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Yasser Arafat 1929-2004

Sami Joseph

A brief look at Arafat's background:

He was born on 24th August 1929 in Cairo, and was given the name "Mohammed Yasser" Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, the fifth child of Palestinian merchant. At the age of four, his mother died and he was sent to live in Jerusalem with his uncle. In Jerusalem, he witnessed the usurpation of a large chunk of Palestine.

He first became active in Palestinian politics while he was a civil engineering student in Cairo in the early 1950s, where he headed the Union of Palestinian Students at Fu'ad I University (now Cairo University) from 1952-1957.

In 1956, Arafat attended the International student congress in Prague, where he secured membership for Palestine. He wore the Kuffiyeh (headdress) for the first time - that becomes his trademark.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Arafat launched his own contracting firm in Kuwait and quickly prospered. He probably used his personal wealth to launch al-Fatah, the most prominent of a number of exile groups advancing armed struggle as a means of liberating Palestine.

In 1958, Arafat formed the Palestine Liberation Movement (Fateh). The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was previously formed by the Arab League and by 1968 its membership swelled to encompass most Palestinians. Arafat took over the PLO Chairmanship and transformed it to an organ that made the Palestinian cause known worldwide. The PLO took its case to the UN; Chairman Arafat addressed the United Nations general assembly in 1974 and famously said "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." After years of struggle for the cause, the U.S. arranged in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut to settle in Tunisia in 1982. While in Tunisia, President Arafat narrowly escaped death in an
Israeli attack on PLO headquarters.

In 1988, at a special full UN General Assembly session (held in Geneva because the U.S. refused to issue a visa to Arafat!) Arafat publicly accepted Israel's right to exist and renounced all forms of terrorism.

Arafat married Ms Suha Altawil at a private ceremony in 1991; in 1995 their daughter Zahwa was born.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo accord; President Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands at the White House lawn, in the presence of President Clinton and the Russian Foreign Minister who signed the accord as witnesses. This paved the way for Arafat's return to Palestine after 27 years in exile, and he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Arafat was democratically elected President of the Palestinian Authority in the first Palestinian elections in 1996. President Arafat continued leading the Palestinian Authority in peace negotiations with Israel. In 2001, Israel destroyed Arafat's compound, and forced him into confinement in Ramallah.

On 21 October 2004, President Arafat was diagnosed with gallstones, but by the 27th, sources said that his health had deteriorated. The French Government provided a Presidential plane and Arafat was whisked away to Paris for treatment. He passed away on 10 November 2004 and was buried in Ramallah a day later.

What happens next?

Arafat was undoubtedly held in high esteem by most Palestinians for the simple fact that he dedicated his life for their cause even though some intellectuals disagreed with his latter day vision of peace with Israel. Originally, the PLO had sought a free, secular democratic state of Palestine that encompassed all of its indigenous inhabitants, or at least those who were there in 1948. This for the Zionists meant the end of their enterprise for they had planned all along to create a state whose inhabitants are exclusively Jewish but have never ever made their real intentions known because they knew they would not have had the backing of the international community for such a racist state whose ultimate aim is to ethnically cleanse Palestine of its indigenous population.

In the eighties, Israel considered Arafat and the PLO as a perennial niggling irritation which they ought to deal with because it kept Palestinian question alive and on the world stage. It tried to silence it in different criminal ways including assassinations and when it became clear that the PLO was there to stay, it decided to bypass it by cultivating Hamas as a possible alternative in the hope that it would eclipse the PLO. When to its dismay Israel discovered that Hamas was equally committed to Palestinian rights, it opened a secret channel for talks with the PLO. This is where Chairman Arafat was duped into thinking that Israel had come to its senses and was genuine in its desire to have settlement with the Palestinians.

Knowledgeable Palestinian intellectuals were alarmed that Arafat had signed in 1993 an accord, the final version of which lacked comprehensive details and was full of vague promises, leaving aspects of potential disagreement for future negotiations. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) came into existence, Arafat was led to believe that the reference to UN resolutions was a sufficient safeguard of Palestinian interests. The Israelis had a different agenda. They saw the PA as a useful tool for oppression of Palestinian aspirations and that the meaningless incremental withdrawal of Israeli troops from densely populated Palestinian areas (which in any case were a constant headache to Israel) were enough to satisfy Arafat. 

Some unscrupulous western leaders, politicians and media used to euphemistically refer to these withdrawals as 'concessions' as if the return by a thief of parts of a stolen goods to their rightful owner could be described in such a way. However, Arafat was not ready or willing to act as Israel's stooge and
nothing short of total and complete compliance by Israel with UN resolutions on Palestine would satisfy him or the Palestinian people. Israel has always known too well that it can always lay blame for failure on Arafat and can bank on morally challenged western leaders to back its claims.

It is interesting to note that in the immediate demise of Arafat, Bush and Blair had the audacity to express hope that the Palestinians had the sense to 'democratically' elect an 'acceptable' successor etc..!!!

Basically, the future does not bode well for whoever will succeed Arafat so long as Israel has not abandoned its dream of subjugation of the Palestinians in the same way that it had harnessed some western leaders who unashamedly do its bidding including waging wars at its behest.

It is really sad that the Israelis had squandered the opportunity to have real peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds and that the only person who could have delivered this on behalf of the Palestinians was none other than Yasser Arafat.


November 2004


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