Yasser Arafat And The Palestinian National Movement: An Interview with As'ad Abu Khalil
By Jon Elmer
January 26, 2005

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"Arafat is much less radical, much less militant than his people."

[interview conducted 12 November 2004]

Jon Elmer: Nelson Mandela described Yasser Arafat in his recent passing as "an icon in the proper sense of the term." Can you describe Arafat's place as a symbol of the Palestinian national movement?

As'ad AbuKhalil: I think it is fair to say that over the last several decades, the world stage and the Palestinian national movement have turned Yasser Arafat into a symbol of the Palestinian national struggle. Having said that, it is very important not to fall into the tendency to reduce all of the history of Palestinian struggle to the personality of Yasser Arafat. The legacy of Yasser Arafat has to be assessed in the context of the sacrifices and contributions of the Palestinian people themselves, and we should be careful not to give the entire credit to one man.

The Palestinian national movement created Yasser Arafat - not vice versa. When there was a political vacuum back in the late 1960s, Arafat responded to the expectation among Palestinians, after the 1967 war, that there should be an assertion of a separate Palestinian national identity and an insistence upon Palestinian control over decision-making.

From 1948 (if not before) until 1967, Arab governments tried to thwart Palestinian revolutionary activity. In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was created to effectively control and tame Palestinian national activism. After 1967, and especially after Yasser Arafat took over in 1969, there was a cry for Palestinian political independence that would lead to the path of liberation and sovereignty.

JE: In 1968 Arafat said: "As long as the world sees the Palestinians as no more than a people standing in queue for UN food rations, it is not likely to respect them. Now that they carry rifles the situation has changed." Can you discuss the role of armed struggle for the Palestinian national movement and Yasser Arafat's place therein?

AA: We have to remember that even though the struggle of the Palestinians against Israel after 1948 was largely peaceful, they were dismissed. So for all those who say 'why can't the Palestinians engage in peaceful struggle,' the answer is that the Palestinians did that, and it didn't get them any gains.

In fact, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris, in the period from 1948 until the late 1950s, many Palestinians infiltrated into Israel peacefully to go check on their cows, goats, farms and houses. Thousands of unarmed Palestinian civilians were shot by the Israelis for this transgression - trying to go back to the houses from which they were evicted by armed Israelis in 1948.

Armed struggled by the Palestinians did not begin with Yasser Arafat. Yasser Arafat knew that there was a desire on the part of the Palestinians as far back as the 1950s and early 1960s for Palestinian groups to engage in armed struggle. The movement of Arab nationalists was one of the early practitioners of the armed struggle; the Ba'ath party engaged in it in a minor fashion, and there were a variety of Palestinian groups that were formed as far back as 1948 and 1949 that also practiced armed struggle against Israeli and Zionist targets. In December of 1965, Fatah announced its birth with an attack against a target in Israel, carried out by its military arm.

But despite Yasser Arafat's bombast and famous exaggerations about his role, he played, personally, a very minor role in the armed struggle. Yasser Arafat's principle role was in creating an all-Palestinian movement - the Fatah movement. He was much more attuned to the media, and very good at undertaking public relations campaigns on behalf of the Palestinian national movement.

Yasser Arafat was more of a mirror, a reflection of the desires and aspirations of the Palestinian people. This is why I think it is foolish and fallacious to expect an end to Palestinian struggle just because Yasser Arafat is dead. Just as the Palestinian national movement was able to produce Yasser Arafat, it will be able to produce many others like him - and better.

JE: These days mark the 30th anniversary of Yasser Arafat's 1974 address to the United Nations. He was the first leader of a national liberation movement to stand before the UN, when he delivered his famous speech: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

I wonder if you could describe the impact of Arafat's statement to the UN, particularly the impact it had for Palestinians at a time when statements like Golda Meir's "there are no such thing as Palestinians" rules the day?

AA: Yasser Arafat's address at the United Nations introduced the Palestinian Question to the world stage for the first time. He was asserting Palestinian national existence.

