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Yasser Arafat (1929 – 2004): the gun and the olive branch

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In the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death, John Rose assesses the legacy of a leader who embodied the Palestinian struggle for liberation
Issue 1928

Yasser Arafat, who died on Thursday of last week, dominated the Palestinian struggle ever since his emergence as head of the national liberation movement in the late 1960s.

Arafat made his debut on the international stage on 13 November 1974. He arrived at the United Nations General Assembly in New York wearing a peasant “keffiyeh” headscarf, and proceeded to deliver an electrifying speech.

“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” he said, as he outlined his vision of a single democratic Palestinian state encompassing both Arabs and Jews.

Arafat’s sensational UN appearance symbolised both the strengths and the weaknesses of his Fatah guerrilla movement, which had become the leading group within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

His very presence at the UN consolidated the PLO’s greatest achievement – the recognition of Palestinians as a people and of Palestine as one of the great unresolved noble causes of the 20th century. This recognition was no trivial matter. As late as 1969 the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir could still claim that there was “no such thing as Palestinians”. Arafat and the PLO shattered that lie forever.

Moreover, Arafat signalled a general renewal of Palestinian identity that restored the honour of a people whose existence had been forgotten and whose history had been suppressed.

Victims of the Nakba – the 1948 Zionist expulsions that forced 750,000 Palestinians to flee their homes – had been reduced to relying on UN handouts in camps across Jordan and Lebanon. Now the anonymous refugee was once again a fighter for national liberation.

Fatah and the other Palestinian guerrilla organisations were born in those refugee camps in the 1960s. Their campaign for a return to Palestine held out the hope that the Nakba would be overturned.

That is what made the Palestinian refugee guerrillas so threatening to the Israeli state. The guerillas did not so much pose a military threat as an existential one.

It was one thing to claim that victims of European anti-Semitism deserved their own country. But it was quite another to say they deserved someone else’s country. Thus the very presence of Palestinians as a people in their own right undermined the moral justification for Israel’s existence.

Yet we cannot ignore the military struggle. And here we come to the great strategic weakness of Arafat and the Fatah movement.

The gun and the olive branch translates into armed struggle plus diplomacy. But Arafat was doomed to lose the diplomatic game. He wasn’t just fighting Israel. He was also fighting its financial backer – the world’s greatest superpower, the US.

What Arafat really needed was the mass and active support of millions of Arabs across the Middle East. The Palestinian cause had huge support on the “Arab street”. The question was, and still is, how to translate that sympathy into political and military action.

That meant asking hard questions about the readiness of Arab regimes to mobilise their own populations for the Palestinian cause. And this readiness was tested to destruction in Jordan in the late 1960s.

Jordan’s King Hussein ran one of the most backward regimes in the region – a British-made puppet dynasty that had brokered secret deals with the Zionists in 1948. Nevertheless, 70 percent of Jordan’s population were of Palestinian origin.

There were serious doubts about the loyalty of the Jordanian army to the reactionary king, with thousands of Jordanian troops and many army officers openly supporting the PLO.

Fatah’s guerrilla leaders in Jordan pressed for a political decision to trigger an uprising against King Hussein. However, Arafat was adamant. He would not confront Arab regimes.

The politics behind this strategic failure of Arafat will have to be explored elsewhere. Suffice to say Arafat saw himself as an Arab leader like other Arab leaders. He was uneasy about confronting even the most reactionary ones.

But Arafat paid a terrible price for this refusal. King Hussein was determined to smash the PLO in Jordan come what may. He waited for the opportune moment, and in 1970 he turned loyal segments of his army on the PLO.

The bloodletting that followed became known as “Black September”. In its shadow the weakness of the guerrilla movement was exposed. If the Arab masses were not mobilised then armed guerrilla actions, however spectacular, could not seriously confront the Israeli military.

Yet Israel could not rest while the PLO still existed. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon with US backing, slaughtering tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians in order to destroy the PLO’s military and political command centre in West Beirut.

Israel succeeded in evicting the PLO, and the organisation moved its headquarters elsewhere. But Arafat’s position was now weaker than ever.

Egypt’s “peace” agreement with Israel made the prospects of Arab regimes ever again confronting Israel even more remote. None of these regimes had helped Arafat when Israel invaded Lebanon.

Now “diplomacy” came to the forefront. Arafat himself turned to the enemy for a negotiated solution, signing the Oslo agreement with Israeli premier Yitshak Rabin in Washington on 13 September 1993.

The two-state solution proposed by Oslo sounded superficially fair. It was given an impetus by the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which started in 1987. It seemed as though the real struggle had now shifted to the Occupied Territories on the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet from the beginning it was clear that Palestinian refugees were going to be excluded from any settlement. Indeed, Israel was so much the militarily superior negotiating partner that any notion of sharing Jerusalem was also ruled out.

Worse, it became clear within months of the signing of the Oslo agreement that Israel not only intended to keep Jewish settlements on the West Bank, it was even going to expand them.

The US media mocked Arafat as the leader who had surrendered. In 1996 he was elected “president” of the Palestinian Authority – on small isolated patches of Palestinian land, hemmed in by Israel.

A measure of Israel’s humiliation of Arafat comes from an unexpected source – Robert Malley, assistant to US president Bill Clinton at the Camp David talks in 2000 between Arafat and Ehud Barak, then Israeli prime minister.

Barak blamed Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks, a failure which triggered the second intifada later that year. But according to Malley, Barak was at least as much of a problem. He refused pleas from Arafat that Israel at least publicly acknowledge its responsibilty for the 1948 refugee crisis.

This was despite the fact that Arafat had recognised “Israel’s demographic concerns” – code for recognising the Jewish character of the Israeli state and hence the need to restrict refugees’ right of return.

So far did Arafat roll over for the Israelis. Yet still at the end of his life he was cast as the villain, virtually incarcerated in Ramallah. Israel and the US never forgave him for the second intifada – despite the fact that the intifada was largely a protest against Arafat’s concessions at Camp David.

Writing on Arafat’s legacy, Ahmad Samih Khalidi, former Palestinian negotiator and Oxford University scholar, recalled that the Palestinian movement first emerged not because of occupation, but because of dispossession.

We might add that Arafat symbolised the aspirations of those dispossessed peoples, even if he failed to deliver for them.

Arafat at Karameh

‘One of the towns subjected to repeated Israeli attacks was Karemeh. “Karameh” means dignity in Arabic. Israel planned a major operation aimed at the total eradication of the guerilla presence there.

The Jordanians advised Arafat to withdraw. Arafat would not budge. He saw any withdrawal as an acceptance of defeat. “We want to convince the world that there are those in the Arab world who will not withdraw or flee,” was his final answer.

On the night of 21 March, the Israelis struck in force. It was the biggest single military action since the 1967 war. But they were in for a surprise.

The ill trained and poorly equipped Palestinians heroically held the ground and used the rocky terrain effectively against an estimated 15,000-strong Israeli force. When the pressure on the guerillas intensified, the Jordanian field commander took the initiative and ordered his troops into the fray.

The Israelis withdrew. Arafat and his fighters had made their point, and left an indelible mark on the history of the modern Middle East. Stories of individual heroism, including the death of 17 Palestinians who had refused to surrender after being forced into a cave, restored a shattered Arab sense of “karameh”.’

Said K Aburish, Palestinian writer on the battle of Karameh in Jordan in 1968, from his biography Arafat: From Defender to Dictator (Bloomsbury, £7.99).

John Rose’s new book The Myths of Zionism (Pluto, £14.99) has just been published.

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