Return to Nowhere

Charles Glass

  • Arafat: From Defender to Dictato by Said Aburish
    Bloomsbury, 352 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3629 5

The old dons arrived in armourplated black limousines to pay their last respects. They had often tried to do away with him, but they gave him a royal send-off. He was, after all, the longest-serving capo of them all, a man who commanded respect. King Hussein of Jordan would have laughed to see his adversaries courting his son and heir, King Abdallah II. Spectators could almost hear Hafez al-Assad of Syria whispering into the young King’s ear: ‘Your father knew it wasn’t personal, Abdu. It was business.’ The Sicilian Mafia has much to learn from the Levantine men of honour.

Those who could come did: scions of the Saudi royal family, Netanyahu, Mubarak, past and present Presidents of the United States. Saddam Hussein should have been there. (Hampered by travel restrictions, he may have sent flowers.) All the other godfathers had seen the King as expendable at one time or another. The Saudis subverted his regime and stole his family title, Custodian of the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina. Netanyahu’s people proposed overthrowing him and giving his statelet to a tame Palestinian. Assad’s tried to kill him. The US cut him off when he stepped out of line, refusing to recite the American script for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

King Hussein would have laughed loudest at the tears shed by Yasser Arafat, who had attempted to dethrone him, to assassinate him and to turn his army against him. He lied to the King, betrayed him and negotiated with the Israeli enemy behind his back. Yet he had another purpose in attending: to show his people that he had joined the Arab association of dictators.

The Arabian dons at Hussein’s last rites are the inheritors of the colonial project of 1919, when Britain and France divided the Arab world along unwanted, artificial frontiers and awarded a speck of it to European Jews. Their regimes remain illegitimate, in that their people had no voice in choosing them, and dictatorial, in that they use force to sustain their rule. If Arafat declares his Palestinian state in May, as he has threatened, he will fit the final piece into the jigsaw that the European powers made of the Eastern Arab world when Britain dismantled the Ottoman Empire. He will become, like his fellow mourners, a head of state. No longer a supplicant at their table, he can be a capo among capi.

Is that what Arafat wanted all along, to sit at the table? Was he seeking the chance to emulate the neighbourhood hard men by imprisoning and torturing his people as they did theirs? To sustain a corrupt bureaucracy, obedient to the US and Israel? Is that why his followers have been struggling for 35 years, since his first botched military escapade against Israel on 31 December 1964? He has led the Palestinians through two generations of Israeli bombardment in Lebanon, the suppression of the Occupied Territories, the Intifada; through years of torture, detention without trial, massacre, impoverishment and exile. All for him to join the dictators’ club? For Wales, Richard, for Wales?

Arafat’s father, Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, brought his children up with the illusion that he would win title to stolen ancestral property in Egypt. In pursuit of the elusive inheritance, Abdel Raouf, a mild man in a fez with oversize spectacles and a dark suit, moved his growing family from their home in Gaza to Cairo in 1927. Abdel Raouf’s mother’s family, the Radwans, had owned land on the outskirts of Cairo, which in his lifetime was absorbed into the city and became the overpopulated Abbasieh Quarter. The acreage was worth millions. To chase the legacy through Cairo’s labyrinthine court system, Abdel Raouf sold family farms in Gaza, neglected his trading business and squandered most of his money.

His obsessive quest alienated his children and made his wife, Zahwa Abu Saoud, wretched. She died in 1933, far from her home in Jerusalem. Zahwa’s son Mohammed Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini was only four. (It would be twenty-five years before he assumed the name Yasser Arafat and became leader of Fatah. His nom de guerre would be Abu Ammar.) Mohammed and his six siblings were at the mercy of their father’s fantasies and a succession of stepmothers. When family relations deteriorated, Abdel Raouf sent Mohammed and another son, Fathi, to his late wife’s brothers in Jerusalem. It was an unsettled, nomadic childhood that the boys spent among relations in Jerusalem, Cairo and Gaza. For young Mohammed, it presaged an adult life in which he would rarely sleep for two nights running in the same house. Abdel Raouf eventually won his property case in the Islamic court that oversaw inheritance disputes. It was a pyrrhic victory. The Egyptian Government intervened, kept the property and exiled Arafat’s father to Gaza. In Gaza, landless and broke, he died.

