Yasir Arafat, 1929–2004


The reports from the battles in Iraqi cities like Najaf and Falluja recall scenes from another restive town, decades ago, in the Jordan River valley where the Palestinian fighters made their stand.

It was in late March 1968. Israeli troops, still flush from their victory a year earlier in the Six Day War, crossed into Jordan, almost casually, and moved toward the town of Karameh to crush a pocket of Palestinian commandos who had been attacking Israeli targets across the river. Karameh, home to thousands of Palestinian refugees, was the military headquarters of Fatah, the Palestinian resistance group led by, among others, an obscure 39-year-old fighter named Yasir Arafat.

The battle that wrecked the town that day turned out to be of negligible military significance. By most accounts, the Palestinians, who knew the Israelis were coming, took heavy casualties, and up to half of their several hundred lightly armed fighters were killed. But with a lot of help from the Jordanian army, which joined the fight after several hours, 28 Israeli soldiers were also killed and 70 wounded. The Israelis lost or abandoned tanks and equipment as they withdrew to cut their losses.

More important than the questionable battlefield gains was the way in which Arafat and Fatah spun the day’s events, claiming a great victory. The tale of the battle at Karameh—”dignity” in Arabic—spread throughout the region. King Hussein of Jordan, despite his belief that the Jordanians had actually done the fighting, proclaimed that “we are all fedayeen,” a term used for fighters “who sacrifice.” Arafat would later tell his biographer that he foresaw a moment of destiny at Karameh, that against the advice of military advisers, he elected not to withdraw his men. “We cannot defeat them,” he told his followers, “but we can teach them a lesson.” He set out, he later said, to shatter the myth of Israel’s invincible army.

“The decision to stay and fight in Karameh was a turning point,” said Elias Khoury, a Lebanese author whose epic novel Bab Al-Shams (or Gate of the Sun) chronicles 50 years of the Palestinian struggle. Khoury, who was 20 at the time, recalled during a telephone interview from Beirut that accounts of the battle appeared in all the Lebanese newspapers.

“The victory was a symbolic one. Here you have a bunch of fighters who stood, and fought, and prevented the Israelis from taking over this town. It gave legend to the fighters, the fedayeen.

“All of the Palestinian political struggle was symbolic,” Khoury continued. “Without symbolism and myth, you can’t understand it. The Palestinians had no power. And after 1967, there was a vacuum. The Arab regimes were weak, and it was terrifying. So of course it was popular. Karameh came and gave people hope.”

Almost immediately, Fatah rose to the forefront of the Palestinian movement, and Arafat was elected head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. News of the “victory” is said to have swelled the ranks of Fatah by as many as 5,000 new recruits. Soon the movement would chafe under its own popularity, run afoul of King Hussein, and splinter into factions that would often steer the Palestinian nationalists between dangerous extremes.

But after Karameh, symbolism and myth at his side, Arafat made the Palestinian struggle to reclaim their homeland among the most prominent liberation movements in the world.

Arafat led the movement for another 36 years, until he died last week in a Paris military hospital. That he had never achieved an independent state was viewed by a spectrum of observers as proof of his failings as a leader. Arafat had seen his legacy differently.

“We have made the Palestinian case the biggest problem in the world,” he told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly last month, when he was still in Ramallah, and in the mood to reflect on his accomplishments. “One hundred and seven years after the [founding Zionist] Basel Conference, 90 years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Israel has failed to wipe us out. We are here, in Palestine, facing them. We are not red Indians.”

That achievement, viewed in context, was considerable. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been as symbolic as it was military, and the task for Arafat and a generation of Palestinian leaders was to meet the power of Israel’s founding narrative—a people persecuted by European fascism, escaping to a land “without a people,” where they would make the desert bloom—with a compelling counternarrative. Racism also dogged their efforts, evidenced in the ceaseless caricatures of Arafat and the Palestinians that transcend any legitimate comic or discursive value.

Arafat’s movement managed all this with few friends: just occasional, unreliable suitors. The U.S. and the Soviets pursued their own agendas, and so did the Arab governments. Solidarity was a compact between Palestinians and a worldwide audience of conscience.

While Arafat’s dramas played in the headlines, the Palestinians soldiered on. In exile, they had distinguished themselves, many of them well educated and professionally accomplished. At home, or in the refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries, despite abysmal living conditions, they created a culture of rights: Anyone who has visited Palestinian towns notes the fluency of even young children in complex matters of international law.

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.

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.”