In the second half of June 1982, the Israeli army completed its siege around Palestinian forces in West Beirut. It tightened the noose on the Palestinian leadership, cutting water and electricity and phone lines in the town. At that time, then-Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon unveiled additional previously undeclared aims to the war. He ordered his troops to intensify air raids and artillery shelling in neighborhoods where the Palestinian leadership was residing.
He called on Arafat to throw down his arms and declare surrender. “The assault will not end until the PLO and its leadership is liquidated and its presence eliminated from all of Lebanon.” He even tried to extract a decision from his government to enter West Beirut where Arafat was staying and take him off to prison in a fishnet dropped from a helicopter (that crazy idea was not approved).
At the time, Arafat refused to submit to Sharon’s conditions and extortionate demands. He held strong to his positions and ridiculed Sharon’s offer to allow him to leave Beirut in a Red Cross uniform. The Palestinians held steadfast under Arafat’s command alongside nationalist Lebanese for three months. Afterwards, they were to leave freely, fully armed and with dignity.
At the Beirut port, a journalist asked Abu Ammar where he was going. Without hesitating, he answered, “To Palestine.” At that time, Sharon was very pleased to see Arafat embark on the departing ship, saying, “Arafat is finished and history will close the book on him.”
Not long after, Sharon stepped down from the cabinet–defeated. The opposition had accused him of lying to and misleading the government and people and engaging Israel in a losing war. The official Kahane investigative committee found him responsible for not preventing the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla and suggested that he resign his post as defense minister.
And so Sharon’s loathing of Arafat only grew. He held him responsible for his piteous outcome (one he brought upon himself) and for depriving him of a hero’s medal for his war against the PLO. He nurtured this hostility towards Arafat and held out for his revenge.
Almost 12 years after this event, Israelis finally acknowledged the failure of a military solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. In 1994, Abu Ammar returned to Palestine along with thousands of cadres and fighters who had accompanied him in his exit from Beirut. Here he set up the first Palestinian Authority on the ground with a strong army of more than 30,000 armed men. Meanwhile, the Israeli army was still suffering in South Lebanon as a result of the dilemma that Sharon put them in.
In 1996, Sharon took over the post of foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. He prided himself on refusing to receive Arafat. He refused, in the presence of United States President Bill Clinton, to shake hands with Arafat at the Wye River negotiations. He then boasted of his actions, despite that they went against all diplomatic protocol and the basics of an aspired- for peace. To everyone else, he looked as if he suffered from a psychological complex–the “Arafat nightmare.” Arafat was sure that no Palestinian- Israeli agreement and peaceful relationship that developed would strip Sharon’s heart and mind of hatred for the Palestinian leader.
After Sharon won the elections in 2001, he could no longer hide his buried. Less than a week after his government was formed, Sharon announced that he would not meet Arafat and accused him of a list of charges, the smallest of which was that Arafat was a “liar” and “terrorist.”
Sharon awaited his revenge and Arafat took up the challenge. Despite his continuous statements avowing respect for the selection of the Israeli people, Abu Ammar was fully aware that Sharon was bent on settling his personal and political accounts and that a clash was inevitable.
With the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on September 11 and the military operations carried out by Palestinians against civilian targets in Israel, Sharon found the perfect opportunity to both carry out revenge against Arafat and destroy any remaining bridges of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He escalated his war against Arafat and the Authority, comparing him to Osama bin Laden and the Palestinian Authority to the Taliban. He then ordered his army to encircle Arafat’s personal headquarters in Ramallah.
Now the Israeli army stands only tens of meters away from the Palestinian leader, even though Sharon knows very well that political accounts cannot be measured as such. Besieging Arafat has only strengthened the Palestinian among his people, putting him on the same level as ordinary citizens who have been under siege for months.
I don’t know if Sharon has secretly visited the Israeli military post overlooking Arafat’s office, just to pleasure in the scene. But Palestinians here and abroad have heard and seen him daily on TV speaking sadistically of “jailing” Arafat in Ramallah. During his coming trip to Washington, Sharon will likely try to press the American administration to finish what he failed to achieve in Beirut, with little regard for the consequences of his actions and words on the future of the two peoples.
While certainly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has complicated political dimensions that did not originate during Sharon’s reign, Sharon’s behavior over this last year of power has “personalized” the conflict. Sharon’s attempts to veil this animosity in “security needs” have failed and anyone taking a close look at the Sharon governments’ description of Arafat as “irrelevant” would easily see through the mask.
But it is said that lies have a short life. The results of this new round of conflict between Sharon and Arafat will prove that the lifespan of personal vendettas is equally short. Yes, Sharon has besieged Arafat in a tight corner of Ramallah. But those who can see the other side of the coin see Arafat besieging Arab and world leaders. In the Israeli street and in several world capitals, it is Arafat who has surrounded Sharon, forthrightly accusing him of failing at peace.
Mamdouh Nofal is a member of the Palestinian Higher Security Council and formerly served in the leadership of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He has authored three books on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.