Like his father, Arafat dedicated his life to the futile quest of reclaiming lost title. He has described himself as the Palestinian Moses, come out of Egypt to lead his people to their promised land. Like Moses, he was by culture Egyptian. (His Egyptian-accented Arabic even now grates on Palestinian ears used to the gentler lilt of the Levant.) Like Moses, he became sole leader of a people forcibly banished from their homeland. And like Moses, he argued more with his own people than with his enemies. In other ways, however, the comparison is appalling. Moses, who showed his people the way out of the wilderness, never entered the promised land himself. Arafat stepped gingerly into Palestine, abandoning most Palestinians to permanent exile.

‘We travel like other people,’ the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote a decade before Arafat reached the Oslo accommodation with Israel in 1993, ‘but we return to nowhere.’ Or again: ‘We walk from massacre to massacre.’ As leader of Fatah, and its Al Assifa forces, Yasser Arafat has been the pied piper of that catastrophic procession. Most of the massacres since Arafat declared the PLO ‘sole legitimate representative’ of the Palestinian people have been carried out by other Arabs. His interference in the internal affairs of Jordan and Lebanon both produced civil wars in which Palestinian refugees were the primary victims. King Hussein slaughtered Palestinians to drive Arafat’s fighters out of Jordan in 1970 and 1971. Lebanese Christians massacred even more between 1975 and 1982. Syria killed Palestinians in north Lebanon in 1983, and the Shi‘ite Muslim Amal militia attacked them in Beirut in 1986.

The worst Israeli massacre of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, at Deir Yassin, left 350 Palestinian civilians dead – ‘deliberately massacred in cold blood’, as the Red Cross delegate on the scene described it. The Irgun leader Menachem Begin, in his memoir The Revolt, wrote that without the killings he engineered at Deir Yassin, there would have been no Israel. Deir Yassin is decisive in Palestinian memory, a shaming that needed to be avenged and its effect – the flight of hundreds of thousands of fearful civilians across the borders in search of safety – reversed. (Fifty-one years on, a group of Israelis and Arabs is now requesting that donations for a memorial to the victims be sent to: Deir Yassin Remembered, 5 Galena Road, London W6 OLT.) The return of those exiles in the name of self-determination was Arafat’s proclaimed mission. Only when they were safe in their homes, protected by their own soldiers within their borders, would they avoid further massacres – a goal shared of course by the Zionists on behalf of Europe’s Jews.

Many more Palestinians were killed by the Jordanian Army and Lebanon’s Christian militias than by the Israelis at Deir Yassin. In August 1976, at the Tel el-Za’atar refugee camp in Beirut, Christian militias put to death between two and three thousand Palestinians. They completed the butchery just after Arafat had ordered his commandos to evacuate the camp. The massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon culminated six years later in the killings at Sabra and Shatila, when Israel transported Christian militias into the undefended homes of Palestinian women and children. Again it happened just after Arafat and his fighters had withdrawn. They had fought with courage in Beirut, holding the invincible Israelis at bay throughout the summer, but when defeat came, Arafat had hailed it as victory.

‘One more victory like Beirut, and we’ll hold our next Palestine National Council meeting in Fiji’ was how Dr Issam Sartawi characterised the PLO Chairman’s bravado. A Palestinian who had had the courage to meet publicly with Israelis while Arafat’s appointed emissaries were doing it in secret, Sartawi was an American-educated physician (and in my case a friend: I remember him playing with our children in our house in London). He was assassinated in 1983. The culprit was the anti-Arafat Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, then in the pay of Syria (his other benefactors were Iraq and Libya). It was said that Arafat had withdrawn his ‘protection’ after Sartawi criticised him.

