Making A Difference

The Irony Of Arafat

Yasser Arafat died as the leader of a country that does not yet exist, and therein lies the tragic nature of the former leader and the ongoing tragedy of the people of Palestine.

The Irony Of Arafat
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Yasser Arafat died as the leader of a country that does not yet exist, andtherein lies the tragic nature of the former leader and the ongoing tragedy ofthe people of Palestine.

Arafat's passion and commitment helped forge a Palestinian independencemovement, putting the dispossession of his people on the political map in a waythe world couldn't ignore. Pundits are talking of him as merely a"symbol," a strategy not only to ignore his real contributions butalso to denigrate the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people forjustice.

Arafat had long carried those aspirations, for which he will be remembered.But at a crucial turn, he betrayed both principle and pragmatic politics byaccepting the 1993 Oslo agreements, which left him not an independent leader ofan emerging state but a subordinate to Israel in charge of policing his ownpeople but with few other powers. The irony of the tragedy is that this fatalmistake is the one thing for which he is lauded in the halls of power in theUnited States.

When people hack through the propaganda that blankets the U.S. public, itbecomes clear that the Oslo accords were an instrument of continued Palestiniansubjugation; Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories more thandoubled, suggesting that Israeli leaders preferred expansionism and were neverserious about a just peace based on international law. An Israeli "matrixof control" -- Jewish-only highways and Israeli checkpoints, enforced by anincreasingly brutal occupation army -- cut the occupied territories intoisolated cantons, undermining the possibility of a functional Palestinian state.Arafat accepted these repressive terms in exchange for being allowed to continueto rule, the most corrupt of bargains.

The irony has been compounded in recent years, as Arafat was condemned inthose same halls of power in the United States for failing to be a "partnerfor peace." Translated: Arafat refused to accept completely Israel'sconception of peace based on Palestinian capitulation to Israeli domination.

To understand that requires clearing away the obfuscation around theso-called "generous offer" of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak thatArafat refused at Camp David in 2000. That offer included Israeli withdrawalfrom Gaza but would have allowed Israel to annex valuable and strategicallycrucial sections of the West Bank and retain "security control" overother parts, including all Palestinian borders. The net effect would have beento institutionalize some of the worst aspects of the occupation. Arafat couldnot, and should not, have accepted it.

Many Palestinians had grown increasingly critical of Arafat's inability tochallenge forcefully Israel's domination, but all understood that with theUnited States supporting Israeli intransigence -- support that intensified underBill Clinton and George W. Bush, making claims that the United States could be a"neutral broker for peace" more laughable than ever -- any Palestinianleader was working against tremendous odds.

So, Arafat remained the Palestinian leader, and remained an object of hatredin Israel. A Palestinian writer recently recalled that as a child in a Gazarefugee camp, he often saw Israeli soldiers forcing young Palestinians to theirknees, threatening to beat them if they did not spit on Arafat's photo."Say Arafat is a jackass," the soldiers would scream, but the childrenrefused.

Arafat is gone, but the spirit of resistance to occupation that gave childrenthe strength to endure pain rather than buckle to that brutality remains. ThePalestinians have lost a founder of their movement for independence. Israel andthe United States have lost a figure they could demonize easily when they wantedto manipulate public opinion and squash calls for real peace with real justice.

No doubt Israel and the United States will try to promote new"leadership" in Palestine that they hope will allow them to finish theproject of solidifying permanent Israeli domination. No doubt Palestinianresistance to that project -- a resistance that owes much to Arafat -- willcontinue. Israel and its supporters in the United States would profit fromrecognizing that fact and committing to a real peace process that can bring intoexistence what so many Palestinians have dreamed of but Arafat did not live tosee: A truly free Palestine in which peace is secured by justice not power.

Sylvia Shihadeh is coordinator of the Women's Association for Middle EastUnderstanding in Austin and a member of Women in Black and the InterfaithCommunity for Palestinian Rights. RobertJensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin andthe author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity .

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