Yasir Arafat, The Political Player: A Mixed Legacy

by Mamdouh Nofal on 01/03/2006

Part analysis, part first-hand account, this assessment of Yasir Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian movement emphasizes the dual nature of his persona: guerilla fighter and political pragmatist. With anecdotes drawn from his close association with Arafat dating back to the 1968 Battle of Karameh, the author attempts to untangle the Palestinian leader’s mixed legacy over his forty-year career, from leading guerilla operations against Israel, to entering into negotiations with it, to the Oslo period including the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and finally the conduct of the al-Aqsa intifada.

Journal of Palestine Studies

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SPEAK about the history of the Palestinian movement and the evolution of Palestinian politics in the second half of the twentieth century separately from Yasir Arafat’s personality and revolutionary biography. He remained unchallenged at the top of the Palestinian system for four decades, and he marked that entire period with a distinctively Arafatist stamp. It was he who decided the means of the struggle, the structure of the leadership, its mode of operation in domestic and foreign affairs. Whatever reservations one might have about his ultimate legacy, there is no denying his national achievements at a decisive phase of Palestinian history, particularly in restoring the name of Palestine to the geopolitical map, transforming the refugees into fighters for their own usurped rights, imposing a Palestinian presence onworld diplomacy, and laying the foundations for the establishment of a state. By the same token, many of the problems that continue to plague the Palestinian movement can be attributed to his monopolization of power and decision making. He created around himself an aura such that the person born with the name Muhammad ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Qudwa became a symbolic personality having two aspects: Abu Ammar the guerrilla, and Arafat the political pragmatist. Throughout his life, these two aspects of his persona would come up against each other, often at key moments.


Arafat understood early in his career that military action against Israel was theway to gain the attention of the masses, aswell as the means of wresting the representation of the Palestinians from the Arab states and returning it to the Palestinians themselves. He fired the first shot against Israel in 1965 despite the opposition of his comrades as to the timing. Immediately after the 1967 war he crossed into the West Bank and worked to build, organize, and train armed cells—a mission that did not fulfill all its objectives but that added to his legend. He rose to leadership on the strength of his military action and the resonance among the masses of his rallying cry of armed struggle, and he remained the leader of the Palestinian people until his death in November 2004.

It was at the time of his secret mission in the newly occupied West Bank that I first heard of him: rumors had spread that a Fatah leader, code named Abu Muhammad, had slipped across the Jordan River and was moving around Qabatiyya, Jenin, Bayt Furik, Ramallah, and Jerusalem trying to gather weapons and preaching armed struggle over political action, which he saidwas incapable of realizing Palestinian national goals. I did not actually meet him until the next year, in Jordan, just after the battle of Karameh in March 1968. A group of us military cadres had gathered in the small house where the bodies of the fighters fallen in combat were awaiting burial, and he addressed us there. I remember his saying that we were entering a new phase of the struggle and that it was up to us to capitalize on the way the revolution had taken root and had been consolidated with Karameh. I was then with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and I came to know him especially as of early 1969, when a splitwas developing within that movement. He encouraged our faction, which became the Popular Democratic Front (PDFLP), later the Democratic Front. The following year, I began to have regular contacts with him on matters of military coordination, since I was given military responsibilities in the new organization.

Arafat had charisma and a gift for establishing personal relations with the rank and file among the guerrillas. This won him their loyalty and consolidated his leadership. He soon emerged as the paramount leader of the resistance, with the leaders of the other movements deferring to him. As a leader, he was decisive and could change course quickly as the circumstances required and not look back. A good example of this was in the aftermath of the Palestinian defeat by the Jordanian army during Black September 1970. I was based at the time in Jerash, northern Jordan, with some other fighters. After the defeat, Abu Ammar went to Cairo where Gamal Abdel Nasser mediated an agreement between him and King Hussein. When he returned just after the meeting, he sent a car marked with the insignia of the Arab League Force, which had been allowed into Jordan after the fighting, to bring us to meet him in Dera‘a, just inside Syria near the Jordanian-Syrian border. I went with Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir), who was second in Fatah’s military command and in charge of organizing the transfer of troops to Dera‘a. Nayif Hawatmah, the head of the Democratic Front, and some other brothers were also at the meeting. Arafat told us what had happened in Cairo and we told him about the problems on the ground. After lunch, as we were leaving to return to Jerash, Abu Ammar called out to us, “Where do you think you’re going? It’s all over in Jordan! There is no return for us. Go to the mountain.” “What mountain?”we asked. “Mount Hermon,” he yelled back. “But Abu Ammar,” we protested, “We’re still in Jerash. All our fighters are there—wejust came here for the day to meet with you.” “No, no, no,” he shouted. “You’re crazy! The Jordanian page is turned. Go to Mount Hermon!”

