Arafat, father of the Palestinian cause

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The Independent Online

President Arafat is History. And I do not mean that he belongs to the past because he has died. Quite the contrary: his tireless efforts over so many years, since 1949, when he founded the Palestinian Students' League and started his political career, today represent the hope of the Palestinian people. Quite simply, today the Palestinian State is more on the cards than ever thanks to Arafat.

Abdel Raouf, born in 1929, the fifth child of a merchant, will be remembered by the Palestinians as the embodiment of their struggle to achieve nationhood. Under his other names, Yasser Arafat or Abu Amar, he will also be remembered for his smiling expression, nearly always good-humoured despite the hard times he had to live through. With his traditional keffieh - black and white, as were the first images of conflict in the Middle East, and chequered, reflecting the geography of his Palestine - and with his ever-present olive-green military uniform, his figure has become indelibly established in the public eye and imagination as an indefatigable warrior who dedicated himself body and soul to his cause.

The fervour he aroused in his people at difficult, significant moments in his career is an enduring bastion to the legitimacy of his cause. I knew him very well, as I did other actors in the tremendous conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and from the heart, I acknowledge and bear witness to his brave, honourable struggle. We shared many, many hours at different stages of the recent history of Palestine. He was a warm-hearted man, as people tend to be in those lands, regardless of their nationality or culture. He was also a good friend to Spain, and our country never failed to reciprocate, as was recorded for posterity in that historic photograph of the sincere embrace between Arafat and the then President of the Spanish Government, Adolfo Su!rez, in 1979, during his first visit to Spain. Fifteen years later, on the occasion of the Prince of Asturias Awards, we showed the world that our country was steadfast in its commitment to peace between Palestinians and Israelis by awarding the Prize for International Cooperation to President Arafat and to Prime Minister Rabin. I recall, too, that the Rais referred to His Majesty King Juan Carlos I very affectionately as "the King of Jerusalem".

Shortly before this, the two leaders had received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their untiring resolve to obtain a just and lasting peace. Both men believed that Jerusalem was a special, unique city and wanted to make it a centre for hope and for peaceful co-existence. Both men signed the Oslo Peace Accords, the foundations of a peace for the brave, as Arafat referred to it so insistently. It was at the Madrid Peace Conference, in 1991, that the first great step towards attaining that peace was taken, with the international community looking on as witness. Even today, many are still opposed to that groundbreaking leap, which meant, for the first time abandoning the dynamics of confrontation. The seeds sown by Rabin and Arafat in those historic agreements are still alive and represent, in the form of the Road Map, a hope for reconciliation and a lasting peace for all.

Arafat, who was democratically elected their President, has been a great leader for his people. He was tenacious and was entrusted with a clear mandate to defend the interests of the Palestinian people, which he did valiantly. He was aware that for the Palestinians to enjoy peace and freedom among themselves, they must be in a position to freely elect their representatives and parliamentary deputies, by means of elections supervised by international observers. Thus, the legitimacy of his actions was backed up by popular support, as evidenced by democratic election.

Arafat survived many experiences that most persons will never undergo: decades of exile and banishment, bombardments, an aeroplane accident that left him with permanent health problems, missile attacks (one of which we underwent together, two years ago) and the searing pain of incomprehension and, at times, isolation. In the last few years, his life was darkened by confinement within his Mukata headquarters, reduced almost to rubble, but, nevertheless, he continued fighting to defend his people, inspiring negotiations and seeking alternative routes towards peace. Fundamentally, this is his legacy, i.e. negotiation as the way to peace.

Not everything in Arafat's record was unblemished. He was unable to politically channel Palestinian frustration after Camp David and to control the second Intifada. As I personally had the opportunity to point out to him, more than once, he was unable or unwilling to cast off the cloak of revolutionary leader in order to rise to the occasion and assume the institutional solidity of a genuine Head of State. He could also be criticised for not being firm enough with some persons of his entourage who were more concerned with their ambitions and personal interests than with the cause of the Palestinian people.

Arafat's legacy obliges us to look to the future. He had faith that those who went into exile but who kept their house keys with them, together with those who remained in the Palestinian territories, would one day receive, in compensation for their sacrifices, the rewards of return and freedom. Many endings are, in fact, the beginnings of something else, and what is really important is to realise this. Arafat's should enable us to reach peace. We must move the clock hands forward, overcoming the temptation to look back, where pain and suffering abounded.

Under the difficult circumstances that the Palestinian people have endured and, indeed, are still suffering, some may opt for inertia, alleging their destiny to be inevitable. Such was not the case of Yasser Arafat. History should judge him with intelligence and with honesty. In his life, there was no shortage of action, or of vision or of political courage. Rest in peace, and may the Palestinian people, based on their unity as a nation, honour him by achieving a future as an independent State, based on good relations with its neighbours, mutual respect, peaceful co-existence and co-operation with Israel.