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International Socialist Review Issue 39, January–February 2005

Arafat's Legacy


Snehal Shingavi is a graduate instructor in Middle Eastern stuides at the University of California, Berkeley.

YASSER ARAFAT’S death in a Parisian hospital in the early hours of November 11, 2004, produced an immediate outpouring of grief. For millions of people, Arafat had come to symbolize their hopes and aspirations for liberation from humiliation, occupation, and dispossession and to represent the cause of Palestinian freedom on the international stage. In the days after his death, hundreds of thousands would come into the streets throughout the Middle East and Asia to mourn him. Palestine’s poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish, eulogized him:

He did not win military battles, neither in the homeland nor in the diaspora. But he did win the battle of defending our national existence. He placed the Palestinian question squarely on the regional and international political map. He gave shape to the national identity of the Palestinian refugee, lost and forgotten at the edges of oblivion. He caused the Palestinian reality to take root in the human consciousness and succeeded in convincing the world that war starts in Palestine and peace starts in Palestine.1

In the twisted lens of the American media, though, Arafat’s death was not a tragedy but an opportunity, paving the way to long-awaited "peace" in the Middle East. Editorial after editorial remarked that Arafat had been the greatest obstacle to peace in the region:

Arafat was the father of modern terrorism, and leaves behind a people ruined almost beyond salvation, a West divided against itself, and a global conflict that may last generations.… After 50 years of poisoning the world–and most of all his own people–Arafat left the stage last week, a depressing symbol of modern-day Palestine. The people he left behind will find true liberation only if they can transcend the senseless violence that he falsely insisted was their only hope.2

Some of the characterization of his life was openly racist vitriol. "Yasser Arafat was a blood-soaked, sub-human, vile, reprehensible, murderous animal," an editorialist for the Sacramento Union spewed.3

Few were as clear about the strategic nature of these characterizations as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who told Ha’aretz that Israel would be starting an anti-Arafat campaign "for fear that after his funeral [Arafat] will become a national hero and freedom fighter.… We will launch a tough struggle to portray his murderous character and the fact that he is a strategist of world terror who hurt innocent people."4

Nowhere in the American media was there any accounting of the role that Israel and the United States had played in creating and exacerbating the conflict. No mention was made of Israeli occupation or U.S. weapons, of Israeli checkpoints or U.S. financing of them, of Israeli home demolitions or U.S. support for unabated attacks on Palestinian civilians. One could almost be lulled into believing that Israel did not build illegal settlements, apartheid walls, and bypass roads, and that its soldiers did not kill three times as many Palestinians as vice versa.

One might even believe that Washington had attempted fair and honest brokering of peace between the two ridiculously uneven sides. Or that this "intractable conflict" did not involve millions of displaced Palestinian refugees, hundreds of destroyed Palestinian villages, thousands of dead Palestinians.5 In short, one could be forgiven for reading the American media and never knowing the truth–Palestinians were the dispossessed and the Israelis are the dispossessors. Blaming Arafat short-circuited any serious assessment of American and Israeli responsibility for genuine Palestinian grievances; after all, if the problem was Arafat, then the Palestinians had only themselves to blame for their plight.

Pointing the finger at Arafat, though, has been a standard explanation for the ever-elusive and hypocritical American and Israeli peace initiatives. It allows defenders of U.S. imperialism to project the fantasy that U.S. support of Israel prevents instability in the region rather than causes it, and allows Zionism to vilify the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and liberation as terrorism and anti-Semitism. It provides the American media with the absurd argument that Palestinian resistance to occupation (first with stones and then with suicide bombs) is at least the same if not worse than organized Israeli terror on Palestinians (with F-16s, helicopter gun ships, tanks, and bulldozers). And because Yasser Arafat was so closely identified–by Palestinians as well as internationally–as the symbol of the Palestinian cause, characterizing him as the instigator of violence creates a suitable justification for the continued collective assault on Palestinians.

The reality of Arafat’s legacy is a great deal more complicated, but, suffice it to say, he was the best partner that America and Israel could have hoped for in negotiating a settlement on their terms. No other Palestinian had the clout to scale back the intifada (the Arabic word for "uprising"); deliver Palestinian concessions on the recognition of Israel and the two-state solution; and to police the occupied territories according to Israeli and American dictates, without incurring the complete revolt of Palestinians against him.

