Yasir Arafat, 1929–2004

The undefeated take their turn at writing history

Arafat, of course, had traded his life for the cause. Wearing secondhand military fatigues, with sunglasses in various states of vogue and one of his two kaffiyehs as an ascot, he pressed Palestine's case in capitals where he thought he could get it heard, even the ones that, in retrospect, he might have done well to avoid.

While the notion that Arafat never ideologically abandoned armed struggle is unsupported, he never convinced the world that he opposed attacks on civilians, a mistake that came back to haunt him after September 11. His critics called terrorism part of his character, while those closer to him recognized a leadership flaw; rather than banishing militants who hurt the cause, he often sought to co-opt them.

The most serious concerns about Arafat came, of course, from Palestinians themselves. That debate was vigorous, especially during the years of the Oslo accords. Palestinians demanded of their government freedoms, transparency, and the right to participate in the rump of land they had so far regained through negotiations with the Israelis. Arafat, insecure as a governor, started to resemble a tyrant, imprisoning dissidents, hoarding power, and refusing to quash the network of cronyism that had sprung up around him. The protests against him came not just from militant groups like Hamas, but also from secular intellectuals.

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Related:

  • Read Kareem Fahim's blog, Winning an Earthquake.
  • But when George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon tried to sideline Arafat—Bush, in part, because it fit his odd strain of liberation theology, and Sharon because he didn't want to give up any land—Palestinians rallied around the leader who they knew had stayed too long, incensed at the interference in their business.

    Set against the rollicking Palestinian conversation, the criticisms from outside, especially the U.S., seemed insincere. American politicians rushed to condemn suicide bombings, but said little when the Israeli army sprang to action. Lately, a peculiar bout of postmortem concern for the Palestinian coffers has journalists and pundits searching everywhere for Arafat's stashed millions.

    But Arafat's greatest sin, even to liberal American thinkers, was his inability to curb the aspirations of Palestinians—euphemistically, he hadn't "prepared them for peace." Television host Mike Wallace asked him on 60 Minutes whether he was afraid he'd be assassinated—Arafat, who'd survived a plane crash and dozens of attempts on his life.


    Perhaps Arafat just looked back at the unattainables they had already wrested, and decided to keep trying.

    "The Palestinians [historically] had no right to their names," said Elias Khoury. "The Palestinians in the West Bank became Jordanians, the refugees became refugees, and the ones that stayed in Israel became 'Arabs.'

    "The major part of the struggle—a part that was achieved—was the struggle to regain their names."

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