And so it was: soon afterwards we were in the foothills of Mount Hermon. I had thirty or so fighters with me, along with cadres of the Democratic Front. We moved into the Shaba‘a sector—Habariyya, Kufr Shuba, and Kufr Hammam. From there we began to establish positions in southern Lebanon, and it was clear that Abu Ammar was encouraging us to move into the Arqub as a kind of staging area for the revolution—gradually we took control of the entire border region with Syria down to Hasbaya. Of course this couldn’t happen without some clashes with the Lebanese army. Abu Ammar firmly instructed us to avoid any loss of life and stressed that we should never humiliate the Lebanese soldier, but he did nothing to stop us from opening fire to clear the zone. From there, in a next phase, we began moving into the coastal region where the refugee camps were located.We also implanted ourselves, with our weaponry, in the camps in the north near Tripoli. All this took place under the cover of the 1969 Cairo agreements mediated by Nasser between the PLO and the Lebanese government. The agreements gave the Palestinian organizations not only the right of residence in Lebanon, but also the right to organize and to carry arms and to use southern Lebanon as a launching pad for the armed struggle in Palestine.

A lot of things can be said about Abu Ammar as a military leader, and many of the traits visible then became even more accentuated later. He cared very much about his men and comrades, but at the same time he never lost sight of his political priorities. I remember the night in April 1973 when the Israelis assassinated Kamal Nasser, Kamal Adwan, and Abu Yusuf al-Najjar in the very heart of Beirut. (Ehud Barak led the hit squad.) Abu Ammar called us at the Democratic Front headquarters, which the Israelis also attacked that night. He told us to come immediately because the Israelis had just killed Abu Yusuf and the two Kamals. We rushed to meet him. He was deeply and sincerely moved, but even while tears were streaming down his face, he was already making calls all over to organize a huge demonstration so that their deaths would serve the revolution.

It was during the Beirut period that Abu Ammar developed the distinctive work habits that he imposed on Palestinian action. He would work fifteen-hour days; midnight was the peak of his activity, when he had the clearest mind. This habit of working after midnight bothered many; Kamal Jumblatt once commented facetiously that the Palestinian leadership kept the same working hours as bargirls and nightclub entertainers. He had incredible energy, and there was no area in which he did not involve himself, no detail too small for his attention. He took as much interest in the condition of the fighters’ boots as he did in a speech by Brezhnev; he threw himself equally into the provisioning of the fedayeen and debates on strategy. He was capable of working nonstop, and he developed an extraordinary ability to sleep anywhere andunder whatever conditions, even for a few minutes; later, he made it a practice to sleep in his plane or even car. During the Beirut period, he often ended the night sitting around talking and laughing with Fatah cadres. He was a man who could laugh and cry practically at the same time. I personally saw him go from tears to laughter more than once.

Many of those who didn’t know Arafat seem to think that he was cruel and even bloodthirsty, but in fact he was rather peaceable on a personal level. He was adamant in his refusal to start down the path of liquidations. Despite all the crimes committed by Ahmad Jibril against the Palestinian movement, he categorically rejected the various proposals to get rid of him physically. One of these came from followers of Abu Abbas, who had broken away from Jibril’s PFLP–General Command to form the Palestine Liberation Front, a rival faction. In 1976, with the Lebanese civil war already in full swing and after the PLO’s break with Syria, Abbas’s followers approached Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), head of PLO security, and proposed the idea. In fact, Abu Iyad seriously considered it and mentioned it to Nayif Hawatmah in my presence. Hawatmeh said that Arafat had to be consulted on such a matter, to which Abu Iyad replied, “If we ask Abu Ammar, he’s going to refuse.” Nonetheless, I went to Fakhani (where the PLO offices were concentrated) to brief Abu Ammar, and sure enough, he went crazy with rage and began to yell. He got Abu Iyad on the telephone and told him that the liquidation of Jibril opened the way for the liquidation of Yasir Arafat, Abu Iyad, and all the other Palestinian leaders. He said itwould take us back to the bitter experience of the last stages of the Palestinian rebellion in 1936–39, when too many Palestinian figures were liquidated in internal fighting. He insisted that Jibril be escorted under guard, as soon as possible, to the nearest Syrian positions. (Jibril was being funded by Syria and seen as a Syrian stooge.)

Abu Ammar opposed even executions, and it was only on an exceptional basis that he agreed to the execution of an agent, say, or someone who had committed a really heinous crime.

Some objected to Arafat’s leniency in these matters, but he liked to boast that he was leading a humane and democratic revolution in the midst of a jungle of rifles and that he achieved the widest possible national unity. And it is true that to the end of his life he always insisted that the full range of viewpoints be expressed, and he made sure that everyone participated in the discussions. He made that an operating rule in the various PLO bodies—the National Council, the Central Council, the Executive Committee, and so on—and he was able to listen to endless internal debates even though many of them were quite tedious. Many militants in the various factions as well as intellectuals and independents complained that certain individuals, seen as having “crossed a line” or doing damage to the cause, were nonetheless represented in the leadership. But he was unmovable on this point and insisted that everyone had to be represented. Of course, in the end he was the one who made the decisions.

