It is not without good reason that the world focused so intensely on the illness and death of Yasser Arafat, and on his multinational, multistage funeral.
It is not without good reason that the world focused so intensely on the illness and death of Yasser Arafat, and on his multinational, multistage funeral. The founder of Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Movement), who was also its head from 1957, the chairman of the PLO since 1968 and president of the Palestinian Authority since 1994, has for the last forty years been recognised worldwide as the unrivalled “Mr Palestine”. Despite being under virtual house arrest and in almost total isolation from the outside world for the last three years of his life, he continued, until he was air-lifted to a French hospital, to be the man in charge.
The most amazing aspect of his illness and death has been the obscurity that shrouded his two-week stay in hospital in Paris. From the time he arrived there until about twenty-four hours before he was eventually officially pronounced dead, conflicting statements from Paris and Ramallah kept everyone guessing. Journalists could not hide their frustration at the unexpected and unexplained silence, and Palestine became rife with rumours. Initially it was thought the silence was to do with a power-struggle within the leading ranks of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. However, Arafat’s wife, Suha al-Tawil, put an abrupt end to speculation by appealing to the Palestinian people to be alert against a conspiracy hatched by the top leaders of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority to “bury Yasser Arafat alive.” Her suspects flew to Paris, only to return a few hours later to Ramallah to put in motion preparations for an elaborate funeral for the leader who everyone still maintained had not yet died. An Arabic internet news service, Filastin Press, informs us now that this whole farrago was about concluding a deal with Suha al-Tawil that would end a dispute over Arafat’s alleged millions (some say billions) in many secret bank accounts. Once the deal had been finalised, we are told, it became possible to allow Arafat to die. Specific details are not known for certain, but according to rumours the deal involves a payment to Suha of twenty million dollars in addition to the eleven million she had already taken, plus a monthly stipend for herself and her daughter of around fifteen thousand dollars.
Marrying Suha al-Tawil, a woman who is far removed from anything that can even remotely be identified with the plight or struggle of the Palestinian people, was not, as future generations will discover, Arafat’s only mistake or error of judgement. His entire adult life was a struggle to achieve prominence, which he got, though not without bringing disaster after disaster upon the Palestinian cause. He acquired his fame at times by claiming for himself the credit for others’ successes, and at others by portraying defeat as victory; yet future generations of Palestinians will see Arafat as at least partly responsible for Black September (Jordan, 1970) and for the many crises that gripped Lebanon throughout the seventies and part of the eighties, until he and his forces were driven out.
Future generations will also realise that another of his sins was his collusion with the Israelis and the Americans to end the Palestinians’ first intifada, agreeing to peace-making on Israel’s terms because he feared the emergence of an alternative leadership of the Palestinians. His insistence upon monopolising the Palestinian people and their leadership brought about the severance of ties between the two banks of the River Jordan, the consequences of which many Palestinians are still suffering. This monopoly resulted in the Palestinians paying for his unwise siding with Saddam Hussein when Saddam invaded Kuwait and pillaged it. Conceptually, the national identity he is widely credited for led to the isolation of the Palestinian people and the reduction of opposition to the Zionist project from being an Islamic and Arab cause to being merely a Palestinian one. Reshaping the Palestinian struggle into a nationalist format has been the one single most damaging act to Palestine’s cause. The problem of Palestine is not caused by a lack of Palestinian ‘nationhood’ but is the result of the Western-Zionist colonial project.
Arafat’s most immediately visible legacy, which will be the talk of Palestinians and observers alike for some time, is the chaos in which he has left Fatah after several decades of autocratic rule. Having refused all his life to name any deputy or successor, and because of the manner in which he ran Fatah since it was set up almost half a century ago, Arafat’s death must cause more than one ruction. Of those who co-founded Fatah with him in 1957, only three men remain alive who are still part of the organisation: Mahmud Abbas, Salim al-Za’un and Faruq Qaddumi. Mahmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazin, has become the leading contender in the presidential election, which will take place on January 9. However, being the discredited architect of Oslo and failed first prime minister of Palestine, he is unlikely to be able to fill the shoes of the departed leader. The other possibility is Faruq Qaddumi, who, until he was appointed head of Fatah immediately after Arafat’s death, was the head of the foreign affairs department in exile. Observers generally agree that none of Arafat’s entourage is capable of steering the ship that Arafat has left stranded in the shallow waters of Palestinian politics.
