Yasser Arafat and the Arab Revolution Today

by Tom Barrett

Yasser Arafat’s death has brought to an end a life which has become synonymous with the cause of self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs, and it will mark the passing of one of the last great secular revolutionary leaders of the post–World War II generation.

His death will not leave the power vacuum that many predict; Mahmoud Abbas, often known by his military code name Abu Mazen, will succeed him as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. An election will be held in January for the post of president of the Palestinian Authority. There is no question that Abu Mazen will have a much more difficult time overcoming the increasing division among the Palestinian Arab people. Indeed, in practical political terms, Arafat had been unable to exercise real practical leadership for several years now. His symbolic authority was unquestionable; on the ground, others are making the decisions which are guiding the Palestinian struggle, often in contradictory directions.

In truth, the words “Palestinian” and “Arafat” entered our vocabulary at the same time. This man and this people have been inseparable in the world’s eyes for most of the last half century. Who was this man, and why did he come to symbolize the Palestinian people in a way that transcended his political leadership?

Arafat’s Early Career and the Emergence of the Palestinian National Entity

Yasser Arafat was born Muhammad Abdul-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini on August 24, 1929, in Cairo, Egypt. His father was a textile merchant of mixed Palestinian and Egyptian ancestry; his mother came from the patrician Husseini family of Jerusalem. “Yasser” is actually a nickname by which he has been known since he was a young child. When he was four years old his mother died, and he was sent to live with her brother in Jerusalem (called al-Quds in Arabic). During these years the Husseini family was in the leadership of an uprising against the British Mandate. Zionist settlement had forced thousands of landless Arab peasants off the land and out of the rural villages; they settled in the cities, hungry, homeless, and angry. Though Arabs had originally welcomed Jewish settlers from Europe in the early years of Zionist colonization, after the settlers’ true purpose became clear — to create a state “as Jewish as England is English” and drive the Arabs out — they fought back, and they directed their anger against the Jews and their British defenders. During the years 1936–1938 nearly half of the British army was deployed to Palestine to put down the Arab general strike and to defend the Zionist settlers. One of the young Arafat’s earliest memories was of British soldiers breaking into his uncle’s house, smashing furniture, and beating members of the family.

The 1988–1994 period is often called the “first intifadeh,” but in reality the first intifadeh (“uprising” in Arabic) took place in the second half of the 1930s. The Palestinian people carried on a massive struggle against Zionism and British imperialism. Ironically, however, they were not conscious of themselves as Palestinians. They identified themselves by their clan or extended family (such as the Jerusalem Husseini family) and as Muslims or Christians. Some of the more advanced nationalists might even have thought of themselves as Arabs. The idea of a Palestinian people, as distinct from the Egyptian or Iraqi, let alone Syrian, Jordanian, or Lebanese, had not yet emerged, and in many respects it is unfortunate that it had to emerge.

The Arab states as we know them today were a creation not of the peoples of those “countries” but of the imperialist Allied powers in the First World War. Up until that time, the part of the Arab world which we know today as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq were provinces of the Turkish empire of the Osmanl (Ottoman) dynasty. The royal family had lost most of its power to a military movement known as the Young Turks, who had allied their empire with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). In 1916 French and British diplomats, meeting secretly, drew up plans to divide the Turkish empire’s Arab provinces between their respective countries. This agreement, named the Sykes-Picot agreement for the diplomats who negotiated it, remained secret until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, at which time the new Soviet Republic published all the secret diplomatic agreements which the other Allied powers had shared with the Tsarist and Provisional governments.

The British, for their part, had made conflicting promises. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised British support for a “homeland for the Jewish people.” At the same time, they had made a military alliance with the Hashimi (the Hashemites) of the Hijaz, the coastal region of the Arabian Peninsula where Mecca and Medina are located. The British liaison officer with the Hashimi was the flamboyant Colonel T.E. Lawrence. No one in the British foreign office had the least problem with imposing the sons of the Sherif of Mecca as kings of Syria and Iraq. They especially had not shared with the Hashimi that under the terms of Sykes-Picot Syria was to be a French mandate, and the British had no right to make any promise of the Syrian throne to anyone, legally or morally.

The Western European concept of the nation-state, which evolved over centuries as capitalism evolved, was completely alien to the Arab Middle East and was imposed on them by the imperialist powers. The Arabs of Palestine had no concept of themselves as separate and distinct from other Arabs. It was only after the abysmal failure of the Arab leadership, both before and after the Second World War, to stop the Zionist takeover of Palestine, that a distinctly Palestinian struggle began, and it was none other than Yasser Arafat who was its pioneering leader.

Arafat at the age of nine returned to Cairo, where an older sister cared for him and his siblings. As a teenager, after World War II, he helped smuggle weapons into Gaza to Arabs fighting against the Zionist takeover. He entered Cairo University to study civil engineering and took a leave to fight in the 1948 war. After the Arab defeat in 1948 he returned to Cairo University, where he was a student leader. He earned his engineering degree in 1956 and enlisted in the Egyptian army, where he was trained in demolitions. He fought in the Suez war of 1956.

In 1958 he was working as an engineer in Kuwait, where he and a few Palestinian friends met to form a new organization, the Palestine National Liberation Movement, whose Arabic initials spell an Arabic word meaning “victory”: fateh. Inspired by the Algerian revolution against French colonialism, their objective was to organize a guerrilla war to free Palestine from the Zionist occupiers. The 1948 war had created thousands of refugees languishing in camps in Gaza (then Egyptian territory), the West Bank (then Jordanian territory), and in Lebanon and Syria. After the failure of the Arab League to defeat Zionism, their idea was to organize a guerrilla force from within the Palestinian refugee camps. For the first time, the notion of a uniquely Palestinian struggle was emerging.

The Arab League, the organization representing the governments of the newly independent post–World War II Arab states, also recognized that the Palestinian refugees had the desire to take action to liberate their land. However, they were concerned that the Palestinian struggle be carried out under their leadership, which at that time meant the leadership of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Arab League in 1964 set up a new organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of a Nasser protégé named Ahmed Shuqeiry.

The disastrous 1967 war changed everything: Israel in six days not only defeated but humiliated Nasser and the entire Arab League. The Zionists seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In six days thousands of Arabs who had been living as refugees became Arabs living under occupation, and each passing year has shown the world how brutal that occupation has been. Most are still living under that occupation.

In 1968 a detachment of al-Fateh commandos confronted an Israeli force at a West Bank village called al-Karameh. It was not a clear victory for the Palestinians. However ­— and one year after the Six-Day War, this was vitally important — it was not a clear-cut victory for the Zionists either. They retreated from al-Karameh without killing or capturing the Arab fighters. One aspect of Middle Eastern culture which Westerners often underestimate is that word-of-mouth news has always traveled faster in that part of the world than even Internet messages. Within days, al-Fateh and its leader Yasser Arafat had become the Arabs’ new hope.

Arafat used his new-found celebrity to wrest the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the discredited Ahmed Shuqeiry. He converted it into a coalition, bringing together other Palestinian guerrilla organizations, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) (led by George Habash), groups that had emerged from it, including the PFLP–General Command (led by Ahmed Jebril), the Democratic PFLP (led by Nayef Hawatmeh), and as-Sa’iqa, a group led by the Syrian Ba’ath party. There were other groups as well. Though Arafat and his al-Fateh organization were in the leadership of the PLO, they by no means had control of all the component organizations of the PLO.

The New Politics of the Palestinian Struggle

Yasser Arafat and the new Palestinian leadership moved quickly to position their struggle as a component of the worldwide anti-imperialist revolution at that time led by the Vietnamese people, as they fought against, and eventually defeated, the most formidable imperialist power which has ever existed, the United States. Arafat and the new PLO leadership assimilated the lesson from the Algerian and Vietnamese experience that a movement within the imperialist countries to oppose imperialist war can be a powerful, even decisive, ally to an anti-imperialist revolution. The PLO announced that its objective was not simply the destruction of the state of Israel but the formation of a democratic secular state, in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians would be able to live together in peace. It explicitly made a distinction between the Zionist occupier and the Jewish people as a whole and rejected all forms of anti-Semitism, stressing the Arabs’ and Jews’ common Semitic heritage.

