Saturday, October 25, 2008

Obituary: Yasser Arafat (1929-2004)

The death of Yasser Arafat on November 11, 2004 was a severe blow to the struggles of Palestinian people and people all over the world against imperialism and the Empire. While the US media describes him as “… a leader who has failed his own people” (The Economist November 13, 2004; quoted by the author), but to the struggling masses of Palestine, he was a hero who brought them their freedom and land. The life and times of Arafat have been both interesting and dangerous, which is difficult to capture in a few words. But a sincere attempt will be made in the following passages to cover his life, which was full of struggles, from personal to political, and all for the cause of a free Palestine. Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini was born on 24 August 1929 in Cairo, Egypt. His father was a textile merchant, and his mother was from an old Palestinian family in Jerusalem. She died when Yasir, as he used to be called, was five years old. He was sent to live with his maternal uncle in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, then under the British rule, which the Palestinians were opposing. Not much is known about his childhood except one bitter incident when British soldiers broke into his uncle's house after midnight, beating members of the family and smashing furniture.

After four years in Jerusalem, his father brought him back to Cairo, where an older sister took care of him and his siblings. In Cairo, before he attained seventeen Arafat got involved in the Palestinian struggle against the British. At nineteen years of age, during the war between the Jews and the Arab states, Arafat left his studies at the University of Faud I (later Cairo University) to fight against the Jews in the Gaza area. The defeat of the Arabs and the establishment of the state of Israel left him in hopelessness. In the year 1953, as a student he wrote “Don’t Forget Palestine” in blood and presented the petition to General Neguib, Egypt’s military leader. Disenchanted with the Arab world’s inability to do anything about Israel’s 1948 conquests, he and his friends founded Al-Fatah (fatah meaning conquest) in 1958. Al-Fatah was an underground network of secret cells, which in 1959 began to publish a magazine advocating armed struggle against Zionist Israel.

In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was established, under the sponsorship of the Arab League, bringing together a number of groups all working to free Palestine. When the Arab League was defeated by Israel in the 6 days war in 1967, Fatah emerged from the underground as the most powerful and best organised of the groups and took over the PLO in 1969. After Arafat became the chairman, PLO no longer remained as a stooge of the imperialist power backed by the Arab states, wanting to keep the Palestinians quiet, but an independent nationalist organisation, based in Jordan.

Arafat took great pains to develop the PLO into a state within the state of Jordan with its own military forces. But in 1971, Jordan expelled PLO. Arafat sought to build a similar organisation in Lebanon, but was driven out by an Israeli military invasion in 1982. He kept the organization alive, however, by moving its headquarters to Tunisia. From there, he supported the 1987 Intifada, the first widespread uprising of Palestinians against Israeli rule. In the meanwhile, Arafat survived many assassination attempts by the Israeli intelligence agencies and recovered from a serious stroke.

In 1988, there came a change of policy on the part of Arafat. At a special United Nations session held in Geneva, Switzerland, Arafat declared that the PLO renounced terrorism and supported "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbours". The prospects for a peace agreement with Israel then brightened. After a setback when the PLO supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the peace process began leading to the Oslo Accords of 1993. Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize 1994 with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin "for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East". As per the Oslo Accords, elections took place in early 1996, and Arafat was elected President of the Palestine Authority. But the peace process suffered due to the emergence of right wing leadership in power in Israel. The Israelis postponed their promises, missed deadlines for withdrawal and ceaselessly built ever-expanding settlements on the land that was destined to be Palestine. Furthermore, the rise of religious fundamentalism associated with US intervention in the middle-East after the Gulf war, gave little scope for Arafat to carry forward the peace process. The Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Arafat in 2000 failed due to these obvious reasons. In 2003, Sharon and the Bush administration chose to end negotiations with Arafat, excluding him from talks because of the Palestinian leader's perceived failure to crack down on militant Islamic groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. By the year 2004, there had been many crackdowns on Arafat’s regime both from inside by the religious fundamentalists, and also from outside by Israel and the US, particularly. India always stood for the causes of Palestinian people, except during the period when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power. The staying away from extending the hands of friendship policy was relentlessly pursued by the erstwhile Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government in order to constantly appease and get applauds from the two military powers namely the US and Israel. A recent stance by the BJP not to send any of its representatives to join the official Indian delegation to Palestinian Embassy in order to condole the death of Arafat somehow corroborates BJP’s policy perspective towards its West Asian friend as well as the minorities (The Hindu, November 13, 2004). However, the Left which was always sympathetic to the Palestinians’ struggle came out clearly with the statement that “..he (Arafat) has stood up against all odds through more than four decades of struggle against the Zionist Israeli government and its armed forces backed by the US imperialists... (and) … was a source of inspiration for the worldwide struggle against imperialism” [Press Release by CPI(M),, November 11, 2004; quoted by the author]. One must know that when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invited PLO leader Yasser Arafat to New Delhi in order to establish formal diplomatic relations, she was called Gamal Nasser’s niece, King Faisal’s daughter and Yasser Arafat’s sister in the Arab world. (taken from the article 'Indira Gandhi—An Outstanding International Leader' by M Saleem Kidwai, The death of Yasser Arafat will leave a vacuum difficult to be filled up. His passion, love and commitment for a free Palestine will be remembered in the days to come.

[Note: The views expressed are personal and are not meant to hurt anybody].

*The above image has been taken from

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