The Fatah movement, which Arafat kept together somehow for so long, has been on the brink of imploding for some time. Rampant corruption, the failure of the peace process and the rise of the Islamic resistance movement (Hamas) as a credible and serious alternative, have together helped the emergence of angry and frustrated clusters within Fatah. Mahmud Abbas, the current head of the PLO, and Ahmad Qurayy, the current prime minister, may be able to work together, but eventually neither is likely to be able to hold Fatah together. Two opposing trends can be identified: a pro-settlement security-minded trend under the leadership of Israeli favourite Muhammad Dahlan, former head of Palestinian Preventive Security in Ghazzah, and a pro-resistance anti-Israel trend led by field commander Marwan Barghuti, who is being held by the Israelis at the moment. The latter trend is commonly identified with Fatah’s military wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which came into being at the beginning of the second intifada on September 28, 2000.
However, despite any arrangements that Israel, Egypt and Jordan may seek separately or together, with or without US participation, the most important factor that makes the post-Arafat era potentially a completely new one is the emergence of Hamas as the leading resistance movement, not only within the occupied territories but worldwide. In accordance with policy and tradition, Hamas is expected to stay out of any power-struggle within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the internal feud that will probably escalate within the Fatah movement. While calling for unity and peaceful resolution of disputes, Hamas will maintain that Fatah’s power struggle is none of its business. Hamas has never agreed to join the PLO, and was always adamant in its refusal to join the PA. It has also resisted the temptation to react to provocations by the PA’s various security instruments, concentrating instead on its objective of forcing the Israelis out of the territories occupied in 1967, while also maintaining the popular Palestinian position, long forfeited by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, that Israel is an illegitimate entity that was created on Palestinian land that must be restored to freedom and independence one day.
Insisting that Hamas is a terrorist group, and therefore that no business can be done with it, the Israelis and their American friends must be hoping that Arafat’s disappearance will pave the way for the resumption of negotiations with the Israelis. The assumption that Arafat was the obstacle to peace prompted the Israelis and the Americans to stop talking to him and to even punish him severely until his health deteriorated and he died. This is where they went wrong; for this is not how the Palestinians understand the situation. Yasser Arafat will be remembered by most Palestinians as a man who gambled and lost; he conceded more than enough and crossed all lines of compromise with the enemy, in the hope of getting something. He agreed to transform himself from a defender of his people’s rights to a politician whose primary concern was to remain afloat. Before the second intifada he was being pressed to pay the last two installments of the debt he owed to his peace partners by giving up the right of the Palestinian refugees to return home, and by giving up Islam’s exclusive right to the al-Aqsa Mosque. He knew, as every Palestinian, Arab and Muslim knows, that any compromise on these two issues would have been his political destruction. His refusal to sign at Camp David after marathon negotiations with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and former US president Bill Clinton restored some of the credibility and authority he had lost by going down the peace road with Israel. To some extent his position also bolstered the unity and solidarity of various Palestinian factions and groups, and turned the hostility between him and Hamas into a national alliance against the enemies of the Palestinians.
We are now at the beginning of a new era in Palestine, which suggests that a fresh start is desirable, or at least possible. Having suffered so much at the hands of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army, the Palestinians are in no mood for peace with Israel on terms dictated by the Israelis or Americans. So, if a fresh start is to be attempted, an entirely new formula will have to be found: a formula that is rooted in realisation and acceptance that the Palestinians are indeed victims of occupation and oppression, that they do have the right to struggle for their freedom and independence, and that that struggle and fight are not terrorism. However, no initiative will be successful if it ignores the most popular and legitimate forces in Palestinian society, the chief of which is now Hamas.
Dr Azzam Tamimi is director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London (www.ii-pt.com).