A week has passed since Yasser Arafat has died. Love him or hate him, Yasser Arafat was an icon of Palestinian nationhood. His death heralds a new era, with equal potentials for peace and continued violence. While there is no way of knowing how developments will shape the future of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is worthwhile to look at how Arafat's leadership has influenced the Palestinian cause in different ways. The aim here is not to pass judgment on the man and his life, but to use this as a case study in understanding one of the many ways charismatic leadership can impact social movements. This article is a two-part article looking at the Arafat phenomenon within the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Short History of the Conflict
It is always contentious to talk about history, particularly the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Depending on where people stand, there are different alternatives of history that are presented and defended with fervor. The version presented here is based on United Nations historical documentations. It is important to note that in this conflict there is no neutral representation of facts. There are tens, if not hundreds of alternative versions available to the readers elsewhere. Therefore readers should not take this representation as either exclusive, objective, representative of "the truth" or comprehensive. It reflects my personal belief in the objectivity of the United Nations narrative, and is only intended for setting the stage for analyzing Arafat's role in the events.
During the years of the Palestine Mandate, from 1922 to 1947, large-scale Jewish immigration from abroad, mainly from Eastern Europe took place, the numbers swelling in the 1930s with the notorious Nazi persecution of Jewish populations. Palestinian demands for independence and resistance to Jewish immigration led to a rebellion in 1937, followed by continuing terrorism and violence from both sides during and immediately after World War II. Great Britain tried to implement various formulas to bring independence to a land ravaged by violence. In 1947, Great Britain in frustration turned the problem over to the United Nations.
After looking at various alternatives, the UN proposed the partitioning of Palestine into two independent States, one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem internationalized (Resolution 181 (II) of 1947). One of the two States envisaged in the partition plan proclaimed its independence as Israel and in the 1948 war expanded to occupy 77 per cent of the territory of Palestine. Israel also occupied the larger part of Jerusalem. Over half the indigenous Palestinian population fled or were expelled. Jordan and Egypt occupied the other parts of the territory assigned by the partition resolution to the Palestinian Arab State, which did not come into being.
In the 1967 war, Israel occupied the remaining territory of Palestine, until then under Jordanian and Egyptian control (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This included the remaining part of Jerusalem, which was subsequently annexed by Israel. The war brought about a second exodus of Palestinians, estimated at half a million. Security Council resolution 242 (1967) of 22 November 1967 called on Israel to withdraw from territories it had occupied in the 1967 conflict.
In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in East Jerusalem (occupied by Jordan). In its infancy, the PLO was not associated with violence. But from 1967 on, it became dominated by an organization called Al Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat. The PLO militarily attacked Israeli interests all over the world, often targeting military as well as civilian targets. A group affiliated with the PLO, called "Black September", took Israeli athletes hostage in the 1972 Olympics and killed two of the athletes. Subsequent rescue operations by the German police led to the death of 9 additional athletes. From this point onwards the image of the PLO became internationally associated with terrorism.
In 1974, the General Assembly reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence and sovereignty, and to return. The following year, the General Assembly established the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. With the PLO chosen as the representatives of the Palestinian people in the Arab League conference in Rabat in 1974, the General Assembly conferred on the PLO the status of observer in the Assembly and in other international conferences held under United Nations auspices.
In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the declared intention to eliminate the PLO. A cease-fire was arranged. PLO troops withdrew from Beirut and were transferred to neighboring countries after guarantees of safety were provided for thousands of Palestinian refugees left behind. Subsequently, a large-scale massacre of refugees took place in the camps of Sabra and Shatila by pro-Israeli Christian Lebanese militia, allegedly with the direct order of Ariel Sharon.
In December 1987, a mass uprising against the Israeli occupation began in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Intifada, as the uprising was called, mainly included Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli troops. The first Intifada was limited to the occupied territories and did not impact Israel proper. Methods used by the Israeli forces during the uprising resulted in mass injuries and heavy loss of life among the civilian Palestinian population, most of them young people.
A peace conference on the Middle East was convened in Madrid on 30 October 1991, with the aim of achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement through direct negotiations along 2 tracks: between Israel and the Arab States, and between Israel and the Palestinians, based on Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) (the "land for peace" formula). A series of subsequent negotiations culminated in the mutual recognition between the Government of the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the representative of the Palestinian People, and the signing by the two parties of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements in Washington, D.C., on 13 September 1993, as well as the subsequent implementation agreements, which led to several other positive developments, such as the partial withdrawal of Israeli forces, the elections to the Palestinian Council and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, the partial release of prisoners and the establishment of a functioning administration in the areas under Palestinian self-rule. The Oslo accord, as the agreements were called turned out to be ineffective in changing the status of the Palestinian people. The failure has been attributed to the lack of a viable Palestinian economy due to both leadership corruption and hardship inflicted by the Israeli occupation, as well as the emptiness of financial aid promises of Western nations, which failed to materialize.
