The man they called Mr Palestine

An autocratic leader and national icon, Yasser Arafat united the Palestinians, but proved an inept administrator whose regime was dogged by corruption. Patrick Cockburn traces his career
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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat escaped unscathed from so many crises in the past that even as he lay in a French military hospital during the past week it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that he would, at the last minute, escape death through some devious manoeuvre.

He was a tactician of genius but a poor strategist. For decades, he was driven from country to country by the Israelis or their allies. In 1994, he returned to Palestinian soil for the first time in 26 years, only to be confined to his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah seven years later.

Arafat's death will produce outpouring of grief from Palestinians and claims from his enemies that he repeatedly missed opportunities to agree a final settlement with Israel. This is doubtful. The Palestinian leader had many faults but the compromises he was offered were not far from surrender.

He always played a weak hand against more powerful opponents. He fought not only Israel but the US. In 1983, I stood on the docks in the port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon as Arafat and a hardcore of loyal fighters were evacuated by sea in the face of an attack by Syrian-controlled Palestinian rebels. His career seemed ended but, a few months later, he had once again raised the Palestinian flag in Tunisia.

He was commonly described as "Mr Palestine", the iconic leader of the Palestinians, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. That was largely correct. But his job was more difficult than other nationalist leaders in the world because so many Palestinians lived in a diaspora, in fragmented communities across the world. At the height of his influence, Arafat succeeded in uniting Palestinians everywhere behind his leadership.

That made him different from other nationalist leaders seeking to end colonial servitude. But, in other respects, Arafat did resemble those nationalist leaders who justified their authoritarian rule by pointing to their years of struggle in the service of liberation. He was dictatorial (though not particularly violent) and kept the immediate reins of power in his own hands. He bought off or marginalised his opponents within the Palestinian movement. The power of other Palestinian leaders depended on their closeness to or distance from Arafat.

But nationalist leaders elsewhere could at least boast that they had created a nation state for their people. Arafat's peculiar regime, controlling a minuscule territory in Gaza and a quarter of the West Bank, established through the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, was never close to being a proper state. That was largely because the Israelis took good care it did not.

But it was also because Arafat himself was peculiarly inept at establishing his own government and institutions. Soon after Arafat's return, Gaza and the West Bank were filled with ramshackle, corrupt and competing security agents.

But for all his autocratic inclinations, Arafat would not have remained the leader of as politicised a people as the Palestinians if he had not generally reflected their views. It is too easy to blame every disaster that has happened to the Palestinian community over the past four decades as being Arafat's fault. For instance, it was a mistake for Arafat to be seen as supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. That led to the destruction of the wealthy and well-established Palestinian community in Kuwait.

But the Palestinian leader could have done little else because most Palestinians in the world did support Saddam Hussein. He was more popular among Palestinians than he was among Iraqis.

Arafat was born in Cairo on 24 August 1929, the fifth son of a Palestinian businessman, Abdel Raouf. His mother came from an old Jerusalem family and died when he was five. He went to live with a maternal uncle in Jerusalem, where he said he recalled British soldiers bursting in in the middle of the night and smashing furniture as they searched the house. After four years, he returned to Cairo, where he was brought up by an older sister. He was not close to his father and did not attend his funeral when he died in 1952.

He was educated in Egypt and went to university in Cairo, where his academic studies were interrupted by arms smuggling and fighting in the Gaza area. Arafat worked briefly in Egypt after getting his degree in 1956, and then moved to Kuwait. He was always intensely political. In 1958, he and his friends established an underground organisation called al-Fatah. It advocated armed struggle against Israel. Six years later, Arafat moved to Jordan to organise raids into Israel.

Arafat was never an accomplished guerrilla leader, despite his military uniform and the pistol in his belt. The military balance between Israel and the Palestinians was, in any case, so wholly in favour of the former that there was a limit to what the Palestinians could do. Even so, Arafat's choice of military commanders was often disastrous and based wholly on personal political loyalty.

The defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan by Israel in 1967 was Arafat's first great opportunity. The Arab governments were wholly discredited. They had set up the Palestine Liberation Organisation under the auspices of the Arab League but, in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, Fatah took it over. Arafat became chairman of the PLO executive in 1969.

On the ground in Jordan, the Palestinians were also beginning to show that they could fight just as effectively as the Arab regimes - though that was not saying much. When the Israeli army attacked a PLO base at Karameh in Jordan in 1968, its soldiers suffered heavy losses. The battle was seen as a victory for Arafat. Thousands joined the PLO. Eventually, Arafat and the Palestinian armed units came into conflict with King Hussein and the Jordanian army and were expelled.

It was at that time the world became aware of the Palestinian cause and Arafat as its symbol. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, he said: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." If his aim was to prevent the world forgetting the fate of the Palestinians, then he succeeded brilliantly.

Arafat had moved his headquarters to Lebanon, where the PLO created a state within a state. His men fought beside the Muslim and Druze militias in the civil war in which thousands of Palestinians were massacred. Arafat and his lieutenants always bore the marks of the years in Lebanon and, when they returned to Gaza and the West Bank in the 1990s, they often behaved like Lebanese militia leaders.

