Martyr, villain, traitor? Yasser Arafat's complicated legacy

Martyr, villain, traitor? Yasser Arafat's complicated legacy, 17 years after his death
6 min read
10 Nov, 2021
17 years since his death, Yasser Arafat's legacy is as contradictory and complex as the conflict and the history in which he emerged, writes Emad Moussa.
A Palestinian woman walks past a coffee vendor advertising his business with portraits of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah, on 30 March 2021. [Getty]

A revolutionary and freedom fighter to some, a terrorist to his opponents. A statesman and peacemaker to some, a sellout over the Oslo Accords to others.

Seventeen years since his death, Yasser Arafat - born in 1929 as Mohammed Al-Qudwa Al-Husseini - continues to be a controversial character, mirroring the discrepancies, successes, and failures of the Palestinian national liberation movement.

Non-controversial to most Palestinians, Arafat supporters or otherwise, is that the Palestinian leader was the icon of Palestinian nationalism, self-determination, and identity for nearly 40 years. Very few people today dispute that the "Old Man" was the glue that held the Palestinian political fabric together, and unified its purpose.

"Seventeen years since his death, Yasser Arafat - born in 1929 as Mohammed Al-Qudwa Al-Husseini - continues to be a controversial character, mirroring the discrepancies, successes, and failures of the Palestinian national liberation movement"

This notion is so common that Islamists, once Arafat’s arch opponents, now glorify him as an unwavering strongman who refused to bow to Israel and the United States. This is ironic, considering that when Arafat was alive Hamas activists along with the Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian left routinely framed him as a sellout who betrayed the Palestinian cause.  They saw his involvement in the Oslo Accords as treason to the national struggle and consecrated their role as the new legitimate resistance to Israel vis-a-vis Arafat's Fatah and the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA). 

In response to this opposition, the Arafat-led PA unleashed a practice of arrests, imprisonment, and torture on par with other authoritarian Arab regimes, and disturbingly modelled from Israeli methods.

Apologists of that era retrospectively argue that none of Arafat's crackdown on the opposition contradicted his revolutionary stance or the larger Palestinian national goals. After all, they say, Oslo was a realist, rather unavoidable realisation, catapulted mainly by the impasse, isolation, and bankruptcy that the PLO suffered in the late 1980s.

Perspectives

Finding himself with few options, Arafat simply tried to play several regional and domestic cards simultaneously. While tied up to commitments with Israel and the United States, Arafat also had to balance Palestinian relations with Arab regimes who are often in conflict with each other, and he was well aware that one wrong move would have dire consequences. This did happen during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91, in which Arafat was forced to express support to Saddam Hussein, only to pay the price of a mass exodus of Palestinians from Kuwait after 1992.

Above all, he did not want to unleash the PA's full power on the opposition, afraid that such a move would plunge Palestinians into a civil war. In that regard, Arafat did continuously engage in "national dialogue" initiatives with local parties and clans, set against a backdrop of the PA's crackdown on dissent.

These colliding dynamics meant that Arafat became a polarising figure, who's reputation differed in meaning amongst the various parties in the conflict.  To Israelis, he was a "conman" and a "terrorist-in-disguise". To Americans, in particular then US president Clinton, Arafat evolved from "a peacemaker" to an intransigent, zero-sum negotiator. For Arab leaders, Arafat was at the same time: a friend, a foe, and an annoyance, whose cause held them uncomfortably accountable before their people.

Meanwhile, for Palestinians, Arafat's father-figure status transcended much of the questionable particularities of his leadership and the PA's corruption. Some Palestinians called him "incorruptible, but a corruptor;" meaning, he was a revolutionary at heart but did grant privileges to his inner circle that polluted the PA and hindered development.

Elevating him to this status also made him the conscience of the nation, and an extension of its dignity and virility. This is one of the reasons why when late Israeli PM Ariel Sharon besieged Al-Muqata'a (Arafat's Ramallah-based HQs) in 2003, many Palestinians felt the attack was not merely on Arafat's physically, but also an attack symbolically on their community as a whole.

 As the Israeli Merkava tanks circled Al-Muqata'a, powerless and internationally abandoned Arafat vowed over the phone on Aljazeera to die as a martyr, defiantly laying his gun on the table, surrounded by only a handful of his close guards, trapped within an electricity-deprived room. The symbolism, or rather the asceticism of the scene - a romanticised reproduction of the fedayee (the self-sacrificing freedom fighter) - seemed to have tapped into most Palestinians' revolutionary desires, and encouraged them to be spiritually and emotionally on Arafat's side.

That indeed happened shortly before his death, in which he was martyrised and redeemed. His Oslo fiascos and ill-thought policies were subjected to historical reductionism. His revolutionary flair and known devotion were accentuated, emotionally enhanced, and mythologised.

As such, most of today's assessments of the Arafat period are neither neutral nor nuanced. He is mostly judged in comparison to the ongoing failures by his successors to meet the people’s expectations. "Arafatism," in other words, has become the frame of reference against which the successes and failures of Palestinian nationalism are measured.

It may be simplistic to assume that Arafat's death directly brought about the current existential crisis within the Palestinian national movement, rather it merely unveiled existent tensions, and dramatically accelerated deterioration in issues that were already deeply rooted.

For nearly 40 years, Arafat’s core strength, the belief that he possessed the capacity to bring his people to liberation, was also his Achilles heel. To the extent that the evolution and representations of the Palestine cause were arguably an expression of Arafat's mode of functioning and thought process. Internal struggles and varying worldviews within the PLO and Fatah were, therefore, handled either through "buying loyalties'' or through intimidation and marginalisation. Actual reforms were, at best, cosmetic. 

Inevitably, and especially since Oslo, the PLO lost much of its domestic and international influence. It gradually transitioned from pushing for comprehensive solutions to the Palestinian plight to embracing partial ones. Apart from re-centring the Palestinian struggle from exile to snippets of the Palestinian geography, the PLO failed to achieve any significant sovereignty or independence.

"At the same time, this post-mortem idealisation of Arafat has overshadowed his susceptibility to short-sightedness and significant blunders"

These failures left deep wounds on the Palestinian political body, inhibiting its transition from the old-school nationalism to a meaningful and implementable national liberation project, which presently neither the current PA chief Mahmoud Abbas nor Hamas seems able to effectively pursue.

What has transpired in the Palestinian political scene is a catastrophic level of polarisation, dividing the remaining 22% of historic Palestine, upon which a "Palestinian state" was supposed to be established according to Oslo, into two warring camps: Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank.

Still, to most Palestinians, none of these issues has dethroned Arafat's position as a fatherly figure and a revolutionary who spotlighted Palestine on the world stage and a statesman who eventually did set a foundation for a Palestinian state. At the same time, this post-mortem idealisation of Arafat has overshadowed his susceptibility to short-sightedness and significant blunders.

Ultimately, Arafat's legacy is as contradictory and complex as the conflict and the history in which it emerged, and a one-sided assessment of it would be incomplete. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.