Israeli and U.S. commentators reviled Arafat not because he was an obstacle to peace (it was his compound, not any Israeli leader’s, that was reduced to rubble), but because he was not willing to go the extra mile and offer total subjection of Palestinian interests to Israeli demands. Arafat’s complicated strategy of negotiations and diplomatic maneuverings between Arab leaders was a colossal dead end for Palestinian national aspirations, but enormously beneficial for Israel and the United States. They could use the endless talks and dizzying debates to quiet Arab frustration and bitterness with U.S.-Israeli imperialism and then proceed apace with their own plans. His death, rather than paving the way for peace, as the U.S. and Israel imagine, will only force them to conduct their plans for the region without the cover of a Palestinian figure capable of selling the snake oil of the "peace process."

Developing a Palestinian national movement

Yasser Arafat (Mohammad Abdul-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini) was born in 1929 in Cairo. His early years were steeped in the politics of Arab nationalism and resistance to European imperialism. When his mother died in 1933, he was sent to live with his uncle in Jerusalem. At an early age, Arafat witnessed British colonization of and Zionist settlement in Palestine, as well as the Arab resistance to it in the general strike of 1936—39. He returned to Cairo, where he completed his schooling amid the turbulent Egyptian resistance to British occupation and the Second World War, and the center of a growing Arab nationalism.

His most formative experience, like many of his generation, would come during the 1948 Nakba, (the Arabic word for "catastrophe"). Between 1947 and 1949, British-armed Zionist paramilitary and terrorist organizations implemented Plan Dalet, the organized ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s Arab population in order to set up the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland.6 Between 800,000 and one million Palestinians were driven from their homes, more than 400 Arab villages were destroyed, and scores of Palestinians were killed. Arafat’s colleague, Salah Khalaf, was "overwhelmed by the sight of this huge mass of men, women, old people and children, struggling under the weight of suitcases or bundles, making their way painfully down to the wharfs of Jaffa.… Cries mingled with moaning and sobs, all punctuated by deafening explosions."7 Neighboring Arab nations, themselves run by puppet governments loyal to England or France, put up a weak military opposition to Zionist conquest. Arafat fought in the failed resistance and ended up, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, a refugee in the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip.

A student in Egypt in the 1950s, and then an engineer in Kuwait in the 1960s, Arafat attempted to make sense of the new Palestinian reality and give it political shape. The first problem, though, was that Palestinians in the ghurba (the Arabic word for "diaspora") were deeply divided. The majority were poor and trapped in the new refugee camps that dotted neighboring countries or were absorbed, usually as second-class guest workers, into the broader Arab working class. A few wealthy landowners, merchants, traders, and entrepreneurs were able to escape with most of their assets intact; they were able to amass substantial wealth trading and banking in the oil-rich Gulf countries. Along with a class of educated Palestinians who filled the ranks of growing civilian bureaucracies in Arab countries, these were the primary backers of a nascent Palestinian nationalism.

Their concerns were not, as a consequence, with the realities of life for the majority of Palestinians in exile, solutions for which would require confrontations not only with Israel but with Arab nations as well. Instead, they focused on finding a political expression for their own growing economic and social power that was frustrated by the existing Arab bureaucracies and their often transparent racism against Palestinians. The goal was to use the anger of the majority of Palestinians to propel this smaller class to power in its own state. Arafat spent much of the 1950s and 1960s organizing this class of Palestinians and securing their financial backing for his Palestinian Liberation Movement, or Fatah.8

The simplicity of Fatah’s slogans, for the right of return and a homeland, inevitably attracted Palestinians in the camps as well; the slogans were also vague enough that they would eventually provide cover for rank opportunism and compromise. Arafat began to produce a magazine, Filastinuna: Nida al Hayat (Our Palestine: The Call of Life), which had a circulation of over 10,000. He traveled throughout the Arab world in search of supporters and backers, allowing Arafat to connect with middle-class Palestinians and elite Arabs as well as grow Fatah financially.9

Another problem was one of strategy. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism was both exciting and confusing. On the one hand, by nationalizing the Suez Canal and calling for the unity of all Arab peoples against puppet regimes, it represented a bold defiance of Western imperialism. On the other hand, the break-up of the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1961 demonstrated the fragility of any pan-Arab alliance. While it was the dominant political trend, even among Palestinians until 1967, pan-Arab nationalism proved to be a hollow solution for Palestinians–occasionally championing Palestinian concerns, at other times ignoring them. Nasser failed, for instance, to defend Palestinians from Israeli attacks, like the one in Gaza in 1955, while the defeats from the 1948 war were a constant reminder of the inadequacy of Arab rhetoric. At the same time, the successes of the Vietnamese and Algerian resistance to the French also convinced many Palestinians that military struggle against Israel was both possible and necessary. When Nasser announced in 1962 that he had "no plan for Palestine," thousands of Palestinians flocked to Fatah and its call for armed resistance to Zionism.

In 1964, Arab countries led by Egypt, established the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in order to divert the growing stream of Palestinian radicalism that threatened the internal stability of a number of these countries. But it had the opposite effect–giving Palestinian nationalism a larger audience and greater legitimacy. In 1965, Fatah launched its first raid against Israel; the PLO’s willingness to fight drew more supporters toward it. When Israel handily defeated Egypt and Syria in 1967, and then occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, Arab nationalism proved itself incapable of defeating Israel and liberating the Palestinian nation. Fatah capitalized on this vacuum, when a small band of Palestinian militants successfully repelled a much larger and more powerful Israeli attack in the legendary battle at Karameh in Jordan in 1968.

The Palestinian fighters were backed up later in the day-long battle by Jordanian army regulars, but (the Palestinian account goes) the brunt of the fighting was Israeli-Palestinian. Not only did the Karameh defenders stay and fight; they inflicted much damage and many casualties on the Israeli armored columns, who until that time had been accustomed (e.g. in the West back village of as-Sammu) to amble with impunity, destroy property, kill Arabs, and leave pretty much unscathed. Karameh was the beginning of the phase of the quickest Palestinian growth; volunteers poured in from all parts of the Arab world, and within a year Palestinian fedayeen were the force to be reckoned with in Jordan.10

The battle at Karameh propelled Fatah and Arafat into immense popularity among Palestinians. By 1969, Arafat had successfully taken over the PLO, giving him access to Arab leaders and money as never before.

In many ways, this success was to lock Fatah into a contradictory strategy from which it was never able to escape. While Fatah was deeply distrustful of Arab regimes and their interests, it was simultaneously unprepared to challenge them and was financially dependent on them. Arafat did not believe that Egypt or Syria or Iraq would challenge Israel by themselves, but he also did not believe that Palestinians stood a chance without them. Arafat’s hope had been to use the armed resistance to pressure the Arab regimes to act on Fatah’s behalf against Israel. Arafat’s international prestige depended almost entirely on the diplomatic efforts of friendly regimes, who were able to secure observer status for the PLO in the United Nations and enable Arafat to speak on the floor of the General Assembly in 1974. And the large flow of money into Fatah’s coffers from these Arab countries also made Arafat increasingly dependent on friendly regimes.

But the more Fatah organized, the more it came into conflict with the existing regimes, and the more it threatened its own sources of funding and power. As Edward Said describes:

Because they acquired a great deal of arms and began rapidly to organize themselves into political and military groupings, and of course because this always took place not in Palestine, but in a fraternal Arab state, the new militant Palestinians appeared to be a challenge to the central state authority.11

Fatah raids against Israel from Jordan, for instance, brought about Israeli retaliations. When the Jordanian government acted to limit Palestinian activity, it provoked a popular movement against itself that threatened its own power. Fatah could have organized that popular movement and led it to topple first the Jordanian monarchy and then other corrupt Arab regimes. But its ties to those regimes led it to hold back the struggle in favor of a policy of non-interference. Fatah’s inability and unwillingness to either lead the popular movement or give in to the Jordanian government allowed one of the weakest countries (whose population was majority Palestinian) to expel the PLO at the very moment when it could have challenged for power. The drama was repeated with more devastating consequences in Lebanon in the 1970s.

The twin of the non-interference position was a campaign designed to secure an audience with the United States as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Arafat used his skills at courting the powers that be, including the most reactionary Arab governments, to marginalize his competitors in the PLO, and then deliver a startling reversal of Palestinian principles. In 1974, in order to appease the U.S., Arafat agreed to accept the two-state solution and recognize Israel, both of which were major concessions to Israel. He also made televised statements "rejecting terrorism" in language so vague that it covered even legitimate forms of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. But negotiations with the U.S. were non-starters. U.S. concerns had always been to ensure stable allies in the region and the Palestinians could only offer this in the negative.

After Arafat had made all these concessions, he not only had nothing else left to bargain away, but the United States had little need left for him. When Lebanese civil war left the PLO leadership marooned in Tunisia, Arafat found his diplomatic capital spent. New concerns with the Iranian Revolution and the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran became the prominent issues, and Palestine receded into the background.