Arafat and the PLO emphasized their independence from Nasser and the Arab League, stressing that theirs was a movement by the Palestinian people to free themselves from Zionist occupation. They brought to the world’s attention the plight of the Palestinian refugees in the camps and the brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They explained that they were tired of United Nations charity, that what they wanted for their people was self-determination and an opportunity to build a prosperous society of their own.

All the component organizations expressed their solidarity with anti-imperialist movements throughout the world, not only in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but within oppressed countries in Europe (such as Ireland) and within imperialist countries themselves. The PLO reached out to the worldwide youth radicalization under way during the 1960s and 1970s, and the best of the revolutionaries, such as the Fourth International, represented in the United States by the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance, did what they could to build support for the Palestinian struggle within their own countries.

None of the Palestinian organizations, including those like the PFLP which claimed to be Marxist, ever went beyond the program of bourgeois nationalism. Arafat never claimed to be a Marxist or socialist, and al-Fateh’s call for a “democratic secular state” never had any class component. This was an inevitable weakness in the PLO’s program. Palestinian society had never been extensively industrialized, so a strong industrial working class never developed. All of the Palestinian leadership came from a layer of intellectuals who had come from bourgeois families and had been educated in universities throughout the Middle East, and some in the West. Arafat, as we discussed, came from the aristocratic Husseini family of Jerusalem, and was educated as a civil engineer at Cairo University. George Habash, the founding leader of the PFLP, was a medical doctor, educated at the American University of Beirut. These are only two examples. For many historical reasons the Communist International had never put down deep roots in the Arab world, and so the Palestinian revolutionary movement did not have Marxist traditions upon which they could draw.


Since al-Fateh first exploded into the world’s consciousness in 1968, the Zionists and their allies have labeled it as a “terrorist” group — that is, an organization which targets unarmed civilians. As far as Arafat and al-Fateh are concerned, this charge is a slander. Arafat never condoned attacks on unarmed civilians at any time, from the airline hijackings of 1969–1970 to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Other PLO organizations have engaged in these kinds of tactics, but they did so over Arafat’s objections. Contrary to the lies which are told in Washington and Tel Aviv, Arafat at no time had dictatorial power in the PLO and was unable to prevent other groups from carrying out what proved to be counterproductive actions.

We should note that terrorism is as old as warfare itself, and the usual definition of a “terrorist” is a resistance fighter on the enemy side. Such a charge from the Zionists, who massacred men, women, and children at the village of Deir Yassin in 1948 and blew up the King David Hotel with over 500 people inside, is sheer hypocrisy. It is equally hypocritical for the U.S. government, which used the atomic bomb against unarmed Japanese civilians and carried out the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, to accuse anyone of terrorism, let alone Yasser Arafat. If one were to impartially examine what the Israeli army does every day in the occupied Arab territories against the civilian population, one could make a strong case for calling it state-sponsored terrorism.

The Intifadeh and the Limits of Leadership

The eruption of the intifadeh (uprising) of 1987 demonstrated once again that the Palestinian people, not Yasser Arafat, have made the Palestinian struggle what it has been, as Arafat himself would have been the first to acknowledge. Arafat, whose strategy for the liberation of his people always remained inside the box of military struggle, was caught completely unprepared when urban Arab youth in the occupied cities began confronting the Israeli soldiers with nothing more than stones in their hands.

The ruling class and its hirelings in government and the media have a notion that people follow their leaders like sheep follow the bellwether. They have no concept that the young Arabs in Ramallah, Gaza, Nablus, and other occupied cities might have taken action on their own, without orders down a chain of command from Arafat.