The Palestinian revolution remained in Lebanon for over ten years, but what finally happened was inevitable. In theory, Arafat had adopted the slogan ofnonintervention in the internal affairs of Arab states, but all our actions contradicted that principle. He interfered in the internal affairs of a number of states, and this interference led to our forced departure from Jordan and Lebanon. Almost from the start, our presence in Lebanon provoked Israeli raids and scorched earth tactics targeting the country. By the early 1970s, and especially after the October 1973 war, the Lebanese army began to harass the Palestinians there and began trying to roll back the Cairo agreements on the ground. Abu Ammar fought all these attempts and began to move closer to Kamal Jumblatt and the Lebanese National Movement, which had been defending the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and which had its own quarrels with the Lebanese government. Soon we were deeply embroiled with the National Movement in the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975. Characteristically, however, Abu Ammar took care not to break the tenuous link that remained with the other side, keeping a channel of communication open with the Phalangists. (He used to laugh at the joke told about him, according to which he refused during the pilgrimage at Mecca to throw the required seventh stone at the Devil, just in case the Devil might get back into God’s good graces.)

He had an uncanny sense of security. More than once during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 we would be at a meeting and suddenly he would say that the meeting was over and that we had to leave. And more than once, just minutes after we had cleared out, the Israelis would shell the very place where we had been meeting. He insisted on supervising his own security. He was a fatalist, but at the same time he believed in the dictum “Use reason and then set out on your way.” After Oslo, he became more relaxed, but in his last days he suspected that he had been poisoned and wondered aloud if his enemies, whom he did not name, had succeeded in penetrating his security arrangements and finally gotten him.

Arafat took care to continue his practice of cultivating and maintaining personal relationships with the rank and file, which was the backbone of his support. During the civil war, he and Abu Jihad made it a point of honor to visit the most forward Palestinian military post on the front every day. If they were not able to get there during the day, they went at night. I remember the day the Israelis occupied the Beirut airport. I was with Abu Jihad, and he said “Let’s go.” Whenwe got to the farthest positions, Abu Ammarwas already there. Through such means he succeeded in creating a hard core of loyalists inside Fatah, the PLO, and later in the Palestinian Authority (PA), to the point that one can speak of “Arafatists” among the fighters or former fighters, men who would support him regardless of whether he was right or wrong. He loved to hear the chant “with our blood, with our souls, we will defend you, Arafat,” or “We are your men, Abu Ammar.” He loved hearing such chants even when they were uttered by hypocrites.

Arafat always took to heart the collective national dignity of the Palestinian people. A good example of this was during the PLO’s evacuation from Beirut. With Israel’s long siege of the city in summer 1982, it was clear that the PLO’s days in Lebanon were numbered: one of Israel’s conditions for lifting the siegewas our departure. Indirect negotiationswere mediated by the American envoy Philip Habib, and one of the proposals for our evacuation was that we turn in our weapons and leave in Red Cross ships. The leadership discussed this proposal at a meeting, and I remember that Jibril argued thatwe should go along with it because if we got out alive, the revolution would be safe and everything would still be possible. At this point Arafat got up and said he wanted to gather his thoughts and pray, and left the room.We were a bit surprised. Certainly, he was a believer, but not a fanatical or a rigid one. (For example, we used to eat and smoke in front of him during Ramadan. He fasted and we didn’t. He prayed and we didn’t.) When he came back, he said, “Paradise draws near,” and turned down the offer. So the Palestinian fighters continued to hold out in Beirut until a more honorable agreement was reached that allowed us to leave with our weapons. Sa‘ad Sa‘il (Abu Walid), director of military operations of the PLO forces in Lebanon, and I were put in charge of the preparations for leaving. We wanted to organize a secret departure for Abu Ammar, but he categorically refused. “It’s God who protects me. I want to leave with head high, with an honor guard, and in front of everyone.” And that is what happened.

Abu Ammar’s control of the military apparatus continued to be one of the mainstays of his power. As the leader of Fatah’s military force, ‘asifa (meaning “storm”), he had always insisted on being the sole link to the guerrilla cadres and prevented the members of the Fatah’s Central Committee from having such links. During battles, he made sure to remain personally in constant contact with the rank and file and commanders in the field. For example, during thewar of the camps in Lebanon from 1984 to 1989, he bought special communication equipment for each camp and personally maintained direct communication with key people. After the martyrdom in Tunis of Abu Iyad and Abu al-Hol (Ha’il ‘Abd al-Hamid, Fatah’s security chief) in 1991, he tightened his grip on the security apparatuses even further. And until he died, he never let go of them.


