In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine
The Professionals

Absent the formal police-state structure that existed in Iraq and still exists in Syria, the reality of Palestin- ian social and political life under Arafat can best be described not as totalitarian but, rather, as an extreme kind of political narcissism, in which millions of people were reduced to tokens in the fantasy life of the man they had been educated to think of as their father. Their willingness to follow the Old Man can be read as a measure of his charisma, his skill at manipulating people, the depth of Palestinian despair, or the larger sickness of Arab politics. Yet it is also a fact that Arafat would not have survived for longer than a few months if not for the men of the security services who planted and debriefed informers, conducted interrogations, and maintained the vast storehouses of information that were the foundation of his rule.

The new headquarters of Tawfiq Tirawi, Arafat's favorite spymaster, are located in a Palestinian Authority building in Ramallah; the sign outside proclaims an affiliation with the ministry that handles construction. The parking lot is guarded by men in uniform. I am quickly ushered inside the building, where a guard takes my passport before he lets me get on the elevator. I ascend in the company of a pair of guards, who lead me out to a floor of the building that appears to be empty. One of the guards opens a door and leads me down a hallway to an open room that is filled with women sitting at computer terminals, where I am offered a chair. A parrot chirps in the corner as a girl in careful makeup and bright hijab enters data into a brand-new computer. The spymaster's outer office is quiet and well run, and shows few signs of the goldbricking and placeholding that characterize the more public functions of the Palestinian Authority.

Tirawi's title during Arafat's lifetime was head of the General Intelligence Service in the West Bank. While the general secretary of Fatah in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, led the intifada in the field, Tirawi provided the professional planning and staff required to launch terror attacks that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, and received detailed reports about the individuals and organizations involved through a network headed by his deputy, Haj Ismail Jabir.

After waiting for about half an hour, my translator and I are ushered down a long corridor, past a security door, and through a windowless conference room filled with brand-new imported office furniture still encapsulated in amniotic plastic sacs. We walk through a security door, into another empty office, and then through a second security door, which opens on to a quiet, light-filled office, where Tirawi sits at his desk and speaks softly into a cell phone. "La, la, la, la, la," he answers, nodding his head in assent.

His potbelly grown a bit larger after the years of his confinement in the Muqata, Tawfiq Tirawi is a calm, meditative presence who speaks in the unhurried, deliberative voice of a professional interrogator. He is well dressed, in expensive casual European clothes—a white-cashmere turtleneck under a tan jacket, and wool trousers that ride up over his stomach. His black hair is shot through with gray. He speaks with his hands clasped just below his sternum, over the buckle of his brown-leather Gucci belt. Abu Ammar, he explains, was an abqari, a genius, with a thirst for small details.

"He had a computer up here," he says, tapping his head with his index finger when I ask him what kinds of details his master particularly liked to know. "All the information," he says. "Including the most personal information. And not only regarding political rivals, but everybody—he will love to know this kind of personal information."

Our conversation is interrupted by the gentle ring of his cell phone, and Tirawi speaks for a while, issuing clear, simple orders. Arabic headlines scroll by in silence on a large TV set tuned to al-Jazeera. After a few minutes he turns back to our conversation. He was nineteen or twenty when he first met the Old Man, at a guerrilla base in Jordan. The Old Man had only two suits. "And he had two kaffiyas," Tirawi adds. "Sometimes he would wear the kaffiya around his neck instead, especially in winter when it was very cold. But he got used to it, so then he started wearing it on his head in winter and summer. He never wore cologne."

I ask Tirawi to describe the way that Arafat dealt with his political allies and his rivals within the Palestinian national movement.

"Many times, with the members of the executive committee, this is the impression he gave them—that he was their father, even if they were older than he was," Tirawi says. "He had those two important positions, of being the father, of embracing everybody, and gathering them around him, and then, when it came to a time of decision, he was the leader. Sometimes he would get mad at somebody, and he would say something that made them upset, and then directly, the next day, he would be coming to them, kissing them and saying that he was sorry, and giving them the impression that he was apologizing to them."

When I ask Tirawi how the second intifada started, he initially denies that Arafat was responsible. "It was a popular movement, because Israel was not respecting the agreements," Tirawi says. When I press him further, he says that there was in fact a decision to launch a war against the Israelis."After tens of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army—that was how it started," Tirawi says, amplifying his original statement. "There was not any use of weapons at the beginning of the intifada. Only after—even after a hundred Palestinians were killed, there was not one bullet. After that, there was a decision. But only after more than a hundred Palestinians were killed."

Having established himself in bunkerlike circumstances inside the Muqata, Arafat expressed a great deal of frustration with the lack of support he received from Arab leaders who made ritual obeisance to the justice of the Palestinian cause. "Many times he would be pushing the Arab leaders to move, not to wait, especially when he was besieged," Tirawi remembers in his mellow voice, as the sun streams through the plate-glass windows, which overlook the hills around Ramallah. "He would look at those Arab leaders with great bitterness, because they were impotent, they could not do anything."

When I ask Tirawi to name Arafat's greatest failure, he is blunt. "He failed to realize his dream and the dream of his people of establishing a state."

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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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