The Prisoner of Ramallah

Every television viewer recognizes the bridge between the last two buildings left standing among the ruins of the Mukata'ah (compound) in Ramallah.

During one of my last visits, a Palestinian officer pointed to a simple table and chair near one of the windows of this bridge. Through this window a stretch of the Palestinian landscape beyond the town is visible. 'Here Abu-Amar likes to sit between meetings and look out,' he explained. Abu-Amar is the affectionate name for Yasser Arafat.

Twenty-one years ago, when I went to Beirut and met him for the first time, he was one of the most mobile leaders in the world, if not the most mobile of all. Once he told me that during the last five days he had visited seven countries, sleeping on the plane between destinations. At the time, his neck was in a surgical collar.

Now he has been imprisoned in the compound for more than two years. For some of the time, the conditions were worse than in an ordinary prison: he lived in a closed room without fresh air and almost without water, with the sewage blocked. He knew that at any moment Sharon 's soldiers could storm in and kill him.

In a few days, he will be 74 years old. He will spend his birthday in his prison.

This is a good opportunity to take stock of the man and his work.

He has been on the world stage longer than any other current leader, apart from Fidel Castro. Many of today's world leaders, like Bush and Blair, were infants when he took the responsibility for the destiny of the Palestinian people in his hands.

His face is well known throughout the world.

He is one of the most maligned statesmen in the world, perhaps the very most.

He is the most hated person in Israel . Rightists and Leftists compete with each other in expressing their hatred of him. There is hardly an article by an Israeli 'Leftist' which does not include some words of abhorrence about him.

He is the most admired and beloved leader of his own people, and apparently the leader most admired by the masses throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Not bad for a person who is turning 74.

The title most often attached to his name is 'symbol.' Even the Palestinian opposition groups call him 'the symbol of the Palestinian people.' That is true, but also misleading.

Misleading, because a 'symbolic' person is usually someone in honor of whom statues are erected and whose likeness adorns the walls. The President of Israel is a symbol, and so are the presidents of Germany and Italy , while Arafat is very much an active leader, dominating the Palestinian scene.

Yet the title is also appropriate. Arafat's progress, from leader of a tiny group of refugees to the present stage, when the whole world supports the idea of a Palestinian state, symbolizes the Palestinian struggle for survival. No one symbolizes the condition of the Palestinian people, its suffering, determination and courage, more than the man in the besieged Mukata'ah, a prison within a prison (Ramallah) within a prison (the Palestinian territories as a whole).

Much has already been written about his early life, about his father, a merchant from Gaza who had settled in Egypt ; about his mother, who died when he was still an infant; about his childhood with his mother's family in Jerusalem .

Lately, Arafat likes to recount to his guests ' Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners ' about those happy years, when he played with Jewish children near the Western Wall. His years with his father's family in Cairo seem to evoke much less nostalgia.

He likes to remind people that he studied engineering. He attributes his legendary memory ' especially for numbers and facts ' to his profession. More than once he has corrected me on numbers ' how many ultra-religious members were in the Knesset, exactly what percentage of the West Bank Sharon has said he was ready to 'give' to the Palestinians as part of his 'painful concessions.'

His political career started in the Palestinian Students' Association in Cairo . It assumed historical significance when he was the main founder, in the late 1950s, of the Fatah organization, the first Palestinian liberation movement since the catastrophe of 1948.

Liberation ' from who? Well, obviously from Israel . But in reality, from the domination of the Arab leaders, too. It is impossible to understand Arafat without knowing this important chapter of his life. At the time, the Palestinian cause served as a football in the inter-Arab game. Each Arab ruler used it in order to reinforce his claim for leadership of the Arab world and to beat his competitors. Gamal Abd-al-Nasser in Egypt, Abd-al-Karim Kassem in Iraq, the young King Hussein in Jordan and their equivalents in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the other countries ' each proclaimed himself the Defender of the Palestinian People while mercilessly suppressing any sign of independent Palestinian activity in his own realm. In the eyes of Arafat and his comrades, the 'independence of Palestinian decision-making' became a sacred goal.

Fatah was born into this reality. Arafat and his group wanted to wrest the Palestinian cause from the hands of the Arab rulers. The new movement had no power, no money, no arms. It had no base anywhere where it could operate freely. Its activists were at the mercy of the secret services of any Arab country, if they did not fulfill the demands of the local dictator. That happened many times. The climax was reached when the Syrian dictator put the whole Fatah leadership, including Arafat, in prison. Only the wife of Abu Jihad, Umm Jihad (now the minister for social affairs in the Palestinian government) was left outside and so she assumed the command of all Fatah forces.

For the movement to survive, Arafat had to manoeuvre between the leaders, flatter people he despised, suck up to leaders who did not give a damn for the interests of the Palestinian people. As an important Palestinian personality told me: 'For the survival of our people he had to dissemble, lie, trick, be equivocal, use ruses. It was then that the typical Arafat language evolved.'

