Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 November 2004
Issue No. 717
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hani Shukrallah

The Phoenix always rises

Arafat's symbiotic relationship with the Palestinian people explains both his greatness and his fatal flaws, writes Hani Shukrallah

It had all the hallmarks of a rather pathetic, even ignoble, ending. Arafat, the undisputed national leader of the Palestinian people for nearly four decades, seemed set for a protracted mysterious death in a Paris hospital -- far removed from his people, his deathbed jealously guarded and watched over by a wife he had not seen for over three years, and who was now loudly and scandalously embroiled in what was maliciously whispered to be a sordid squabble over secret bank accounts.

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Back home, the international media expressed astonishment at what they perceived as the muted, almost nonchalant reaction of Palestinians to the imminent demise of their historic leader. Abu Ammar, it seemed, had outlived his times; he had been rendered "irrelevant" in death, biology and fate thus achieving what Israel and its US backers had tried -- but largely failed -- to do to him in life.

The Palestinians, as is their wont, surprised everybody, yet again -- not least their own leaders. Arafat was to be rushed to his "temporary" final resting place in the Muqataa and hastily interred (in accordance with Islamic tradition, we were repeatedly told) via a series of "dignified", albeit miniature, state funerals -- first, at a military airport in Paris; then in a cordoned-off section of Cairo's Heliopolis district; and, finally, within the walled enclosure of the Muqataa. Israel, as usual, had reneged on an earlier promise to allow the cantonised Palestinians to travel to Ramallah for the occasion. The Palestinian people were thus to be symbolically represented at their leader's third and last funeral by the residents of the West Bank town and its immediate environs, gathered symbolically outside the high wall of Arafat's headquarters- cum-prison.

The Israelis made no pretence of hiding their glee, while their neo-con disciples in Washington spoke --with typical tactless arrogance -- of the "great opportunity" offered by the Palestinian president's death. That sentiment was most likely, if more prudently, shared by the Europeans and not a few Arab regimes. The troublesome old man was to be given symbolic honours and sent swiftly on his way.

It was not to be. The footage flown out of Ramallah by international and Arab satellite TV networks amazed viewers everywhere. Despite the Israeli blockade and in defiance of the predictions of media pundits, an estimated 100,000 people managed to descend on the Muqataa. From that moment on, the world was treated to a surrealistic scene: Palestinian youths impossibly scaling walls, clambering up buildings, climbing over rubble. Palestinian security men -- said to be some 5,000 strong -- trying hopelessly to push them away, but at times appearing to be actually giving a helping hand to the determined mountaineers.

The dignified state funeral was not to be. On Palestinian soil, the often contradictory duality of Arafat's nature as both statesman and leader of a national liberation movement was decided by his people in favour of the latter. The Palestinian masses had reclaimed their leader, and in doing so had dramatically appropriated the ever-nuanced symbolism of the historic figure of Arafat as well as that of his burial. " Marhab, Marhab ya Abu Ammar, Marhab, Marhab ya khetyar," (Welcome Abu Ammar, Welcome old man), they chanted as the Egyptian military helicopter carrying Arafat's body hovered above the Muqataa. This old man may be dead, they seemed to say as they whistled and cheered to welcome their leader upon his final return to the homeland; but he is not that easily buried. And the TV reporters, even as they shouted words such as "chaos" and "pandemonium" into their microphones, could not help but be enthralled.

Surprising it may have been, but it was by no means new. The Palestinians' ability to surprise their friends and confound their enemies is perhaps the only predictable thing about them. And it is a quality born of the depth and intensity of their love for their homeland. This is no mystical attachment, such as the attachment that the Jews had maintained to a mythical Jerusalem over the centuries, but an immediate and intimate bond with a very concrete piece of earth, with particular homes, towns, streets, villages, olive and citrus groves. It is an attachment whose depth and intensity is in direct proportion to the brutality and seeming finality of its denial, and one that is constantly deepened, made even more urgent, ever more compelling, by the simple fact that it persists, as thousands more homes are destroyed, more villages and towns torn asunder, more olive and citrus groves destroyed, and ever more land grabbed away from them.

It is an attachment that Arafat shared with his people. And it was in this incontrovertible capacity to surprise, to rise suddenly -- and almost always unexpectedly -- from the depths of despair to renewed hope that Arafat's strength as a leader lay. " Ya Jabal ma yehzak reeh (mountain, wind cannot shake you)," was a popular refrain which he repeated often during his last years of captivity as he sat in the Muqataa, under public threat of execution.

Paradoxically it was this elusive and ever-bewildering tenacity of the Palestinian people that also lay at the root of their leader's most serious flaws.

