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Abu Ammar: The Palestinian National Movement Personified

Rafeef Ziadah and Ahmed Nimer
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    The death of Yasser Arafat has brought forth hundreds of commentaries on a man who for decades personified the Palestinian liberation struggle. The vast range of assessments offered in these obituaries indicate that Arafat - or Abu Ammar as he was known by his nom de guerre - was no simple figure. His long history at the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the organization he helped found, Fatah, was more recently overshadowed by his leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

The stunned disbelief and grief of Palestinians from around the world that greeted his death provide testament to his charismatic and iconic status. The modern Palestinian national movement is inextricably linked to his figure. The PLO under his leadership became the symbol of Palestinian defiance and established that Palestinians were one people with a unified struggle. Arafat would often refer to the 1968 Battle of Karameh as an example of the Palestinian will to fight against superior odds. Though suffering enormous casualties, Palestinian fedayeen (fighters) managed to repel an Israeli invasion of their base in Jordan. Palestinians emerged from the battle as no longer solely victims of Israeli aggression, but as fighters engaged in resistance. Politically it galvanized the population, establishing the centrality of armed struggle in the Palestinian movement. Prior to Arafat's leadership, the PLO was a moribund organization of self-serving Arab elites who preferred words to action. The Battle of Karameh and other fedayeen actions turned a displaced and dispersed nation of refugees into resistance fighters. Arafat's contribution was to take Palestinian liberation out of the hands of Arab regimes and put Palestinians in charge of their own struggle. Peasants to revolutionaries One of the key elements of Zionist strategy has always been the atomisation of the Palestinian nation into disparate groups, each facing different political situations and capacities to struggle. Like all colonialist projects, Zionism attempted not just to displace the indigenous Palestinian population, but also to destroy any sense of a cohesive Palestinian national identity. As one example, Israel banned the Palestinian flag in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and threatened up to 10 years imprisonment for anyone displaying it. The actions of Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon and elsewhere during the 1970s and 80s resisted this Zionist strategy. Illegal broadcasts from the Voice of Palestine radio station and other banned publications brought news of the struggle to those who remained inside historic Palestine. Palestinians turned from "peasants to revolutionaries" (as an excellent book by Rosemary Sayigh on the period describes it). Arafat led this movement for forty years. It was, however, much broader than him alone. During the years of guerrilla warfare the PLO had a strong and diverse leadership, which Israel (and the Arab regimes) worked consistently to destroy. The names of those assassinated in this period are still commemorated by Palestinians today: Ghassan Kanafani, Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, Dalal Al Mughrabi amongst many others. Moreover, tens of thousands of martyrs gave their lives to the struggle during this time. The Oslo disaster After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the PLO's exile to Tunis, faced with the weakening of support following the collapse of the USSR and the first US invasion of Iraq, Arafat committed to what many regard as his greatest mistake - the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. While initially greeted with optimism by many on the ground, it quickly became clear that this was the culmination of an Israeli strategy to set up a system of Palestinian bantustans governed by a Palestinian leadership beholden to Israeli political and economic largesse. Palestinians would be given the fig leaf of autonomy, but real control would lie with the Israeli government. Central to this process was the rampant corruption that spread throughout the Palestinian Authority. Contrary to the Zionist apologetics that feign concern for the "stolen billions of the Palestinian people", Israel vigorously promoted the systemic corruption that accompanied the Oslo agreements. Israel deliberately fostered economic agreements where certain Palestinian businessman linked to the Palestinian Authority were granted privileged access to Israeli markets and goods. In addition, a permit system was established where Israel used a carrot-and-stick approach to ensure cooperation with the Israeli occupation. Man of peace It was during this period that Arafat was embraced by Israel and the imperialist powers as a man of "peace". Under his leadership the Palestinian Authority arrested political opponents from the left and Islamic movements and signed a series of disastrous agreements with Israel. With the West Bank and Gaza Strip cut off from one another, movement restrictions enforced by Israeli checkpoints and permits, and no independent economic development, Palestinians became reliant upon the Palestinian Authority for livelihood and income. Ministries were characterized by rampant nepotism with loyalties guaranteed through preferential access to the minister or other people in power. Arafat was completely aware of this corruption and in many cases encouraged it to take place. In 1996, while meeting with Birzeit University students who were protesting corruption, he uttered a phrase that he was to repeat often to those who asked him about the matter, "When walking through mud it is better to wear dirty boots." Arafat himself though, lived a frugal and modest life. He never displayed wealth or concerned himself with material possessions for self-gain. His life was completely absorbed with the Palestinian struggle and he worked tirelessly on every detail of that struggle. His leadership style was open in the sense that he was always meeting with delegations and individuals from around the country. He would personally address the concerns of individuals who came to see him. TV footage would often show a large pile of papers stacked next to him - authorizations awaiting his individual approval. Complicated political terrain While his methods of rule often provoked complaint and controversy within the PLO, Arafat's leadership was, in many ways, itself a product of trying to forge national unity amongst a body of diverse forces. Navigating a complicated political terrain of different political factions, Arab governments, and