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Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians’ battle for justice

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Yasser Arafat has been the figurehead of the Palestinian struggle for over 30 years. The Israelis demonise him as a terrorist. Yet at times he has been welcomed into the US White House, and the media has hailed him as a peacemaker. Who is Yasser Arafat
Issue 1795

Yasser Arafat’s story mirrors that of the Palestinian people. He was born in 1929 into a middle class Palestinian family and spent his early years in Jerusalem which, like the rest of Palestine, was then under British rule. Jews and Arabs had long lived in Palestine, but tensions were increasing as the Zionist movement, which wanted to create a Jewish state in Palestine, grew in strength.

Zionists increasingly organised to drive Palestinians out from their jobs and land. As a teenager in Egypt, Arafat was involved in smuggling weapons to Palestinian groups resisting these attempts. In 1947 a United Nations (UN) partition plan gave 55 percent of Palestine to Zionist settlers, who were only 30 percent of the population. This was not enough for the Zionists. Israeli terror groups created panic, and drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.

Many fled to the West Bank, which was grabbed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, which Egypt took control of. Israel was founded in May 1948, with 76 percent of the land of Palestine. The Palestinian people have been refugees ever since.

Guerrilla resistance

ARAFAT AND and a group of Palestinian students and businessmen set up the Fatah organisation in 1959. Fatah’s aim was to liberate the whole of Palestine, and create a ‘democratic secular state’ of Jews and Arabs.

It was inspired by the national liberation movements in Algeria, China, Cuba and Vietnam which had fought imperialism, and turned to guerrilla resistance to Israel. The situation in the Middle East shifted dramatically when Israel defeated the Arab armies of Syria, Jordan and Egypt in the Six Day War in 1967. Israel grabbed the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and has ruled these Occupied Territories since.

In the wake of the 1967 war hundreds of Palestinian fighters, including Arafat, entered the Occupied Territories to wage war against Israeli forces. Israeli troops quickly captured most of the guerrillas. Arafat himself was almost captured.

But Palestinian resistance to Israel exploded onto the world stage in 1968, when a group of mainly Fatah members forced Israeli forces to retreat in fighting at Karameh in Jordan. Fatah became heroes overnight, and tens of thousands of Palestinians flocked to join the movement.

By 1969 Fatah’s mass support among Palestinians had seen it take control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which Arab regimes had set up a few years earlier.

The PLO’s main base was in Jordan. Some 70 percent of the population in Jordan was Palestinian and the ruler, King Hussein, was worried about losing power to the PLO.

So Hussein launched an all-out attack on the Palestinians in September 1970, killing thousands of Palestinians in what became known as ‘Black September’. In the wake of this defeat the PLO moved from Jordan to a new base in Lebanon. But the weakened PLO now became dependent on one or another of the Arab regimes instead of posing any challenge to them.

And, in a desperate shift in strategy, the PLO now sought not to liberate the whole of Palestine, but to negotiate a ‘mini-state’ with Israel and its US backers. In 1974 the PLO accepted a US offer of such a possible ‘mini-state’ in the West Bank and Gaza in return for accepting the Israeli state, though nothing came of the negotiations.

In 1982 Israel, led by then defence minister Ariel Sharon, invaded Lebanon, and Israeli forces oversaw the massacre of 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Arafat and his troops decided to leave Lebanon and now go into exile in Tunisia. The Palestinian resistance seemed at its lowest ebb. But events inside the Occupied Territories were to thrust the struggle back to the centre of international politics.


ISRAEL HAD brutally repressed the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. Resistance to that exploded into open revolt at the end of 1987 with the outbreak of the first Intifada, or uprising. Pictures of young Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers armed with the latest US-supplied weaponry were shown around the world.

A whole new generation of activists was created throughout the Occupied Territories. But now the PLO was not the only force winning allegiance from Palestinians. The Intifada also saw the growth of Hamas, the radical Islamic group. The Intifada finally forced Israel and the US to negotiate with the PLO, and Arafat signed a ‘peace deal’ in Oslo in 1993.

It seemed to promise a kind of Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Many commentators saw this as satisfying the Palestinians’ fight for a homeland, and the end of the Middle East crisis.

Hopes dashed

ARAFAT WON the Nobel peace prize along with Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. He returned to the Gaza Strip to be greeted by masses of joyous people in 1994. The Palestinian Authority was set up the same year.

But the hopes of the mass of people were cruelly dashed. The Oslo ‘peace process’ was about consolidating Israel’s control over the Palestinians, not ending it.

The deal meant the Palestinian Authority would control only 17 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of the Gaza Strip. It would also be broken up into separate areas, and Israel would remain in control of the roads around these areas.

The Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories would remain in place. None of the five million Palestinian refugees would be able to return to their rightful homes in Israel. This was a long way short of what most Palestinians wanted, and as a result Arafat lost much of his popularity among the Palestinians.

As a result his Palestinian Authority allowed little democracy, and its 30,000 police carried out internal repression of anyone who criticised Arafat. While a small minority of Palestinians grew rich under Arafat’s rule, the majority continued to suffer in refugee camps. Hamas’s popularity grew as the peace process ran into the ground. Arafat was losing his base.

It was that reality, and resistance to the increasing poverty and lack of real change by ordinary Palestinians, which forced him to reject a new deal offered by US and Israeli leaders in 2000. Then, when Ariel Sharon provocatively visited the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem-one of the holiest sites in Islam-in September 2000, the Palestinian people erupted in a new intifada. And Arafat has had to support that intifada to retain his position.

Israel now wants to crush and humiliate the Palestinians. That is why it targeted their leader-forcing him to take shelter in a basement. It wanted to send a message that it can do this to any Palestinian. Israel’s attacks on Arafat have seen him regain some credibility amongst the mass of the Palestinians.

But the contradiction that has marked Arafat’s life has not gone away. Alongside the image of the heroic leader resisting the Israelis, the coming days could see a quite different image. Arafat will once more be balancing between the desire of the masses for fundamental change, and the pressure from Arab rulers and the West to accept less.

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