A Decade Without Arafat: Palestinian Leader, Symbol and Mystery

Ten years after his still-unexplained death, the PLO leader remains a symbol for Palestinians despite the catastrophic consequences his decisions had on their lives.

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A Palestinian security force officer stands guard next to a large banner showing the late Yasser Arafat.
A Palestinian security force officer stands guard next to a large banner showing the late Yasser Arafat.Credit: AP

The 10 years that have passed since Yasser Arafat’s death haven’t spawned much nostalgia for him in Israel. The years since Mahmoud Abbas replaced him as head of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and the Fatah movement haven’t been any easier for Israelis or Palestinians. But at least the intensity of the violence has declined, both in the West Bank and inside Israel. And some of this decline can be attributed to Abbas, who generally eschews terror.

Abbas has infuriated the Netanyahu government with his aggressive speeches over the last few weeks, especially with regard to Jerusalem. Israel was also enraged by the letter of condolence and praise his office sent to the family of the terrorist who was shot to death by border policemen trying to arrest him for the attempted murder of Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick the day before.

But the verbal assaults on Abbas by government ministers this week, in which they accused him of responsibility for the recent spate of terror attacks in the capital, somehow omitted the fact that the PA has made enormous efforts to contain violent outbreaks in the West Bank. Moreover, there’s no comparison between the doubletalk Abbas is now using and that of the man who perfected this tactic, Arafat. Abbas was never a terrorist himself, and it’s hard to prove that he has directly incited to terror.

Abbas does periodically voice support for what he terms “peaceful popular resistance.” His model is the struggle against the route of the separation fence waged by residents of the West Bank village of Bil’in.

But the gap in the way the two sides define both “popular resistance” and “terror” leads to argument and conflict. For most Israelis, even throwing a rock is terror. For most Palestinians, even shooting a soldier in the territories is legitimate resistance.

Israel’s attitude toward Arafat can be divided into three eras. From Fatah’s founding in the early 1960s to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – the decades of airplane hijackings, terror attacks and the 1982 Lebanon War – Arafat was the arch-enemy. During the Oslo years, from 1993 to September 2000, he briefly represented hopes for peace. But that optimism dissipated in the bus bombings of the mid-1990s, and ended completely after the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of the second intifada. From then until his death in November 2004, he was once again the enemy.

Did Arafat ever truly intend to make peace, or was the Oslo process always a giant ruse from his perspective? Historians and politicians will be arguing over that question for years to come. What’s clear is that he never abandoned terror as a means of achieving his national and personal goals. He continued flirting with terror, and with Hamas, throughout the seven years of the Oslo period and returned to it wholeheartedly once the intifada erupted.

During those years, a battle raged within Israel’s intelligence community over whether Arafat personally ordered the resumption of the violence. Military Intelligence, led by then-head of the research division Amos Gilad, believed he deliberately resorted to terror after coming under American and Israeli pressure at Camp David. The Shin Bet security service, as its former head Yuval Diskin once put it, thought the violence sprung from “the height of the sewage in Balata,” a West Bank refugee camp.

Either way, it soon became clear that Arafat was riding this tiger. As the fighting continued, evidence of his involvement in terror attacks accumulated. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush abandoned him after Israel intercepted an arms ship en route to Gaza, then under PA control, in January 2002.

That same month, under pressure of the conflict with Israel and its internal rivalry with Hamas, Fatah made two decisions that proved catastrophic: to resume terror attacks inside Israel, and to start committing suicide bombings for the first time. Three months later, Israel responded with Operation Defensive Shield, leading to one of the iconic pictures of that final era: Arafat besieged in his own presidential compound in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks.

When he died, two and a half years later, the intifada was already waning. The long siege of his presidential compound apparently undermined his health, but the cause of his death remains a mystery. Israeli and European doctors who examined the medical report issued by the French hospital where he died found surprising gaps that seemed to indicate an attempt to cover up the cause of death. Various theories have been raised, including AIDs, a severe infection, or poisoning.

The Palestinians, always suckers for a good conspiracy theory, opted for the latter and blamed Israel. But the fact that, despite repeated promises, they have never published their ostensible proof indicates that it doesn’t exist.

For the Palestinians, Arafat remains a symbol. His successor is careful to be photographed with Arafat’s picture in the background at public events. And next week, Fatah will leverage the tenth anniversary of his death for mass rallies to further its battle with Israel over Jerusalem.

Arafat would presumably have approved of the idea.