In the siege of Beirut by the Israeli army in 1982, Arafat was at his best. The commanders he had appointed had, in general, behaved shamefully during the Israeli invasion, often abandoning their men. But in the siege Arafat rushed from strongpoint to strongpoint, careless of Israeli attempts to kill him. Finally, the Palestinian fighters were evacuated, only to see Christian militiamen massacre Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila under the eyes of the Israeli army.

Established in Tunisia, Arafat and the PLO had limited influence in the West Bank and Gaza. He travelled ceaselessly. But it was the outbreak of the intifada in 1988, initially a non-violent protest movement, which showed that the Palestinians were not wholly crushed and without influence. Israeli military strength could not end the uprising.

Disastrous though the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was for the Palestinian community there, it led the US government to distance itself briefly from Israel. It called the Madrid conference together in 1993. Arafat had already recognised Israel's right to exist in 1988 and had renounced terrorism.

Arafat's private life remained secretive. In 1991, he had married a 28-year-old Christian secretary, Suha Tawil, in Tunis. Their daughter, Zahwa, was born in Paris four years later. For years Arafat had travelled the world, but in 1992 his plane crashlanded in the Libyan desert during a sandstorm. He was badly bruised and the two pilots of the plane were killed.

The moment of reconciliation with Israel after Oslo was brief. He had shaken hands with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, on the White House lawn on signing the Oslo accord. He returned the following year to Palestine. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister. But within a year Rabin was dead, assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew as he left a peace rally. Shimon Peres, the next Israeli prime minister, was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu at the general election in June 1996. Such goodwill between Palestinians and Israelis that Oslo had generated was dissipating fast.

Israel sought to ensure that the Palestinian Authority, of which Arafat was elected head in 1996, should remain weak and have little of the muscle of a real state. But Arafat's rule did much of their work for them. His chief lieutenants were corrupt. They had no shame in building luxury villas rising above the slums of Gaza. Armed security men were everywhere, only disappearing when there was an Israeli incursion.

Controversy surrounds the final negotiations between Arafat and the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak presided over by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in the dying days of his administration. Barak and Clinton claim Arafat turned down an acceptable deal. The Palestinians say Arafat simply resisted being bulldozed into further concessions by joint Israeli-US pressure.

The problem for Arafat and his Palestinian critics was that the quasi-Palestinian state created by Oslo was very weak. Arafat ran it like an old-style Lebanese militia leader. It had no armed strength. The balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians remained overwhelmingly in favour of the former and some of that was the fault of Arafat's style of leadership.

The Israeli right certainly saw Oslo as a real threat. Militants had assassinated Rabin. On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, visited the great shrine in Jerusalem, provoking clashes which turned into the second intifada. At first, Arafat appeared to let it run its course to see if it produced political dividends. The fact that Ariel Sharon was so eager to provoke an uprising might have been a hint to Arafat that it would not be in the Palestinians' interests.

Suicide bombings alienated international support and guaranteed Israeli solidarity against the Palestinians. After three such bombings at the end of 2001, Israel destroyed Arafat's three helicopters in Gaza and confined him to Ramallah. A year later, Israeli troops took over most of his compound, confining him to a few rooms.

Demands by the US and Israel for a more democratic and less corrupt leader of the Palestinians were hypocritical. The leaders they indicated had reputations for criminality among Palestinians. Washington may find Palestinian nationalism may become more, not less militant on the death of Arafat. It will be difficult for any new leader to make concessions and not be seen as a quisling.

Arafat's career was, in many ways, a tragedy, as was the history of his people, but if he failed to win the independence they yearned for it was in the face of overwhelmingly superior forces.


1929: Arafat is born 24 August to Palestinian parents in Cairo.

1948: The British withdraw from Palestine, and the first Arab-Israeli war breaks out. Arafat joins Palestinian irregular forces and fights in the area around Gaza.

1959: Arafat and his associates form the Fatah guerrilla movement.

1964: The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is established.

1968: Israel attacks the PLO base in Karameh in Jordan. Arafat's performance in battle bolsters his support. A year later he assumes chairmanship of the PLO.

1974: Arafat makes his famous speech to the UN: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

1982: Israel invades PLO strongholds in Lebanon. Arafat moves his base to Tunisia.

1987: The Palestinian uprising known as "intifada" begins in Gaza.

1988: On 12 December, Arafat proclaims an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. By the end of the year, 70 countries recognise the PLO.

1990: Iraq invades Kuwait. Arafat's credibility is undermined by his support for Saddam Hussein.

1993: After secret negotiations in Norway, Arafat and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin sign the Oslo Agreement. The agreement is sealed by a handshake between Arafat and Rabin in Washington.

1994: Arafat receives the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and the Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

1997: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns West Bank town of Hebron to Palestinian control after 30 years under Israelis.

1998: Netanyahu and Arafat sign the Wye River accords, a land-for-peace deal.

2000: July talks end after 15 days with no agreement. In September, a visit by Israel's right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Temple Mount sparks violence and Barak resigns.

2001: Sharon wins a landslide victory and the US-brokered truce fails. Israel labels Arafat a terrorist as suicide bombings continue.

2002: Israeli forces storm Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

2003: The "road map" peace plan is formally published. The Palestinian Authority's newly formed cabinet elects Mahmoud Abbas but he later resigns. Arafat appoints Ahmad Qureia as prime minister.

2004: Arafat travels to a hospital in Paris where he dies on Thursday, 11 November.