There has been a spate of recent articles concerning Israel’s involvement in the death of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I suggest that this is less important than analyzing the role actually played by Arafat in the Palestinian struggle for liberation while he was alive and how it set the stage for the desperate situation in which Palestinians find themselves today.
First, with regard to this story,(whether true or not), the Israelis could have killed Arafat virtually any time they wished before Oslo, as they had other senior members of Fatah in Lebanon and Tunisia since his security detail, like everything else around him, was based more on cronyism than ability (as I saw for myself in 1970 and 1983). That they did not, I believe, was based on their being aware that only Arafat was in a position to sign a document surrendering Palestinian soil to the Zionist enemy that the Palestinians would accept. And in exchange for what? Discontinuing the armed struggle, putting the Palestinian Authority in charge of Israeli security, and, with the cooperation of the US, the EU and the UN, relieving Israel from its financial and legal responsibilities as the occupier of Palestinian land. (Sharon—who didn’t see the need to sign any agreements—did try to kill him with an implosion bomb on a Beirut building where he had been moments before, which took the lives of an estimated 154 others, but that was an exception).
“The PLO considers that the signing of the Declaration of Principles constitutes an historic event,” wrote Arafat to Yitzhak Rabin on Sept.9, 1993, “inaugurating a new era of peaceful co-existence, free from violence and all other acts that threaten peace and stability. Accordingly, the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance prevent violence and discipline violators”
In other words, “Instead of the Israeli army it’s going to be the Palestinian policeman. This is according to the agreement,” Shafik al-Hout, the PLO representative in Tunis, told CounterPunch’s Alexander Cockburn, immediately afterward.
If any reader still harbors the illusion that Oslo was anything but a betrayal by Arafat and his cronies, as I wrote in an earlier article, http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/08/31/mahmoud-abbas-double-agent/. One of Israel’s chief negotiators, former military intelligence chief, Shlomo Gazit, put that notion to rest on the evening of November 17,1993. When challenged during a speaking engagement at Congregation Beth Shalom in San Francisco by an angry member of the audience who compared the agreement to that signed with Nazi Germany in Munich in 1938, Gazit calmly replied that while he was reluctant to make such comparisons, “if it’s another Munich, we’re the Germans and the Palestinians are the Czechs.”.
Arafat, himself, did get something out of it quite a bit. $8 million a month from Israel paid into his private bank account which, ironically, was reported in the NY Jewish weekly Forward in a front page story. It seems that the former Russian Jewish so-called “prisoner of Zion,” Natan Sharansky, wanted to stop the payments on the basis that Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was not being run “democratically.” Seriously, that’s what he claimed which was true, of course, but Sharansky was hardly in a position to make such a charge. The Arafat controlled PA press never mentioned it, of course, if they knew about it. It was in 1993, however, roughly the same time, that the editor of Al-Fajr, the popular English language Palestinian weekly that had been in existence since 1971, wrote an editorial calling on Palestinians with information about corruption within the PLO (which was rampant) to contact the paper. Arafat immediately shut it down (just after I had renewed my subscription) and it never reappeared.
Until 1987, Arafat, like most Palestinians in the diaspora, was focusing his activities on the international arena. One got the impression that those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza had given up resistance and were not worthy of discussion, a fact that was not lost upon those who initiated the first intifada that December. Every one of their communiqués began with the slogan, “No voice above the voice of the uprising!” They were intended as much for Arafat in his Tunis headquarters as they were for the Israelis and Arafat knew it. He began doing what he could to undermine the uprising, from engaging in a minuet with Secretary of State James Baker to having his representative, Abu Mazen ( Mahmoud Abbas) stick the fatal knife into its back and the back of the Palestinian people at Oslo. It must not be forgotten that the Palestinian delegation contained not a single lawyer. Not even his adviser, Sabri Jiryis. As one of them who should have been there, Raja Shehadeh of Al Haq, put it, “Despite Israel’s well known and legalistic approach to negotiations, the Palestinian team in Oslo didn’t consult with any legal adviser…throughout the process.” That was clearly Arafat’s decision and deliberately taken.
What he would have heard or read, and obviously didn’t want to, was the opinion of Shehadeh and Gaza human rights lawyer Raji Sourani plus 20 other prominent Palestinian activists who in a Palestinian Declaration of Independence from the Israel-PLO Agreements issued at the end of April, 1994, declared to be “non-binding”:
“[A]ny interim agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians which seeks to legitimize, through securing Palestinian compliance, illegal unilateral Israeli actions taken in the course of Israel’s occupation… [which is in] violation of international law.”
Before the signing of Oslo, support for Arafat in Occupied Palestine had sunk to an all time low. Hence it became clear to PM Rabin and Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres that something had to be done to save him out of the fear that should he fall, a new revolutionary leadership[ would replace him. And since most Palestinians had no idea and were not informed by Arafat of what the agreement contained, Oslo resurrected his reputation, at least temporarily. Israel’s rescue operation was aptly depicted in a cartoon in the Jerusalem Post that had Arafat sitting up on a hospital stretcher giving the “V” sign. Carrying the stretcher were Rabin and Peres.
During his time in Tunis, he was visited by two American Jewish activist friends who, when they raised the issue of US aid to Israel, were stunned to hear Arafat tell them he didn’t want that to be an issue in the states. At the time, it seems, Arafat was very much under the influence of Alan Solomonow, the head of the Middle East committee of the American Friends Service Committee’s Northwest office in San Francisco and a frequent traveler to Tunis who, upon returning, would convey to the public what he said were Arafat’s latest thoughts. Solomonow would not allow local Palestinians to be members of his committee without kissing his boots and when a member, at the time, of the Palestinian National Council, elected to attend one of the committee’s meetings, he was allowed to watch and listen but not say a single word.
Solomonow’s activities were viewed by the Palestinian and Arab-American community for what they were, protecting Israel, and after having been rudely dismissed by a representative from the AFSC’s national headquarters when they complained about him, the community leaders decided to boycott Solomonow. They also authorized the president of the Arab-American presidents’ association to write a detailed letter to Arafat regarding the community’s problems with Solomonow, warning him against associating with someone they considered to be an “Israeli agent.” Not so much an acknowledgement of the letter was forthcoming from Tunis but a few months later they saw a picture of Arafat and Solomonow, posing together, arm in arm.
In 2004, while in the West Bank with some North American activists, our group leader who had previously met Arafat on several occasions, requested a visit with him in his Ramallah compound, as a formality. I was looking forward to meeting Arafat because I wanted to ask him why he did not simply walk out of the compound which seemed to be a self-imposed prison. When we had walked by it earlier the street had been filled with Palestinians going about their business and there were no signs of Israeli troops anywhere in the vicinity.
What was Arafat afraid of? Clearly, not the Israelis who were not about to kill him but of his fellow Palestinians. From time to time they would show their dissatisfaction with the corrupt manner in which the PA was running what territory the Israelis allowed them to govern, its undemocratic nature, and the frequent arrests of its critics. And they blamed Arafat. It was at those times, strangely enough, that the Israelis would then start issuing public threats against Arafat for one clearly contrived thing or another. The result of such Israeli posturing could be predicted and what was no doubt expected and desired. The people would stop their complaining and rally around the “old man” who had betrayed them and thanks to the silence of those who still revere him, they still don’t know it.
Jeffrey Blankfort is a journalist and radio host and can be reached at [email protected]