Arafat tirelessly promoted the idea of “armed struggle,” but early on he recognized that the solution to the Palestine problem could only be political; for him, armed struggle was a means to a political solution. Not long before the October 1973 war, Abu Ammar went to Cairo, where he, along with Abu Iyad and Abu Lutuf (Faruq al-Qaddumi), head of the PLO political department, met with Sadat. When he returned, he told us that war was imminent. No one believed him. No one took Sadat seriously at the time, including the man in the street, since Sadat had repeatedly been announcing war and kept putting it off. But Abu Ammar insisted, to the point that he called a “war council” in the Arkub, southern Lebanon, to map out a plan for Palestinian participation. Besides Arafat, the meeting was attended by Zuhayr Muhsin of Sa‘iqa (a Syrian-controlled Palestinian militia); Sa‘ad Sa‘il, at the time commander of the Palestine Liberation Army’s Yarmuk Brigade; a representative of the PFLP; aFatah officer; andmyself. Abu Ammar’s tacticwas to prevent or delay any Israeli attempt to advance towards Mount Hermon, and to back up Syrian troops if they got that far. Obviously such restricted operations would have little military value, but the point was to allow Abu Ammar to say that he had opened a front in southern Lebanon. This in turn would enable him to take part in the search for political solutions. It was really at that time that he began to focus his efforts in that direction. When the Palestinianswere invited to the Egyptian- Israeli talks at Mena House in December 1977, Arafat very much wanted to go. But he did not get his way; not only were the Soviets, the Syrians, and other Arab states strongly opposed to the negotiations (the Saudi leadership’s advice against the move had particular weight), but the Palestinian factions strongly resisted his inclination to attend.

Even when statehood seemed an impossible dream, Arafatwas keen to create the position of head of state, for he was not immune to the prestige surrounding recognized sovereign leadership. He felt empowered to pursue this goal after the international reception of the Palestinian peace initiative adopted by the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in Algiers in November 1988, which included for the first time formal acceptance of the two-state solution, and the start of the PLO-American dialogue a month later. So in April 1989 he began a long arduous campaign to get himself elected president of the state of Palestine. He did not consult with his comrades in Fatah. When Abu Iyad and members of the PLO Central Council objected to theway hewas going about it, he shouted: “I did not get where I am thanks to inheritance or a military coup, but through my own efforts and hard work!” He then submitted his resignation as a kind of blackmail. This was the first and last time he ever submitted his resignation, and he withdrew it after the council members, sent into a spin, covered themselves with self-criticism and declared, “Forgive us, and we will elect you leader forever.” He was thus elected president by consensus, with the major exception of Abu Iyad. Later, when he became president of the PA, his love for all the trappings of power could be extended, and ranged from traveling in private jets, meeting withworld leaders, andwalking on red carpets all theway to making people stay up all night in marathon sessions, having his bodyguards salute him in front of guests, and keeping guerrilla cadres and political leaders waiting for hours before they got to see him.

After the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Arafat welcomed the first Bush administration’s peace initiative (though, typically, he did so without waiting for the response of other Palestinian leaders). He facilitated the convening of the Madrid Peace Conference even though the PLO was expressly excluded from participating. The PLOwas also banned fromtaking part in the negotiations that were to be held in Washington, DC, after the conference; at the insistence of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Palestinian delegation, which would officially be part of the Jordanian delegation, was to be exclusively from the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat accepted these conditions in order to avoid more Palestinian losses and to rescue the PLO, which at the timewas a pariah because of its perceived support of Saddam Hussein during the war.

But although he agreed to the Madrid rules, he greatly feared that the Palestinian negotiating team in Washington could evolve into an alternative leadership and marginalize the role of the PLO and himself. His main preoccupation became to make certain this did not happen, and, as was his custom, he set about modifying the conditions little by little. He cultivated the members of the team by various methods (even to such details as defending the astronomical telephone bills of certain of the members) to make sure of their loyalty—which in any case had never been in question. He insisted on taking full charge of the most minute details of the talks, giving instructions by telephone 24 hours a day. And knowing that the Americans were tapping his telephone conversations, he pushed the negotiating team led by Faisal Husseini and Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi to take uncompromising positions. The message he wished to convey was clear: Arafat was in full charge of the negotiations, the team reported every move to him, and no concessions could be made without his green light.

Parallel to this public role aimed at demonstrating the centrality of the PLO and the unity between the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the leadership outside, Arafat never stopped pushing for secret negotiations. “Negotiations by twenty people can’t go anywhere,” he said. “We need secret, parallel negotiations for progress to be made.” But all his attempts to open secret channels failed as long as Shamir was in office. When Rabin became prime minister, the intifada was still continuing and the Americans were pressing for movement in the peace talks. Rabin wanted to get out of the impasse without having to deal directly with the PLO, so he put forward several proposals to the Palestinian negotiators in Washington that had some promise. The Washington team categorically refused them. I remember saying to Arafat at the time: “Brother Abu Ammar, why don’t you let the delegation from the inside reach an agreement?We can then build on their achievement and continue negotiating ourselves in the name of the PLO to obtain another agreement.” But he replied: “This would be a big mistake. You are too good-intentioned. If the negotiating team signs an agreement, the Americans and the world community will consider them an alternative to the PLO. They will replace us and we will have to leave the party, without getting a single crumb.”