The ‘victory’ of Beirut in 1982 changed everything: Palestinian bravery, though more impressive than that of the Arab states’ armies, amounted to little in strategic terms. The commandos were forced overseas to North Africa, where the PLO’s Tunisian headquarters were at once far from their lost homeland and within range of Israeli air attack and assassination teams. The question raised by the retreat from Beirut was whether the Palestinians might have been better off without a guerrilla force that irritated, but never challenged, Israel. On the other hand, what options were open to a Palestinian leader seeking to redress the injustices of 1948 and 1967?

To Fatah, this was far from clear. The organisation, which Arafat and his two refugee colleagues, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), created in Gaza and Kuwait in the Fifties, had published a pamphlet in 1968, recalling the years from 1948 to 1964 when the Palestinians had had to go knocking on the door of the international community. The UN had passed an annual resolution, which even the US supported, calling for the return of 700,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948. Year after year, Israel ignored it. ‘Experience had taught us,’ the pamphlet explained, ‘that the usurpers do not understand the language of appeals, statements and petitions. We had to seek a language they would understand – the language they had used to determine the fate of our land. Thus, without much choice, we found ourselves taking up arms again.’

It was Arafat, regarded as the ‘hothead’ among Palestinian politicians, who urged the use of arms. It raised morale among a beaten people and made them believe they did not need the assistance of corrupt and useless Arab states to liberate Palestine. He argued for armed struggle against those who would later become more radical than him, notably George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. For a time, it worked. The Palestinians took pride in the achievements, however modest, of their young men against a vastly superior Israeli army with superpower weapons.

Arafat had received support from the two key anti-Western Arab states, Nasser’s Egypt and Ba’athist Syria. But he had reason to be wary of both. The Egyptians had arrested him in 1954 in a sweep of Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers after a Muslim Brother tried to kill Nasser in Alexandria. It took two months for his friends to obtain his release. Twelve years later, in 1966, he had moved to Syria, where the authorities imprisoned him for overstepping well-understood boundaries by blowing up the Tapline pipe that carried Saudi oil to Lebanon. He remained for 51 days in Damascus’s notorious Mezze prison (he was luckier than his colleagues, who were tortured and killed). Finally, his more powerful friends used their wasta, the medium of influence, to intercede for his release. His brush with Syrian security permanently soured relations with Syria, whose leaders still detest him. It had another, unexpected effect. Said Aburish writes that ‘Arafat the fast learner emulated the Syrian Deuxième Bureau, the dreaded secret police which kept the country’s people in line ... Though endowed with an incredible memory, Arafat kept personal files on all the important people within the Fatah organisation, which became known as the black files.’

After his Syrian incarceration, Arafat based himself in Jordan. It was there that his revolution achieved its high-water mark in March 1968. At the Jordanian village of Karameh – ‘dignity’ in Arabic – Arafat and his Palestinian commandos achieved a moral victory similar to that of the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of the same year. Said Aburish writes of Arafat’s finest hour:

On the night of 21 March, the Israelis struck in force. Paratroops, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, jet fighters and bombers were used in the biggest single military action since the 1967 War. General Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defence, predicted that the whole operation would be over in hours, but the Israelis were in for a surprise. The ill-trained and poorly equipped Palestinians heroically held their ground and used the rocky terrain effectively against an estimated fifteen thousand-strong Israeli force. For a few hours the Palestinians fought alone, compensating for their lack of heavy weaponry with impressive improvisations and dramatic individual sacrifices ... The statistical results of the attack on Karameh indicated an Israeli victory. They had suffered 28 dead and 70 wounded while Fatah had lost over a hundred men, the Jordanians 20, and there were many more Arab wounded. But Arafat and his fighters had made their point, and left an indelible mark on the history of the modern Middle East.

Henry Kissinger, who did more than any other American politician to prevent an accord between Israel and the Palestinians, wrote in his autobiography, Years of Upheaval (1982): ‘It is difficult to remember now the relatively marginal role played by the PLO until after the October War.’ Arafat’s commando raids from Jordan and Lebanon, backed by Arab oil after October 1973, led to his other great victory: his speech to the UN General Assembly in November 1974. He held a freedom fighter’s gun and an olive branch, and he begged the Israelis not to let the olive branch fall. Israel was not listening, its ambassador having already walked out of the Assembly. I remember that night, because the Palestinians in Beirut were celebrating by firing their weapons into the air. For the first time in their long exile, they believed the world would do something for them. They were wrong.

