Arafat: The end of an Icon?

“The only type of agreement Israel would sign with the PLO was one which led to the organization being swallowed by the Zionist state”.

These prophetic words of a celebrated Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, uttered as a warning to Yasser Arafat way back in 1988, have proven true much too often and probably haunted the PLO leader all these years.

The setting was Tunis. The timeline was December 1988. The house belonged to Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. Within its walls a raging debate involving Yasser Arafat and his PLO colleagues.

The issue which caused a great deal of consternation within the inner circle of the Palestinian leadership flowed out of a document which became known as the Stockholm Declaration.

The text of the document marked “Secret” and signed by Arafat despite it not having been approved by his executive, caused a rumpus within Palestinian society as well as the wider Middle East.

It contained three points:

That the PLO is prepared to negotiate with Israel within the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement on the basis of UN resolutions 242 and 338.

That it undertakes to live in peace with Israel and other neighbours and internationally recognized borders as will the democratic Palestinian state which it seeks to establish in the Palestinian occupied territories since 1967.

That it condemns individual and state terrorism in all its forms and will not resort to it.

What this amounted to was reneging on all previous commitments to secure the liberation of Palestine from Zionist occupation –” and instead to confer legitimacy on an undisputed historic injustice!

This peek into history less than two decades ago, encapsulates the controversial and charismatic leadership of the Palestinian revolution provided by the symbol of their struggle: Yasser Arafat.

In his quest for national liberation of his people, Arafat took many painful decisions; most have been proven to be not only futile but also inconsequential.

His acceptance of UN resolutions 242 and 338 were daunting concessions given that they were contrary to the spirit of many provisions of the Palestine National Covenant, drawn up in 1964.

Arafat, who six months earlier had told Mohamed Heikal, a leading Arab journalist and commentator, that he would sooner “cut off his right hand” than accept Resolution 242, had not only overturned a cardinal principle, but also commenced an era marked by despair, frustration and eventual imprisonment in his compound in Ramallah.

But what else is known about the famous face adorned by a Palestinian scarf in the shape of his beloved homeland?

Arafat was born in Jerusalem in 1929 in a modest home of a merchant family. When Palestine was usurped in 1948 by a new artificial state known as Israel, Arafat was an impressionable nineteen year old activist. In the early 1950s, Arafat established a strong presence on the campus of Cairo University, where he obtained a degree in civil engineering.

His political activism led him being elected as head of the Palestinian Student Association and inherent restlessness about the fate of Palestine ultimately resulted in the creation of Fatah.

After the 1967 War, Arafat was elected to the post of PLO chairman. As leader of Fatah and with a number of successes in their guerilla warfare against the Zionist state, Arafat emerged as an energetic and charismatic supreme leader.

From the tragedy of Black September in 1970 to the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, Arafat remained at the centre of Palestinian quest for liberation. He moved in and out of the palaces of corrupt pro-western Arab monarchs as easily as he engaged with nationalist icons such as Nasser.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated occasions of the last century and equally short-lived was the signing of the Oslo accords on the lawns of the White House. Arafat and Rabin with US president Clinton facing an array of cameras, acted out well-rehearsed sound bites.

As the world’s media attention is yet again focused on Arafat and the usual analysis about the likely consequences of a power vacuum, it must be cautioned against overlooking the hopes and aspirations of rank and file Palestinians.

At the same time it must record the gains and failures of Yasser Arafat, who endeared himself to tens of thousands of his people as Abu Ammar, a name he adopted from a companion of the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh], Ammar bin Yasser.