In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

The war for Jerusalem that began after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's failed peace offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 has become the subject of legends and fables, each one of which is colored in the distinctive shades of the political spectrum from which it emerged: Yasir Arafat tried to control the violence. Arafat was behind the violence. Arafat was the target of the violence, which he deflected onto the Israelis. Depending on which day of the week it was, any combination of these statements might have been true.

In his patchwork uniform, which combined a military tunic with a traditional kaffiya, the Old Man, as those who had known Yasir Arafat the longest called him, was a strange and defiantly contradictory person. He was the father of the Palestinian nation, and the successor to the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem, Omar Ibn al-Khattab and Saladin. His official title was rais of the Palestinian Authority, a title that is ambiguously translated as "chairman" or "president." Arafat was also the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the head of Fatah, the PLO's central faction, which he founded in Kuwait in the late 1950s. The title that came first on his personal stationery was head of Fatah, which means "conquest"—a backward acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Falistiniya, the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Spelled forward the acronym yields "Hataf," which means "death."

Arafat's failure to conquer Jerusalem did not shatter his conviction that history was moving in his favor: under pressure from within and without, isolated in the world, the State of Israel would eventually crack apart and dissolve, to be replaced by Arab Palestine. "We will continue our struggle until a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl waves our flag on the walls, mosques, and churches of Jerusalem, the capital of our independent state, whether some people are happy about it or not," he promised. "He who doesn't like it may drink the water of the Dead Sea." Arafat understood his actions as part of an unfolding within the long duration of historical time rather than as disembodied headlines on CNN. The inability of his diplomatic interlocutors to understand what he was driving at exposed the fatal limits of the Western conception of politics as a way to find a happy medium between competing interests.

Arafat's given name, Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Raouf Arafat al-Kidwa al-Husseini, provides close readers with a biography in brief of the man who created a nation out of the Arab refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The boy Muhammad Abd al-Rahman was born in Cairo on August 24, 1929, and grew up in the city's Sakakini district. Both his parents were Palestinians. His father, Abd al-Raouf, was a merchant from Gaza. In the late 1920s Abd al-Raouf left Gaza to prosecute a claim to a large chunk of Cairo that he believed was the rightful property of his family. The claim was futile, and preoccupied him until the day he died. Arafat seldom mentioned his father and didn't attend his funeral. His mother, Zahwa, for whom he named his only child, was a daughter of the al-Saud family, whose home in the Old City of Jerusalem was part of the neighborhood that was bulldozed by the Israelis after the 1967 war to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall. Although not born in Jerusalem, as he often claimed, Arafat did live in the al-Saud family house for several years with his brother Fathi after his mother died, in 1933. Arafat's grandfather was named Arafat, and his family name was al-Kidwa. His clan was the al-Husseinis of Gaza, not the famous Jerusalem family. "Arafat" was the only part of his given name that he would carry into adulthood; "Yasir" was a childhood nickname related to the word for "wealthy" or "easy." He didn't like school, and showed an early talent for organizing the neighborhood kids. "He formed them into groups and made them march and drill," his sister Inam told a biographer. "He carried a stick to beat those who did not obey his commands. He also liked making camps in the garden of our house."

It made sense that a people without a homeland, with only a recent shared history of expulsion, flight, catastrophe, shame, and defeat to bind them together, would fall under Arafat's spell. He was famous for his mastery of al-taqiya, the ability to dodge a threat, and of muamara, conspiracy. Those who met him, even his intimates, inevitably described themselves as rahba, awestruck. The man they met was mutawaadi and baseet—humble and modest. As much as any other man, Arafat was responsible for the making of the modern Middle East. The raids he launched on Israel from Gaza, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon in the 1960s helped to precipitate the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which stripped the Arab regimes of their credibility and set the stage for Arafat's emergence as the Arab Che Guevara. Arafat's creation of a Palestinian para-state inside Lebanon in the 1970s made him a wealthy man, and a linchpin of Soviet strategy in the region. Expelled from Beirut in 1982 by Ariel Sharon, he went into exile in Tunis, where he watched with surprise as a younger generation of Palestinians rose up against the Israeli occupation in 1987. His support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War left him broke and stripped of his political assets in the early nineties, and out of touch with the young revolutionaries in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1993 Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, which committed Israel and the United States to a process whose end point would be the establishment of a Palestinian state. He returned to Gaza through Egypt on July 1, 1994.

In a largely traditional society Arafat stood out because he was self-made, the symbolic incarnation of a people that owed its continued existence to him. Decades before he began to show his age in public, his lips trembling, his hands shaking, his belly distended—even then he was known as the Old Man. His speeches were laundry lists of slogans and exhortatory phrases such as "Ya jabal ma yahzak reeh" ("O mountain, the wind cannot shake you!") and "Li-l-Quds rayyihin, shuhada bi-l-malayyin" ("To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions") interspersed with Koranic verses. The symbolic leader of the Palestinian nation spoke with a pronounced Egyptian accent. His lips flapped when he spoke. To some, the combination was irredeemably comic. He distinguished himself within the Palestinian national movement by his boundless energy for the cause, alqadhiya, which might also be translated as "the case," a term appropriate to a proceeding in a courtroom. One of the peculiarities of the nation that Arafat created was that it was founded on a festering grievance rather than any positive imagination of the future; the worse things were in the present, the stronger the Palestinian case became.

For the diplomats of the European Union, whose dream of creating a new kind of political organization that would rival the United States for global influence was burdened by the historical guilt of colonialism and the Holocaust, the image of the Jew as oppressor that Arafat offered the world was both novel and liberating; the State of Israel would become the Other of a utopian new world order that would be cleansed of destructive national, religious, and particularistic passions.

Perhaps it was the clownish aspect of Arafat's behavior that made it easy for the leaders of Israel, the United States, and Europe to believe that Arafat was a minor tribal chieftain whose true aim was to enjoy red-carpet treatment during his visits to the White House and to other seats of civilized government. The Palestinian leader was fond of time-saving measures, and could cite the exact number of hours that shaving once every five days, as he did, could add to a man's life. He spent his spare hours watching cartoons on television. His favorites were Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry. It took Arafat more than an hour each morning to arrange the tail of his kaffiya in the shape of Palestine and pin it to the shoulder of one of his tunics, which his guards bought for him in military-surplus stores in the cities they visited. He completed his fanciful outfit with a pin in the shape of a phoenix, symbolizing the rise of the Palestinian people from the ash heap of history, along with a variety of military ribbons and decorations that testified to his self-appointed status as "the only undefeated general in the Middle East." In ranks behind the decorations were felt-tipped pens of different colors, to which court gossips liked to attribute decisive significance. Green ink was for his reports. Red ink meant that someone was to receive a certain sum of money; or else red ink meant that his signature was to be ignored. Inside the pockets of his jacket were the small black notebooks in which he wrote about money. When he was in doubt about a particular sum, he would withdraw a notebook with a flourish, cite a specific figure, and then put the notebook back in his pocket. Inside the notebooks were the codes that unlocked the secret bank accounts to which only he had access. When his private plane went down in the Libyan desert in 1992 and could not be located for thirteen hours, a great and memorable panic seized the leadership of the PLO at the thought that the remnants of the organization's vast financial empire had disappeared in the wreckage.

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David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.

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