Yasser Arafat

The Palestinian Movement:
Arafat and After

- Achin Vanaik

(Yasser Arafat, legendary leader of the Palestinian liberation movement, passed away on November 11, 2004. We reproduce excerpts from the transcript of a talk by noted political commentator and Reader in Delhi University, Achin Vanaik, which he delivered at JNU at a condolence meeting for Yasser Arafat, organized by the JNU Students’ Union.)

WHEN we talk about great leaders and great causes, we try to do at least three things: we try to pay tribute to the man and the cause he represents; we try to take an honest measure of the man, his strengths and weaknesses; and we try to see what lies ahead for the movement. We have gathered here today to remember Yasser Arafat, and we can understand his role only in the context of the history of Palestine.

After the First World War, the British got the mandate for Palestine, and made the famous declaration promising the Jews a homeland. The leadership of the Zionist movement said this must be the Biblical homeland, asserting that the Jews were a “people without land” who needed a “land without people”, that is, Palestine. Of course this was a lie; Palestine was a densely populated region. At that time, the population of Jews in the region was less than 10%, but due to the systematic migration promoted by the British, this shot up to 35% by 1945. This process sparked off the first, and greatest intifada (uprising) of the Palestinian people (1936-39), not against the Jews but against the British – the Palestinians’ first huge anti-colonial liberation. After the Second World War, the British handed over Palestine to the US, which promoted a partition plan through the UN, which it dominated. The plan gave 35% of the population, the Jews, 55% of the land, and proposal would involve massive uprooting of Palestinians. A few days before the partition plan, however, the Zionist leadership made a secret deal with the King of Jordan to divide the whole of Palestine between Jordan and the Israelis, because they had anticipated and were in fact preparing for a war. This war did ensue in 1948, at the end of which you had Israel taking more than 55%, in fact 78%, of the land, while Jordan took the West Bank and Egypt, the Gaza Strip.

The settler colonialism of North and South America could massacre the Red Indian population to take over the land; in that of Algeria and South Africa, a large number of people from the mother country came to settle, forming a very large minority which oppressed the majority. In Palestine, on the other hand, we find an entirely new kind of settler colonialism. Because it comes in the 20th century, and because the Palestinians are a dense peasant population rather than a tribal, nomadic one, the Israelis cannot kill off all the Palestinians. Therefore the only option was to expel them. In the whole history of colonialism, nowhere do you find so rapid or comprehensive a takeover of a country as you have by the Zionist movement in Israel. In 1947, Jews owned 7% of the land; by 1950, they owned 92%. In those three years, they expelled nearly 95% of the population of Palestine, with utmost brutality.

The stature of Yasser Arafat is intimately related to this history from the 1948 war onwards. Between 1948 and 1967, Palestine was effectively divided between Israel, Jordan and Egypt. This was a population that was scattered in refugee camps all over Jordan, Lebanon, etc...There was no unity, no sense of them as a strong collectivity, and of course, there were Arab Governments that were determined to control and manipulate them. What Yasser Arafat represents, and why he was known as Mr. Palestine for so many years, was that he was the person who helped to forge a unity; that sense of Palestinian nationhood that is now undiminished, undying and cannot be finished off. That is the truly great contribution of Yasser Arafat. In order to do this, he had to fight not just against Israel, but also for the independence of Palestine from the Arab Governments who sought to control it. He set up the Palestinian liberation movement, the Fatah, and to counter this, Gamel Abdel Nasser set up the PLO and put its leadership in the hands of his puppet. It was Yasser Arafat and the Fatah which struggled and succeeded in taking over leadership of the PLO.

However, people worldwide were still not concerned, and Arafat had to adopt his second most important role, which was as the leader of a guerilla struggle, which throughout the 60s and 70s, kept the Palestine issue alive in the world media and therefore forced other countries to recognize the Palestinian problem and support their cause. This guerilla struggle sometimes took unfortunate terrorist forms, but while deploring these, one must never make the mistake of equating the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor.

