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Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat 1929-2004: From Guerrilla 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 guerrilla 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 four decades. When word of Arafat’s death was announced shortly after 4:30 a.m., 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 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 10 years later he was voted chair 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 Israeli 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.

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

AMY GOODMAN: 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 guerrilla icon to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Yasser 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 four decades.

When word of Arafat’s death was announced shortly after 4:30 this morning, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of Gaza and other cities to mourn. 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.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: 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 group of leaders, there are widespread concerns over how power will be delegated or taken in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we will spend a good portion of the program talking about Yasser Arafat. For decades, he was the embodiment of the Palestinian cause and the symbol of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.

We’re going to begin with Ali Abunimah, founder of Electronic Intifada, to give us a thumbnail sketch of Yasser Arafat’s life, beginning in 1929, when Yasser Arafat was born.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ali Abunimah.

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 really kept for a lot of people. He became, as a young man, a very prosperous engineer. And starting in the early '50s, 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. And they, after a few years in which Palestinians regrouped, 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. But he set aside success in order to push his activism in Palestinian—the Palestinian national movement.

And he was one of the founders of Fatah, the main party in the PLO. And really, from the 1960s 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. And this was important in bringing the Palestinian cause to international attention. And in the late '60s, the movement was based in Jordan, but growing tension with the Jordanian government led to its expulsion. After a fight in 1970, it went to Lebanon. And Lebanon, Arafat's tenure there ended in 1982 with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed over 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, where he went to Tunis.

And 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 was 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 Palestinians their independence and freedom.

I’d just like to say that now that Arafat is gone, this is a moment for reflection on his achievements and failures. And 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, in occupied East Jerusalem.

And 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, 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.

And as we see, the conflict continues even with Arafat’s death. And until there is justice, 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’re also 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 where—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 Ali Abunimah has said, because I think he described very well and very fair—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 personally was in agreement with him on many issues. But also, on this agreement, we learn a lot about the way of governance, about lots of internal matters, about the lack of sufficient democracy.

But this is a sad moment for all Palestinians. He was elected as president of Palestinians. So, this moment has to be respected by Israel. And unfortunately, things that Abunimah referred to are also continuing. The Israeli government is not showing the minimal of sensitivity to the feeling of the other people, of us, the Palestinians, the people they are oppressing. There are—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 this celebration of the death of a Palestinian are really shameful, because what we expect is some kind of different behavior of respect to the memory of this man and respect to the feeling of 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 international regulations. And they will try to find new excuses for not conducting peace and not ending this occupation, which has become the longest in modern history—37 years of occupation. And that is transforming now to become some sort of an apartheid oppressing the Palestinian people.

I believe this is a turning point. This is a big challenge, and this could be a huge opportunity. It’s a challenge for Palestinians, because—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 lonely. We could be the real other democracy. And 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 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 we’ll also go to Jordan to get reaction. This is Democracy Now! Yasser Arafat died a few hours ago. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Marcel Khalife, “Caress,” here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to follow this story. Yasser Arafat died early this morning, early Thursday morning, at a French military hospital, his body being taken to Egypt for a state funeral, to Cairo, and then his body will be transported to Ramallah, where he will be buried. Our guest on the line with us now from Jordan is Lamis Andoni. She’s an independent journalist who’s 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 GONZÁLEZ: 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 I’ve known Arafat personally well. I met him in 1982 and traveled with him and been with him as a reporter in a state of siege and at conferences and things, and I’ve seen his great endurance and great dedication to work. He had more endurance than anybody I’ve seen, working for long hours. I would get very tired traveling with him, and I was much younger, and he would sleep for 10 minutes and would wake up very refreshed. The other thing is that you have to know that Arafat has been besieged, every single of the Palestinian people, regardless of occupation [inaudible] by all Arab countries, especially Jordan, Syria and Egypt, but mostly Jordan and Syria, and I’m talking 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 say—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: OK. It’s the phone line. What I’m saying, I have known Arafat very well, and I traveled with him for 10 years, 'til Oslo, ’til I openly was criticism of Oslo. But I've been in touch with him. The man that is being demonized in the U.S. is not the man we’ve known, even those of us who criticized him and who stood against him at certain points. He had such endurance that people around him were always exhausted while he continued working. He has great—he had great courage, and I always trusted him.

When he was under siege and [inaudible], his failure was at the negotiating table. And 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 toe the line of the U.S. administration to strip him of his power, to delegitimize the Palestinian people. And I’ve witnessed Arafat being besieged by Syria, besieged by Jordan.

I personally paid a high price for trying to be fair to him. I was interrogated for a long time in Jordan, asking me, the intelligence questioning me, just to write what they wanted. I was taken to interrogations here just because I had a magazine with me with Arafat’s picture on it.

This is why he has [inaudible] he has become the symbol that stirred 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 the answer for your question is that the U.S. and Israel are distorting the facts. First of all, there has been a very smooth transition, and I expect a collective leadership to emerge regardless what the U.S. does. Secondly, I want to say that the U.S.—that President Bush’s condolences to the Palestinians is an insult to the Palestinians. And I’m a columnist now; I’m not a reporter. I’m expressing my views as a journalist, as an analyst and as a human being. I am someone who knew Arafat and opposed him. I said Bush’s and Clinton’s condolences to the Palestinian people has been very condescending, very insulting. Why? Because Clinton asked people to accept that he was the reason for the failure of Camp David. Actually, I want to repeat what I said once on your program, that Arafat’s refusal of the offer at Camp David reinforced him as, or relegitimized him and strengthened him 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 new leadership which concedes to the Israelis and the Americans, then they’ll be accepted, and they will have a statehood, while he’s financing the occupation, financing the redispossession of the Palestinian people. So the demonization of Arafat has confused in the American people’s minds—and I’m not insulting the American people. I’m talking about an administration, how it presents Arafat, and the media, how it presents Arafat, has confused the criticism of the U.S. of him and the demonization of him with criticism of him by Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lamis Andoni—

LAMIS ANDONI: [inaudible] Arafat, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: 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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