With the Palestinians not budging, the impasse continued, and the Israelis, encouraged by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, began to send out feelers to the PLO. Arafat sent his emissaries to exploratory meetings with Israeli emissaries while simultaneously ordering the Washington team to harden their positions. With the help of this orchestrated “intransigence,” the Israelis finally realized that they would have to negotiate directly with the PLO, and eventually the Palestinian hook caught the edge of the thread at Oslo and the secret talks got underway. Arafat, suspicious as always, was not content simply to rely on the minutes of the negotiations and what Abu Mazin (Mahmud Abbas) and Abu Ala’ (Ahmad Qurai‘) told him. He sent a special deputy whose mission was to inform him of every exchange, hour by hour. He gave instructions as if he were present himself, once again conveying to the other party that he was the sole decision-maker. Given this situation, and without downplaying therole of Abu Mazin or Abu Ala’, there is no doubt that the real architect of the Oslo agreements was Arafat. This was the pattern for all the agreements that followed.

At Oslo, Arafat wanted to reach an agreement as soon as possible and to obtain Israeli recognition of the PLO. He was convinced that this recognition would inevitably lead to Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state. Similarly, he was convinced that the PLO’s return even to a small part of Palestinian territory—hewas overjoyed when he got Israel to concede redeployment from Jericho and Gaza—inevitably meant that Israelwould eventually withdrawfrom all the occupied territories. It was this conviction that led him—and the Oslo team—not to scrutinize the text of the Oslo agreement very carefully. He had supreme confidence in his ability to change the rules of the game after accepting them, just as he had done at Madrid when he agreed to the PLO’s exclusion from the Washington talks, only to impose its participation later. He thought things were in his hands. I remember at the time the Oslo accords were signed, he waved his red pen and said: “A signature from this pen means a Palestinian state, a signature from someone else means . . . God knows!” Later, in talking about the Oslo agreements and what might follow, he said: “In 1969 in Lebanon, I took a small agreement [the 1969 Cairo accords] and expanded it until it became a quasi-state, which the Lebanese called ‘the Fakhani state.’” He forgot that Rabin was not Lebanese president Sulayman Franjieh, that Israel was not Lebanon, and that the circumstances of the Cairo Agreement in 1969 were very different from those of the Oslo Accord in 1993.


Arafat had paid no attention to the opposition to the Oslo agreement as he left forWashington in September 1993, just as he did not paymuch attention to the resignations of some members of the PLO Executive Committee. And once back from the White House, his monopolization of power and the solitary nature of his leadership grew. He cared even less now about the leadership organs of the movement, and the PLO Executive Committee, the Fatah Central Committee, and the leadership in general came to have a largely formal existence. Abu Ammar paralyzed thework of the Negotiations Committee thatwas supposed to coordinate the talks overall, and himself took over all the reins of diplomacy— in the wake of the signing, he was convinced that a just and final solution was right around the corner. He appreciated that Oslo had become possible as a result of the intersection of regional and international interests, and he believed that this was sufficient to guarantee implementation of the agreement as written. Itwas a rude awakening when Rabin made clear that therewere “no sacred dates” with regard to the Oslo timetable, and when the United States went along with the Israeli position.

Once back in Palestine, he purposely confused membership of the PLO Executive Committee with the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet. He adamantly refused to separate the two bodies and was angered when it was suggested thatthe presidency of the PA and of the PLO should be enough and that he should not also head the cabinet. He mixed the work of both bodies and left important national work neglected, forcing the PA and the PLO into a complicated and problematic relationship that has yet to be resolved.

There is no need to dwell on PA governance, Arafat’s one-man rule, or the deep flaws of the successive Oslo agreements that soon became apparent. But despite the growing disenchantment and criticism, Arafat remained to a surprising extent immune to direct criticism, as if he were above the fray. This was probably largely due to the extent to which he and the movement had become intertwined, the way he had come to be seen as symbolizing the Palestinian struggle. But therewere other reasons aswell. Hewas a manipulator of the first order, especially when it came to internal struggles. He was able by the force of his personality and prestige to carry on a number of balancing acts inside Fatah and in the wider Palestinian arena that would be difficult for his successors to maintain. He was faced with numerous attempts, internal and external, to destabilize his position, but his flexibility, Machiavellianism, and his maneuvering and tactical skills—as well as his control of key functions— enabled him to overcome the efforts to chip away at his power and to transform him into a symbolic figure denuded of authority. His control of security has already been discussed. As for the press, he cultivated it—or at least the Arab press—almost immediately after the June 1967 defeat. Just as he maintained direct links with the various parts of the security apparatus, so he insisted that television, radio, newspapers, and the press agency be directly linked to “the Office of the President.” He dealt directly with the press even though there was an information minister after the PA was established, and a head of the department of culture and information during the PLO era.

