—Yasser Arafat, Nov. 19, 1968
Within moments of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, 2004, the world began to react. From CNN to National Public Radio, racist rhetoric called Arafat the “father of modern terrorism.” Charges that he “robbed his people blind” dominated commentary on U.S. media. Such criticism exhibits a deliberate falsification by the U.S. ruling class of the historical significance of Arafat as well as the Palestinian national liberation struggle as a whole.
The slanders against the Palestinians following Arafat’s death are a reflection of deep class hatred. It comes from the threat that the Palestinian struggle has posed to the U.S. ruling class and its imperialist aims in the Middle East. The Palestinians serve as a symbol of national liberation struggles around the world.
That explains not only the lies and slanders spread by pro-imperialist media. It also explains the outpouring of international solidarity with the Palestinian people following Arafat’s death. Condolences were sent to the Palestinian leadership from oppressed peoples around the world.
The two views could be seen clearly in the presentation of Arafat’s mass funeral in Ramallah, Palestine. The United States media portrayed the scene as barbaric and chaotic. According to this view, tens of thousands of Palestinians were ignorant of all the formalities typically followed at funerals.
But filling the streets of the largest town in the West Bank was not a reflection of the feeling people expressed for one man. Rather, it was a memorial for every Palestinian who has fallen as a result of the century of brutality inflicted on Palestinians and their homeland. The feeling among the mourners—their determination to continue the struggle—was shared by every Palestinian refugee, whether in Shatila, Lebanon or Anaheim, California.
A life spanning Palestine’s struggle
As a leader in the Palestinian national liberation struggle, Arafat’s legacy will transcend the slanders poured on him by imperialist politicians. Arafat’s life spanned the history of Palestinian struggle. His death only highlights his role in that struggle.
While studying in Egypt during the 1950s, Arafat’s first prominent role in the struggle was as president of the Union of Palestinian Students. Palestinian refugees were scattered around the Arab world after being forcibly displaced in 1948 with Israel’s formation. Arafat moved to Kuwait to attempt to organize refugees to fight for the return of their homeland.
In the early 1960s, Arafat and a group of Palestinian refugees in Kuwait formed a resistance group called
Fatah—“victory” in Arabic. Fatah was intended to be an independent armed Palestinian liberation movement. It published a newspaper called Falasteenuna that was distributed throughout Palestinian refugee camps and Arab cities, advocating an increase in armed resistance. It was through this paper and the resistance actions carried out in the early days of Fatah that Arafat began to emerge as a leader.
As support for Fatah grew, the leadership in the Arab states became concerned about their inability to control the Palestinians. In 1964, the Arab states sponsored a Palestinian organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as a way to exert control over the guerrilla groups. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Arab nationalist president of Egypt, backed a conservative Palestinian named Ahmad Shukeiry as leader of the PLO. Shukeiry was a Palestinian lawyer who had served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Palestinian Affairs. The resistance groups were not consulted about Shukeiry’s leadership.
The standing of the leadership in Egypt and the other Arab states suffered a catastrophic eclipse as a consequence of the U.S.-backed Israeli aggression in the June 1967 war. That war led to the Israeli seizure of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza.
This did not, however, halt the spread of Palestinian resistance. Other leftist Palestinians formed organizations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP is a Marxist organization that rose out of several guerrilla groups that were also organizing armed raids against Israel.
By December 1967, groups like Fatah, the PFLP and the General Union of Palestinian students united to oust the imposed leadership of the PLO. Shukeiry was replaced by members of the resistance movement. The PLO’s legitimacy grew in the eyes of the masses.
Fatah and the other guerrilla organizations gained leadership of the PLO in 1969. At the Fifth Congress of the Palestine National Council, hundreds of representatives from trade unions, women’s and student organizations—and, for the first time, most of the guerrilla organizations—attended. A new PLO leadership was chosen that reflected the success of the armed resistance movement in winning the support of the Palestinian people. Fatah won the majority of the seats. Yasser Arafat was elected chairman of the Executive Committee.
By 1973, the PLO issued a call for a “national authority” to function as the official governing body for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This formulation caused concern among the Palestinian left and for the millions of refugees around the world whose homes were inside of Israel. They feared that accepting a national authority in the territories meant that the long-term goal of establishing a democratic secular state in all of Palestine would be abandoned.
To achieve a “national authority” and to elevate the struggle of the Palestinians, Arafat and the PLO led an international campaign for recognition of the Palestinian initiative. In 1974, Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly. He made his famous declaration: “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
The following week, the UN General Assembly recognized the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty and national independence, and the PLO was given observer status in the UN. Following this diplomatic recognition, the UN passed a series of resolutions reaffirming the right of Palestinians to return to their traditional homes (the right of return), to recover occupied East Jerusalem, to eliminate illegal Israeli settlements, to gain freedom from occupation and to struggle by all means necessary, including “military resistance,” to secure these rights.