In 1987, though, a new local Palestinian leadership of the Occupied Territories began the first intifada in response to worsening economic and political conditions. The protests were heroic, capturing the media spotlight internationally and drawing attention to the systematic colonization of Palestine. At the time, Arafat was all but irrelevant in Tunis, as local activists and politicians led the struggle on the ground. The intifada, though, was infectious, and protests spread to Algeria and Egypt, where they threatened to topple existing regimes. Arafat was only able to make a return to the fore of Palestinian politics by conducting secret deals with the United States and Israel to quiet the protests, while using his credibility to convince Palestinians that he was negotiating a final solution to the Palestinian question. The mass expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait (a big financial backer of the PLO) after the PLO declared its support for Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War acted as a pressure point to convince Arafat that the Oslo Accords were his last and best hope to stay politically relevant.

The PLO tried to characterize Oslo as negotiations towards peace and eventual statehood, but Israel and the U.S. wanted guarantees of Israeli security and territory:

The great irony of the Oslo accord is that it brought to power in Palestine an outside political elite that did not lead the revolution–the 1987—93 intifada–but rather promised to end it. The 1993 Declaration of Principles specified that a strong Palestinian police force would cooperate with Israeli and U.S. security and intelligence units in crushing the intifada.12

Arafat not only succeeded in stopping the intifada, but in essentially delivering large chunks of the West Bank to Israel in the form of new settlements:

Arafat did manage, through harsh means of oppression, to contain the frustrations of his people and guarantee the safety of the settlers, as Israel continued to build new settlements and appropriate more Palestinian land. The oppressive machinery–Arafat’s various security forces–were formed and trained in collaboration with Israel.13

By the time the second intifada erupted in September 2000 in response to the failure of Oslo to deliver a Palestinian state, Arafat had been reduced to virtual imprisonment in his Ramallah compound–perhaps the last sign of his defiance to the occupation, where he remained until his illness and death.

Israel continues its all-out war against the Palestinians with American approval. The lie it stands behind to justify its brutality–that Arafat produced terrorism and failed to accept the hand of peace–can no longer be deployed to obscure the legitimate dreams of Palestinians for freedom from occupation. Arafat’s legacy was indeed a failure to produce peace–not because he advocated violence, but because he continued to believe that negotiations with Israel and the U.S. would lead to a genuine peace and a real Palestinian state. To the end, Arafat remained tied to a failed policy that relied not on the oppressed Arab masses of the region to achieve liberation, but on Arab regimes that feared the infectiousness of the Palestinian struggle more than they desired Palestinian liberation. He will continue to be a symbol for the Palestinian cause because of his successes in giving the movement an international voice it did not have before him.

1 Mahmoud Darwish, "Farewell Arafat," Al-Ahram Weekly, November 18—24, 2004, available online at"arafat.htm.

2 Mario Loyola, "Arafat’s True Legacy," Weekly Standard, November 22, 2004.

3 Mark Williams, "Finishing What Hitler Started," Sacramento Union, November 12, 2004. When the Sacramento Union received letters about the racist nature of this editorial, it could not even contain its arrogance: "By printing Mark Williams’s comments, we have been accused of spewing ‘hate speech,’ that politically correct phrase that insinuates itself, not as a thought-stimulator, but as a thought-stopper. The plain truth: The font of so much hatred in the Middle East was none other than Yassir Arafat, who made a peaceful settlement impossible, who justified the slaughter of innocents."

4 As quoted in "Yasser Arafat, Leader of Palestinian Movement, Dies,", available online at http://"

5 See, for instance, Naseer Aruri, The Obstruction of Peace: The US, Israel and the Palestinians (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1995).

6 See Walid Khalidi, "Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1988, 3—70.

7 Quoted in Andrew Gowers and Tony Walker, Arafat: The Biography (London: Virgin Books, 1994), 11.

8 Fatah is the reverse acronym of al-Harakat al-Tahrir al-Falastini (Palestine National Movement). "Hataf," the normal acronym, means "death"; "Fatah," on the other hand, means "conquest."

9 Gowers and Walker, 36.

10 Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 158.

11 Ibid., 158—59.

12 Glenn E. Robinson, "The Peace of the Powerful," in Roane Carey, ed., The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid (New York: Verso, 2001), 115.

13 Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 188.

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