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2004-11-11

Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat 1929-2004: From Guerilla Fighter to Nobel Prize Winner

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died overnight in a Paris military hospital ending his 40-year struggle for statehood for the Palestinian people. Arafat was one of the most recognizable figures on the world stage; a man who rose from a guerilla icon to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Arafat named no successor and his death brings with it what many observers believe will be a fierce fight over who will take charge of the struggle Arafat led for 4 decades. When word of Arafat’s death was announced shortly after 4:30 am, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of Gaza and other cities to mourn. [includes rush transcript]

Egypt will host the first half of a two-part state funeral in the capital Cairo, involving foreign delegations. From Egypt, Arafat’s body will be flown to Ramallah where Palestinians will see their lifelong leader buried on the grounds of the battered Muqata compound in which he spent his final years.

Already, the battle for succession is raging. Mahmoud Abbas has been elected chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Rawhi Fattouh was named interim president of the governing Palestinian Authority. He is in charge of organizing elections within the next 60 days. But as the Palestinian leadership moves to establish a temporary, collective leadership council, there are widespread concerns over how power will be delegated or taken in Palestine.

For decades Yasser Arafat was the embodiment of the Palestinian cause and the symbol of resistance against Israeli occupation. He was born in on August 4, 1929. He has always claimed he was born in Jerusalem but many biographers say he was actually born in Cairo.

In 1959, he co-founded Fatah, the Movement of the Liberation of Palestine and ten years later he was voted chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization. After being expelled from Jordan he moved to the Lebanese capital of Beirut. In 1974, Arafat made a dramatic entrance on the international diplomatic stage. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he told delegates that he had come "bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun–do not let the olive branch fall from my hand".

In 1982, Israel launched its brutal invasion of Beirut to drive out the PLO. Arafat moved to the North African state of Tunisia. In 1987, the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, broke out in Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. In 1991, Arafat married Suha Tawil, a Palestinian from a prominent Christian family, with whom he had one daughter.

In 1993, he signed the Oslo peace accords with Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. He returned to Palestine in July 1994 after 26 years in exile and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres.

The second Intifada was launched in the West Bank and Gaza in 2000 following the collapse of the Oslo peace process. In December 2001, the Israeli government–led by Arafat’s old adversary Ariel Sharon–confined him to his West Bank headquarters. He left the Ramallah compound for the first time two weeks ago when he fell ill and was airlifted to Paris. It was the last time he would see his homeland alive.

  • Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada.
  • Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, President of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee.
  • Lamis Andoni, independent journalist who has been covering the Middle East for 20 years. She has reported for the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times and the main newspapers in Jordan. She joins us on the line now from Amman.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to begin with Ali Abunimah, founder of Electronic Intifada, to give as you thumb nail sketch of Yasser Arafat’s life beginning in 1929 when Yasser Arafat was born. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALI ABUNIMAH: : Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan. I’m sorry about the sound. I’m in the streets in Philadelphia, and I’m going to do my best. Yasser Arafat really was, I think it doesn’t need repeating, an enormous symbol for Palestinians. He was born in 1929. It’s not clear — he was born in Jerusalem, but it’s not clear at that time, good records weren’t kept for a lot of people. He became as a young man, a prosperous engineer. Starting in the early 1950’s, he was an engineering student at Cairo University, and that’s when he first became active in politics. He headed the Union of Palestinian Students, and really his was the generation that had suffered the expulsion and the ethnic cleansing from Palestine. After a few years in which Palestinians regrouped, they began to found the Palestinian national movement to bring justice to Palestinians who had been expelled from their country so that Israel could be created. And after becoming an engineer, he went to Kuwait where he set up an engineering firm and was very prosperous, he did very well. He set aside success in order to push his activism in the Palestinian national movement. He was one of the founders of Fatah, the main party in the PLO. Really, from the night 60’s on, he has been the key figure. At that time, Fatah, among other groups, espoused armed struggle as a response to the Israeli violence, which not only expelled the Palestinians, but prevented them returning to their homes. This was important in bringing the Palestinian cause to international attention. In the late 1960’s, the movement was based in Jordan, but growing tension with the Jordanian government led to its expulsion after a fight in 1970, and he went to Lebanon. Lebanon, Arafat’s tenure there ended in 1982 with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed over 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. Then he went to Tunis. Many people thought he was finished until the Oslo Accords revived him and he returned to the occupied territories as the head of the Palestinian Authority. But this is the period, I think, which most Palestinians became more and more frustrated with him, because they really saw the Oslo Accords as a dead end and a trap, allowing Israel to solidify the status quo of occupation and colonization, with no intention whatsoever of really giving the Palestinians their independence and freedom. I’d just like to say now that Arafat is gone, this is a moment for reflection on his achievements and failures. I think there were many of both. But it’s also important to say that you’re going to hear in the next few days a lot of talk that this is an opening to revive the peace process, and this sort of a thing, from the entrenched peace process industry. But it’s very important for people to recognize that Arafat has passed, that’s historic, but nothing essential about the conflict has changed. The problem was not Palestinian leadership. The problem is that Israel has no intention whatsoever of ending its rule in the occupied territories, and occupied east Jerusalem. Israel’s refusal to allow Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem, where he wished to be buried, is emblematic of why we have a conflict. There are two peoples in Palestinian, but Israel doesn’t recognize the Palestinians to the extent that it doesn’t even allow them to be buried in their own earth. And Israel, as the occupying power, under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, has no right to prevent the burial of Arafat in occupied East Jerusalem. It has no right to interfere with the religious worship and rituals of the people living under Israeli military occupation. And it’s kind of emblematic that the most known Palestinian in the world cannot even have his funeral properly in his own country, and has to have it in Cairo. This is why we have a conflict. As we see, the conflict continues even with Arafat’s death, and until there is justice, and until there is an end to Israeli military dictatorship over millions of Palestinians, until there is an end to Israeli colonization and settlement, we will live and die with this conflict for many more generations. So let this be a moment to reflect on that, and not to engage in cheap rhetoric about if we reshuffle the Palestinian leaders somehow, that will lead to a breakthrough.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah is founder of Electronic Intifada. We are joined by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who is Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, President of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee, speaking to us from Ramallah, from the area where Yasser Arafat will be buried, where his body will be brought after the funeral in Cairo. Your response, Mustafa Barghouti.

DR. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: I think I would agree with every word that was just said. He described very well and in a fair manner the problem and the conflict. The issue is that this is a sad moment for the Palestinian people. Many people were in agreement or disagreement with Mr. Arafat. I was personally in agreement with him on many issues, but also in agreement about the way of government and internal matters about the lack of sufficient democracy. But this is a sad moment for all Palestinians. He was elected as president of the Palestinians, so this moment has to be respected by Israel. Unfortunately, things that Abunimah referred to are also continuing. The Israeli government is not showing the minimum of sensitivity to the feeling of the other people, of us, the Palestinians, the people they’re oppressing. Many Israeli politicians, including the Justice Minister have come out expressing his relief and happiness with the death of Mr. Arafat, as if anybody who has a minimum of human feelings would be happy about the death of any other person. And also, all of the celebration of the death of a Palestinian really is shameful, because what we expect is some kind of a different behavior of respect to the memory of this man, and the respect to the feeling of the Palestinian people who have to be accepted as equal human beings. I want to say that one thing should be clear, that probably now Israel will try to come up with new excuses for not proceeding with the peace process, and not proceeding with the application of the international law and the international regulations, and will try to find new excuses for not conducting peace and not ending this occupation, which has become the longest in modern history. 77 years of occupation. That’s transforming now to become sort of apartheid, oppressing the Palestinian people. I believe this is a turning point. This is a big challenge, and this could be a new opportunity. It’s a challenge for Palestinians, and an opportunity, because we could start from here in building a true democracy. We could become the leading democracy, in my opinion, in the Middle East, and the Israelis could be happy. They have claimed so long that they are the only democracy in the Middle East. This is their chance of having — of not being the only one. We could be the other real democracy. This would be a very important opening for future peace, because I always believed that the only lasting peace is the one that would be concluded between two democracies, but that would be a peace that would have to be accepted, and agreed by both people and not imposed from one on the other as has happened before in the case of Oslo. The second challenge is, of course, how do we remain unified as Palestinians, and focused on our target and goal to get our freedom, and independence, to get what Palestinian people dream about? What ordinary citizens have as a dream, which is to be living in a home, a homeland that is free, where people can live with respect to their human rights, and their dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, speaking to us from Ramallah, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative. We go to break and continue with our discussion and also go to Jordon get reaction. This is Democracy Now!, Yasser Arafat died a few hours ago.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest on the line with us now from Jordan is Lamis Andoni. She’s an independent journalist who has been covering the Middle East for 20 years, has reported for the Christian Science Monitor, The Financial Times, and many major newspapers in Jordan and comprehensively follows the Arab press around the world, joining us from Amman. Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lamis, welcome to Democracy Now! I’d like to ask you in terms of — Arafat had a major impact in terms of being able to keep the Palestinian resistance united despite vast differences. Now with his passing, obviously, the Israeli and the U.S. government will be hoping to divide the Palestinian resistance as much as possible. Your analysis of the prospects for that.