When you compare Arafat to Fidel Castro or Mandela or Ho Chi Minh or Gandhi or Nehru, you find that in some ways of course he does not come out better than them. But actually in some other ways, he is also much more heroic and tragic a figure. Why? Because no national liberation movement or progressive political cause in history has had to fight as many obstacles as the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian struggle, going on since 1936, is the longest running liberation movement of history, and which still remains inconclusive.

The Palestinian movement is up against the Israeli military occupation since 1967 – the longest running illegal military occupation in the modern history of the last 150 years. On the one side you have Israel: the most powerful military force in the Middle East, armed with tanks, heavy artillery and aeroplanes which they use against the population of Palestine. The Palestinians have some light artillery, one or two home-made missiles, bombs and stones. The Israeli Govt. has nuclear weapons, the most sophisticated naval and surveillance systems, and it is backed by the most powerful military – that of the USA. Yet, in both the Indian and international press, you hear, “Well, there are two sides to the story; we have to be concerned about Israeli security, etc...”

To give a single example, since Ariel Sharon’s acts of deliberate humiliation sparked off the second intifada in September 2001, about 4500 people have died. The ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths is 4:1, and about 22% are 18 years or under. There have been about 40,000 casualties, and again, the ration of Palestinians to Israelis is 13 or 14:1. Yet the myth is peddled about there being “two sides” to the story.

However, it is also a fact that no national liberation struggle is as isolated as the Palestinian struggle. The Arab governments manipulate, they talk, but they do not give the kind of support the Palestinians need. You had a whole host of countries including India which were ready to boycott apartheid South Africa. You had the USSR which was a counter to the US, and of course even the US and British governments were forced to declare they were opposed to racism; they couldn’t say there were “two sides” to the story even if they supported the South Africa regime. Today most governments simply want the Palestinian problem to go away. The previous BJP-led regime was deeply committed to forging the closest possible relationship between Israel, US and India. Today, Israel is the second largest arms supplier of arms to India, after Russia. And now you have the Congress-led government saying, through Natwar Singh, that “our solidarity with Palestine will not affect our ties with Israel”. This is as disgraceful as saying we’re going to have ties with apartheid South Africa. We should be working to isolate Israel, not end or weaken that isolation.

Arafat, in a sense, embodied the Palestinians’ continuous struggle, he has shaped the Palestinian nationalism, that despite the intense obstacles, keeps on fighting, and frustrates the US and Israel.

Within Israel, since 1945, there have only been two perspectives, apart from a very small minority of those who totally oppose the occupation. These two perspectives have been: either we move towards taking over the whole land, pushing all Palestinians out, or if this is not possible, let us have a Bantustan settlement. The latter means that Israel may concede some of the formal attributes of a limited sovereignty – a flag, a seat in the UN – while keeping Palestine totally subordinate to Israel politically, economically and militarily, and depriving it even of contiguous territory.

After the mid-70s, Arafat made his third most important contribution, when he recognized that guerilla struggle is only a means, not the end. He in fact had to fight to change the Palestinians’ entirely legitimate sense of grievance and injustice, to an acceptance of the two-state solution. This amounted to settling for just 22% of the land, and allowing Israel to keep the 78% of land that it took over by brutality and dishonesty. Just think of what this means: someone comes into your house unjustly, takes over all the rooms in the house, pushes you into a garage, and then controls the garage and divides it into different sections, making it impossible for you even to use the toilet without permission. You say, OK, you’ve taken over house, just get out of our garage and let us have it. Today, that is all the Palestinians are asking for. Yet you have any number of powers, including the Indian Government and the Indian elite, saying the Palestinian must be more “reasonable”, i.e. they must compromise further and accept a Bantustan-type solution.

There are all kinds of myths about what happened at Oslo, Camp David etc...- about “how close they were to a solution” and so on. What in fact happened was that after 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the total relationship of global forces shifted to the West. It was then that Arafat made his most fundamental strategic error: of trusting the Americans to act as “honest broker”; of believing that since the Palestinians were now only demanding 22%, surely the US and the West would recognize the justice of the demand and give it back. That strategic error became clear when the US proved to be a thoroughly dishonest broker. You now have a world situation where several governments pay lip service to Palestine, but are desperate for closeness to the big powers like the US. Colonialism always needs collaborators; and it is no surprise that we see such tacit collaborators in the Middle East and elsewhere.

For powers like the Indian Government, “national interest” is the favourite justification and rationalization for such collaboration. As Indians, each of us have a choice whether we assert our basic humanity and decency over and above the so-called “national interest”, which is nothing but the interest of our governments and elites to cosy up to the US and Israel. The fact that many chose to solidarize with the victims of injustice and resist their own governments which supported unjust regimes and wars, played an important role in the victory of the struggle against apartheid and against the US occupation of Vietnam. When Nelson Mandela was asked, “At what point did you know the apartheid regime would be defeated?”, he replied, “When I realized we had captured the moral imagination of enough people”. The victory of the Indian freedom struggle owes itself to people who declared, “I may not live to see it, but I will not compromise”. Arafat did not live to see the end of his dream, but that dream can be realized as long as the spirit of resistance lives. Today, the Palestinian people, like the Iraqi people, need our international solidarity, our capacity to tell our own and other governments that we are totally on the side of the Palestinians.

Why, in the 90s, did Arafat change from being the great hero for the US and even for Israel, to being the villain? Arafat was supposed to be the crucial medium by which a Bantustan-type solution could be imposed on Palestine, and even though, in my view, Arafat made concessions that he should not have done, ultimately he refused to go down that path. He wanted desperately to be the first President of a free Palestine. He hoped that would emerge out of the Oslo accords, but ultimately, when they kept pressurizing him to concede a Bantustan-type solution, he refused. And that’s when the international media began branding him an “obstacle to peace” and the US and Israel began calling for a “new” Palestinian leadership. Israel besieged and bombarded him, and even issued open threats to assassinate him. Today, you have the US, Israel, and the media even in India saying that now that Arafat is dead, you have a “historic opportunity for peace”!

What does this bode for the future of the Palestinian struggle? The US and Israel are going to try and set up a PLO leadership of their choice, that they can manipulate, and then push through a Bantustan-type solution. It is an open question whether they will succeed. Although it is not likely, it cannot altogether be ruled out. If it does happen, no doubt the world media will hail it as a great solution. The suffering of the Palestinian people is so intense that many will say such a solution will at least offer some relief. But it is my firm belief that in the long run, no such solution can be a permanent settlement of the Palestinian cause. This people, who has fought the longest and most courageous struggle, will never settle for anything less than genuine national liberation!

The Palestinan people today suffer unimaginable day to day humiliations and brutality. The occupying Israeli army persuades itself that the Palestinians, Arabs are “subhuman”. Do you know that there are some crack Israeli marksmen who use Palestinians as “target practice? They use rubber bullets and show off their skill by aiming, not for the chest, but for the smallest target: the eye. You’ve had US and British civilians like Rachel Corrie and Thomas Hundall being killed by the Israeli Army when they stood in the path of bulldozers that were demolishing Palestinian homes.

A friend of mine, an Italian MP, visits Palestinian refugee camps in the summers. She asked young Palestinian boys between 8 and 14 years of age, what they would like to become. Their reply? Not “doctor”, “engineer”, “teacher”; most of them said they would like to be martyrs for the cause. This is tragic; they’ve had their childhood robbed from them. In its own tragic way, it also represents the fighting spirit of the people. This sense of Palestinian nationalism and commitment to liberation, which is their most enduring weapon, was forged to a great extent, initially, by Yasser Arafat. Armed with this spirit, the Palestinian movement has in a sense outlived Arafat, and will surely survive his death to triumph one day. q