The Palestinians were basically engaged in an existential struggle that sought to underline their own separate political identity. This is what the Fatah movement that Yasser Arafat lead, and later the PLO when he took it over, were insisting upon.

Yasser Arafat's address also underlined a debate that was taking place within the Palestinian national movement at the time over the pursuit of armed struggle versus diplomacy. Despite his image in the West as a terrorist, Yasser Arafat was someone who believed in diplomatic struggle side-by-side with other forms of struggle - and many people within the Palestinian national movement were not happy about that.

Arafat is much less radical, much less militant than his people. There were many Palestinians who did not like his address at the United Nations because they felt that he was on the verge of abandoning armed struggle - which he later did. By signing onto the Oslo agreement, and later on to the Road Map, Yasser Arafat for all intents and purposes abandoned the armed struggle - which Palestinians believe no one person has the right to do unilaterally.

This is why no matter how much he tried to silence Palestinian guns, he couldn't; the Palestinians insisted on engaging in the armed struggle regardless of what Yasser Arafat believed or said.

JE: Can you describe Arafat during the Israeli siege of Lebanon, several years later?

AA: I happened to have shared the experience of Beirut in 1982 when it was put under a very brutal and severe siege by the Israeli occupation and invasion army.

I have to tell you that Yasser Arafat, at that time, was at his highest in terms of prestige and popularity among the Palestinians. Many Palestinians have felt that Yasser Arafat performs best when he is under pressure. During those days people were amazed at how relaxed he appeared in leading the Palestinian struggle under the most difficult and oppressive conditions imposed by the invading Israel army - the carnage of the daily bombardments from the air, land and sea.

On a military level I think it is fair to say that the invasion of Lebanon pushed Arafat further towards the kind of compromises and agreements that later came to discredit him in the eyes of many Palestinians and Arabs. After 1982 he felt that he was abandoned by the Arab governments, and that the Americans were going to continue their embrace of Israel regardless of Israel's actions. This pushed him further in his pathetic attempt to try to please the Americans and Israelis without acknowledging that you cannot please them without hurting the deepest interests of the Palestinian movement.

This was the main problem for Yasser Arafat over the years: he so badly wanted to remain the head of the Palestinian national struggle, while at the same time trying so desperately and eagerly to please the Americans and Israelis, who are admitted enemies of the Palestinian movement.

He wound up hurting his credibility within the Palestinian movement while failing to win favour with the Americans and the Israelis, who are not look looking for compromises, but for complete and unquestioned surrender.

JE: Was there a sense of betrayal among Palestinians in Arafat's departure from Beirut in the last days of August 1982, only two weeks before the massacre of [as many as 2000] defenceless civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila?

AA: Yes, that departure hurt him deeply, particularly because it came to symbolize his blind trust in empty, false American promises. The Sabra and Shatila massacres should be seen as a failure of Yasser Arafat's leadership in that he left Lebanon with all the armed men and women of the PLO based on an American commitment to protect the Palestinian refugees who were left behind, and later massacred.

In 1983 there was an armed rebellion within Fatah, in part because Yasser Arafat was seen as someone who was willing to believe the empty promises of a declared enemy of the Palestinians - the United States - and secondly because he tolerated corruption within the structure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization

JE: How did you think that contributed to his decision to ally himself with Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 - a move that had serious consequences for many Palestinians, not least of whom those who were living in Kuwait at the time.

AA: The expulsion of more than 300,000 innocent Palestinians from Kuwait should be blamed on the Kuwaiti royal family and not on Yasser Arafat. There is really nothing that could justify the reckless and arbitrary expulsion of a civilian population, as the Palestinians were.

Having said that, you are right - Yasser Arafat did make a gamble in supporting Iraq versus Kuwait in 1990-91, which was where the Palestinian national sentiment fell at the time. There were people within the Palestinian national movement who were opposed to his decision to embrace Saddam Hussein, and it caused many rifts within the leadership. Many people felt that one should not hurt Palestinian national interests by aligning so closely with someone who could bring disrepute and damage to the Palestinian cause.

