Reconciling a Dual Legacy: Why Palestinians will mourn the death of Yasser Arafat

THE RECENT death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has evoked complex, conflicting, and confused emotions. One is left to ponder whether he should be remembered as a hero or a failure, leader of a just cause or a corrupt regime, a symbol of stubborn defiance or humiliating defeat? The simple answer is that in all cases, he was both. Palestinians will mourn his passing for the loss of more than just a man, but for the struggle he came to embody, in all its manifestations.

After leading the Palestinian movement for national liberation for over 40 years, it is not difficult to understand how Arafat could also come to embody the symbolism of all the fluctuations which the cause itself experienced. Over nearly four decades of Israeli occupation, the Palestinian people have lived through moments of triumph and despair, of international sympathy and rejection, of peaceful coexistence and armed resistance. Arafat’s life followed these ebbs and flows, sometimes driving its currents, and other times dragged by them.

Arafat’s popularity as the leader of a guerrilla warfare against Israel rejuvenated the hopes of Palestinian refugees and the Arab world, and helped ease the humiliation of defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. His attacks against Israel from Jordan and Lebanon inspired thousands to join the PLO, and led to his election as chairman in 1969, a position he held until his death 35 years later. He became an international cold war icon, symbolizing not only the Palestinian struggle but also antiimperialism, becoming a hero to oppressed peoples all over the world. In 1974 he used this international stature to warn the UN General Assembly that he stood before them “bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun”, and “not to let the olive branch fall from my hand”. Later that month the UN General Assembly recognized the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty and national independence.

Yet Arafat’s advocacy of military resistance as the only means of restoring the Palestinian homeland on its historic 1948 borders was a platform that survived only as long as he was able to conduct it. Israel was determined to destroy exile-based resistance fronts, and it ultimately succeeded. In the aftermath of the devastating Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the PLO was forced to flee to Tunis, a base from which it would never regain its revolutionary zeal.

For the next six years as the conditions of Israeli occupation worsened, the PLO and the Palestinian cause were placed on the diplomatic backburner. Israel obstinately maintained its refusal to recognize the PLO, and the United States followed suit Militarily defeated and diplomatically ostracized, Arafat and the exiled leadership of the PLO sat on the sidelines as the first Palestinian Uprising (Intifada) erupted spontaneously in 1988 under the leadership of internal grassroots organizations. It was these “children of stones” whose heroic images re-captured the humanitarian sympathy of the world to the Palestinians, and brought the issue of occupation back onto the world agenda. The Palestinian struggle for freedom was embraced around the globe as a just movement for national independence, and pressure on Israel and the United States to end the occupation became stronger than ever.

In response to this opening, Arafat reemerged onto the international scene to make another historic speech at the UN in December of 1988 in which he recognized Israel’s right to exist on the 1967 borders, and called for negotiations. The United States responded by ending its 13 year ban on discussions with the PLO and Israel reluctantly followed five years later in 1993 when it entered into the secret negotiations with PLO that led to the Oslo Accords.

Critics of Arafat love to remember him as the man who “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. In doing so, they minimize the historical magnitude of Arafat’s concessions from the Palestinian perspective. He single handedly altered the course of the Palestinian national struggle from armed resistance to peaceful negotiations. By accepting UN resolution 242 as the basis for peace, Arafat agreed to recognize Israel without Israel recognizing Palestinian national rights in return, on a mere 22% of what remained of historical Palestine. Through these actions Arafat took the most decisive steps of any Arab leader since the 1948 war to open the doors to peaceful coexistence with Israel.

In 1993, Arafat compounded these compromises by signing the Oslo Accords, a deeply flawed peace process in which he once again committed to unilateral Palestinian concessions in exchange for unenforceable and vague Israeli promises regarding final status issues that ultimately put the fate of Palestinians in the hands of Israel. Arafat was rewarded for these decisions with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, but frustration with the persistence and expansion of the occupation fueled the eruption of a second Intifada in September 2000, and those who lauded Arafat as a man of peace sought to revive his image as a man of terror.

Ultimately, Arafat’s attempt to transition from warfare to diplomacy wove a web around him that became difficult to disentangle. He made the fundamental miscalculation that relinquishing the fight for the Palestine lost in 1948 would be enough to achieve a state on what remained of it in 1967. Instead, Israel’s refusal to implement its commitments under the Oslo Accords (not to mention international law) left Arafat exposed as leader of a corrupt Palestinian Authority, whose main function was to act as a scapegoat for Israeli refusal to deliver a Palestinian state. Rather than ceding the reigns of power to new leadership in this time of crisis, Arafat made a series of strategic blunders that, sympathetic though many were to the lack of genuine partners on the American and Israeli side, frustrated and angered many Palestinians. Nevertheless, left isolated and imprisoned in his Ramallah headquarters, he roused solidarity amongst the Palestinians, who refused to allow the United States or Israel to demonize their leader as the enemy of peace over the occupation itself.

Thus, because of the symbolism of Palestinian victimization and vulnerability that he came to represent in his final years of captivity, because his death marked the culmination of 40 years of steadfastness and struggle Yasser Arafat’s mistakes were placed aside on November 11, and he became, as he always was, a man separate from himself. A man whose fallibility Palestinians will remember, but whose spirit and dedication to Palestine they cannot condemn. Always a national symbol, Arafat died as the Palestinians live, in a state of exhaustion, but never in defeat

It is in this context that Palestinians will mourn Yasser Arafat and come to terms with his legacy. As his coffin was carried to its resting place by the hands of his people, he seemed to bid them goodbye in the words of the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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