemy to succumb to the minimum of his demands.

The end of 1973 marked the beginning of his change of direction. Nevertheless, he never put down his gun, which had a massive effect on the strategies, alliances, evolution, and retreat of the Palestinian struggle.

Arafat reloaded his gun after Oslo, not with the aim of abandoning the peace process as a whole, because he had made progress, but with the aim of amending its terms.

I met him for the last time in the year 2000. I told him what I had heard about some accusations of corruption.

"It's a phase and it will pass," he told me. "History will not judge me for these, but will hold me accountable if I lose Jerusalem or if I reclaim it."

Arafat passed away as a martyr for Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is rising up again.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.