In 1982, three years after the Camp David Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel, the Israeli regime launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, which had functioned as the de facto headquarters of the PLO. The Lebanese and Palestinian people heroically resisted. But the overwhelming firepower of the Pentagon-backed Israeli military offensive prevailed. More than 20,000 people were killed. Arafat and the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon for far-away Tunis.
In the late 1980s, all sectors of the Palestinian movement united to conduct an Intifada—an uprising—against the occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza. In the face of murderous repression, the entire population demonstrated its steadfast determination.
The image of school children confronting Israeli tanks with nothing more than stones became emblematic of a people whose very survival and identity was dependent on their capacity to struggle.
The Palestinian Intifada had few precedents in history. It was an ongoing general strike of an entire people. As a consequence of their heroism, many Palestinians were deprived of employment, education and access to the essential necessities of life.
It was only after the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War that the U.S. government initiated a new strategy to “settle” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by seeking to co-opt a section of the Palestinian leadership. In exchange for certain concessions regarding the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO would recognize the Israeli colonial reality as it had been established by force of arms in what was pre-1948 Palestine.
The U.S.-sponsored ‘peace process’
Under Arafat’s leadership, the PLO entered into a U.S.-sponsored “peace process” with Israel. Under pressure, Arafat made agreements that diminished Palestinian rights affirmed through international law, such as the right of return. The recognition of Israel’s “demographic concerns” effectively stripped the right of return and restitution of all meaning.
These concessions were a reflection of the class contradictions within the PLO and Palestinian leadership. Arafat ultimately represented a segment of Palestinian society whose interests were not rooted in the liberation of the people and the upholding of inalienable right to return. Rather, Arafat represented the class interests of those who felt they could gain economically from a peace settlement with Israel.
The reality of the effects of the peace process became clear after the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn in 1993. The Oslo Accords included an interim agreement whereby Israel would withdraw its forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians would then replace the Israeli forces with a Palestinian “self-rule government” in highly segmented portions of the Occupied Territories. The agreement brought inevitable comparisons to South African Bantustans under the apartheid regime, where Black South Africans were relegated to poor and fragmented “homelands” in the midst of South Africa.
The Oslo agreement left “final status issues” to be decided at a future date. These included critical issues like the artificial borders between a future Palestinian state and Israel, the right of return for Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 and the elimination of rapidly increasing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Despite these concessions, Arafat had come to symbolize the hopes of Palestinians for a homeland. In 1996, he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He held this position until his death.
Arafat’s political base was among more moderate and well-to-do Palestinians. But because of his deep connections to the Palestinian masses, he was never able to entirely concede the right of return during his lifetime. During the Camp David talks in 2000, Arafat came under heavy pressure by President Clinton to come to a final agreement regarding the status of Palestinian statehood. Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Barak claimed that a “generous offer” was made to the Palestinians, offering them 95 percent of the West Bank.
But the West Bank only makes up 22 percent of historic Palestine. Without Jerusalem as a capital, and taking into account the portions of the West Bank that Israel retained for “military purposes,” the offer on the table at Camp David was for 8.3 percent of historic Palestine.
Arafat didn’t accept the “generous” offer. For that, he was demonized by the big business media and President Clinton.
Following a major Israeli military offensive into the West Bank and Gaza in 2001, Arafat was confined to his two-bedroom West Bank headquarters for three years. His confinement left him incapable of functioning politically. He still consistently received death threats from Israel for failing to restrain the Palestinian resistance.
The coffin of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat being carried to his burial site in Ramallah, Nov. 15, 2004.
Photo: Levine Heidi/SIPA
Following Arafat’s death, the U.S. and Israel are trying to deal a final deathblow to the Palestinians’ right of return. The U.S. is desperately searching for a Palestinian “leader” who will enforce the apartheid conditions the way they had hoped Arafat would during his presidency.
Whether such a leader exists is far from certain. As much as the U.S. would like to find a Palestinian version of Iraq’s Allawi, the Palestinian masses are mobilized and political. The needs of the U.S. ruling class and demands of the Palestinian people who have struggled for decades to pursue liberation are diametrically opposite.
Israel and the U.S. will continue to portray an image of Palestinians living in self-imposed disorder and chaos in the West Bank and Gaza. This is part of creating a false belief that the future of Palestinians must be decided for them. Despite these claims, the Palestinian people will continue their historic struggle to maintain their existence as a people.
In a November 11 memorial statement, the U.S. Free Palestine Alliance noted, “The target has always been Palestine, yet the victor will always be Palestine. With every fallen leader, we inch forward to our journey home—be it in a coffin through France and Egypt, or on the shoulders of our embattled youth—we are destined to go home free and liberated of Israeli Apartheid and colonial bigotry.”
Aruri, Naseer H., “Dishonest Broker, The U.S. Role in Israel and Palestine,” South End Press, 2003.
Hirst, David, “The Gun and the Olive Branch,” Faber & Faber Ltd., 1977.
Cobban, Helena, “The Palestinian Liberation Organization, People, Power and Politics,” Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Palestine Book Project, “Our Roots are Still Alive, The Story of the Palestinian People,” People’s Press, 1977.