A version of this piece originally appeared in The Other Israel.
Enough has been said by enough people about Arafat’s illness, which led to his death, about who he was and what it will be like without him. Let’s allow our thoughts to go back to meeting him after his arrival in Gaza, ten years ago.
A group of Israelis, Jews and Arabs on a welcoming visit, were sitting waiting for him to enter the hall – on some back benches a group of Palestinian women and children. When Arafat came in, surrounded by a crowd of body-guards all much taller than him, we first only saw glimpses of the kufiya on his head. But suddenly he freed himself, his broad smile radiated happiness and hope, and he started to shake hands with everybody – the backbenches first, taking special care not to miss one child.
The language of the meeting was Arabic; among the Israeli Arabs were some long-time friends, and the meeting was very spirited. Arafat who himself seemed excited about having returned to the beloved country, took care to mix in every sentence some English words – for the Israelis who didn’t speak Arabic. That meeting with Arafat, our first, made us understand why this person, not forgetting such details eben in a hectic situation, had succeeded in keeping together a scattered nation.
Forty years Arafat survived like a Houdini; a master not only in the art of physical survival, but also in acquiring popularity and media attention, for himself and thereby for his nation. On the other hand, his popular image as « The bad guy » was exploited to the full in Israel and turned the period of his sickbed into a quite disgusting media spectacle.
With the intensity of the media attention, one starts speculating: was it pure coincidence that we heard of his being ill immediately after the Knesset authorized the Gaza withdrawal? Sharon just told the Palestinians: « We define until where we withdraw, there is no partner » and immediately after that, the « no-partner » took the stage by falling ill.
And a week later from his Paris hospital bed Arafat’s last sign of life – his addressing Bush upon being reelected, expressing the wish that the US Middle-East policy would be revised. As if he didn’t believe it himself, he then entered into the coma from which he did not wake up anymore.Now we are preparing to join the Gush Shalom delegation to the funeral.
Yasser Arafat no longer will be there to surprise us.
And we all, the Palestinians and the Israeli peace seekers will have to cope without him.