Attention, meanwhile, centred more and more on Arafat himself. He granted interviews, appeared on television, improved his English. In 1974, he courted international respectability by renouncing hijacking and conducted secret talks with the CIA to help track down America’s enemies. At the same time the mythical background Arafat constructed for himself did not impress Kissinger or later American policy-makers – and it complicates the biographer’s work. Among other fantasies that Arafat purveyed to a long line of journalists over the years were that he was born in Palestine, was an excellent student, fought with the Egyptian Army during the Suez invasion of 1956, served with the Egyptian general staff, became a millionaire engineer in Kuwait, captained the Palestinian ‘victories’ in Jordan and Lebanon and negotiated a peace between equals with Israel.

After he had stated in hundreds of interviews that he was born in Jerusalem on 4 August 1929, two sets of biographers forced him to concede that he had lied. Andrew Gowers and Tony Walker, in Behind the Myth: Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Revolution (1990), found Cairo University records giving Arafat’s birthplace as Cairo. Janet and John Wallach, who wrote Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder (1990), came up with his Egyptian birth certificate. Arafat shrugged off the disclosure. Said Aburish, a Palestinian whose biography is the best available in English, sympathises with Arafat’s original prevarication:

Admitting his Egyptian birth, and that his father was half-Egyptian, could have affected his chances of success, particularly during periods when the Palestinians were inclined to separate themselves from the rest of the Arabs, whose efforts on their behalf had disappointed them. In the Fifties and Sixties, before he rose to prominence and became subject to scrutiny, Arafat insistently perpetuated the legend that he had been born in Jerusalem and was related to the important Husseini clan of that city, the leading political family in Palestine and claimants to a lineage that stretched back to the prophet Mohammed.

The al-Qudwa al-Husseini family came from Gaza; as part of the Ottoman Empire, the people of Gaza had as much affinity with Egypt as with the rest of what would become the British Mandate Territory of Palestine. The family were Gaza citrus-fruit traders. Arafat had a remote connection to the Jerusalem Husseinis, whose scion Haj Amin led Palestine’s Arabs against the British and the Zionists in the Thirties and Forties. This connection derived from his mother’s family, the Abu Sauds, who had lived for generations under the Wailing Wall of old Jerusalem, until the Israelis demolished their houses in 1967.

Arafat’s identification with the aristocrats of Palestine explains much about his success. He promised them that he would not seek a Palestinian social revolution – the same promise he would make to the Saudi royal family when asking for money. As a result aristocratic and Saudi money went to him and not to the Marxists, like Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. (He had another advantage over the more charismatic and intellectual Habash and Hawatmeh. Like 80 per cent of Palestinians, he was a Muslim while they were Christian.) Arafat boasted that his father’s business partners were from the best-known feudal families of Palestine, and to this day he assiduously courts the notables of the larger villages and towns.

When the 1948 war broke out, Arafat was 19 and serving as a kind of runner for Haj Amin Husseini. After the defeat, he went back to Cairo, studied engineering and organised Palestinian students. He was close to, but did not join, the Muslim Brotherhood. Always devout, and understanding better than many of his contemporaries the importance of religion to politics, he supported the Brothers in their fight against British troops in the Suez Canal Zone. His greater commitment was to Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. He established the General Union of Palestinian Students, the only Palestinian organisation recognised in Egypt, and persuaded the Arab League to subsidise Palestinian university fees. All the money went through him, and his books were not audited – he developed a passionate interest in controlling the collection and distribution of money that continues to this day. He worked tirelessly to help young Palestinians through the morass of passport and visa difficulties that plague all stateless people. His nervous energy impressed his friends, even when it annoyed them. His colleague Omar Khatib detected his mercurial nature early on: ‘Arafat used to present himself to us as an independent. There were some Communists in the union; he used to present himself to them as a Communist. To the Muslim Brotherhood, he presented himself as a Muslim Brother.’

