Yasser Arafat was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an Islamic leader. He was famously photographed meeting with Imam Khomeini in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, after the new Islamic state had renounced the Shah’s close relationship with Israel and declared its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
Yasser Arafat was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an Islamic leader. He was famously photographed meeting with Imam Khomeini in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, after the new Islamic state had renounced the Shah’s close relationship with Israel and declared its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. But he was also photographed with American presidents, Soviet leaders, Arab dictators of all hues, and numerous even less savoury characters, all in pursuit of his declared aim: the achievement of the rights of the Palestinian people, whose dispossession by the expansionist zionist colonisers of Palestine has been legitimised by the UN and supported by the major powers of the world. With hindsight, the meeting between Imam Khomeini and Yasser Arafat can be seen as symbolising the end of the era of post-colonial nationalism – for if Arafat represented anything, it was the nationalisation of the Palestinian struggle – and the emergence of Islamic movements at the forefront of the struggle of the Muslim world to liberate themselves from Western hegemony.
Yasser Arafat spent the last three years of his life in virtual imprisonment in his compound in Ramallah. It was by no means the only way in which he was detached from the world around him. He had come to prominence in the 1960s, part of a generation of Arab nationalist leaders like Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Mu’ammar Qaddafi in Libya and the Ba’athists in Syria and Iraq. The difference was that he emerged to lead not a nation-state, but the struggle of a people deprived not only of nationhood and statehood, but even of their land. His contemporaries gradually showed their true colours, becoming dictatorial, authoritarian and repressive to protect their positions and interests against the wishes of the people they claimed to lead; their popular support declined and new political movements emerged to challenge them, movements more genuinely rooted in the political cultures of their societies, and based on the Islamic values and principles of their people. Like them, Arafat too, revealed his true colours over his decades as leader of the Palestinian people, and lost a great deal of the popular legitimacy and credibility that he had once enjoyed. And like them, he witnessed the emergence of Islamic movements and leaders with far greater popular legitimacy and support.
If Mubarak or Qaddafi were to die, it is unlikely that many of their own people would mourn them. Arafat, however, was mourned by millions of Palestinians all over the world, as well as many others. Indeed, one suspects also that the expressions of concern for his health, and sympathy after his death, from many foreign leaders and international figures perhaps had greater depth than they usually do in such cases. In each case, the reason is the same: Arafat, whatever his personal failings, was seen, by Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, as symbolising both the injustices and suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, and their struggle to reverse those injustices. This status that Arafat enjoyed was recognised even by the enemies of the Palestinians, hence their contempt and persecution of him in his lifetime – even as they tried to use him to manipulate the Palestinians into surrendering their rights through the so-called ‘peace process’ – and their little-disguised jubilation at his death.
Only in the last few years of his life did Arafat have something vaguely resembling a state to rule, as ‘president’ of the Palestinian Authority. Given some degree of political power, he quickly showed himself to be as incompetent, as authoritarian, as corrupt and as self-serving as any of his contemporaries in other Arab countries. The Palestinian people had no illusions about him on these counts, and criticisms of him and his administration quickly emerged. However, at the time when they recognised that they remained at war against external enemies, primarily but not only the zionist state of Israel, they also recognised that internecine conflict could only weaken the struggle. There was indeed intense debate among Palestinians about the best way forward, there was anger at Arafat’s frequent weakness and vacillation in dealing with the Israelis, but there was also recognition that open conflict among the Palestinians was precisely what the Israelis wanted. It is greatly to the credit of groups such as Hamas that, despite major disagreements with Arafat domestically, and provocations such as crackdowns against their activists by PA security forces acting under pressure from the Israelis, they always maintained public solidarity with Arafat when it came to the struggle against the occupation. This is an example of political maturity and solidarity against a common external enemy that movements elsewhere in the Muslim world might do well to recognise and emulate.
For the US and Israel, Arafat’s death is an opportunity to relaunch their attempts to impose surrender on the Palestinians. Their first priority must be to try to ensure that power in Palestine passes to those factions that they can most easily work with and manipulate. They portrayed Arafat as an obstacle to peace in the final years of his life specifically so they could portray his removal from the scene – by death or other means – as a boost for their plans. In fact, he served their purpose as a scapegoat for their failure to impose their wishes on the Palestinians, for they knew that it was not Arafat that was the greatest obstacle to their plans, but the the continued resistance of the Palestinian people.
Groups such as Hamas, and others that have long understood that the Israelis must not be allowed to dictate domestic Palestinian affairs, and have support among all sectors of Palestinian society, including many who would publicly have declared themselves followers of Arafat, must now step forward and make sure that the institutions and infrastructure of Palestinian society are harnessed in pursuit of the real aspirations of the Palestinian people.
If the US and Israel want to deal with the Palestinians, they must be willing to deal with leaders who truly represent the Palestinian people. For all Arafat’s struggles and sacrifices (one wonders what benefits he got from the millions of dollars that he is reported to have stashed in secret bank accounts around the world), and his importance as a symbol of Palestinian resistance for decades, the fact is that Arafat had long since become an obstacle to Palestinian aspirations, rather than a leader of them. Palestinians now recognise that the time has come for the emergence of a leadership that will more truly represent them.