At exactly 6:00 a.m. Thursday November 11, my phone rang. It was a colleague, calling to inform me that Arafat’s death had been officially declared. The man who had led his people for the past 40 years and was the symbol of Palestinian national struggle was no longer among the living. It was an expected death, yet we were all surprised.
The press has been reporting on Arafat’s deteriorating situation for the past four days. Analysts were trying to speculate what will happen after the old man’s death. Even Palestinian leaders were racing against time in an attempt to fill the space created by Arafat’s absence. Yasser Arafat, the irrelevant man — as Israel has been calling him for the past 3 years — proved to be more relevant than ever.
Throughout his life, the 75-year-old leader has been an extremely controversial personality. On one hand, he succeeded in placing the Palestinian problem in the heart of the political agenda of the Middle East and probably that of the entire world, yet he did not succeed in completing his mission and gaining statehood and independence for his people. The eternal question remains whether he ever planned to complete his pursuit and gain statehood. Many will claim that Arafat tried but Israel never allowed him. I will say that Arafat, the Hamlet of Palestine, tried but at the same did not try.
To be or not to be, that was Arafat’s strategy: Many will disagree with me, but I would argue that Arafat made all the possible efforts to solve the Palestinian problem and yet he was sure to miss all the possible opportunities that might have lead to a solution, from recognizing the state of Israel and directly negotiating with its leadership in an attempt to put to an end a conflict that has caused so much blood shed and suffering, to supporting Saddam’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait and bringing about the expulsion of thousands of Palestinian families that lived in the Gulf.
Arafat, the man who created the Palestinian national liberation movement, also known as FATAH, a symbol of national pride and the struggle for liberation, was the same person who created a state within a state in Jordan and later on in Lebanon, contributing to two vicious civil wars that harvested tens of thousands of innocent lives. Arafat, who returned in 1993 to the West Bank and Gaza strip in the hope of setting the ground for an independent Palestinian state, who managed the Palestinian Authority as a private enterprise and never invested in building the institutions necessary for a viable and independent state.
For the majority of Palestinians, Arafat was the symbol of their struggle. His death came as an utter surprise and shocked even the fiercest of his enemies.
On the day of his funeral, on the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, Arafat proved once again that he could not be ignored and that the Israeli official institute committed an historic mistake in trying to marginalize him. Nearly 200,000 angry and mourning Palestinians gathered at the Muqata’a, Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah that was destroyed during the April 2002 Israeli invasion of the West Bank. The crowds waited for their leader and symbol to make his last return home. Upon seeing the Egyptian helicopter that was carrying his body, thousands of throats roared « Allah Akbar, God is great » in tribute to their dead leader.
For nearly two hours the Palestinian security could not even open the helicopter’s doors. It was a mesmerizing scene. Even the heavy shooting of the Palestinian police did not deter the mourners who seemed to refuse to admit that Abu Ammar, the man with the famous Kafieh was dead. Eventually, amidst heavy shooting and a sea of emotions, Arafat’s body was transported to the place where he was to be buried.
The Palestinians had prepared a temporary tomb for their leader, in the hope that someday he will be buried in east Jerusalem, the future capital of the Palestinian state. Anger and disbelief could be seen everywhere: for the young generation of Palestinians Arafat was like a father, a figure that was in the heart of the consensus. Palestinians could argue with Arafat but they never argued on Arafat. His charisma was his trademark; his ability to survive was phenomenal. Even in the time of his death he succeeded in surviving in the hearts and minds of his people.
A senior Israeli analyst commentating on the Palestinian leader’s funeral on Israeli national televison declared that while the old veteran had won his battle against Israel, the war is still to be determined. Israel had imprisoned Arafat in the Muqata’a for nearly two years, imposed on him sanctions and refused to negotiate with him in the claim that he was a terrorist. On the day of his funeral, the Israeli army tightened the closure imposed on the West Bank cities and villages, preventing thousands of Palestinians from participating in their leader’s funeral.
Still, 200,000 people participated in the event. The conclusion is that Israel can no longer ignore the phenomenon that was called Yasser Arafat. Whether he left a legacy or not, Israel has to recognize that this man had the support of the majority of his people. It does not matter whether Arafat is called an enemy: peace is never done with friends; it is something you reach with your rivals.
It was an historic day, just like the one when Rabin the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated exactly 9 years ago. The impression was that the Middle East was on the verge of yet another new beginning, that things will no longer continue as they were. In the case of Rabin things became worse until the inevitable clash that erupted in October 2000. In the case of Yasser Arafat, only history will tell.