In short, Arafat understood from the outset that security, information, and money are the major cornerstones of leadership. He therefore controlled them all tightly and was very skilled in channeling them to strengthen his power and serve the cause. He used money to influence the positions of the different Palestinian groups, of individuals, and of international and Arab public opinion. He approved the share of Arab government contributions that was to go to each PLO member organization and continued to control the funds, sometimes refraining from disbursing the allotted sum and forcing the beneficiaries to come and see him countless times. He saw in financial independence a source of rebellion against his decisions and insisted that all financial assistance be channeled through him. He clashed with Faisal Husseini and castigated him for taking direct assistance fromthe Saudis and other Gulf countries, assistance that Husseini used to preserve the Arabness of Jerusalem. He resisted forcefully all individual or institutional efforts to establish financial independence and obtain foreign funding, even if it were to help the children of martyrs, pave roads, or build hospitals.

He paid regularly or on a one-time basis large sums to high-level political and social personalities as well as to marginal groups. He also would grant aid to political parties and liberation movements in Africa and Latin America and toopposition parties in Arab countries whose regimes were on bad terms with him. Yet he never built a serious Palestinian institute for studies and research that could help him make decisions.

There is no doubt that many conmen and thieves benefited from Arafat’s financial decisions, but so did many people in the fields of health and education. He never refused a request for help, whether from a Fatah cadre or an ordinary citizen, including disbursing assistance for weddings, divorces, house rents, or car purchases. But despite everything, no one can deny that the bulk of the budget of “the Office of the President” went to building support for the Palestinian cause and to neutralizing its enemies.

Before the creation of the position of prime minister in the PA, Arafat’s interference in financial matters had no limits—his decisions invariably violated financial and administrative rules and regulations. The overall budget of “the Office of the President” was more than $80 million annually before the appointment of a finance minister with financial expertise who had no ties to any political party or group. Following this appointment, the budget contracted, and some of the presidential grants, such as houses, were transformed into public property, with the beneficiary having use of it only.


Even after he returned to Palestine as head of the PA, Arafat never gave up his guerrilla persona. He continued to the very end to wear his military uniform and would remind people in his speeches of his readiness to resume the struggle if necessary. “Those of you who are tired of the struggle,” hewould say, “can send me your children in your stead, so that I can continue the journey with them.”

Arafat’s refusal to abandon his guerrilla prerogative was not only rhetorical, and he was not above using it to achieve political ends. The first clear instance of this was the “September rising” or the “Battle of the Tunnel” in September 1996, after the Likud ousted Labor from power at the end of May 1996. The new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, immediately began sabotaging Oslo, refusing to meet with Arafat and refusing to resume negotiations. Specifically, he refused to honor Israel’s commitment under Oslo to redeploy from Hebron. At the same time, he voided Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s October 1993 letter of assurances promising that Palestinian institutions could continue operating in East Jerusalem. He then made further progress on Oslo contingent on closing three PA offices, and when Arafat complied on 26 August, he set new conditions. With popular frustration already reaching the breaking point as a result of months of closure, stepped up settlement expansion, and the Hebron and Jerusalem issues, Arafat concluded that the world was not going to do anything to help and that the Palestinians would have to take action themselves. He started mobilizing the people against the Israeli government. In a speech before the legislative council on 29 August 1996 he called for a general strike. Next he went to Nablus, where, meeting at the Balata refugeecamp with refugee representatives of the area, he began sounding the alarm of “al-Aqsa in danger,” citing Israel’s plans to change Jerusalem’s demographic composition. In the weeks that followed, he emphasized that Jerusalem historically had been placed in Palestinian hands for safekeeping and that it was the Palestinians’ duty to defend and protect it.

Against this background, the Israeli government on 24 September opened a tunnel excavated along the entireWestern side of the Haram al-Sharif enclosing the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosques, which Netanyahu declaredwas intended as a “message” to the Palestinians that Israel is the sole sovereign in Jerusalem. With outraged Palestinians in the Haram area scuffling with Israeli police and throwing stones at Jews praying at the wall, Arafat immediately called a general strike for the following day, mobilized his press machinery, dispatched letters to world leaders, and demanded that Islamic countries react forcefully to the tunnel opening. But while there is no doubt that Arafat cared deeply about Jerusalem, and that something had to be done to respond to a provocation involving an issue as explosive as the Haram, at the same time there is little doubt that his quick resort to militancy was closely related to the negotiating stalemate.With demonstrations breaking out in the major Palestinian towns during the general strike the following day, he gave the green light for the Fatah militias and security apparatuses to move on Israeli positions, encouraging demonstrators to do likewise. When the Israelis opened fire, the Palestinian police, for the first time since the establishment of the PA, fired back in self-defense and to defend the public. The situation deteriorated almost into open warfare between Israel and the PA. During the five days of clashes, 56 Palestinians and 14 Israelis fell. But as a result, Netanyahu, under American pressure, resumed contacts with the Palestinians, asking Arafat to calm the situation and to resume the Israeli- Palestinian security meetings. Arafat responded accordingly and the clashes stopped after the American administration arranged for a meeting between him and Netanyahu and negotiations resumed. Several months later, in January 1997, the two parties signed the Hebron Protocols, under which Israel partially withdrew from Hebron, though not from the Old City.