the demands from within his own political movement, Fatah, Arafat was able to retain leadership and ensure loyalty. While this centralization of power was often criticized by Palestinians, it is not a simple question of 'democracy' as many foreign observers argued. Arafat held together a movement that was composed of a variety of wildly contradictory forces. An old saying in Palestine states that "Fatah can be any color you want," meaning that any political persuasion could find a home in Fatah. In this environment, Arafat performed the Herculean task of keeping this movement together, broadly centred on the goal of a Palestinian state. The two sides of Fatah It is this contradictory character of Fatah that explains the wide variety of assessments that have been made of Arafat's life. On the one hand, Fatah represents a genuine commitment to national liberation, a willingness to sacrifice and fight using all means available. It is this side of Fatah that the Palestinian people were mourning in the days following Arafat's death. It holds an integral and proud position in Palestinian history, beginning with the early days of guerrilla struggle led by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders in the early 1960s. The other side of Fatah is the face of corruption and willingness to relinquish the long-held goals of the Palestinian struggle. Rumours abound in Palestine over those who are now jockeying for power in the Palestinian Authority and their personal and commercial connections with the Israeli government. Some of these rumours have even received official acknowledgement with the Palestinian Legislative Council calling for an official inquiry into Palestinian companies associated with figures in the Palestinian Authority that have sold cement to Israel that was then used to construct the Apartheid Wall. Even more pressing than the business connections between Israel and individuals in the Palestinian Authority is the question of political negotiations. The central demand of the Palestinian national struggle - the demand that unifies the struggle and goes to the heart of Zionist colonization of Palestine - has always been the right of return of Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homes and lands in 1948 and onwards. While some of those currently manoeuvring for power in the Palestinian Authority - in particular Abu Mazen - have indicated that they may be willing to concede or negotiate the right of return, others have made it clear that this right will never be relinquished. The armed wing of Fatah, Kataeb Shuhada Al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) for example, has made it very clear that their support for the next leader of Fatah would depend centrally on this question. These are the issues that divide Fatah, very broadly speaking, into two camps. Arafat cleverly balanced these two sides of Fatah, as well as the countless individuals and other political factions. While many saw this tension as a preparedness to sign away Palestinian rights, Arafat - despite the many bad agreements that bore his consent - did not cross the 'red lines' of refugees and Jerusalem. During the Camp David negotiations in early 2000, many Palestinians feared that these lines would be crossed. Demonstrations and protests across the West Bank and Gaza Strip gave voice to this fear. Arafat, however, refused the Camp David agreement despite the fact that he was meeting under the auspices of the central imperialist power, the US government, which was fully expecting him to sign. The current Intifada It was this refusal that led directly to the current Intifada and Israel's attempt to militarily impose what they were unable to achieve through negotiations. At many points during the Intifada, most notably the meeting at Taba in early 2001 and later the Mitchell Commission and Tenet Plan, it seemed that the Palestinian Authority might crack-down on its population and end the Intifada. In all of these cases, after a few cosmetic arrests, Arafat refused to play the role of Israel's gendarme in the West Bank. It was this refusal that earned him isolation from the various imperialist powers and the appellation of "arch terrorist." Just a few years earlier, after signing the Oslo agreements and appearing to accede to the cantonization plan, he was lauded with the Nobel Peace prize. Israel, the US and Arab regimes such as Egypt and Jordan tried desperately to entice Arafat into halting the Intifada. Jordan and Egypt both promised assistance in training a repressive internal security force. The CIA and Israel also guaranteed economic and technical support. At the end of the day Arafat chose to resist this pressure. Instead, he continued to give quiet support to those who were engaged in resistance activities. This choice had an enormous effect on the direction of the Intifada. It is the reason that Abu Ammar died under Israeli siege as a captive in his headquarters rather than being lauded on the world stage. Following Arafat's death The situation following Arafat's death indicates this legacy. Israel remains desperate to find a Palestinian leader willing and able to police the population. This is a much more difficult task today than it was just a few years ago because of the increased strength of the opposition factions and the strong resistance current within Fatah itself. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have all called for the formation of a national unity leadership that would steer the day-to-day tasks of the Intifada and formulate negotiation strategy. This option would vastly strengthen the Palestinian movement and take decision-making out of the hands of the Palestinian Authority. In all revolutions, individual personalities can embody contradictory historical forces. Particularly in cases of national liberation struggles of the south, simple cut-and-dry characterizations obscure the richness and complexity of historical detail. Abu Ammar was not simply a leader of the Palestinian revolution he was also very much a product of that same revolutionary struggle. In many ways he was the last of the leaders born of the Arab nationalist upsurge of the 1960s. We should be proud that he died a captive enemy of the Israeli state. The greatest testimony that we can give to his memory is to continue the struggle to which he dedicated his life. ABOUT THE AUTHORS Adam Hanieh, Hazem Jamjoum, and Rafeef Ziadah are active in a variety of groups in Toronto, Canada, including Al Awda (Toronto), Sumoud Political Prisoners Group, the Arab Students Collective (University of Toronto), and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Ahmed Nimer is a Palestinian activist in Toronto, Canada. He is a member of Sumoud Political Prisoners Solidarity Group,