On the Death of Yasser Arafat

After a week in hospital, lying in a coma and suffering from a brain haemorrhage, President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasser Arafat has finally died. Yossi Schwartz, writing from Jerusalem, comments on his career.

Yasser Arafat was one of the world’s best-known leaders. According to his official biography (as published by the Palestinian information departments), he was born in the Old City of Jerusalem.

However, it is possible that Arafat was born in Cairo, Egypt. At least one of his biographers found his Egyptian birth certificate. When the Egyptian birth certificate was shown to him, he said it was a forgery. In any case, he was brought up in Cairo, by parents who emigrated from Palestine, but he insisted that he was born in Jerusalem and that his father forged his birth certificate so that he could attend Egyptian schools for free.

He was born in August 1929, two years after his father moved to Cairo in the hopes of inheriting a plot of land that in the past had belonged to one of the women in the family who was from the city.

It was far more fitting for the father of the Palestinian nation to have been born in Jerusalem, near Al-Aqsa and the Western Wall, where his mother’s family (Abu Saud) lived and where the three-year-old Arafat was sent after his mother, Zahawa, died in Cairo of a kidney ailment. He lived for a time with his mother’s family and in the house of his father’s family, al-Kidwa, in Gaza. He returned to Cairo after his father remarried. In any event, Arafat attended elementary and high school in Cairo – as is very evident from the Egyptian accent that he never managed to get rid of to his dying day. Young Palestinians who joined Fatah during the period of the 1967 Six-Day War and first met Arafat were in fact taken by surprise: How was it that the leader of the Palestinian revolution spoke like an Egyptian?

The formative experience of Arafat’s adolescent years in Cairo was his meetings with the group of Palestinian exiles who lived in the Egyptian capital at the end of the Second World War. They were headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who spent the war years in Berlin, and Sheikh Hassan Abu-Saud, a relative of Arafat’s (on his mother’s side).

Arafat, then 17, formed especially close ties with Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, one of the leading Palestinian organizers of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 against the Zionists and the British Mandate government in Palestine. Arafat spent a lot of time playing and reading verses of the Koran with Faisal Husseini, the son of Abd al-Kader, who would later become the PLO leader of Orient House in Jerusalem.

Arafat began engineering studies in the University of Cairo (then Fuad University) in the winter of 1948. The great shock of his first year as a student was the report, which reached him in mid-April, about the death of Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, who was killed in the battle for the Kastel outside Jerusalem.

Together with other Palestinian students Arafat decided to leave the university and join the Egyptian volunteers who were mobilizing for the war in Palestine. Arafat took part in the battle for Kfar Darom, in Gaza, but two weeks later the Egyptian army invaded Israel and ordered all the irregular forces to stop fighting so as not to disrupt the army’s operations. Arafat later described how his rifle, his personal weapon, was taken from him by the Egyptians.

Other young Palestinians who underwent similar experiences at the time afterward related how the Arab armies that entered the country disarmed them and prevented them from fighting. Arafat and his friends were witnesses to competition and quarreling among the Arab statesmen and commanding officers, and to the defeat they suffered in the war, which ended with the signing of the armistice agreements in 1949.

From the point of view of many Palestinians, including Arafat, the Arab rulers not only failed in the war, but compounded the affront by not allowing the Palestinians to see action. For years afterward, whenever he was asked what caused the Palestinian tragedy, Arafat replied: The Arabs betrayed us.

He was right of course that the Arab rulers under the British control did not fight to prevent the partition or help the Palestinians but acted as instrument of the British political game in the region. For this reason the Israeli state was able to defeat very easily the Arab states and in particular after the Zionists received arms from the Soviet Stalinists – weapons that were used not only to defeat the Arab armies but to expel close to one million refugees.

It was against this background that Arafat (like many other Palestinians of his generation) formulated a worldview after 1948 that the Arab regimes could not be relied upon and that their entire purpose was to exploit the Palestinian problem for their own profit.

