An olive branch and a gun

arafat portrait 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arafat portrait 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
He dreamed of dying a martyr like his "brave" peace partner, Yitzhak Rabin. But in the end, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat succumbed to a brain hemorrhage in a Paris hospital, a week after the ninth anniversary of Rabin's assassination and long after their Oslo deal had collapsed. In an interview with Al-Jazeera he once said, "I say to them... Allah, give me martyrdom in... [Jerusalem], the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens." With his stubbly beard and trademark keffiyeh arranged to look like the map of Palestine, whether as a terrorist or a diplomat, Arafat was the symbolic leader of the Palestinian struggle for statehood for more than four decades. But while he generated international attention for his people, he failed to etch out a space for them on the map of nations. He captured world respect when he agreed to a peace deal with Israel under the Oslo Accords. Arafat, along with Rabin and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, all received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their work on that agreement. His stint as peacemaker was short, as both Israel and the United States blamed Arafat for the failure of Oslo once he rejected a land-for-peace deal at Camp David in 2000. Also known as Abu Amar or sometimes as "the Old Man," Arafat's formal name is Muhammad Abdel-Raouf Arafat al- Qudwa al-Husseini. He added the name Yasser himself in honor of a slain Palestinian rebel. As a testament to his mythic status, the exact details of his life are hard to pin down. Arafat always claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace, though documents show it was actually Cairo. His Palestinian parents had recently moved there. Some biographers speculate that in spite of this, it's possible his mother returned to her parents' home in Jerusalem for the actual birth in 1929. Following his mother's death in 1933 from liver disease, Arafat lived in Jerusalem for a number of years with his uncle near the Western Wall. The house was torn down by Israel after 1967 when the area was rebuilt to accommodate worshipers. As a child, Arafat watched Arabs fight British rule and understood that the Zionists were his enemy. He was sent back to Egypt to live with his father and some biographers say that at age 17 he helped smuggle arms from Egypt into Palestine. When war broke out in 1948, he temporarily left his studies at what is now Cairo University to join the fighting in Gaza. Although he received an engineering degree when he returned, politics drew his attention on campus. He worked briefly as a civil engineer in Kuwait before turning to terrorism and politics in hopes of crushing Israel. "Isn't it better to die bringing down your enemy than to await a slow, miserable death?" asked Arafat in 1969. "As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than refugees standing in line for UN rations, it was not likely to respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles, the situation has changed," he explained. In the late 1950s, he created Fatah, an underground guerrilla movement that led attacks against Israel from Jordan. In 1969, he became the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, originally created by Egypt and the Arab League as a puppet organization in 1964. Under Arafat it became an independent organization, which, until the late 1980s, became synonymous with terrorism. According to Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography by Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, the PLO committed more than 8,000 terrorist acts between 1969 and 1985. It was responsible for the deaths of more than 650 Israelis, 28 Americans, and scores of people from other countries. Among its more notorious acts were the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 and the attack on a school in Ma'alot in 1974 that led to the deaths of 21 schoolchildren. Israelis were not the group's only target. In 1971, the PLO assassinated Jordanian prime minister Wasfi Tel. It kidnapped and killed US ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel and deputy chief of mission Curtis Moore, as well as a Belgian diplomat, in 1973. The organization also hijacked four planes in the 1970s and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. In the midst of this violence, Arafat took a stab at diplomacy when he became the first representative of a nongovernmental agency to address a plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1974. "I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," Arafat told the UN when he first addressed it in 1974 while wearing a holster. The PLO was soon an official UN observer. Arafat always swore he had a nose for danger. He survived an Israeli air raid on his PLO headquarters in Tunis in 1985 and a plane crash in the Libyan desert in 1992. It was not unusual for him to leave a building seconds before an attack. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then an army commander, tried repeatedly to kill him by bombing apartments he believed Arafat was occupying. In the 1960s, he heard Israeli soldiers coming for him and leaped out the widow. On the run he took nothing for granted, eating only food that had been inspected for poisoning. It was a fear based on reality. Arafat's tactics of fomenting violent dissent against the Jordanian government forced King Hussein to exile him in 1971. Beirut became his next home, but he was driven out by Israel in 1982. He lived in exile in Tunis until 1994, when, under Oslo, he was allowed into Palestinian areas for the first time in 26 years. In 1988, at a UN session, he renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to exist. He stated that it was "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, and Israel and other neighbors." That declaration persuaded the US to end a 13-year ban on talking to the PLO and put pressure on Israel to negotiate. Still, the Americans cut off the dialogue 18 months later when Arafat failed to punish a PLO leader, Muhammad Abbas, for an abortive sea raid on Israel in 1990. His international credibility further declined when he supported Iraq during the first Gulf War. He regained it with Oslo. Still, many believed he was double-faced, speaking peace with the West while making inciting speeches in Arabic when he spoke to Muslim crowds. He made his only public visit to Israel following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in November 1995, when he visited the slain leader's widow, Leah. Arafat slept little and often summoned people to meet him late at night, when he worked best. He always said he was married to the revolution, so he kept his 1991 marriage to a Catholic from Ramallah, Suha Tawil, a secret until the signing of the Oslo Accords. He met her in 1985 when he hired her to do public relations for the PLO in Paris. Their daughter, Zahwa, was born in Paris in 1995. Arafat showed little affection for his family in public - it was weeks before he was seen cradling Zahwa for the first time. Suha frequently complained she was cut off from him by his aides. She and her daughter moved to France after the second Palestinian uprising erupted in the fall of 2000. Five months after Rabin's death, Arafat summoned the Palestinian parliament and managed to win a vote revoking the sections of the PLO charter that called for Israel's destruction. In response, Israel dropped its opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and US president Bill Clinton invited Arafat for formal talks at the White House. When the first Palestinian elections were held under Oslo, Arafat was chosen as president of the newly established Palestinian Authority in 1996. Things soured when former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of reneging on their commitments, including drafting a new PLO charter, and delayed promised withdrawals from more West Bank land. His new governance of the West Bank and Gaza was plagued by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism. His complete control of finances rankled his subordinates. Asked at a June 1995 meeting for a detailed budget, Arafat produced a sheet of paper with a few scribbled sums for spending over the previous two years. In 2003, Forbes magazine estimated he controlled $300 million. He soon became caught in a vise. Israel insisted he do more to curb Palestinian violence and gave him the weapons to do it. But he feared being seen by his supporters as Israel's policeman. Many Israelis questioned his commitment to a peaceful settlement, pointing to his habit of condemning certain suicide attacks but extolling "holy war" and "martyrdom." Since September 2000, Israel found documents linking Arafat to terror attacks and he was widely held responsible for the second intifada. He became obsolete in the eyes of the West and Israel when Israel in 2002 refused to deal with him following a particularly severe spree of suicide bombings. Sharon declared him an enemy and confined him to his compound in Ramallah. Under pressure from Palestinian parliamentarians, the US, and Israel, Arafat was forced to share his duties with a prime minister, a post held first by Mahmoud Abbas and then by Ahmed Qurei. Thereafter, he continued to insist he could negotiate a deal with Israel, but Sharon wanted nothing to do with him. Many of his Israeli friends gave up on him. Palestinian leaders said he was the father of their nation. But Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin once said of Arafat, "He promised us the peace of the brave, but gave us a piece of the grave." Information from AP, Yasir Arafat: a Political Biography by Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin and Arafat in the Eyes of the Beholder by Janet Wallach and John Wallach was used in this report. Originally published November 12, 2004