The military card was deployed again after the al-Aqsa intifada broke out, with disastrous results. Aswas the case with the fighting that broke out over the tunnel opening, Jerusalem was again the flashpoint. On 28 September 2000, two months after the failure of the Camp David talks, Ariel Sharon, then head of the opposition, visited the Haram al-Sharif in the company of 2,000 Israeli soldiers. Palestinians exploded in anger over Sharon’s visit, especially since alarm over the Haram had reached new heights at Camp David, when Israel for the first time, and with apparent U.S. backing, explicitly claimed sovereignty over the sacred compound. With Sharon’s visit, people went down to the streets and confronted the occupation soldiers with stones. That same evening, Arafat called the leadership to an emergency meeting and said: “Barak has justlaunched the ‘Field of Thorns’ operation. The Battle for Jerusalem, which began at Camp David, has just been transported here, on the ground, by Sharon’s visit. The Aqsa mosque is in danger. And God is my witness that I conveyed the message.” He clarified that he had asked Barak, in the presence of Abu Mazin and Abu Ala’, not to allow Sharon’s visit and that Barak had refused. At the end of the meeting, a communiqu´e was issued holding the Israeli government responsible for Sharon’s visit and the defilement of the Haram and calling on the public to “line up tightly and to unify in the face of the impending aggression against our holy places.”

Later that same night, Arafat presided over a meeting of the High National Security Council. He predicted that the battle would be long and declared that Sharon’s visit had been intended to provoke a clash. He added: “Our fate is to defend our holy places, and we cannot run away from our fate.” He outlined his strategy which consisted of increasing the number of security guards around the Haram, organizing uninterrupted night patrols there, and preparing for the defense of all PA areas. Members of the council expressed concern about the role of Hamas and the possibility of its taking over the resistance movement, but Arafat cut them off, saying that the battle would be long and that the issue was the protection of the Aqsa mosque, not who would lead the struggle. After hostilities escalated, some EU members and the American administration began trying to arrange an Arafat-Barak meeting in the presence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Rumors of impending diplomacy led Hamas to publish, on 3 October, a communiqu´e calling for Arafat’s removal from power for compromising with the occupier. Fatah instantly accused Hamas of collaboration by playing into Israel’s hand, and Hamas retracted with a statement that “the irresponsible calls to remove President Arafat do not express either the position or the policy of our movement.”

The Arafat-Barak meeting did in fact take place, in Paris, and although itwas a failure Arafat came away with the notion that it was possible to pursue political and diplomatic tracks at the same time as the intifada. Military action increased and Arafat did not try to stop it. Fatah’s internal directive in the early months of the uprising calling on its men to “use weapons sparingly, economize on munitions, and preserve the clandestinity of actions” clearly bore the imprint of Arafat. The directive, certainly a turning point, also declared the intifada to be “a strategic choice for liberation.” Israel immediately issued a declaration that “the Israeli forces will strike whoever violates Israel’s security. Arafat bears full responsibility for Fatah’s dangerous direction.” Arafat ignored such threats, seeing the violence as a mechanism for diplomatic pressure and seriously misjudging Palestinian capabilities. Even Clinton’s anger at him for refusing to cede to U.S. pressures at the Sharm al-Shaykh summit in mid-October, which worsened his relations with the American administration, did not lead him to tread more carefully: he thought that the intifada would be enough to influence the American position. He did not deny Barak’s accusation that he had given the green light for Palestinian use of weapons. Barak’s own escalation, which included IDF bombing of Palestinian security buildings from the land, air, andsea strengthened extremist Palestinian positions, and the Palestinians in turn stepped up military action. Again, Arafat did not stop them.

