Yasser Arafat, the leader I knew

Yasser Arafat

By Jamal Kanj

Thirteen years ago, I published my first article in a major US newspaper, the San Diego Union Tribune. It was unwittingly published on the same day news came out of Paris that Yasser Arafat had passed away. The article wasn’t meant to be a eulogy but was intended to introduce Arafat and his cause to readers who rarely read a Palestinian viewpoint in the Zionist-controlled US media.

The article was about the first time I had met Yasser Arafat, in February 1973. In the early morning hours of the previous night, I had been jolted from my sleep by the rattle of guns and thunderous booms. Israeli commandos had landed at the shores of a defenseless, sleepy Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The Israeli military’s target was a vacant community clinic, but for a lonely sleeping and unarmed night guard.

The public health centre serving the poor was just metres from our home. The building had been blown up over the unarmed guard. The Israeli media spin, which was reported by the BBC, described the raid on the clinic in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp as a preemptive strike against a military target.

The next day, and while I played with other children on the small dirt road, two speeding jeeps headed in our direction. The vehicles swerved towards the heap of concrete, brakes squealed, tyres skidded and dust billowed in the air.

The back doors flung wide open before the car stopped completely. Two men jumped out of the vehicle and ran along its side. A short man dressed in his trademark Kufiah, emerged from the swirling dusts hovering over the jeep.

To the chagrin of many Palestinians and Arab governments alike, Arafat accentuated Palestinian nationalism over pan-Arabism and secularism over religion.

We immediately recognised him as the leader of the Fatah organisation, Abu Ammar, as he was commonly known. I, along with other kids, gathered around him to shake his hand. He was very gracious, and in no time a large crowd from the district started to congregate and to chant “We sacrifice our blood and soul for Abu Ammar.” Abu Ammar led another chant, “We sacrifice our blood and soul for Palestine.”

He was very young at the time, and full of energy, unlike the last public photo of the feeble old man embarking on to the helicopter for his trip to a Paris hospital. He died less than two weeks later.

Arafat lived a life of contradictions. Under his leadership, group of Palestinian intellectuals abandoned their conflicting ideologies to form a national movement for the liberation of Palestine. He is credited with conceiving an ingenious, simple idea – national liberation. This philosophy gave birth to a powerful political and military organisation, the Fatah movement.

Shortly thereafter, Fatah seized leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Inspired by the same national liberation philosophy, the PLO grew more independent and, like Che Guevara’s beret, Arafat’s Kufiahbecame a new symbol for the revolution.

Subsequently, Arafat addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 and, for the first time, the world got the chance to hear directly from the leader of Palestine. Following his UN visit, more nations recognised and established PLO offices in their capitals than have recognised the state of Israel.

Arafat led the Palestinians with a strong hand and was unwilling to share power. To the chagrin of many Palestinians and Arab governments alike, Arafat accentuated Palestinian nationalism over pan-Arabism and secularism over religion.

Irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with Arafat during the many tumultuous years of his leadership of the PLO, and later the Palestinian Authority, Arafat became an icon of his people’s struggle for statehood.

On the 13th anniversary of his death, Arafat shall be remembered as a master tactician who departed before liberating his people from a malicious occupation. Israel’s intransigence and confiscation of land for the benefit of Jews-only colonies undermined the Oslo agreement and stripped Arafat’s ability to transform the national liberation philosophy into nation-building.

Arafat’s strong leadership qualities left behind much more to be desired in Palestine today.

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