Yasser Arafat and the Arab Revolution Today
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.
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
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?
Early Career and the Emergence of the Palestinian National Entity
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New Politics of the Palestinian Struggle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Intifadeh and the Limits of Leadership
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.