Yasser Arafat pictured in 1970, at a ceremony marking the end of a military training program in Damascus.AFP/Getty Images Yasser Arafat pictured in 1970, at a ceremony marking the end of a military training program in Damascus.AFP/Getty Images

Kevin Ovenden looks at the legacy of Yasser Arafat on the tenth anniversary of his death

Ten years ago Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar) passed before us – felled by the rapid onset of mysterious illness which, with other evidence, points compellingly to poisoning.

So much can be said in assessing Abu Ammar’s legacy. Some of it is rehearsed in a programme I participated in on the Islam Channel, discussing the long-time leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

There is, of course, the grand illusion, trap and futility of the Oslo accords. In the 1990s Yasser Arafat did indeed champion that path, against objection not just from other Palestinian political factions – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and so on – but also from the cream of the Palestinian independent intelligentsia like Edward Said, Hanan Ashwari and others.

So – yes – his memory must be burdened with responsibility for that strategic disaster. That said, it could have been so much worse.

Two decades ago one struggle after another globally wrapped up its standards, parked them in the corner and abandoned wholesale the progressive cause. So many of Arafat’s generation and position – in a range of national struggles – left us.

(I’ll not sully the memory of even the most compromising resistance fighter of the time by putting the capitulation of the gilded leaders of European Social Democracy – Blair, Schroeder, Jospin, Simitis – in the same sentence.)

Arafat did not roll up the struggle and destroy its militant traditions. He was besieged in his compound in Ramallah by Israel at the birth of the new century, not laid low by excesses in a hotel in Monte Carlo.

Arafat, the PLO and the national struggle

By political tradition, I am closer to the strand of the Palestinian revolution represented by George Habash, Wadi Haddad, Nayaf Hawatmeh and the prisoner general secretary Ahmed Sa’adat than I am to that represented by the centre of Arafat’s Fatah.

But I think no true friend of the Palestinian struggle and wider Arab revolution can fail to salute, and call to the front of their minds at this time, the moments of genius and fortitude Yasser Arafat displayed at key turning points in over half a century of struggle.

After Israel’s humiliation of the Arab states in the ‘Six Days War’ of June 1967 the Palestinian cause could have been lost. One Arab leader after another – invoking exaggerated claims of Israeli invincibility – capitulated. The greatest Arab president of all – Nasser in Egypt – did not, but he was fearfully weakened and was untimely taken just three years later.

Nasser died in that month of 1970 which became known as Black September, the beginning of the savage onslaught by the forces of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan against the Palestinian camps and guerrillas. It is in this period that Arafat, more than any other single leader, bent every sinew into holding the line, preventing abject collapse and pushing back onto he offensive.

Abu Ammar and the Fatah forces inflicted a military defeat on Israel at the battle of Karameh in that transformational year, 1968. He went on a year later to revolutionise the Palestine Liberation Organisation, turning the PLO from a cultural and ineffective talking shop into a coordinating body for the national liberation struggle incorporating all factions (at least throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s).

The institutional unity was a huge advance. The measure of it can be seen today in its absence: the schism in the Palestinian front which is only now being seriously repaired after 10 years.

It is a process driven in significant part by the pressure of a new generation which wants unity not just to overcome debilitating division between old factions – Fatah and Hamas – but to foster the conditions for a new uprising and politics inspired by the wider struggle in the Arab region of the last few years.

As was common currency at the time – at least rhetorically – Arafat in the 1960s saw the Palestinians’ national struggle as but a moment, an aspect, of the Arab revolution. The relationship between the two was, and remains, a matter not only of intense theoretical debate but also of great political consequence for the course of day to day struggles as well as for deeper strategic orientation.

Assessing the criticisms

The criticism that Arafat remained too unwilling to break from the leaders of the Arab states (made by the PFLP, some sincere western Marxists and – in a rather tendentious form – various Islamist currents) has much weight.

But three caveats:

1 Abu Ammar’s crucial intervention in the 1960s was to “nationalise” the Palestinian struggle. With some deft diplomacy, he maintained the rhetorical support of the Arab leaders while at the same time developing the PLO as an autonomous body. The Palestinian revolution was something more than a plaything for either the Gulf monarchies of Arab Nationalist leaders who were increasingly past their heroic phase as the 1970s wore on.

2 If Arafat’s failure to break at key moments sufficiently with temporising (or worse) Arab leaders was a weakness, then the capitulation of those Arab leaders who had state power was an unpardonable crime. They had oil, strategic position, and the potential to disrupt the US’s system of alliances. They had the canal in their hands.

3 It is nice to imagine that one can lead a revolutionary struggle without diplomatic compromise. It is comforting to think that one can answer (with rhetoric summoning struggle from below) the material threats by Arab leaders to deny your organisation sanctuary and funds, or to arm rivals and promote civil war in the refuge camps. Life is not so simple.

That does not make any old compromise justified. But how to plot an actual course, for national masses in struggle not for a small band of commentators, is not a question that can be evaded as if it affects only “them” and not “us”.

Through most of Abu Ammar’s leadership, the Palestinian movement operated from a position of weakness. Some of that Palestinian leaders, including Arafat, must take responsibility for. But most of it lies at the door of the traditions which actually had state power in the region.

Sustaining resistance

In this succession of relocation from one weak, barely defendable ground to another Arafat (not only him, of course) continued to resist. After 1970’s Black September, after the Syrian intervention against the left and the PLO in Lebanon in 1976, after the expulsion from Beirut and the slaughter of Sabra and Chatilla in 1982, after the constraints imposed by a degenerating regime in Tunis, through the first intifada (1987-93) and the assassination of Abu Jihad, after the Oslo process.

His successors in the Palestinian authority in Ramallah cannot claim that record. Those of Fatah who can are – like the hero Marwan Barghouti – incarcerated by Israel or otherwise kept from the political stage: for now.

At that electrifying session of the UN General Assembly in October 1974 Yasser Arafat declared that he held the freedom fighter’s gun in one hand and the olive branch in the other. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” he implored.

Four decades later, the Israeli state has shown convincingly what all the great anti-imperialist analyses of political Zionism had already warned: that the settler-colonial Zionist entity must consume the hand that offers the olive branch in a perennial cycle of expansionist violence.

And so today in Israel, the Palestinian leader who offered Israelis a path to some normalisation on the most favourable terms to Tel Aviv – through the Oslo process – is reviled still as a terrorist by the dominant political forces. Among those forces we must now include the political expression of those who revelled in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli signatory to the Oslo Accords.  

Towards a free Palestine

Thus, for me and for many friends of varied traditions, it brings no intellectual contortion or moral difficulty to recall the best of Abu Ammar today.

That is not to efface the necessary lessons that flow, especially with hindsight, from his all too apparent weaknesses. Rather, it is to aspire to that best – and perhaps even to rise above it – in the struggles to come. For despite all the stupidities and the defeats, despite everything, we are not backs-to-the-wall as we were at the end of 1967 (and who then truly had any idea what the following 12 months would bring?).

We can look forward to entering new transformational struggles, miraculous years such as 1968 with one or two advantages.
They flow in considerable part from the refusal of Abu Ammar and his generation to surrender.

Hatta al nasr. Hatta al quds. (Until victory, until Jerusalem).

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.