Even as a liar, Arafat remained a charmer. Andrew Gowers and Tony Walker recount an endearing tale from his days as a student leader in Cairo in the Fifties. A Palestinian woman petitioned him on behalf of her daughter, who had gone abroad with a student delegation and had not been allowed to return to Egypt. Arafat assured her the authorities had just sent their permission. Searching his pockets, he told her he must have left their letter at home. Later, to shocked colleagues, he excused himself: ‘We couldn’t let her go away disappointed, could we?’ He performed a similar manoeuvre with the Oslo Accords, assuring the Palestinian people that a guarantee of their rights was mentioned in there somewhere. He did not want to disappoint them.

The Egyptians and the Syrians put him in prison, and he fought with the Lebanese and Jordanians. Yet he returned again and again, always fighting, cajoling, double-dealing, relentlessly exploiting his enemies’ weaknesses. His few strengths were dissipating themselves. Israel and Syria drove him out of Lebanon, leaving him with no military base. His Arab benefactors disowned him when he showed sympathy for Saddam Hussein in 1990. The colleagues with the authority to contradict him, his Fatah co-founders, had been murdered by Israeli death squads. His political isolation and financial bankruptcy led him to sidestep the Arabs, the Americans and his own negotiators in Washington by making a separate peace with Israel. Arafat saved himself and the PLO, if not the Palestinians.

Said Aburish’s biography unearths few new facts, but it has two advantages over earlier works. The first, most obvious one is that it brings the story up to date, taking Arafat from his Tunis headquarters to the so-called Palestine National Authority in Gaza. The second, more important, is that as a Palestinian exiled in the West, Aburish interprets Arafat for Western readers. At the same time he recognises many of Arafat’s weaknesses, because he shares them. The two men spring from the same earth, the same culture. Both understand the need of stateless people to prevaricate with officialdom around the world. Both grew up in a culture that respected tradition, even when traditional leaders were brutal and ignorant. Both knew that living under foreign occupation, as those Palestinians who did not flee in 1948 and 1967 have done, entails compromise, collaboration and humiliation more often than it does heroism. Aburish has already described, in his two family memoirs, Children of Bethany (1988) and Cry Palestine (1991), how a younger Palestinian generation lost respect for him and his contemporaries. The Intifada was the initiative of younger men, and it shook Israel’s military occupation far more than Arafat’s commando raids from outside Palestine had done. Arafat and the other old men were losing the children of Palestine – a fact, as much as any other, that forced his hand.

Young Palestinians were about to emulate the generation of Aburish and Arafat, who had turned their backs on their own feudal leaders and the corrupt Arab dictatorships after 1948. By 1993, with Iraq crippled, Egypt controlled by Washington and the PLO destitute financially and morally, the young were searching for their own leaders. Arafat embraced Israel and America, because his own people were coming to regard him as expendable. Yet, if Aburish understands the PLO Chairman’s predicament, he does not excuse him for attempting to conceal his failures behind a Churchillian V sign.

Thirty-five years after he promised them liberation if they would bear arms under him, Arafat’s people remain stateless; Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory lose land and water daily to Israeli settlers; Palestinians in Syria have no political rights and no independent voice; Palestinians in Lebanon, whom Arafat used for twenty years, are powerless, without citizenship or legal rights, unable to obtain jobs in a Lebanese economy that refuses to employ them, and deprived for the most part of the funding his organisation and the UN used to provide for their education and medical care; the Palestinian police force that he runs in Gaza and patches of the West Bank protects Israeli settlers, not Palestinians; Israel recognises neither a Palestinian state nor the right of the Palestinians to self-determination; Arafat has officially recognised both the Israeli state and Israel’s ‘right to exist’, a meaningless concept in international law, but one which entails Palestinian acceptance of the justice of their displacement. Arafat has won. A place is now set for him at the table with the other dons who gathered to mourn King Hussein. Like them, he stars in Amnesty International’s most harrowing reports.