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Palestinian’s enduring legacy in the Arab world

Despite the years and the shifting times,  for most Arabs, Yasser Arafat will remain the embodiment of the Palestinian struggle to regain an independent nation. NBC News' Charlene Gubash reports from Cairo on the rebellious leader's enduring legacy in the Arab world.
/ Source: NBC News

For most Arabs, the smiling face of Yasser Arafat in his black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh, or headdress, was the embodiment of the Palestinian struggle to regain an independent nation. 

Against all odds, he kept that struggle alive for more than 40 years. He created a political and military movement to represent the Palestinians, gained international support for a Palestinian homeland, negotiated land-for-peace with Israel and established a Palestinian government on Palestinian territory. 

"For the Arabs, he is the symbol of the Palestinian national struggle," said Dr. Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.

Kazziha believes the history books will remember Arafat for two singular achievements, creating a national movement and giving it a geographic identity.

"Arafat during his career has turned the Palestinians from a dispersed nation of refugees to one with a national movement and a sense of community," he said. Before Arafat's efforts, the Palestinians were regarded as helpless refugees who needed others to speak on their behalf.

In addition, "Arafat succeeded in getting for the Palestinians a foothold on their own land.

"In the past they were fighting battles on the land of others. Undoubtedly now the Palestinian national struggle is carried out from Palestine."

Legacy as a warrior
"Chairman Arafat had tremendous emotional resonance among Arabs because he represented "defiance and resistance, going against the odds and surviving," said Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldun Center. 

A few months after the bitter defeat and loss of land suffered by Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 war, Arafat and a few hundred Palestinian fighters were able to repel an Israeli armored attack back across the River Jordan. 

A small battle at the time, it loomed large in the Arab psyche after the crushing defeat of the region's most powerful nations. 

"From  that point, his star rose and shown and acquired a legacy to which a lot of mythology contributed," explained Ibrahim.

His survival after near fatal accidents and assassination attempts, including a plane crash in the Libyan desert and an 80-day siege in Beirut during which Israel bombarded the city, "added to the public imagination that he must have something magical or mystical that helps him to survive," Ibrahim said.  

For many, Arafat was once the standard bearer of the justice of the Palestinian cause, which had been embraced by and of monumental importance to the entire Arab World.

What the West perceived as Arafat's intransigence in negotiations with Israel, people here viewed as an unwillingness to concede the rights of the Palestinian people.


Tainted image
But toward the end of his rule, Arafat's image was increasingly tainted by allegations of corruption, cronyism, disastrous political miscalculations and monopoly of power. 

"In recent years, people began to question his autocratic practices, failures, tenure and longevity [in office], his warding off and stunting the development of new leadership," Ibrahim said. 

Arafat's refusal to cede authority has led to the leadership crisis now facing the Palestinians.

"He monopolized the Palestinian leadership for over 40 years without realizing any positive results and he didn't allow any others to emerge as leaders of the Palestinian people. He didn't appoint a deputy because he thought he would live forever," said Dr. Fahed Fanek, Jordanian columnist for Al Rai newspaper.  "He used to mean a lot in the past, but for the last five years he has lost credibility." 

Well before that, Arafat made enemies in some Arab quarters. Many Jordanians and Lebanese resented that Arafat fought Israel from their soil and contributed to civil strife.

Gulf Arabs, for their part, turned against Arafat when he threw his support behind Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In the aftermath, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States cut off financial and political support to the PLO. Others feel Arafat missed opportunities to strike a peace deal with Israel.

Despite countless battles and a multitude of negotiations, in the end Arafat fell short of realizing the dream of Palestinian statehood.

While history will no doubt remember him both for his achievements and failings, for most Arabs, he will remain, for better or worse, the bittersweet image of a struggle that has now survived him.