On September 28, 2000, the Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount (called Har HaBayt in Hebrew, Al-Haram As-Sharif in Arabic) in Jerusalem, the holiest site for Judaism, the third holiest site in Islam, and a place of special significance to Christianity. Sharon's impending visit was officially announced in advance, and prior to it some moderates on both sides protested, because of his controversial political stance and his massive armed bodyguard — over 1,000 strong. He was warned that this could lead to riots but Sharon declared that he went to the site with a message of peace. On the site, he publicly proclaimed the area as eternal Israeli territory, reiterating Israel's official policy, according to the Jerusalem Law passed by the Knesset in 1980.
The day after Sharon's visit, large riots broke out around Old Jerusalem; during the riots, several Palestinians were shot dead. One of the deaths, of a 12-year-old boy, Muhammad al-Durrah, was captured on videotape and broadcast around the world. Images of the boy and his father caught in the crossfire, attempting to hide behind a concrete water barrel caused much outrage throughout the world. On October 12, two Israeli reservists who entered Ramallah were arrested by the PA police. A Palestinian mob stormed the police station and lynched the Israeli soldiers: they beat the soldiers to death, threw them out of the window, stabbed them, dragged them on the road and mutilated their bodies. The brutal lynch were captured on video and was broadcasted on TV, outraging Israeli and global public opinion. In retaliation for the deaths of the two soldiers, Israel launched a series of air strikes against the Palestinian Authority destroying the little infrastructure built with foreign aid, as a warning to not allow such things happen again. The cycle of violence between the two sides is too intensive and too painful to recount fully. For a full list of casualties on both sides refer to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories website.
It’s time to turn my attention to Yasser Arafat, for he is the main topic of this post.
Military years of the PLO
A detailed overview of Arafat’s life can be viewed in this article. The part of interest to our discussion starts with the Battle of Al-Karameh. In this battle, several hundred Palestinian militias led by Yasser Arafat, and aided by the Jordanian military battled Israeli troops that attacked the village of Al-Karameh on the East bank of the Jordan river and forced the Israeli troops to withdraw. While over a hundred Palestinians were killed in exchange for less than 20 Israeli troops, the battle was proclaimed victory and the corpses of Israeli soldiers were taken to Amman for people to see. This victory (I am not sure what to call it, but I guess the issue is relative) made Arafat famous and ensured him the leadership of the PLO. A civil war in Jordan between the Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian government in 1970 led to the killing of many PLO members and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan to Lebanon. Like most other incidents on the Middle East the real nature of the events of Black September are in dispute, but they range from Arafat trying to seize power by toppling King Hussein, to an Israeli plot to alienate Jordan from the PLO. The PLO distanced itself from the “Black September” killings of Israeli athletes in 1972, but it is hard to imagine that they did not welcome the shift in public perception of the struggle as a Palestinian/Israeli struggle instead of an Arab/Israeli struggle.
In 1974 Arafat was invited by the UN to talk to the general assembly. The U.S. denied him visa, which made his speech all the more important, with the entire general assembly moving to Geneva to hear him speak. This melodrama, turned into an international incident was an unintended, and yet quite powerful public relations stunt by the U.S. government for Mr. Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Arafat and Iran
With the Iranian revolution of 1979, Israel saw one of its closest allies turn into one of its most important enemies. Yasser Arafat was one of the first foreign officials to travel to Iran after the revolution. He met with Ayatollah Khomeini and allegedly advised him on creating a militia force as a parallel structure to the professional Iranian army, so that it could defend the revolution should the Army’s loyalty be in question. It is said that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard of Iran emerged out of this suggestion, but this is currently just speculation. Iran closed the Israeli Embassy in Tehran and turned it into the PLO’s official headquarters and embassy, making it one of the few places where the Palestinian flag was flying. Yet, the honeymoon did not last long. After the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, Arafat and the PLO chose to support Saddam in the conflict, probably due to the idea of Arab solidarity, as well as Arafat’s disdain for Islamicists at that time. In fact it is said that some Palestinians fought alongside Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war. While this was never really substantiated, it fueled a lot of resentment among middle class Iranians towards the Palestinian cause. The Middle East being the strange mixture it is saw other interesting developments. In a scandal, later known as the Iran-Contra affair, allegedly the Israeli government approached the United States in August 1985 with a proposal to act as an intermediary by shipping 508 American-made TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of the Reverend Benjamin Weir, an American hostage being held by Iranian sympathizers in Lebanon, with the understanding that the United States would then ship replacement missiles to Israel. President Reagan then used the funds from these arm sales to support the Contras in Nicaragua. The rationale of Israel helping its enemy Iran with arms sales has been explained by the perception that Iraq was the more dangerous enemy at that time, and that it couldn’t hurt having two enemies exhaust their mutual resources in war.
In the next Part, I will continue the discussion with the role of Arafat in the first intifada.