In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

The members of Fatah's young guard who achieved a measure of real political power in Arafat's court were the heads of the security services in the West Bank and Gaza, Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan. Both men had become close to Arafat in Tunis after they were deported by the Israelis during the first intifada, in the eighties. Both men forged close operational ties to the CIA during the nineties. The theory then was that the United States and Israel needed to help train and strengthen Arafat's security services, so that the Palestinian leader could crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Rajoub's relationship with the CIA came to an end in 2001, when an explosive projectile damaged the bathroom of his heavily secured compound, which the Israelis claimed was being used as a hideout for terrorists. The Israelis then demolished the compound.

Muhammad Dahlan, also known as Abu Fathi, is the crown prince of Gaza. Well-built, in his mid-forties, Dahlan has an easy, powerful physical presence that exudes authority and a not inconsiderable amount of egotism and vanity. Where Rajoub looks like a colonel in civilian clothing, Dahlan is a fawn-eyed fashion plate. His hair is crimped with a wave in front, like an Egyptian pop star's. Dahlan is widely seen as the power behind Mahmoud Abbas's government and the paramount warlord in the Palestinian territories. He is the linchpin for the Bush administration's hopes for democracy in the Palestinian Authority. When I arrive at his floor in the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah, I am greeted by a bodyguard, who escorts me past three armed men to his room. Today Dahlan is wearing alligator loafers, a silk turtleneck, a Gucci blazer, and a large Rolex watch. Beside the couch where he sits is a stack of Arabic translations of articles from the world's major newspapers. Dahlan, who was first introduced to Arafat by Abu Jihad, in Baghdad, is pleased that I recognize his mentor's name.

"When we lost Abu Jihad, we lost the political know-how," he says. "With Abu Iyad, we lost the creativity and ability to shape opinion." Dahlan takes a sip of his tea and leans forward. "I believe that the internal life of the Palestinian national movement became much more complicated when Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad died, because we had only one person in charge," he explains. "If you disagree with Abu Ammar, you become with the Jews. Whereas before, if you opposed Abu Ammar, it meant that you could be with Abu Jihad or Abu Iyad."

Like Rajoub, who was close to Arafat in Tunis, Dahlan was horrified by the Palestinian leadership's ignorance of the actual conditions in the territories and the nature of the Israeli state. "It was a horrible shock," he says. "They didn't know anything, nothing essential, the details or even the important aspects of the situation. Because I was used to Abu Jihad, who knew even the smallest details about who was who in this refugee camp, in that school, in this university, in Bir Zeit University, in Jabalya refugee camp, I assumed that the rest were like him. When I became in the forefront after Abu Jihad died, I realized that they knew nothing. I was astonished and I was saddened."

"Arafat is your friend, as long as you're not a threat to him, or a competitor, based on his perception," Dahlan says. In the last year of Arafat's life, he adds, the relationship between them cooled. "It's not you, it's not logic," he explains. "Sometimes he would get scared of you. He would get jealous of you. You don't know why. It would just start in his mind, from the people around him," Dahlan says, leaning forward and squirting a decongestant spray into his nose from a white-plastic bottle.

"Working with him in general is not easy, even for people like me," Dahlan continues. Echoing comments made to me by Tirawi and Rajoub, he paints a picture of a highly emotional man who was expert in manipulating those around him but was also susceptible to the manipulations of his court.

"Many times he would be like a kid," Dahlan remembers. "Sometimes he is shouting, or sobbing, and other times he is very calm. I remember him laughing when we were telling him jokes, especially when we were in the airplane together. I remember him when he was angry, especially during the elections, the negotiations, when he was planning. He had highly refined human emotions, very sensitive. He is very shy—maybe this is something that will shock you. Anytime someone was coming with any wish, he would want to fulfill it. This created problems for us."

In one case, early on in the Oslo process, Dahlan says, he remembers being alone with Arafat when Prime Minister Rabin called the Palestinian leader on the phone and asked to change a key point in the Oslo agreement. Arafat agreed on the spot.

"He thought it was the fish market," Dahlan adds.

My translator N. asks if he saw the recent editorial headline in the newspaper al-Ayyam that said "Arafat Makes Decisions From the Grave."

"That's shit and garbage," Dahlan says.

When I ask him for his final verdict on Arafat's mistakes, he is openly dismissive.

"He managed the relationship with the U.S. the way he manages relations with the Arab countries and the Third World countries," Dahlan begins. "Second, he didn't distinguish between a personal relationship and a political one." Dahlan pauses before he completes the list. "And the third thing, which is also important, he thought he was as powerful as the Jews in the U.S. He overestimated himself. In my view, my interest lies with the U.S. My duty is how to create an interest for the U.S. with me, so that they will serve me."

The Israelis

In the weeks that follow, I ditch my translators and travel to Tel Aviv for on- and off-the-record meetings with present and former high-ranking Israeli officials, including officers of various intelligence services who had dealings with Arafat. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians know their enemy well. They share other things, too, such as their taste in interior décor. During one meeting in the Kirya, the army command headquarters in the center of Tel Aviv, I notice that the view from my host's corner office is similar to the view from Tawfiq Tirawi's office. Again, the television is tuned to al-Jazeera with the sound turned off. Looking around the room, I notice a picture of the Mosque of Omar above the walls of Jerusalem. It's almost the same office, I comment to my host, who smiles apologetically. "But my view is nicer," he says. "I see the ocean."

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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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