When Barak was forced to hold early elections, Arafat, despite U.S. and EU pleas, made no gesture that might have helped Barak win the elections. Like the Palestinian Islamists, he was convinced that a Sharon victory wouldn’t last and that once Sharon was pushed out of power it would be easier to convince the Israeli public that the only way out of the impasse was to recognize Palestinian national rights. Even when it became clear that Sharon was very firmly in place and could obstruct further negotiations without significant U.S. objections, Arafat and the Palestinian leadership did not trim their sails: when supporters of the militarization of the intifada stepped up operations against Israeli civilians, Arafat did not try to hold them back but merely restated his commitment to the peace process and called for the resumption of negotiations where they left off at Camp David and Taba, ignoring the fact that even Labor was no longer interested. Meanwhile Israel continued to escalate its own military action against the Palestinians, and with Arafat refusing to accept its demands, it was able to portray its attacks on the Palestinians as self-defense. Palestinian suicide operations against Israeli civilians continued even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and against the Pentagon, making it all the easier for Sharon to stick the terrorist label on all forms of legitimate Palestinian struggle. Soon Israelwas deploying F-15s and F-16s, helicopter gunships, tanks, and heavy artillery in its assaults on Palestinian infrastructure and laying siege to Palestinian towns. The massive destruction continued for the next three and a half years. The attacks particularly targeted Palestinian security and police forces and their positions and offices.

Arafat, as is well known, spent almost the last three years of his life a virtual prisoner in Ramallah: from December 2001 until he was allowed to leave for medical treatment in Paris days before his death, he remained confined to his headquarters, the Muqata, even while it was being shelled and destroyed from under him. He believed that his treatment was punishment for the position he took at Camp David. When the Israeli siege of his headquarters began, and the international community did nothing to help him, he said: “I know that the siege will be long and that I am paying the price for my refusal to surrender to Israeli terms at Camp David.” In fact, he had surprised many Palestinians, who had expected him to agree to major concessions, by making good on his promise to the PLO Central Council before leaving for Camp David: “We are going to fight a harsh battle, which I and my comrades will fight in your name, and we shall not concede our rights.” He also made a statement that “neither Arafat nor any other leader can concede our rights in Jerusalem, and the rights of the refugees that have been guaranteed by international legitimacy.”

Clinton had bitterly accused Arafat of being responsible for the dire consequences of the failure of Camp David, angrily telling him as he was leaving for home, “Go, and have your people receive you like a hero.” And the people did receive him like a hero. At massive rallies in Gaza and Ramallah, he told them, “When I was at Camp David, your image was before my eyes and your solid will was my biggest help to remain steadfast in the face of the pressure put upon us. It is with your stamina that we resisted and we shall continue our journey.” The Palestinian opposition understood then that Arafat’s concessions and flexibility during Oslo’s interim phase did not apply when it came to the final status issues. And whatever the ultimate consequences, he was right to refuse the Camp David offer: with regard to borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, Clinton’s “parameters” at the end of December 2000, five months after Camp David, as well as the Israeli proposals at Taba in January 2001, were far better for the Palestinians than anything that was suggested at Camp David.

* * * * *

Arafat leaves a very mixed legacy. He resisted facts that he did not like and would not give in easily, and as the leader with almost exclusive power of decision-making, he cannot be exonerated for mistakes that made it easier for the enemies of the Palestinians to achieve their goals. He exaggerated his own weight in Arab decision-making as well as the influence of the Palestinian revolution and the PLO on the Arab street, which resulted in serious errors of judgment. He failed to check the escalation that led to the military confrontation in Jordan in 1970, resulting in the massacre of Black September. He failed to prevent the Palestinian movement from becoming embroiled in Lebanon’s confessional conflict, resulting in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in 1976. His support, however ambiguous it may have been, of Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War led to the expulsion of close to 300,000 Palestinians from the Gulf. His haste to conclude a deal with Israel and his carelessness in negotiating the Oslo accords and those that followed, his failure to recognize the consequences of a Sharon victory, his inadequate reading of the potential impact of 9/11 on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and his implicit support of the militarization of the intifada all cost the Palestinians dearly.

On the other hand, despite the many criticisms that can be made of his autocratic style in running the government and of his negative attitudes toward institution-building, not even his greatest detractors can deny that he helped rouse a nation from its torpor, uniting his people under the banner of the PLO and giving them pride in their identity. He was the one who raised the olive branch at the UN General Assembly in the early 1970s, when glorification of armed struggle was at its height. He was crucial in winning acceptance at the 1974 PNC for a phased program opening the way for a two-state solution. He was the one who limited the goal of statehood to the West Bank and Gaza and who pushed the Palestinian peace initiative recognizing Israel through the Algiers PNC in 1988. He was the only person capable of violating taboos, such as his agreement in 1996 to abrogate the almost sacred Palestinian National Charter. And he would have been the only leader able to carry the burden of signing agreements on final status issues involving historic concessions.

Those of us who were with him during his “detention” in the Muqata will long remember what he said after the siege began: “We signed the Oslo agreements and we returned to our homeland determined to build a lasting peace. But we found an Israeli society that was not mature enough for peace, and an Israeli leadership, shortsighted and full of arrogance, which thought it could transform peace into pure surrender.”


Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XXXV, No. 2 (Winter 2006), pp. 1–16 ISSN: 0377-919X; electronic ISSN: 1533-8614. C _ 2006 by the Institute for Palestine Studies. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.