The truth is just the opposite. Leaders do not create the struggle; the struggle, rather, creates the leaders. The Arab people of Palestine resent the Zionist occupation because of what the Zionists do, not because of what any leaders tell them. It should be obvious. As we have seen throughout the world, the people will follow a leadership which is ready to fight, and the Palestinian people are no exception.

One of the great historical ironies is that the Israeli leaders encouraged the formation of an alternative leadership to the PLO during the period of the first intifadeh. During that period, an Islamic movement was leading the people of Afghanistan in a fight against Soviet occupation of their country. Probably with the advice of “experts” from Washington, Israel encouraged the formation of a “faith-based” Palestinian resistance formation, which ultimately developed into Hamas. Just as the anti-Soviet fighter Usama bin Ladin turned against the United States, so Hamas turned against its Israeli handlers. The Zionists never understood: the people have their own agenda. A leadership which does not work toward achieving the people’s agenda will have no followers, and will, by definition, cease to be a leadership.

Yasser Arafat understood at every stage of his career that his leadership position in the Palestinian struggle depended on his remaining connected with the people and not compromising away their aspirations.

This was the dilemma facing him as he entered into the negotiations brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton in Oslo, Norway, in 1993. The agreement won a Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was subsequently assassinated by a Zionist fanatic who considered Rabin a traitor for signing the Accords. The Oslo Accords led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the proto-state which Arafat headed until his death.

Following the murder of Rabin, the Zionists began encroaching on territory which, even under the terms of the Oslo Accords, were under Palestinian jurisdiction. During the administration of Shimon Peres, and especially after Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu came to power after the elections of 1996, the Zionists stepped up the building of illegal settlements and roads to connect them to pre-1967 Israel. It demonstrated clearly to the Arab people of Palestine that the Zionists had no intention of allowing them a viable state of their own, even if the state of Israel was conceded its “right to exist.” They came to understand that the Oslo Accords were empty words.

In 2000 Ariel Sharon, who today holds the office of prime minister of Israel, led a provocation at the al-Aqsa mosque at Haram ash-Sharif (Temple Mount) in al-Quds (Jerusalem). Sharon’s provocative infringement of a place sacred to Muslims touched off the second intifadeh, also called the al-Aqsa intifadeh, which continues to this day. The prime minister at the time, General Ehud Barak, offered terms which could have established a Palestinian state, but it was too late. The Palestinian Arab people no longer trusted in the Oslo Accords, and were no longer willing to compromise their human rights. Paramount among them has become what has become known as the right of return — in contrast to the Zionist “law of return” which guarantees to any Jew anywhere in the world the right to immigrate into Israel and become automatically an Israeli citizen. Arabs, whose families owned land in pre-1967 Israel for centuries, have no such right, and they are demanding it. Whatever Arafat’s wish for a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, the people refused to compromise their principles away, and Arafat was intelligent enough to know that it was the Palestinian people who had made him the respected leader that he had become, and the Palestinian people could and would take that away from him if he betrayed them, and many Palestinian Arabs came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that he had.

In his last years Arafat shared his people’s suffering. During the months of the al-Aqsa Intifadeh, Israeli troops shelled his compound and reduced most of it to rubble. But he remained in the ruined compound in Ramallah, surrounded by Zionist tanks, and refused any offer of safe conduct and exile. He sent his young wife and daughter to safety in Paris, but he sacrificed his own comfort, safety, and ultimately health for his people. After he died, the Arab people of Palestine in the greatest numbers realized what Yasser Arafat had meant to them and their struggle. Whatever mistakes he made, whatever weaknesses he had, whatever the limitations of his leadership, he gave his entire adult life to the struggle for Palestinian Arab nationhood, and he never betrayed it. It may very well be that the time has come for a new leadership in the Palestinian Arab struggle, that Abu Mazen and his associates will not be able to provide the direction that will lead to victory in the coming years. But that reality will never diminish the meaning of Yasser Arafat to the Arab people of Palestine.