Israel/Palestine: Arafat and the Palestinian struggle

When Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat fell dangerously ill, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was worried enough about being blamed for his death to release him from the Israeli blockade in Ramallah to be flown to France for treatment. Sharon fears that should Arafat suddenly die, Palestinian mass grieving will spill over into mass demonstrations which could be hard for the Israeli army to control.

Sharon would also face the dilemma of Arafat’s place of burial, an issue which alone could provoke huge unrest. Arafat has expressed a wish to be buried in the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem, whereas Sharon has declared that he won’t allow him to be buried anywhere in Jerusalem.

Having just managed to get his plan for disengagement from the Gaza strip through the Israeli Knesset (parliament), Sharon could do without these new, potentially explosive, factors coming to the fore.

Although Arafat’s authority has fallen among Palestinians in recent years, he is still seen as a father figure and symbol of their long-standing struggle. He was a founder of the Fatah movement, which conducted guerrilla warfare against the Israeli occupation from 1965 onwards.

He returned to Gaza in 1994, to head the new Palestinian Authority (PA), as a result of negotiating the Oslo peace process. But the failure of that process, and now the bitter experience of the second intifada over the last four years, have led to widespread disillusionment and anger towards him.

The PA is viewed by Palestinians as corrupt, siphoning EU and other donor countries’ cash for infrastructure projects to enrich themselves. The PA is also discredited for acting as a policeman for the Israeli state, and for failing to take forward the struggle against Israeli repression.

Despite Arafat’s failings, should he die, an element of the grief will stem from a feeling of desperation that there is no replacement Palestinian leader at present who is seen as having the same potential to play a unifying role and head the struggle.

A layer of Palestinians have tried to overlook Arafat’s deficiencies by blaming the hated clique around him rather than Arafat himself. Arafat has also attracted some respect for enduring three years of uncomfortable confinement in his battered Ramallah compound.

However, Arafat is part of the same wealthy pro-capitalist elite in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as those around him. He has never promoted working-class based democratic structures that could develop mass defensive and offensive action, and formulate a programme to further Palestinian aims. Yet it is only on this basis that progress towards the end of the bloodshed and repression can be achieved.

In recent years there has been increased infighting in Fatah, as well as in and between the PLO and other political organisations and armed militias. The balance of forces is in flux, with Fatah losing ground to the Islamic organisation Hamas, as Hamas is seen as being in the forefront of fighting the Israeli army onslaught.

Municipal elections in the occupied territories are planned for later this year (though not certain to take place). However, fearing a loss of support for Fatah, Arafat has limited the first round of these elections to just 36 carefully chosen local authorities out of the 180 that exist.

Infighting – especially in Fatah – is likely to increase if Arafat dies. But this doesn’t mean that the most likely scenario will be a descent into civil war as some commentators predict. Side by side with infighting has been a trend, in the face of vicious Israeli repression, towards some increased collaboration between the different militias, both Islamic and secular. There are also plans for a new Palestinian council that will encompass the main organisations, including Hamas.

However, none of these organisations put forward ideas that can present a way out of the terrible poverty and cycles of bloodshed. So needed above all, is a new mass party, built from below, to represent the interests of the mass of Palestinian workers, unemployed and small farmers.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

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November 2004