Essay: Is Arafat’s idea of Palestine obsolete today?
Against the backdrop of the most recent bouts of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the writer recalls the intuitive leadership of Yasser Arafat, the Robin Hood figure who made the Palestine Liberation Organization respectable
“I want a picture with Yasser Arafat,” I said. The American raised his eyebrows as I clicked him gushing over the waxwork of Aishwariya Rai at Madame Tussaud’s. “Why him?” he asked. Arafat, the Robin Hood figure who had managed to get respectability for an organisation created for guerrilla warfare was, for me, the closest thing to Che.
It was in Mumbai over bitter tea with students in hostel canteens and idlis at Laxmi Hotel, a crummy little eatery in a bylane of Colaba, with a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that I began to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict three decades ago. Although PLO was seen as a terrorist organisation by many at the time, over a hundred countries had recognised it and more than 90 maintained its diplomatic missions and information offices, including India. That India was captured in photographs of Arafat’s easy camaraderie with Indira Gandhi.
Today’s India will ask you, “Why do Indian Muslims get so worked up about Israel?” even as Palestinian homes are bombarded, and many are fleeing once again.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 by the British called for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. In 1948, when Israel razed over 450 villages resulting in the displacement of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, Moshe Dayan, the commander of the Jerusalem front, had boasted following the calamitous Nakba, “There is not a single Jewish village in this country that has not been built on the site of an Arab village”. Ariel Sharon, the commander of the Israeli army who was to become its 11th prime minister, had later said, “We must hit, hit and hit them incessantly…not by means of large-scale war. Suddenly someone disappears there, someone is found dead here and somewhere else someone is found stabbed to death in a European nightclub.”
Three-fourths of the people had become refugees in their own land. What did displacement look like from afar?
There were no armed security guards at the gate of the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Delhi. His Excellency Dr Khalid el Sheikh’s office was spare, housed in a drab off-white dilapidated building that seemed to have aged prematurely. A few young men were gathered around a table and chair, the only furniture in the reception area. The image was of forlornness.
Dr A Sabri, a doctor, was kicked out of the hospital he was working for in Gaza. Our meetings initially were general discussions on students living here. Over months when he thought some trust had been established, he told me about his PLO affiliation. “The Israelis bomb our camps everyday. How much injustice can a people bear? A ten-year-old may not know what Palestine is, yet he will throw a stone.”
How could young Palestinian students identify and feel so strongly for a land they had never seen and aspire for freedom and peace from a distance? As one of them told me, “I don’t have memories of home, but I have to live with the burden of not having a land to call my own.” Another said, “They won’t let me in, but one day I will get back my land, even if it takes a thousand years.”
Initially, Arafat himself was unaware of what struggle entailed. He told his biographer Alan Hart (Arafat, A Political Biography), “If you want to know a secret, I made an application for a visa to go to America!” But by age 17 he was smuggling weapons from Egypt to Palestine and meeting despair at every turn. He started a propaganda magazine called Our Palestine. “It was this appearance of power – a power that we did not in fact have at that time – that enabled us to form more cells and build the wide base for our organisation.”
His paranoia seemed justified when the Israeli PM Golda Meir told the BBC, “The Palestinians do not exist.” He made up his mind. Al Fatah was formed with seven trained fighters, five rifles and a cheque for 1000 pounds that could not be encashed for a couple of months because there was no money in the account.
A little boy asked his leader in a small voice, “Can we defeat the enemy?” They had only 297 fighters, many of them children. As commander, Arafat had to be honest. “I tried to laugh, but really I wanted to cry.” He appealed to the army like a father to his children. The PLO used suicide bombers for the first time. The fedayeen flung themselves on the army tanks, and prevented Palestinian annihilation in the battle of Karameh and with the help of Jordan caused casualties on the Israeli side. And thus, Arafat became their undisputed leader.
He was not responding merely to the bullets, but also the vituperative words. Yitzhak Shamir, the former premier of Israel, had stated with vicious glee, “It is unacceptable that nations made up of people who have only just come down from the trees should take themselves for world leaders… how can such primitive beings have an opinion of their own?”
The national literacy among Palestinians is 91.1%; the youth literacy rate is 98.2%. And the only thing primitive about Arafat was his leadership of trust, to the extent that he even asked his people to settle for 30 per cent of their own land: “No more this silly talk of driving the Jews into the sea. Today my people are prepared to live with the Jews as neighbours in a mini-state of their own. It is a miracle.” Then, in 1982, the Siege of Beirut happened. 88 days of hard shelling where the PLO was forced out of Lebanon.
Some Palestinians had begun to tire of his diplomacy. They thought he was selling out. Their anger was justified. Israel that had only six per cent of the land and constituted a third of the population was occupying 78 % of the land six months after the UN resolution of 1947 that granted it 57 per cent of the area. The natives whose families had lived on this land for thousands of years were forced to flee. Jews from Europe and other parts of the world came in; they are welcome even today to instant citizenship. In 1967, the West Bank and Gaza were taken over and the inhabitants were under an oppressive military rule.
For all his intuitive leadership Arafat did not have the foresight to understand Israel’s power play. Israel has made violence into a sport. In 2014, a group of Israelis booked a nice hilltop spot, popcorn in hand, to watch an attack on a beachfront cafe that killed eight Palestinians in a “precision attack”.
In Hart’s book, Arafat has been quoted as saying, “If it was a question of guns and military technology we would have been finished many years ago. Israel is the superpower of the region and we are resisting it with the equivalent of bows and arrows.”
Hamas has a little more than that today, but the balance is still skewed.
Peace in the Middle East is like a chameleon; it takes on the colour of the big power. The power that put the PLO chief under house arrest in Ramallah for two years where he fell into a coma and died after having survived more than 50 attempts on his life. Abu Jihad, his close aide, had stated, “Arafat is not just a political symbol. We know that he is living all our fears, all of our dreams and all of our sufferings.”
History may judge him as an olive branch-holding peacenik, but it will also remember him as the man who said, “Our resistance continues because it is the will of our people freely expressed…” That remains unchanged.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey