From A World to Win News Service

The Legacy of Yasser Arafat

Revolutionary Worker #1260, November 28, 2004, posted at

Yasser Arafat, long-time leader of the Palestinian people, died in Paris on November 11 at the age of 75. He had been taken to France for medical treatment after falling gravely ill at the Palestine Authority headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank—where the Israeli occupiers had kept him prisoner for over two years. When he died, Arafat was the President of the Palestine Authority and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Arafat was born in 1929. There are various accounts about his place of birth—some say Cairo, Egypt, and others say Gaza or Jerusalem. He was the fifth of seven children of a Palestinian merchant who was killed in the 1948 war over the creation of the Israel.

The settler-colonial state of Israel was established, with imperialist backing, on land stolen from the indigenous Palestinian people. The Palestinians had lived and farmed on the land of Palestine—including the West Bank, Gaza, and the whole state of Israel—for centuries. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes by the genocidal campaign of the Zionist occupiers—and Israel has continued to expand through further theft of Palestinian territory. Israel serves as a crucial agent for U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and it receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid each year. (For more historical background, see the fact sheet "Palestine: A History of Occupation and Resistance," RW #1259, available online at

In 1969 Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people." But the reality is that the fierce, courageous, and just struggle of the Palestinian people have made this nation of several million an inspiration for oppressed people worldwide. And Arafat became the foremost leader and symbol of that struggle—a struggle that has been waged under very difficult conditions and against powerful, vicious enemies. As the following article from A World to Win News Service points out, "The Arafat Palestinians honored was the man who led the first Palestinian armed resistance to Israel, the man once celebrated for the slogan `revolution until victory,’ a symbol of a people who are not supposed to exist and a struggle for their rights as a people that has never ceased."

As with the life of any complex historical figure, there are many lessons in the story of Yasser Arafat that require an interest in truth and heart for the oppressed—qualities that run counter to the interests of the vultures sitting in power from Washington to Tel Aviv to Cairo. Western commentators trying to sum up Arafat’s life have called him an "obstacle to peace." By "peace" they mean the total acquiescence of the Palestinian people to Israeli rule and imperialist domination. This attitude reveals an arrogant, colonialist outlook that has marked the entire history of the imperialists and the Israeli state in relation to the Palestinian people. We learn nothing from these Western commentators about the complexities of the man who dared to call the Palestinian people to armed struggle for their country and found himself increasingly limited by his ideology, pragmatic outlook, and nationalist framework—and increasingly ensnared in a web of imperialist politics.

With the Bush doctrine of worldwide war for empire, the state of Israel assumes even more strategic importance for the U.S.—and the just resistance of the oppressed people of Palestine is even more of an "obstacle" for the imperialist rulers. The death of Arafat marks a key juncture in the struggle in Palestine. And big questions face the Palestinian people about the way forward toward liberation.

November 15, 2004. A World to Win News Service. As the helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat’s body approached the ground in the West Bank town of Ramallah November 12, tens of thousands of Palestinians climbed over the high walls of the compound where he was to be buried, burst through police lines and turned his entombment into a celebration of Abu Ammar, the name he first took as a young guerrilla fighter, and of the Palestinian cause.

Many Palestinians of all generations had walked for a good part of the day from all over the West Bank to avoid Israeli roadblocks in order to get to the funeral. They wept without restraint and fired guns into the air as a sign of respect, mourning, and determination to continue the struggle. This passionate scene strongly contrasted with the cold, silent official funeral for Arafat held in Cairo, Egypt, earlier that morning in the presence of notables who were all glad to see him dead—Arab kings and hereditary presidents and the lower-ranking statesmen of the Western governments who tell them what to do. Scenes of riotous mourning also took place in the Gaza strip, whose inhabitants, locked down by the Israeli occupation, were not allowed to travel to the West Bank for Arafat’s burial.

The interment took place under the trees on the grounds of the Muqata, the compound housing Arafat’s office where Israeli troops had virtually buried him alive for two and a half years. His grave was filled with dirt from Jerusalem to signify his refusal to agree to the Israeli occupation of the capital of Palestine. Even in death, the vengeful Israelis forbid him to enter the city.

The Arafat Palestinians honored was the man who led the first Palestinian armed resistance to Israel, the man once celebrated for the slogan "revolution until victory," a symbol of a people who are not supposed to exist and a struggle for their rights as a people that has never ceased.

If he wavered and in later life abandoned the resolute opposition to Israel that made so many people consider him the father of Palestinian nationalism, the Zionists and imperialists hated him anyway because he never bowed down low enough to satisfy them. The last two Zionist prime ministers publicly threatened to have him assassinated, and when in response the UN passed a resolution saying that he should not be murdered, the U.S. vetoed it.

Yasser ("Laid-back") was the nickname given to Muhammad Arafat as a young boy. One of his earliest memories was of British troops breaking into his house in Jerusalem and beating the uncle he lived with. By the age of 16 or 17, Arafat became involved in smuggling arms into Palestine. In 1948, when British troops withdrew from Palestine, the Zionists invaded most of the land apportioned to a Palestinian state by the UN and drove out the vast majority of the Palestinian population throughout the new state of Israel. Palestinians called it the Nakba , "the catastrophe." Arafat fought in that war at the age of 19. He later recalled that as Arab armies entered Gaza to meet the invading Israelis, "an Egyptian officer came to my group and demanded that we hand over our weapons.. We protested...but it was no good.. In that moment, I knew we had been betrayed by these regimes."

The Palestinians had no political or military organizations of their own at that time. In 1958 Arafat co-founded Fatah ("Victory"), an underground organization for the liberation of Palestine. Later he also became leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, an umbrella group that until then had been run by the Arab governments to keep the Palestinians under their control.

In 1967 Israel inflicted a bitter defeat on these governments when it launched the so-called "Six-Day War" and seized the remaining Palestinian lands of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, along with Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel’s "pre-emptive" strike was both another massive land grab and a message to the Palestinians and other Arabs that any opposition to Zionism was useless. In this dark situation, Arafat put forward that instead of relying on the armies of other states the Palestinians could free themselves through their own armed struggle. Disguised as a shepherd, or as a woman with a baby or in other ways, Arafat slipped into newly Israeli-occupied territory to organize the struggle.

Attacked by the Israeli army in the Jordanian town of Karameh, an outnumbered and poorly armed Fatah unit beat back their much-feared tanks and forced the Zionist forces to withdraw. This was the first Arab military victory against Israel. At that time, Arafat said the armed struggle would continue until all of Palestine was liberated. His programme was the destruction of the Zionist state and the establishment of a multi-national, non-religious state where no people would oppress another. This just democratic demand won the support of a great part of humanity.

In 1973, amidst the revolutionary wars and upsurge shaking the whole world, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing Zionism as a form of racism and backing the right of the Palestinian people to self- determination. Arafat appeared before the Assembly wearing a gun holster and bearing an olive branch. "Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hand," he warned.

At that moment, however, the holster was empty, and it was the gun that was falling from Arafat’s hand. It has been said that Arafat began to see the situation differently after the partial comeback of the Arab armies in the 1973 war and the U.S.-sponsored negotiations between these governments and Israel. Arafat believed that with the help of the USSR and certain Arab governments, Israel could be forced to compromise with the Palestinians and accept a Pal- estinian state alongside the Zionist state. This achievement, he said, would be a "stage" in the long-term struggle for Palestinian liberation. This was wrong on two counts: first, the Soviet Union (then a socialist country in name, but imperialist in terms of its social system) and the reactionary Arab governments would pursue their own interests and betray the Palestinians. And second, Israel was not willing to accept even a Palestinian "mini- state."

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from Jordan by King Hussein’s army in 1970 had joined other Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, where the PLO set up its headquarters. After Israel invaded in 1982, carrying out massacres in refugee camps, most notoriously Sabra and Shatila, and the country was effectively divided between Israel and the Soviet Union’s client state Syria, the PLO was driven into another exile, in Tunisia.

Again the Palestinian liberation struggle entered a difficult period, and again it sprang back to life. In 1987 the "intifada" broke out. Refusing to accept defeat, young Palestinians with stones in their hands rose up against the occupation troops in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis responded by breaking their hands and arms whenever they could catch them, and, increasingly, shooting them down.

In this context, in 1988 Arafat appeared before the UN, this time with a very different message, recognizing Israel’s right to exist and condemning armed struggle against the Zionists. He believed that some combination of the intifada and U.S. pressure would force the Israelis to negotiate with him. Yet it was not until after the fall of the Soviet bloc that the U.S. would consider serious negotiations.

For a decade and a half, the U.S., whose political, financial and military support is the main pillar of the Zionist state, forbade any negotiations with Arafat. Among other reasons, they feared that a Palestinian "mini- state" could serve Soviet imperialist rivalry with the U.S. for control of the Middle East. But then in an apparent change of direction that misled and confused many people at that time, in 1993 the U.S. brokered an agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO. Arafat publicly sealed the agreement by shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and U.S. President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

The Israeli army withdrew from Ramallah and Gaza. Arafat and the rest of the PLO leaders were allowed to return and set up an organization with some of the trappings of a government, the Palestinian Authority.

During the "Oslo years," the "peace process" that lasted from 1993-2000, the Palestinian Authority cooperated closely with the CIA and the Israeli Shin Bet to clamp down on anti-Zionist resistance in the West Bank and Gaza in the name of safeguarding this process, while Israel steadily undermined it. Using U.S. money, Israel imported almost a million immigrants from Russia and declared them Jewish. Israeli bulldozers and troops destroyed Palestinian houses every day and often whole villages to make room for armed Zionist colonies in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel then built a spider web of roads to connect these colonies that Palestinians were eventually forbidden to even drive on. The Palestinians were increasingly driven off of the little land that remained to them. Even there, Zionists sliced off the branches of their 100-year-old olive orchards and robbed them of vital water. Instead of freezing the influx of settlers in the West Bank, as had been agreed, Israel doubled their numbers. Jerusalem increasingly became a Zionist city in deeds, even though this was supposed to be a subject of negotiations.

In 2000, the U.S. and Israel believed they had so weakened the Palestinians that they would be forced to accept what an Israeli official called "total victory": in return for Israel’s recognition of some sort of Palestinian state in a part of the West Bank and Gaza (which in turn is only 22 percent of the original Palestine), they asked Arafat to sign a treaty surrendering all other Palestinian national demands, not just temporarily but forever. These included most claims to the lands seized by Zionist settlers in violation of the Oslo agreements, the right of Palestinian refugees forced abroad to return to their homes (supposedly guaranteed by international law and the UN), and all hope of regaining even a part of Jerusalem. The peace talks broke down.

At that point the second intifada erupted. Rabin had been shot by a Jewish assassin. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon had staged a provocative visit to a holy site shared by Jews, Moslems and Christians in Jerusalem to signal what he considered the final crushing of the Palestinians. Israeli troops moved back into Gaza and took over all of the West Bank, killing some 3,000 Palestinians since then and jailing about 7,000 more. Israel was forced to do this, Sharon said, because "we have no peace partner." Despite the fact that Palestinians had overwhelmingly voted to elect Arafat president of the Palestinian Authority, George W. Bush called for his removal in the name of "democracy."

Long before Arafat died, the U.S. and Israel began trying to impose their own favorites as his successors at the head of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Fatah. As Arafat lay in a Paris hospital where he had been evacuated, these pro-U.S. politicians eagerly and disrespectfully demanded custody of his body and his political heritage even before he was dead. This was another reason for the people’s tears at Arafat’s burial.

It has been widely commented that Arafat died a tragic figure, a man who started out as a beloved guerrilla fighter, but unlike many other such men of his generation ended up a failed statesmen without a state. But Arafat had no special fatal flaw that made him different from them.

Especially during the period when the PLO arose, there were various fronts in many countries whose strategy was to wage armed struggle as a kind of pressure, with the aim of something less than actually defeating the enemy in battle, along with using the support of one imperialist power against another, often the Soviet imperialists against the U.S. The underlying political goal was perhaps to deal real blows to U.S. imperialism without carrying through a thorough-going social revolution. Although the 1960s and 1970s were marked by the influence of socialist China, Mao and revolutionary war, different classes and the organizations that represented them entered into the global upheaval with different goals.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, some of these forces did end up accommodating themselves to a world run by the U.S.—the armed struggles in Central America, for instance, and South Africa’s ANC. What is particular to Palestine, however, is the continuing importance of Israel to the U.S.’s plans for dominating the Middle East as a strategic keystone to world domination, and the unyielding resistance of the Palestinian people. The U.S. was able to dismantle the apartheid white-settler state in South Africa, offer a junior partnership in the people’s exploitation to a new African bourgeoisie and offer Nelson Mandela a whole country to preside over. But under today’s conditions, at least, there seems to be little possibility that the U.S. would consider any restructuring of power relations that involved dismantling much at all of the Zionist settler state that serves as its armed outpost against the Arab peoples and its European rivals as well. What the U.S.-and European-backed "road map" offers—even on paper, regardless of the fact that Israel has never abided by any of these agreements—is the kind of legal status that black people had in the economically crippled, militarily insignificant and politically powerless Bantustans of South Africa, the puppet "mini-states" for Africans set up by the apartheid regime.

Isn’t there enough proof of this in Israel’s relentless construction of the Wall and the violence it uses against the non-violent protests of the Wall by Palestinians and even Jews—despite the "road map," despite the condemnation of international courts, the UN and world public opinion? When Israelis publicly debate "transfer"—the forcible removal of all Palestinians, including Israeli citizens, from all the territory they proclaim to be Israel—is this not a signal that the stakes are mounting even higher in the Palestinian struggle for liberation?

If the idea of seeking gains for the people through a partnership with their oppressors was not buried along with Arafat, one reason is because there are always new forces willing to settle for sharing power, such as the Islamic organizations Israel and the U.S. once built up to use against the secular PLO. But these restricted goals would not have such currency among the people if more of them could see—in ideas and in practice—that something more is possible.

If someone starts with the idea that the Palestinian people are not able to militarily defeat the U.S.-backed Zionists right now, in today’s world situation, and so must accept some degree of oppression, then capitulation might seem more "realistic." It’s worth noting, however, that millions of Palestinians are not willing to accept this logic and give up and would rather risk death, because Israel simply won’t let them live a life worthy of human beings. And if you look at the Palestinian people in the context of the potentially explosive dynamics of the region, a region where they have long been a beacon to all the peoples, then even if it is clear that the difficulties are indeed very real, other brighter possibilities come into view.

In the first Gulf War, when Arafat had no other governments supporting him, he backed Saddam Hussein. Although like so many other people he was bitterly disappointed by Saddam’s inability to stand up to the U.S., in a sense today the Iraqi people are coming to the rescue of the Palestinians by waging a war against the U.S. occupiers, the same power that stands behind Israel. The Iraqi resistance is currently the biggest obstacle to the U.S.’s plans in the region and the world—and to a great extent it is inspired by the Palestinian struggle and connected to it by many threads. The same could be said of the struggles of other Middle Eastern people in their hundreds of millions in countries ruled by reactionaries dependent on the U.S. and the West, regimes where for so long time seemed to stand still. People all over the Middle East grieved for Arafat in a way that no other head of state in that region could even dream of, so much are they hated. The Americans will never deliberately help the Palestinians, as most Palestinians know very well, but the Palestinians can count on the U.S. to bring more turmoil to the Middle East and the entire world order in which they have been buried alive for more than half a century. What will emerge out of that is yet to be written.