Yasser Arafat was also making a very unwise calculation - that Saddam was not going to be so badly defeated, so badly humiliated as he later was. Furthermore, he did not expect that the oil rich Arab governments were going to wind up so vindictive and vengeful - not only against the Palestinian national movement, but also against the Palestinian people.

JE: Do you see Arafat's position of weakness in 1990-91 as a contributing factor in the secret negotiations that led to the Oslo agreement?

AA: Without a doubt. One of the greatest damages to the Palestinian revolution has been corruption from the infusion of large amounts of money from the oil-rich Arab governments. Before it was curtailed in 1991, oil money flooded the Palestinian revolution with millions of dollars. These dollars were utilized by Yasser Arafat partly to build institutions and civic associations and services, but largely for corrupt expenditure: for the buying of loyalties, for the punishing of enemies, and for the gaining of friends. The Palestinian bureaucracy became so bloated, so vast, so dependent on the influx of Arab oil money, that when it was curtailed in 1991 Arafat felt that he was no longer able to function.

The answer should have been to go back to the earlier revolutionary days, the days of an austere revolution that was not corrupt, and that was far more effective than it became under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Instead, he felt he had no option except to crawl further in the direction of the United States and Israel, hurting the Palestinian movement and humiliating himself.

JE: As for the Oslo agreement itself, Edward Said wrote: "For the first time in the twentieth century an anti-colonial liberation movement had not only discarded its own considerable achievements but had made an agreement to cooperate with a military occupation before the occupation had ended... The Palestinian side had no legal consultants to help it conclude a binding international agreement, that its tiny handful of secret negotiators were untrained, poorly educated and unmandated 'guerrilla' leaders who ignored Palestine National Council resolutions as they set about dismantling the whole structure of Palestinian resistance without a decent map."

AA: To be honest with you, while I remember the late Edward Said very fondly, I wouldn't want to engage in an elitist criticism of the movement - that it didn't have enough Harvard PhDs or lawyers, that it didn't have some geographers to assist them in the negotiations.

The mistake of Oslo resided not in technicalities, but in the very premise. The secret negotiations were contradictory to the democratic rules and procedures that the Palestinians have always insisted on. Yasser Arafat wouldn't dare tell his own people about the negotiations because he knew that they would be overwhelmingly opposed to them.

The Palestinians should not have come to the negotiating table having, under Yasser Arafat's leadership, curtailed, limited and weakened their own bargaining power by accepting to submit right at the start of the negotiations their own bargaining chips - to basically abandon the path of armed struggle, to accept postponement of the key issues that are central to the Palestinian struggle, like identity, boundaries of the state, the status of Jerusalem, the return of the refugees.

JE: Oslo gave Arafat a lot of powers that he did not have before. Robert Fisk called him a "kind of sandbag for the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, a buffer from Israel's enemies." In that sense, he was a creation of Israel - something of a Quisling, acting as Israel's jailer and even assassin.

AA: It is probably not entirely accurate to refer to him as a Quisling - even though in my opinion he was - because there is a major difference: Quisling was very unpopular among his people. Yasser Arafat protected the Israelis much more than he protected the Palestinians, yet he did not lose the confidence and support of his people even when criticism was mounting against his autocratic rule and the extensive corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

This was designed by the Oslo process; Yasser Arafat's role was to protect the Israelis from the Palestinians, not to protect the Palestinians from the Israelis. There was absolutely no mechanism within Oslo that would punish the Israelis for what they did to the Palestinians in the same way that there were mechanisms to punish Palestinians. It became a carte blanche for the Israelis to engage in all sorts of brutal acts against the Palestinians without sanction.

Yasser Arafat sat by hoping he would get a better deal, that they would reform and improve on the Oslo accords. In fact, it only got worse. His powers weakened because the Israelis decided to make them weaker. But most importantly, the United States came to unconditionally embrace all Israeli interpretations and unilateral acts against the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat had very little to do with that.