Arafat concluded that the only way forward was Palestinian nationalism. During his political career, which began in 1950 as chairman of the Palestinian Students Organization at the University of Cairo and continued with the establishment of the Fatah organization in Kuwait in 1959, Arafat was embroiled in dozens of disputes and quarrels with almost every Arab leader. Yet even though he was in a position to take over Jordan and Lebanon he failed to do so because of his narrow nationalism.

He was imprisoned in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and pursued relentlessly in Jordan. Arafat found himself in a serious crisis of relations with the authorities in Egypt, after President Anwar Sadat signed a “peace” treaty with Israel. A treaty aimed at preparing the invasion of Lebanon.

The Fatah organization founded by Arafat and his colleagues carried out its first operation against an Israeli target – a section of the National Water Carrier in Galilee – on January 1, 1965.

Some two and a half years later, following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-Day War, the Palestinian organizations expanded their attacks on Israel, and the name of Yasser Arafat, head of Fatah, became known to the public at large in the spring of 1968.

At that time Arafat swore that he would liberate Palestine by using guerrilla methods. This turned out to be mostly terrorist acts that led Arafat to betray the Palestinian national cause. He led the nationalist movement to recognize Israel at the meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algeria, in 1988 and into a so called peace process that eventually led to the establishment of national Palestinian rule in a small part of the homeland.

In 1994, Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in order to found the autonomous regime enshrined in the Oslo accord of September 1993. In return for this fictional autonomy that in reality was an Israeli occupation, he agreed to return armed by Israel to secure the Israeli state against the aspirations of the Palestinians. For this purpose Arafat used his fame he had won in the battle of Karameh, in the eastern Jordan Rift Valley, then in Jordan, in which Arafat took part in March 1968. The battle raged a few hours, after which the Israeli troops were forced to retreat, leaving several tanks and military equipment in Jordanian territory. He also used the fame he gained during 1982 in Lebanon when Sharon failed to destroy the PLO and kill its leader. He was also elected president of the Palestinian Authority in free and democratic elections in 1996.

This “autonomy” turned out to be one big corruption and money making machine for Arafat and the people he brought with him from Tunis. The governmental departments were inefficient, wasteful and corrupt. Arafat continued his behavior from the underground period, by completely neglecting the handling of law and order. He introduced bribery in the system and cultivated thugs and corrupt individuals as confidants. Within a short time the Palestinian public was fed up with the national rule it had waited so long for.

This corruption was the necessary outcome of the betrayal of the anti-colonialist struggle and another verification of Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution. This theory explains that the capitalist class in the underdeveloped countries cannot lead a democratic revolution and that this task falls on the shoulders of the working class. The working class will carry out the democratic tasks once it takes power along side the socialist tasks.

After the outbreak of the new Intifada in 2000, Arafat was accused by the Israeli rulers of not genuinely pursuing the opponents of the agreement with Israel and of not restraining their terrorist activity. For this reason they restrained his movement in the Mukata.

Now Bush and the rulers of Israel are speaking of a new chance to form a new leadership that will keep its promise to support Israel and the imperialist order in the Middle East – what they call “peace” as against the Palestinians’ aspiration to be free in their homeland. Once again they prove that they cannot solve the national question and that their road is a blood-soaked road leading to hell. The Palestinian question is part of the democratic tasks of the entire Middle East including its reunification after it was divided by the imperialists following the outcome of the First World War.

The outcome of the war in Iraq against the imperialist occupation is going to have a great impact on the future of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is only a question of time before the US will be forced to leave the region as happened in Vietnam. This would lead to uprisings in the entire region against all the existing states. While in the short term the religious leadership is going to gain from it, due to the impotency of what appears today as the left, it opens the door for the appearance of a real revolutionary current. This will be a Marxist current fighting for the only solution in the Middle East, a solution that will bring real peace and progress: a socialist Federation of the Middle East with national autonomies to all the nations including the Palestinians, Israelis and Kurds.

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