Yasser Arafat (1929-2004)
Many Palestinians will view the death of Yasser Arafat with a mixture of sadness and a wish that the Palestinian Authority he led, had done much more to end the poverty and oppression that blights their lives.
Whatever doubts some Palestinians may have had about his leadership they will see in his death, a snapshot of the brutal oppression and tenuous existence they face on a daily basis. Arafat remained a virtual prisoner in his compound for three years, a situation which undoubtedly contributed to the illnesses from which he died.
Yasser Arafat is seen by most Palestinians as a symbol of the longstanding Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. His past as a guerilla leader since the 1960s as one of the founders of the Fatah organization and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) gave him a special status among the Palestinian masses. It is hard for many Palestinians to think who could play the same role or have the same authority as Yasser Arafat.
But while respect will be shown for the role he played amongst many Palestinians, there will be others who rightly question Arafat’s (and the other PLO leaders’) tactics and strategy in attempting to win Palestinian national liberation. In the earlier years of Fatah and the PLO this was armed attacks by secretive guerilla groups as opposed to mass action by the working class and peasantry armed for self-defence. Later on Arafat and other leaders attempted to form diplomatic alliances with corrupt Arab regimes and negotiate with imperialist powers.
When Arafat was faced with a revolutionary situation, he unfortunately betrayed such movements. September 1970 in Jordan was one such example where large sections of Palestinians and Jordanians rose up against the corrupt regime of King Hussein. Arafat and the PLO leaders could have led a revolutionary struggle for power which would have changed the whole face of the Middle East. Instead Arafat made concessions to King Hussein and tens of thousands of Palestinians were killed in the retribution by the Jordanian army that followed.
After the war and the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s, Arafat and most of the PLO leadership escaped to exile in Tunis. Exile meant that they no longer had the same intimate connection with the Palestinians and also alienated them from the conditions that the majority of Palestinian faced.
The distance between the Palestinian masses and the leadership based in exile was clearly demonstrated at the beginning of the first Intifada. The PLO leadership in exile was completely taken by surprise by this event, as was the Israeli regime. The first Intifada provided the basis for the growth of a new leadership from below in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. After the signing of the Oslo agreement brought the Tunis leadership back to the Occupied Territories, tensions and disagreements developed between it and the local leadership which have remained in different forms up to the present day.
At the beginning of the 1990s the pace of the Intifada had slowed as a consequence of years of struggle without the defeat of the Israeli military occupation of the territories. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the support of the Fatah for Sadam Husain during the first Gulf War left the PLO isolated and financially bankrupt.
Under the pressure of US imperialism, which feared future upheavals in the region, the Israeli ruling class took advantage of the PLO’s weakened position to force it into negotiations and to accept the Oslo agreement. This deal was never meant to give the Palestinians national liberation. It was designed to grant a Bantustan-type prison existence to the Palestinian masses with the Palestinian Authority acting as guards and the Israeli state as prison governor.
The Israeli ruling class preferred to deal with the old weak leadership from Tunis which was not as militant as the leadership on the ground. Arafat’s regime represented the capitalist interests of the Palestinian elite and was totally dependent on the Israeli ruling class for its existence. As such it could not and never intended to solve the problems of the Palestinians.
The standard of living under the PA regime declined severely hand in hand with the continuing oppression by the Israeli Defence Forces. At the same time a small elite enriched itself on the expense of the masses. Without any solution to the problems of daily life the peace process couldn’t last for long. This was the basis for the second Intifada.
The second Intifada was aimed against both the Israeli regime and in a distorted way the PA. The first reaction of the PA leadership was to condemn this outburst of the Palestinian masses. Only after they saw they could not hold back the movement, they tried to take the lead of the intifada.
Over the last few years the Israeli blockade on Arafat in Ramallah, gave him back the status of a symbol of the Palestinian resistance.
However, despite the fact that for many years Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, yearned for Arafat’s death, the news about Arafat’s life-threatening illness came at a very inconvenient time for him. In addition to the fear of being blamed for his death, and the affect it might have on the Palestinian street, the death of Arafat actually poses serious questions concerning the strategy of the Israeli ruling class.
For the last few years the main claim of the Israeli regime was that Arafat is an obstacle to any negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This was one of the main arguments Sharon used to justify the disengagement plan.
The death of Arafat could lead to events which dramatically change the situation in Israel and he PA. Many names have been mentioned as candidates to replace Arafat as the PA president and the leader of the PLO and Fatah: Abu Alla, Abu Mazen, Muhamad Dahlan, even Faruq Kadumi (who opposed the Oslo agreement at first) and Marwan Baraguti who has sat in an Israeli jail for more than 2 years and holds credit for that in the Palestinian street. But none of them have the credit Arafat had as a symbol and a guerilla fighter.
Even during Arafat’s life we saw early struggles over the future control of the Gaza strip, when last summer Dahlan’s faction in Fatah challenged the control of Arafat’s armed forces.
Now the situation has became more complicated, since Hamas have also laid a claim for a share in governing the PA. Hamas enjoy mass support in Gaza, but if it became part of the PA this might change over the long run and could cause enormous pressure to be exerted on the PA by the imperialist powers who could oppose its inclusion.
Other issues might bring clashes quite quickly - even before his death there was a demand by the PA for him to be buried at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which was ruled out by the Israeli authorities. Whatever the eventual decision on this issue, the main question will be that the funeral will be accompanied by a mass presence of Palestinians on the streets in a situation which will not be fully under the control of the PA.
At the end of October Sharon won the vote on the disengagement plan in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). The Israeli ruling class wants to withdraw from the Gaza strip, but many of the Likud MPs from Sharon’s party are opposed which has exerted huge pressure on the Prime Minister. Four of Likud’s ministers tried to ambush Sharon during the voting.
Sharon suffers from a lack of support inside his party, and his governmental coalition includes less than half of all MPs and therefore the government is unstable.
At the moment he claims that nothing has changed since the death of Arafat, but there is strong pressure from inside the Likud for canceling the disengagement plan and going back to negotiations with a new future partner.
The option of a government of national unity is still open but it seems like the next general elections in Israel are only a matter of a short time away.
The death of Arafat has released forces of instability that were hidden beneath the surface, building up for a long time. These pressures did not develop because of the personality of Arafat but because of the inability of capitalism and imperialism to solve the daily problems of Palestinian and Israeli workers.
The solution is way beyond the hands of capitalism and its agents. The problems of the masses can only be solved by the organisation of society under a socialist plan to reconcile national differences by establishing two socialist states as part of the struggle to build a socialist federation on the basis of equal rights in the Middle East.