LAMIS ANDONI: Well, in fact, I want to say that [indaudible] I met him in 1982 and [inaudible] and being with him as a reporter in a state of siege and at conferences and things, and I have seen his great endurance and great dedication to work. He had more endurance than anybody that I have seen, working for long hours. I would get very tired [inaudible] with him, and I was much younger, and he would sleep for ten minutes and would wake up very refreshed. [inaudible] have to know, Arafat has been besieged every single [inaudible] by all Arab countries, especially Jordan, Syria and Egypt, but mostly Jordan and Syria, and [inaudible] from Jordan.

AMY GOODMAN: Lamis Andoni, it’s a little difficult to understand you, so if you could just hold your phone in a different way.

LAMIS ANDONI: I said — I said that — can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you much better now.

LAMIS ANDONI: Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you much better now.

LAMIS ANDONI: Okay. It’s the phone line. What I’m saying I have known Arafat very well and I traveled with him for ten years. [inaudible] but I have been in touch with him. The man that is being demonized in the U.S. is not the man we have known. Even though [inaudible] and who stood against him at certain times. He had such endurance that people around him were always exhausted while he continued working. He had great courage, and I always trusted him. When he was under siege and [inaudible], his failure was at the negotiating table. The reason for that was not just his failures, it was a matter of the imbalance of power in the region, the lack of support from Arab countries, the attempts of Arab countries who were always trying to tow the line of the U.S. administration to strip him of his power, to de-legitimize the Palestinian leader, and I have witnessed Arafat being besieged by Syria, besieged by Jordan. I personally paid a high price for trying to be fair to him. I was [inaudible] for a long time in Jordan, asking these intelligence, questioning me, what they wanted. I was taken to interrogations here just because I had a [inaudible] with Arafat’s picture on it. This is why he has [inaudible] he has become the symbol that stood every country, especially the U.S. and Israel, of the Palestinian cause. We have a big strike in Jordan in the camps in mourning. Jordan is mourning. All of the Muslim world is mourning. Leader after leader of the Palestinian people, including the opposition, came on television crying. Literally crying, including George Habash, the leader of the radical Marxist group the Palestinian Liberation for the Liberation of Palestine [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. As for answer to your question is that the U.S. and Israel are distorting the facts. First of all, there has been a very smooth transition, and they expect a collective leadership to emerge regardless of what the U.S. does. Secondly, I want to say that the U.S. — the President Bush’s condolences to the country is an insult to the Palestinians. And I’m a columnist now. I’m not a reporter. [inaudible] as an analyst, as a human being, I am someone who knew Arafat and opposed him. He — Bush’s — I said Bush’s and Clinton’s condolences to the Palestinian people has been very condescending, very insulting, why? Because Clinton actually said that he was the reason for the failure of [inaudible]. Actually I want to repeat what I said once on your program that Arafat’s refusal of his offer [inaudible] reinforced him as [inaudible] as the center of the Palestinian people. Secondly, what Bush said is even more insulting, because he’s telling the Palestinians as if they are morons or something or people who are dumb or something, or less civilized, that if they elect a leadership which concedes to the Israelis and the Americans, then they will be accepted and they will have a state, which [inaudible] the occupation [inaudible] the Palestinian people. The demonization of Arafat has confused in the American people’s minds, and on that I’m certain. They are talking about the administration how it presents Arafat, and the media how it presents Arafat, has confused the citizens of the U.S. of the demonization of him with the criticism of him by the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lamis Andoni, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Lamis Andoni, independent journalist who’s been covering the Middle East for 20 years, speaking to us from Amman.

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