I remember vividly the bearded man with dark glasses and his Keffiah, the Arab headdress that became equated with him in the West, as he harangued the masses on a West Beirut university campus. It was in the early 1970s and my brother and I were students in Beirut, and Yasser Arafat, the emerging leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was the shining star in the Arab world.
Hated by Arab regimes but feared as well, “Abu Ammar” (Arafat’s nom de guerre) had already survived one civil war in Jordan and was jumping into a second one in nearby Lebanon. His words remained inscribed in my memory: “No matter what happens, I will not accept any solution less than the liberation of all of Palestine.”
Whatever one’s opinion of the man, he remained true to those words.
Despite all of the opportunities to finalize a deal over a smaller Palestinian state, Abu Ammar never closed a deal for anything less than all of the land he envisaged to be the future Palestinian state.
But he made another proclamation that day so long ago, one he is not likely to be able to keep — at least for now.
“I will be buried in al Quds (Jerusalem) in al Aqsa Mosque,” he screamed, igniting waves of applause.
Part of the scenery
During the PLO’s years in Lebanon, from 1970-1982, I witnessed many of Arafat’s aides addressing crowds and media. He was on our TV on a daily basis. I even had some of his followers as classmates in my high school years. He became, over four decades at the leadership of the Palestinian cause, as much a part of everyday life in the Arab world as he was notorious outside of it.
Basic facts about Arafat’s life, such as the date and place of his birth, are disputed. Arafat has often claimed throughout his career that he was born in Jerusalem, though his birth certificate indicates that his actual place of birth was Cairo, Egypt. He lived with his uncle in Jerusalem after the death of his mother in 1933.
In the late 1950s, Arafat helped found the Fatah movement. Beginning as early as 1965, Fatah launched various terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. In 1969, Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO, an umbrella organization of various Palestinian groups of which Fatah was the largest. Attacks by various PLO groups become a key element of the Palestinian national movement under Arafat’s leadership.
He also kept the PLO front-and-center in the world’s news media. In 1970, the PLO wore out its welcome in Jordan after a rash of terrorist attacks, including several high-profile airliner hijackings. His eviction from Jordan sparked a civil war there, but Arafat simply moved his base of operations to Lebanon. In 1974, Arafat, wearing a gun, parlayed his notoriety and the divisions of the Cold War into an invitation to address the U.N. General Assembly.
The 1980s brought an uprising, or "intifada," in Israeli-occupied territories, as well as an Israeli intervention in Lebanon's roiling civil war. Arafat's PLO aligned with various Lebanese factions to resist the invasion before ultimately being evicted. Yet even in what appeared to be military defeat, Arafat's stature seemed to grow and a steady flow of diplomats and intermediaries made the trip to Tunis, the Tunisian capital and his now seat of exile, to explore the possibility of peace talks.
When talks finally began in the 1990s, Arafat agreed to put violence aside and pursue his aims politically. The 1993 Oslo Accords embodied this promise, and allowed Arafat and the PLO make a triumphant return to the West Bank and Gaza.
But the accords never really took root and mutual recriminations and, inevitably, violence followed. In July 2000, Arafat rejected a final bid to save the peace process in the form of a settlement offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Soon afterward, in September of that year, the second intifada was launched. He spent the last three years of his life under de facto Israeli house arrest in Nablus — a powerful symbol of how completely his legitimacy as a negotiator had collapsed.
The terror factor
In many ways, Arafat and his "Fatah" faction of the PLO were products of their times. During the Cold War, revolutionaries, Soviet-backed insurgents and even many western intellectuals regarded terrorism as a legitimate option for oppressed and overmatched peoples. Arafat, throughout his career, clung to this principle. Fatah and other PLO groups began using terror tactics in 1965, and the movement never relinquished its belief in the legitimacy of such attacks.
Some notable terrorist attacks perpetrated by the PLO and its offshoots include:
- The bombing of SwissAir flight 330 in mid-flight by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in February 1970. 47 people were killed.
- The slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September, 1972.
- The take over of the Saudi embassy in Sudan in March 1973, executing two American officials (U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and Charge d’ Affairs George Curtis Moore) and a Belgian citizen. U.S. intelligence officials say the National Security Agency has recordings of Arafat personally ordering the operation and the murder of the diplomats.
- The hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985, leading to the killing of a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer. Intelligence reports document that the instructions for the attack originated from Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis.
Since the launch of the "second intifada" in September 2000, Arafat-linked groups have been responsible for scores of terrorist attacks against innocent civilians. Documents captured by the Israelis show that Arafat and his cronies personally authorized payments to terrorists.
The "al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade," which has taken credit for many recent attacks, is regarded by counter-terrorism officials as merely the latest version of Fatah terrorists.
Arafat’s leadership of the PLO was characterized by shifting alliances and involvement in internal wars, within a number of countries and inside the PLO as well, in addition to his warfare with Israel.
After the 1967 war, the PLO set up bases in Jordan from which it launched attacks against Israel. The actions of the PLO destabilized the country, leading King Hussein to decide that he had to break the power of the PLO or risk losing his kingdom to the Palestinians. He
chose to attack the Palestinians, resulting in a carnage known as "Black September," after which the PLO relocated to Lebanon.
Arafat created a new bases in Lebanon from which he continued to launch attacks against
Israel. While deploying inside the small multiethnic country, Arafat’s forces engaged the Lebanese army and militias. Israel eventually responded in 1982 with an invasion of Lebanon, forcing the PLO, after the intervention of American, French and Italian peacekeeping troops, to relocate once again to Tunis.
From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, Arafat and the PLO have also routinely sided with the Soviet Union and its allies. Arafat famously backed the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. In 1990, he backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, one of the only leaders in the world to do so.
Arafat and his agreements
Throughout his time as Palestinian leader, Arafat consistently failed to live up to agreements negotiated with his foes. His aides point to Israeli intransigence, sometimes with solid evidence. Yet Arafat's own record is erratic at best. During his Lebanese era, the PLO signed two security agreements and dozens of cease-fire accords with their opponents. These commitments were constantly breached.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 and subsequent agreements throughout the decade insisted that Arafat stop engaging in terrorism. Numerous studies and reports have demonstrated his unwillingness to meet this commitment, unless more concessions are made. The ailing leader rejected a final, comprehensive peace offer in the summer of 2000, just as a new "intifada" exploded.
Despite previous treaties, the Palestinian legal and educational systems have not been reformed, nor have democratic institutions been properly implemented. Arafat has made only cosmetic changes to the system of dispensing Palestinian Authority funds, despite commitments to international organizations to make the system transparent.
Critics also accuse him of also failing to reform the security apparatus, insisting on retaining almost complete control over the various factions. His supporters reject these accusations as
unfair, but the uncertainty that surrounds his passing suggests that too much power remained in his hands.
Arafat’s history is bloody, long and complex. Too long, many would say, pointing to the havoc he set in motion and the agreements he flouted over the years. Yet he is loved by his sympathizers regardless of his failures. What will intrigue historians for decades is the wide gulf between his many faces, from Nobel Peace laureate and "father of the Palestinians, to the man who ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocents and, in the end, turned away from the chance to make a lasting peace between Israel and his people.
is an MSNBC analyst, a professor of Middle East studies, and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. Watch for his analysis on MSNBC Live, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET.