14 November 2004

Father of His Nation

Common Sense
John Maxwell

Watching the CNN early show, one gets the impression that Jack Cafferty, with his weathered, intelligent face, is there to lend an air of authority lacking in the two main presenters Bill Hemmer and Soledad O'Brien who are both young, beautiful and vapid. Cafferty's style reinforces the impression of serious, conservative and cranky.

On Wednesday morning, after the announcement of the death of Yasser Arafat, Cafferty suggested that a Palestinian monument to Arafat should say "here lies a thief who robbed us blind".

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, because most public Americans seem to take it for granted that anybody like Arafat is a murderer, terrorist and thief; the United Nations is a playground for bandits and the rest of the world are nuisances to be avoided as far as possible.

As they say, one man's fish is another man's poison, and while Jonas Savimbi was being feted at the White House as a freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela was being denounced in the same quarters as a terrorist.

According to British Secret Service (MI5) archives made public last year, two former Israeli prime ministers were notorious terrorists during the Zionist struggle to drive the British out of Palestine. Zionist terror groups planned to set up cells in London to assassinate the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin.

Present Trends in Palestine, an MI5 briefing paper written in August 1946, reported on the activities of the Stern Gang that had assassinated Lord Moyne, the British high commissioner. One leading member of Stern was Yitzhak Shamir, who became prime minister in 1983.

Another paper, Threatened Jewish Activity in the United Kingdom, Palestine and Elsewhere, focused on the activities of the Irgun, then led by Menachem Begin who became prime minister of Israel in 1977. In 1947/48, Begin had a 2,000 pounds price on his head, accused of murdering British soldiers and policemen.

The MI5 paper was written after Irgun bombed British headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people - Britons, Arabs and Jews - and injuring scores.

The present prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, made himself infamous in 1953 by his massacre of the village of Kibya, and by murderous assaults on the Al-Bureij refugee camp and the village of Nahalin. He has several more recent atrocities to his discredit.

His assaults on Jenin, Nazareth, Ramallah and other Palestinian targets have merely enhanced his reputation for sadistic brutality.

Sharon has said repeatedly that he regrets not having killed Arafat when he had the chance to do so in Lebanon.

He and Bush refused to have anything to do with Arafat for the last three years, claiming that Arafat was a terrorist. Two years ago, Sharon's troops came within a few yards of killing Arafat, invading Palestinian Authority headquarters, killing Palestinian policemen and civilians and reducing much of Ramallah to rubble.

I remember being copytaster in the BBC World Service newsroom one day in 1970 when Palestinian militants hijacked four planes over the Atlantic.

At first, we thought the news agencies had got it wrong, when wildly different reports came in about what we thought was one hijacking. Until then, hijackings were one-off exploits, usually done by lone gunmen. As the day went on it became clear that this was a military operation in scope and execution.

The purpose was to put the case of Palestine on the world agenda. The hijackings were carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an affiliate of the Palestine Liberation Organisation which Arafat headed.

Arafat was a small person, only 5' 4" tall, but his authority and charisma were immense. His political career began as the leader of the Union of Palestinian Students in Egypt in 1948, when he was 19, shortly after Israel had driven out the majority of Palestinians to establish the Zionist homeland.

With his engineering degree, Arafat served in the Egyptian army as a demolitions expert in the Suez War against Israel, Britain and France. In 1959, he formed a small secret organisation called the Palestine Liberation Movement - Fatah.

It was at first overshadowed by the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation until after the 1967 war when Fatah began commando raids into Israel. By 1969, Fatah had become the biggest component of the PLO, and Arafat had taken charge.

It was under his leadership that the PLO affiliates - the PFLP and Black September - began to carry out high-profile activities which earned Arafat and his fellows reputations as terrorists. The Black September murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972 did nothing to burnish Arafat's image, although he always claimed that he did not and could not control the terrorist groups.

Arafat was working behind the scenes to unify the Palestinians, getting a reputation for preferring compromise to confrontation. Under him, the PLO provided for the first time, a unified leadership for the Palestinians, all six or seven million of them, scattered to the four winds.

By 1975, with support from the Non-Aligned Movement, Arafat made his first appearance before the UN, bearing, he said, "An olive branch and a gun".

All this time, Arafat and the Palestinians were still scattered. Many were in Lebanon, where, as they had before in Jordan, they created a state within a state.

Jordan's King Hussein had forced them out in the bloody 'Black September' purge. They were attacked in Lebanon by the Israeli army under Sharon, Israel's defence minister. The Palestinian militants, out-gunned and outnumbered, held out for months while Arafat negotiated terms under which they would leave Lebanon.

While most of the militants left, hundreds of Palestinian civilians remained behind in refugee camps where, in 1982, the Lebanese Christian militia fell upon them and slaughtered perhaps as many as 3,000, under the eyes of the Israeli army. Sharon was found indirectly responsible for the massacre and forced to resign.

From exile in Tunis, Arafat continued his diplomatic efforts. But the Palestinians in Palestine, suddenly inspired, grew impatient and launched in 1987, their first intifada against the Israeli occupation. Arafat seemed to be losing his grip when in 1988 he was forced to agree, publicly, that Israel had the right to exist. It was a significant concession, and it lost him friends and supporters among Palestinians and in many Arab capitals.

Turning disaster to advantage, Arafat accepted a Norwegian offer of mediation and began negotiating secretly with Israel. The key to Israel's willingness to negotiate was Arafat's concession in Algiers. In 1993, the Oslo negotiation culminated in an agreement, signed in the presence of President Clinton - with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier, and Shimon Peres, Rabin's coalition partner and foreign minister.

Arafat recognised Israel's right to exist and Israel recognised the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. "We are betting everything on the future," he said.

"Therefore we must condemn and forswear violence totally, not only because the use of violence is morally reprehensible, but because it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realisation of peace."

The Oslo accords gave the Palestinians recognition as a proto-state, and gave Arafat entrée to the West Bank, where he established the Palestine Authority and began bargaining for greater justice in the sharing of Palestinian land.

He reckoned, however, without the Israeli right-wing. Rabin was assassinated. Netanyahu, a less moderate right-winger, had no enthusiasm for the peace process, and when President Clinton tried to extend the Oslo accords, Arafat refused to agree to a Palestinian state which would have been a collection of scattered Bantustans embedded in Israeli occupied territory.

Arafat has been roundly condemned in Israel and the West for not accepting the Netanyahu offer. According to its partisans, this offer would have given the Palestinians more than 90 per cent of what they sought. But the Palestinians don't want a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Palestine.

Many people appear to believe that Palestine was unoccupied when the Jews began to settle there.

Palestine had been controlled by the Turks until the First World War when the British captured it and ran it as a mandate from the League of Nations. But the Balfour declaration of 1917 had declared Palestine the site of a homeland for the Jews - more suitable obviously than the British first choice, the Kenyan highlands.

Jews began to settle in Palestine, buying out Palestinian farmers and gradually establishing a substantial presence. After the war there was massive illegal emigration from Europe while the Zionists fought to take over Palestine forcibly and before the new United Nations Organisation could enforce a 'rational' partition of the country. Collusion between the wartime allies, inspired by guilt, fatigue and hypocrisy, allowed the Zionists to declare the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Arab states, weak, corrupt and disorganised, made an unsuccessful stab at intervention. It was no use.

The Palestinians were thrown off their land and into the laps of the Arab states around, orphans thrown among child molesters.

Ben Lynfield of Christian Science Monitor quotes Michael Tarazi, legal adviser to the PLO: "Israel's strategy was to disperse the Palestinians and make the problem go away - but Arafat made sure our rights were always on the agenda." Lynfield also quotes a rhetorical question from an Israeli, Uri Avnery, head of the Gush Shalom Peace group: "Who cared about Palestinians before [Arafat]?"

The neoCons of the Bush Administration adopted the Sharon pose that Arafat was the only stumbling block to peace in the Middle East. Israel's position has always been clear: it is to absorb all of Palestine and perhaps more of the neighbouring states to become in area what it is already in military power - a super state. Eretz Israel, fufilling its transcendental mandate from God.

Moshe Dayan said it: "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother. Our armed forces. are not the 30th strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under."

The Israeli right-wing speaks of the "transfer" of the Palestinians - a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. Sharon lusted for Arafat's blood.

The Israeli nightmare of extinction is fuelled by a thousand years of European anti-Semitism, crowned by the Holocaust. The fundamentalist Christians and Islamists hate the Jews for their disparate reasons; the Christians yearning for an Armageddon which will cleanse the world of Jews and all other unbelievers.

The problem is that the victims of Israel's justified paranoia are not the Western Christians who watched idly as they were consigned to the gas chambers, but the Palestinians, who, above all others in the world, gave them sanctuary for more than a thousand years.

Injustice breeds terror because terrorism is the weapon of those who feel most helpless and downtrodden. The departure of Arafat challenges Israel and Sharon to find a way to peace. Arafat, they said, was the obstacle. His death makes Palestinians realise what he really meant to them and may in fact be a much bigger obstacle to the designs of Sharon and the neoCons.

When President Bush imprudently advised the Palestinians to go get themselves a new leader, he spoke as one who did not understand and could not have understood what Arafat represented, whatever his faults and alleged crimes.

Arafat was not simply the embodiment of modern Palestinian history; he was the real expression of his people's dignity and genius. He was the soul of Palestine.


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