The attempt by Israel and the United States to replace him with a more pliable, more loyal Quisling failed utterly, and if they think they will succeed now I think that it will prove to be far more difficult. No Palestinian leader will dare to accept what Yasser Arafat has rejected at Camp David and in Taba - that is something that is certain.

And so I view the death of Yasser Arafat as the death of the two-state solution. There is no Palestinian leader in the history of the Palestinian national struggle who could have, with some credibility and the confidence of his own people, sell the two-state solution formula except Yasser Arafat. Now that he is dead, there is no one leader who could do the same.

It seems to me that this is going to revive the old formula of a binational secular state for Palestinians and for Jews, with full return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes.

JE: How much weight does the one-state solution hold in the Palestinian national movement?

AA: In Palestinian political debates as of late there is an increasing appeal to the one-state solution. The Israelis and the Americans have a plan for a two-state solution that does not live up to the minimum acceptable standards of those Palestinians who were willing to compromise and except a two-state solution during Oslo. Even people who live under very miserable conditions have come to the conclusion that a [Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza] is still going to be so dependent, so subjected to the will and the whims of Zionism and Israeli interests that is going to be a humiliating adventure that wouldn't be worth all the struggle of the past century.

There are more Palestinians who have become attuned to the rising insistence among the Palestinian refugees - more than 3.5 million of them - who believe that the two-state solution totally ignores where they stand and all of their struggles and sacrifices over the years.

JE: So how do we understand Arafat as an individual - how despite his failures and corruption, as well as the rejection of those around him, he nevertheless maintained and commanded a remarkable sense of loyalty from Palestinians.

AA: That is true. That is where the status of Yasser Arafat has become very symbolic. He is like a grandfatherly figure, and his nickname in Arabic, the one that he favoured most, was al-Khityar - "the old man". He came to embody someone who is grandfatherly, who has become too old, and has become too ineffective, yet we have some fondness and affection for him because of his history and not much because of his current role.

It is important to remember that the status of Yasser Arafat has increased in the last several years of the second intifada because he did not bow down as low as the Israelis and the Americans wanted him to, and because the United States was promoting alternative leadership.

You see, this is the calculation of Palestinian politics: whoever is demonized by the United States and Israel becomes very much heroic for the Palestinians, and whoever is supported by the Americans and the Israelis becomes demonized by them. That is the status of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), President Bush's favourite Palestinian. He lasted only three months as Prime Minister and later had to resign in a very humiliating public ritual.

One of the explanations we can give for the outpouring of support for Yasser Arafat by Palestinians worldwide is that he did not sign at Camp David - he did not sign the act of surrender that Clinton and later Bush tried to make him sign. He refused. This is why it is going to be impossible for any of the American stooges, the corrupt crooks like Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan that the United States are trying to promote, to sign any such peace agreement. They are seen as crooks, and they are extremely unpopular and disliked by their people.

JE: They represent what is known as the 'old guard.' On the other end of the leadership spectrum is the next generation of Palestinian activists - the youth who have had their experiences of occupation and violence forged in the resistance of the two intifadas. You mentioned that Arafat is less radical and less militant than his people, I wonder if you could articulate that idea, particularly in light of this younger generation.

AA: The question of generation is very important. The new generation of Palestinians who have lived under the brutality of Israel over the last decade or more have seen that all the so-called peace efforts and the compromises made by Yasser Arafat came to nothing. They did not contribute any improvement in Palestinian livelihood, and entailed the consequences of deadly violence exacted by the Israelis. This has only emboldened those who are now trying to revive some formulas of the past, including the binational secular state.

This new generation are the ones who control the movement today. They are the ones who will not allow who ever will take over to go farther than Yasser Arafat - or even go as far as he has gone. They will put constraints on the manoeuvring and diplomatic parameters of any future Palestinian leadership.

The United States and Israel have gotten accustomed to blaming Yasser Arafat for all the violence that was produced by the Palestinian movement, but they will soon realize that Yasser Arafat - despite his image - was far less militant, far more moderate, than the rank and file Palestinians. When Yasser Arafat is gone, they will have no Yasser Arafat to blame, to scapegoat, to kick around.