In spite of sabotage by the Arab regimes and with the help of these methods, the power of Fatah slowly grew. In order to block it and to subordinate the Palestinians to Egyptian interests, Abd-al-Nasser initiated the founding of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and appointed an aging and ineffectual demagogue, Ahmad Shukairy, as its leader. But the June 1967 war destroyed the respect for the rulers of Cairo , Amman and Damascus . The battle of Karameh (1968), in which the Fatah fighters, led by Arafat in person, won a victory against the Israeli forces sent to destroy them, caused Fatah's prestige to rise sky-high. After three Arab armies had been shamefully defeated by Israel , the fighters of Fatah had held on heroically. The result: Fatah took over the PLO, and the 39 years old Arafat became the leader of the nation.

All the Arab leaders with whom Arafat had to contend at that time have in the meantime died natural or unnatural deaths. Arafat remains.

Perhaps his greatest achievement as a national leader lies in his ability to hold the Palestinians together.

Most liberation movements have known fratricidal wars, bitter splits and desperate internal struggles. The pre-state Hebrew underground, too, experienced the fratricidal 'saison' and the bloody Altalena incident. But the Palestinians, whose situation was incomparably more difficult, were spared this fate.

Almost all other movements grew from populations that lived on their land, under one particular foreign regime. But the Palestinian people were dispersed in a dozen countries, almost all of them oppressive dictatorships. The name ' Palestine ' had disappeared altogether from the map, and even the Palestinians who had remained in their homeland lived under oppressive rulers ' first the Jordanian and Egyptian, and then the Israeli military governor.

When the PLO grew, all the Arab regimes tried to gain influence over it. Damascus, Baghdad, Riad, Cairo, in addition to Moscow, set up Palestinian organizations in order to impose their agendas on the Palestinian people. Secular and religious, Leftist and Rightist organization tried to play their games inside the movement. Arafat had to cope with all of them, manoeuvre, cajole, threaten, appease. He became a past master of this art, perhaps its outstanding practitioner in the world.

At the same time, he had to lead the national struggle. Like almost all leaders of modern liberation movements, from Garibaldi to Nelson Mandela, he was convinced of the need for the 'armed struggle' (always called 'terrorism' by the opposing regime). The PLO organizations carried out many bloody attacks, many of them brutal, some of them outright monstrous, even if most of these were made by organizations that also fought against Arafat. All PLO leaders believed that the 'armed struggle' was necessary, considering the vast disproportion between the might of Israel and the almost negligible force of the Palestinians.

Arafat himself, according to the testimony of his assistants, is far from being cruel or bloodthirsty. Only in rare instances did he confirm death sentences, and that only when the public demand was irresistible. The number of executions carried out in his domain is incomparably lower than in former Governor's George W. Bush's Texas .

It is accepted by most authorities that without the 'armed struggle,' the Palestinians would not have achieved anything and would have lost their homeland long ago. They believe that the violent attacks enabled the Palestinian people to return to the world map and allowed the PLO to attain its historic achievements: its recognition as the 'sole legitimate representative' of the Palestinian people, its invitation to the UN, its international standing, the Oslo agreement, its return to Palestine and the creation of a worldwide consensus supporting the idea of a Palestinian state.

But Arafat did not see the 'armed struggle' as an end in itself. Violence is for him a means among others.

At the end of 1973, he did something that is rare among leaders. After making one revolution (the creation of Fatah and the start of the 'armed struggle'), he initiated another. (Years later, Yitzhaq Rabin did something similar.)

The October 1973 war changed his strategic concept. Until then, he believed that Israel could be overthrown by force. The Palestinian struggle was designed, primarily, to cause a general military confrontation between Israel and the Arab world, as happened in 1967. In October 1973, Arafat realized that this hope had no basis in fact. The armies of Egypt and Syria did indeed attack Israel and achieved initial surprise, giving them a resounding victory, but within two weeks the Israeli army had turned the tables and was advancing on Cairo and Damascus . Arafat, forever the rational engineer, drew the logical conclusion: There exists no military option.

From there it was but one step to the second conclusion: The Palestinian state can only be founded on compromise, by a political settlement with Israel . He started to work on it.

The necessary effort was immense. A whole generation of Palestinians saw in Israel a monstrous enemy that had expelled half the Palestinian people from their homes and lands and continued to oppress and dispossess the other half. In their time of desperation, the Palestinians clung to their belief that the very existence of Israel is illegitimate and that some day, somehow, it will be eradicated. Arafat had to uproot this belief and to cause his people to accept a compromise that left the Palestinian people only 22% of their historic homeland.

He worked as he always has done: with infinite patience, sensitivity to human beings, tactical manoeuvres, zigzags and equivocation. He started secret contacts with a tiny group of Israeli peace activists (including myself), hoping that they would open the way to the heart of the Israeli establishment. He encouraged some of his people (mainly Sa'id Hamami and Issam Sartawi, who were both murdered because of this) to express his hidden thoughts publicly. He caused the Palestinian National Council, the parliament in exile, to gradually change its resolutions. In this effort, which lasted from 1974 to 1988, he was mainly assisted by Abu Mazen.

