The Magazine

Arafat's True Legacy

From the November 22, 2004 issue: He made terrorism respectable.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By MARIO LOYOLA
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AT HIS DEATH, Yasser Arafat was viewed in Europe--always his most important constituency outside the Middle East--as the humble and pitiable leader of the dispossessed Palestinian people. But this image does little justice to the magnitude of his achievements. Arafat was the father of modern terrorism, and leaves behind a people ruined almost beyond salvation, a West divided against itself, and a global conflict that may last generations.

Nobody could have predicted how fitting his last days would be. The story that played out at Percy Hospital in Paris was the story of his life: a farce wrapped in lies and manipulations. His estranged wife Suha, a Palestinian Christian who lives luxuriously in Paris, suddenly appeared at his bedside to take control of all access, information, and, apparently, his life support. What happened next was pure Venezuelan soap opera. She refused to allow him to be taken off life support or declared dead unless the Palestinian Authority her husband had systematically looted guaranteed her pension. On Al Jazeera, she hysterically accused former and current Palestinian prime ministers Abbas and Qureia of conspiring to bury her husband alive. Privately she demanded that her maintenance be fixed according to the last payment she received from Arafat, a brazen act of extortion that won her a commitment of perhaps $20 million a year. No worries: If the PA remains true to Arafat's form, the agreement is worthless.

Probity, alas, was not high on the list of Yasser Arafat's qualities. While there is propaganda to the effect that he was Palestinian, there is no evidence he was anything but an Egyptian. In fact, there is little evidence that he ever set foot in the occupied territories until 1994. The story of his life until then bears retelling.

It begins in Cairo, where Arafat was born in 1929 and grew up to become an avid activist at the university. Enchanted by the struggle for Algerian independence, Arafat resolved to fight for the liberation of Palestine, and founded Fatah in the late 1950s. His inspiration was Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist-turned-hero of the Algerian war, who argued that a weak rebel force could defeat any colonial power by a simple stratagem: Goad the occupier into reprisals against civilians, and civilians will join the rebellion en masse. But for Fanon, as for his leftist intellectual patrons, violence was more than a strategy of liberation: It was a kind of exalted freedom in and of itself. "Violence," he wrote, "is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." Arafat embraced this ethic. As he showed throughout his career, it was violence itself that mattered--whatever the results.

Fanon's patrons weren't just café revolutionaries in Paris. The Soviets realized that the Fanon formula was good for starting all sorts of wars. With Moscow's encouragement, Fatah found a home in the camps of the Syrian army, where its fighters were trained and equipped. During the 1960s, endless cross-border incursions by the Fatah fedayeen provoked Israel into a pattern of escalating retaliations. As the Arab world became increasingly enraged, Moscow sensed the opportunity to seize control of the eastern Mediterranean at long last. It organized a military coalition of Arab states aimed at the final destruction of Israel.

Israel's offensive in the Six Day War of 1967 broke like a clap of thunder and shattered the Arab armies massing on her borders. It also brought under Israeli military control several million Palestinians who had been living since 1948 as permanent refugees in the Jordanian West Bank and Egyptian Gaza Strip. It was the first of many conflicts that would benefit Arafat politically, and bring nothing but misery to the Palestinians.

Immediately after the war, Fatah infiltrated the occupied territories to continue the struggle underground. And just as quickly, Arafat realized that there was a problem. The Israelis moved to consolidate their control of the occupied territories but sought to make the transformation palatable to the Palestinians by employing them in public works projects and opening job opportunities for them in Israel proper. They hoped to integrate the Palestinians of the occupied territories into a Greater Israel, securing natural, defensible borders, and offering them the same peaceful coexistence of Arab and Jew that already existed within Israel proper. It would have been easy at that point for the Palestinians to obtain a greater degree of liberty, self-rule, and affluence than they could possibly enjoy in Syria or Jordan.