A blessing and a curse

Upon the death of Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian journalist he jailed sums up the legendary leader's ambiguous legacy.


Daoud Kuttab
November 12, 2004 1:57AM (UTC)

I had mixed feelings as I looked over the Muqata building in Ramallah. While everyone was there to see the place where Yasser Arafat made his last stand in his long struggle for his people's independence, I remembered this compound as the location where I was imprisoned for seven days in 1997. At the time Arafat ordered my incarceration because the television station I was in charge of, Al Quds Educational Television, dared to broadcast sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council dealing with corruption.

But I didn't feel bitterness as I looked at the compound. I felt that in his own way Arafat was true to himself and his principles. He did everything he could to fulfill the hopes of millions of Palestinians. In the process he no doubt broke many rules and betrayed the trust of many people. The world wanted him to shed his military uniform, throw away his gun, and follow Israeli orders to pacify his own people while they were still under occupation. He refused; he insisted that the revolution was not over until the occupation ended. In life and in death Arafat would not allow anyone to put him in any predictable classification. He was so dedicated to the Palestinian cause, so obsessed with it, that he was both a blessing and a curse for Palestine.

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He was a blessing in that his dedication to the cause brought him the love of his own people and their willingness to forgive any mistakes he committed. He was able to unify Palestinians behind one national cause that became a worldwide cry for freedom and independence.

This obsessive dedication, however, sometimes stood in the way of good judgment. Arafat's mistakes cost Palestinians dearly. His failure to stand up to the popular and emotional Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was a glaring example: As a result nearly 400,000 Palestinians were evicted from Kuwait, and Palestinians lost much Arab and international support.

In the Oslo years, Arafat failed to delegate the power the accords granted to the Palestinians. His insistence on control rendered the Palestinian Authority inefficient and corrupt. He also failed to understand the possibilities that Clinton's last year in office offered: He threw away a potentially honorable agreement reached in Taba without being able to offer an alternative strategy to end the occupation and to establish a Palestinian state.

Perhaps Arafat's death was also a blessing. Having withstood tremendous physical and psychological pressures for almost three years, Arafat's last stand at the Muqata will become an integral part of his political legacy. Leaders that follow him will have difficulty in yielding any more concessions than he did.

During his career Yasser Arafat took on many titles. And to understand what the Palestinian cause will look like without Arafat, we must consider the various titles that he last held. Arafat was chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, president of the Palestinian National Authority, commander in chief of the Palestinian forces, and head of the Fatah movement.

The PLO embodies Palestinian national aspirations for independence and statehood. It is the highest political body for all Palestinians, both those living in Palestine and the refugees and other Palestinians in the diaspora. Arafat's successor will need to juggle between negotiations with Israel, which will require concession on refugees' "right of return" to Palestine, and the aspirations of more than 3 million Palestinians who wish to come back to the homes from which they were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967. And he must do this while dealing with the daily needs of Palestinians living under occupation.

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As the commander of the Palestinian forces Arafat was able to keep the various Palestinian military, security and intelligence units under his own control. The successor will not only have to deal with these forces, which have been torn apart by the Israelis, but he will also have to deal with local paramilitary units. These units, most of which are not controlled by the PNA's central leadership, are more loyal to grassroots figures than to uniformed PNA officers. Local Fatah leaders like Marwan Barghouti have tremendous power over the nationalist armed units that are loosely organized under the name Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Barghouti advocated internal Fatah elections and was trying to implement them when the Israelis arrested him and charged him with conspiring with terror bombers. As a street leader who had been elected the head of the Bir Zeit University student council, he gained legitimacy by being chosen by his peers. When the Oslo process began, he refused to accept any official position within the Palestinian Authority, choosing instead to remain close to the local Fatah cadres. Whoever fills Arafat's shoes will need to make sure that these brigades are satisfied that their status, demands and leaders are respected.

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Indeed, the power struggle that will ensue in the post-Arafat era will ultimately center on Al Fatah, the backbone of the PLO. A worldwide assembly chooses Fatah's 100-member revolutionary council, which in turn elects a 20-member central committee, where most of the power struggle will take place. Many young street leaders will insist on an emergency meeting of the revolutionary council, or even that a sixth general assembly be convened (it would be the first since 1988). Events in recent months have shown that the Al Aqsa Brigades forced even Arafat to take their demands into consideration.

Marwan Barghouti has the credibility that the official Palestinian leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmad Qurei, lack. As a result, many Palestinians are searching hard for a way to achieve his release from Israeli prison. Some hope that the Egyptians will trade Israeli spy Azzam Azzam for Barghouti; others predict that he will be released as part of a trade with the Lebanese militant group/political party Hezbollah, which has the bodies of a number of Israeli soldiers.

But Barghouti and others of his generation will most probably have to wait. A transition period will no doubt take place in which people like Abbas and Qurei will be a bridge to the next wave of Palestinian leaders.

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Of course, the succession problem in Palestine, as in many other Arab countries, is greatly complicated by the absence of an accepted, regular structure by which authority is passed on. In the absence of such a structure, leaders are reluctant to handpick a deputy, let alone allow one to gain experience and competence. Elections, whether at the presidential, parliamentary or municipal level, could do a lot in helping to nurture and develop a representative leadership. The absence of these democratic mechanisms is even worse inside the various liberation movements. Internal elections are not happening in the Islamic and left-wing groups generally, and in the nationalist movement that Arafat headed there have not been internal elections since the late 1980s.

While much of the power struggle will take place within the nationalist camp, one must not overlook the Islamist camp led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Although the Islamists are unlikely to interfere in the post-Arafat power struggle, they will not sit idly by if the new leadership moves in what they consider the wrong direction. Of course, the new leadership will have to reach some agreement with the Islamists regarding the rules of the game, both domestically and vis-à-vis Israel. If no such agreement is reached and the new leadership cracks down hard on the Islamists, a violent civil war could erupt.

Most important, to consolidate his leadership the next Palestinian leader must make some hard decisions and show some tangible results quickly. The experience of the first Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), who resigned largely because of his inability to deliver any improvements to his people -- whether strengthening personal and collective security, restoring the rule of law, or bringing an end to chaos in Palestinian areas -- remains fresh in the public's memory.

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Which is why an Israeli freeze on settlement activities, the release of Palestinian political prisoners, and the removal of the hundreds of checkpoints between Palestinian cities would revive a feeling of hope, without which no Palestinian leader can negotiate what the world wants: a peace settlement.

The problem is that no Palestinian leader, no matter who he is, can deliver these changes without help from other players. The Israeli occupiers, the neighboring Arab countries, and the international community, led by the United States, face a challenge. They all must help out if they expect the new leadership of Palestinians to be able to withstand the pressures they will be under to raise the bar higher than Yasser Arafat did during a lifetime dedicated to the cause of Palestinian freedom.


Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at AL Quds University in Ramallah. To join his mailing list, please write to daoudkuttab-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. His web site is www.daoudkuttab.com.

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