At that time, Yitzhaq Rabin still was an extreme opponent of a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and Shimon Peres was the godfather of the settlements. Both advocated the 'Jordanian option' (returning parts of the West Bank to Jordan and make peace with the king, ignoring the will of the Palestinians). If anyone deserved the Nobel Prize for the Oslo agreement, it was Arafat.

One of the attributes that endear him to the Palestinian public is his rare personal courage.

When Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982, in order to expel the Palestinians and kill their leader, Arafat could have easily left Beirut in time. This would have been accepted by everyone as a sensible step. But he remained with his fighters in the besieged city until the last day. After a long battle, his men left with their heads held high, bearing their arms, led by Arafat.

Another, almost forgotten, episode brought him even more esteem. A year after the exit from Beirut , the Syrians and their agents attacked the Palestinian forces in the North Lebanese refugee camps near Tripoli . At the time, Arafat was the guest of the UN in Geneva . He did something almost unbelievable: he secretly returned to Lebanon , slipped into the besieged camp and, in the end, left with his fighters, who did not surrender this time either.

Most of his life he has spent in constant danger, with a dozen secret services trying to kill him. He survived several assassination attempts. Once he escaped with his life when his plane had to perform a tough emergency landing in the middle of the desert. His bodyguards were killed.

In the middle of the battle of Beirut , I asked him where he would go if he got out alive. Without hesitation he said: 'Home, of course!' Twelve years later, on his first day in Gaza , he whispered to me: 'Remember what I told you in Beirut ? Well, here I am.'

As head of the new Palestinian Authority, he was confronted with one of the toughest jobs of his life. He faced a challenge unknown to any other liberation movement: to set up a kind of state while the liberation struggle was still far from over.

Arafat returned together with the veterans of the struggle, who believed, quite understandably, that it was their right to control the National Authority. The same was claimed by a new generation of fighters, veterans of the intifada, the prisons and the underground. The same was claimed by thousands of professionals who had studied in universities the world over. (One of them told me: 'OK, let's give medals to all the fighters. But the state must be governed by people trained for it.') Arafat had to give a part of the pie to the Christian minority, to the representatives of the various regions, and, most importantly, to the heads of the great families who have dominated Palestine society for centuries and without whom one cannot rule. Altogether, an almost impossible task.

It cannot be said that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was an unqualified success. But, considering the objective pressures, Arafat did not do too bad a job, either.

One of the weak points was the centralism of the new administration. During the decades of struggle, Arafat got used to deciding alone and quickly. His colleagues had all too willingly let him take the historic decisions that demanded courage and personal risk. Most of his closest comrades in arms had been killed during the struggle, some by Israel , some by the Iraqi agent Abu Nidal and his ilk. Like all leaders who have been at the center of internal struggles and responsibility for a long time, Arafat has become lonely and suspicious.

Some of the Palestinian personalities believed that with the establishment of the Authority, the struggle had come to an end. They started to look out for their own personal interests, some became corrupt, assimilating the norms of the neighboring countries (and not only theirs). This aroused resentment among the Palestinian public. Israeli Leftists began to condemn the 'corrupt Authority,' and the official Israeli propaganda machine took the story up and gleefully distributed it around the world. This caused grievous damage to the Palestinian cause at a most sensitive time.

But not the slightest hint of suspicion ever attached itself to Yasser Arafat himself. While Ariel Sharon is sinking in a morass of corruption affairs and world leaders like Helmut Kohl in Germany and Jacques Chirac in France have starred in major scandals, Arafat has remained above suspicion. Neither his opponents at home nor the Israeli intelligence agencies have succeeded in discovering any spots. He lives a very simple life, has no home of his own, his clothes are his khaki uniforms.

Throughout his life, Arafat has made many mistakes. He may have exaggerated his opposition to the 1977 Sadat initiative, surrendering to the pressure of his enraged colleagues. His support of Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war was a major mistake that cost dearly. More than once he erred in choosing assistants and confidantes.

But to his own people, he has remained the only leader who can be trusted unconditionally. Foreigners are unable to understand this. They find it odd that the very same attributes that made him abhorrent to many people in the West make him a hero to his people.

For example: When, at Camp David , Arafat emphatically rejected the proposals of Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton, he was condemned by most of the Israeli 'peace camp.' But in Palestinian eyes, it was the epitome of courage and national pride. When he went to the summit meeting, many Palestinians were afraid that he was walking into a trap and would not have the strength to extricate himself. It was clear that the 'generous proposals' of Barak did not meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians. When he came back without having surrendered, he received a hero's welcome.

Now the Palestinians are ready to give some credit to Abu Mazen, who believes that he can get some concessions from Israel and the US . Abu Mazen is an old partner of Arafat and respected by the public. But no Palestinian can imagine entrusting him with the destiny of the nation.

One person only enjoys that kind of trust: the man besieged in the Mukata'ah. He remains the ultimate judge.

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Uri Avnery's picture
Columns on STR: 123

Uri Avnery is a peace activist.