The small man with a big dream


MIDDLE EAST: The Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, was a man of clay with feet of clay. Born in Cairo on August 24th, 1929, the child was given the name Muhammad. Michael Jansen examines the ups and downs of the career of Yasser Arafat, aka 'Mr Palestine'

His father, Abdel Rauf al-Qudwah, was from Gaza, his mother, Zahwa, belonged to the influential Husseini family of Jerusalem.

Abdel Rauf, a textile merchant, had moved his family to Cairo because he had inherited a piece of land in the Giza suburb, where the pyramids loom above the desert.

Muhammad was nicknamed "Yasser", Arabic for someone who gets things done. He was a hyperactive, demanding child who soon dominated the play of his six brothers and sisters.

Zahwa died when Yasser was four and he and his brother, Fathi, were sent to live with an uncle in the Old City of Jerusalem where they formed a deep and abiding attachment to its narrow streets, souqs, and houses of worship.

Later, Arafat claimed his birthplace was Jerusalem, regarded by Palestinians as their religious, cultural and political capital.

Even as a young man he had great political ambitions and moulded his persona, like a lump of the red clay of Palestine, to fit the image he sought to project to his people. For Arafat, being a Jerusalemite was an essential element in his legend.

Another was participation in the Palestinian struggle against the emergence of Israel. As a teenager, Arafat said he helped smuggle arms into Palestine during Israel's 1948-49 military campaign, during which it captured 78 per cent of the country.

In 1951, he enrolled at the University of Cairo to study engineering and promptly became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, the font of today's Islamist militancy. He organised the Union of Palestinian Students and served as its president from 1952-56.

He became known as Yasser "Arafat", taking his last name from the plain outside Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad preached his last sermon. It is said, that Arafat did this to distance himself from Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian leader during the British mandate who was blamed for the Palestinians' failure to mount a credible resistance to Israel's conquest of most of the country.

By shifting to Arafat, Yasser also disassociated himself from his father, Abdel Rauf al-Qidwa, a cold man who had little to do with his children. Thus, Cairo-born Muhammad al-Qudwa became Jerusalem-born Yasser Arafat, veteran of the 1948 battle for Palestine, engineer and political activist.

Like many other Palestinian and Arab students living in Cairo at the time, he received a smattering of military training in the army reserves which he put to good use in a demolition squad during the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956.

In 1957, Arafat fled Egypt for Kuwait when a warrant was issued for his arrest as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had tried and failed to assassinate the then Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In Kuwait, Arafat prospered. He became a man about town and drove a sports car. But in 1959, he refocused on his homeland. With a group of like-minded friends, he founded the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine, "Fateh", and took the nom de guerre "Abu Ammar" (Father of Ammar), transforming himself into an underground warrior.

Disillusioned with the Arabs, who were too weak to fight Israel and restore the Palestinians to their homeland, Fateh vowed to wage guerrilla war against the Jewish state. Fateh also decided to seize the political initiative from the Egyptian-dominated Arab League, which established the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in order to impose control on the Palestinians and exploit their cause to the political benefit of Egypt's leaders.

Fateh's military wing, al-Assifa, launched its first operation against Israel on New Year's Eve 1964. Abu Ammar commanded a squad of five guerrillas who crossed from Lebanon into northern Israel, where they blew up a water-pumping station.

January 1st, 1965 was thereafter observed by Fateh as the beginning of the armed "revolution" against Israel. Fateh's jabs against Israel, combined with clashes in Gaza, ruled by Egypt, and the Syrian Golan led Israel to wage a six-day offensive against Egypt, Jordan and Syria in June of 1967. During that campaign Israel captured the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza.

Abu Ammar infiltrated the West Bank and established a network of secret cells with the aim of resisting Israel's occupation. Fateh's commandos, based in Jordan, also carried out a series of raids against Israeli troops in the West Bank, prompting Israel to send an armoured column across the Jordan river in March 1968.

Fateh, other Palestinian paramilitary groups and the Jordanian army halted the Israeli army's advance in the Jordan valley.

This event, celebrated as a great victory for the Arabs, projected Arafat into the leadership of the PLO, and permitted him to declare his independence from the Arab regimes and the League.

But the aftermath of Karameh precipitated the downfall of the PLO in Jordan. Thousands of young Palestinians eager to fight Israel flocked to Fateh and other guerrilla formations which attempted to take over Jordan from the Hashimite monarchy, precipitating civil war and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan.

Abu Ammar, the warrior, set up his base in Lebanon and continued annoying the Israelis with cross-border pin-prick operations. At the same time, the PLO began to build a "state-within-a-state" in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

In 1969, Arafat, the politician, declared his independence from the rejectionist Arab regimes by indicating he was prepared to accept a settlement in a "democratic state" where Palestinians and Israelis would live together in equality. This was Arafat's first attempt to reach a settlement with Israel without consulting Arab rulers.

His efforts to find a solution received a setback in 1972 when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Fateh gunmen at the Munich Olympic Games. Arafat promptly disassociated himself from this operation and ordered the PLO to cease acts of violence outside the occupied territories.

In 1974, Arafat-Abu Ammar brought off two major political coups. An Arab summit declared the PLO to be the "sole representative of the Palestinian people" and he addressed the UN General Assembly. A gun in one hand, an olive branch in the other, he called upon Israel to chose between war and peace, conflict and negotiation.

He spent the next two decades at war. Fateh survived Lebanon's civil war, which began in 1975, and Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

In 1985 Arafat barely escaped death when his headquarters was demolished by Israeli warplanes. In 1988, the PLO issued a declaration of independence which recognised Israel's existence within the ceasefire lines of 1948. This was a major advance for Arafat.

In 1991, a PLO delegation attended the Madrid summit of Arab, Israeli and world leaders called to initiate a peace process which would lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

When formal talks between Palestinian and Israeli representatives stalled, two other teams opened secret talks in Norway. The result was the Oslo Accord, seen by the Palestinians as a plan for statehood.

Arafat returned to Palestine in June 1994 and was elected president in January 1996 by more than 80 per cent of the voters. His Palestinian National Authority assumed the task of governing Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Like brother Arab leaders, Arafat was an autocrat with feet of clay. His rule was characterised by mismanagement, corruption and abuse of Palestinian human and civil rights.

Although Arafat, Israeli Premier Yitzak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo did not prosper. Israel withdrew from only 19 per cent of the West Bank and 55 per cent of Gaza, and continued to plant settlements in the occupied territories.

Palestinian Islamic groups Hamas and Jihad mounted attacks on Israel, challenging Arafat's leadership. Fateh responded by establishing its own grassroots organisation and military wing which also conducted operations against Israeli troops and civilians. Israel, led by Arafat's old enemy, Ariel Sharon, responded by invading and reoccupying the West Bank and Gaza and isolating Arafat in Ramallah.

Ordinary Palestinians rallied round him, offering themselves as human shields to protect Arafat from assassination or deportation by the Israeli armed forces.

Arafat died as he lived, fighting for self-determination for his people. He was neither a great man, like Abraham Lincoln, nor a great war leader, like Winston Churchill. He was not a riveting orator, but he had the charisma of a neighbourhood politician closely connected to his constituency. While he cared nothing for worldly goods, he permitted his entourage to engage in massive corruption.

Small of stature and delicate, he had the resilience of steel cable. He was a survivor who carried his people's heavy cause on his back for more than 40 years.

For them he was, simply, "Mr Palestine". He failed to win them a state, but he will be remembered with affection and pride as the little man who stood up to the big world and won recognition for a people whose very existence had been forgotten.