He was the last genuinely populist leader in the Arab world, the product of a time when populism meant a lot more than mere brash demagogy and empty rhetoric. As such he shared with such historic figures as Gamal Abdel-Nasser an almost uncanny sensitivity to the mood and sentiments of his people, a kind of connection that is more often than not beyond the comprehension of those surrounding the populist leader, and which is usually ascribed to personal charisma. Arafat has been described as a charismatic leader, which seems to stretch the vague notion to the limits; he was an awful public speaker -- with a peculiar tendency to pick, almost haphazardly, on one word of his speech and repeat it thrice -- and, to put it mildly, he was not a physically imposing man.

That said, Arafat's rise to undisputed leadership of his people is most intimately tied to the greatest Palestinian surprise of them all, which took place on 13 March 1968. On that day the fierce battle of Al-Karamah -- between the Palestinian guerrillas of Fatah and Israeli forces -- was joined on Jordanian soil. The Palestinian revolution had been born. An analysis of the dilemmas inherent in the Palestinian armed struggle is beyond the scope of this article. But along with the Kalashnikov automatic rifle -- for years, a most compelling symbol of the Palestinian struggle for liberation -- came the resurgence of Palestinian national identity, which since the Nakbah of 1948 had been effaced by Israeli usurpation, dispossession and ethnic cleansing, in addition to being subsumed within an all-encompassing pan-Arab nationalism. This was to become the one lasting achievement of the "revolution", one that nearly four decades of military defeats -- including countless massacres and the virtually relentless devastation of Palestinian lives, both in the surrounding diaspora and on occupied Palestinian soil -- have failed to erase. And it is an achievement that Arafat, with all his failures, could well boast of having been instrumental in making.

For the rest, Arafat's leadership left much to be desired.

Not only did he draw strength from the Palestinian people's almost limitless capacity to rise up and resume the struggle, following each and every defeat, he took it for granted. And rather than mobilise this enormous energy to involve the people in drawing up and pursuing a strategy for liberation, he used it as a trump card, constantly manoeuvring, perennially making damaging compromises and concessions, constantly playing both ends against the middle, always speaking out of both sides of his mouth, giving a nod here and a wink there -- a style of leadership that may well have helped keep the struggle alive against enormous odds, but only at tremendous cost.

Throughout the past four decades Arafat presided over a great many defeats, and equally, a great many -- surprise -- resurgences. Defeated in Jordan, the Palestinian armed struggle would resurface in Lebanon, where the dynamic of defeats and resurgences would play itself out a great many times over more than a decade, until the final dramatic exodus of the Palestinian freedom fighters, first from Beirut and later from Tripoli.

With Arafat and the PLO leadership in exile in Tunis, their forces humiliatingly languishing in such remote places as Yemen and Sudan, the Palestinian struggle for national liberation seemed well and truly dead. Then came the first Intifada; the locus of the struggle had moved from the surrounding diaspora to the Palestinian heartland.

The surprises, it seemed, would never cease. Oslo was to follow, and in the Norwegian capital Arafat would make what was ultimately his most devastating concession. It was, nevertheless, vintage Arafat. Committing himself to an open-ended process in which the Palestinian side would surrender -- a priori -- almost every single negotiating card in its hand, in return for not a single Israeli commitment to a final settlement, Arafat was once again banking on his people's tenacity. Over and over again, he would manoeuvre the struggle into the worst possible of corners, always relying on his people to find a way out. Through Oslo, he wanted a foothold in Palestinian territory, and whatever semblance of statehood was on offer. The rest was pure gamble.

The Palestinian leader's moment of truth came in the final status negations at Camp David in the summer of 2000. And there Arafat was faced with his most historic choice: had he gone far enough for him to forsake for good the Palestinian people's aspirations, agreeing to preside over a truncated and Bantustanised Israeli protectorate, or would his love of homeland and intimate connection with his people prevail?

He chose. Still bungling, still manoeuvring, still speaking out of both sides of his mouth, but he chose to live his last years on the side of his people. The second Intifada erupted.

And as they welcomed his body back home last Friday, his people were celebrating what was to be his final choice.

Where will the Palestinians go from here? The Intifada has all but run aground, mired as in a futile and self- destructive knee-jerk semi-strategy in which the suicide bomber sets the course of the struggle. Meanwhile, Sharon is free to continue his devastation of Palestinian lives and land, no doubt further aided and abetted by his Washington fan-club, now back for another four years of global marauding, their latest wave of war crimes in Falluja having been committed even before Bush Jr is sworn in for his second term in office.

And as more Palestinian homes are destroyed, more Palestinian lives shattered, and as the Apartheid wall in the West Bank and the so-called unilateral disengagement in Gaza conspire to confine the Palestinian people to ever smaller, disparate and more oppressive prisons, and as the US and Israel openly brag about the great chance Arafat's death has created for the imposition of their "peace" on the Palestinians, the prospects for Palestinian national emancipation seem perhaps dimmer today than ever before.

Don't count on it. They may surprise us all yet again.

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