Yasir Arafat’s funeral was shown live on MSNBC, with reporting by Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell in Ramallah and stateside commentary courtesy of Don Imus. I didn’t watch it, as I was doing the usual Friday-morning-at-8:00am-stuff; i.e. getting children who would really rather still be asleep out of bed, fed, brushed and combed, dressed, armed with the appropriate day’s homework, and dragged to the bus stop before the school bus leaves. So the only part of the funeral I managed to catch was about five-minutes’-worth of commentary that I overheard while I was busy doing something else.
And that was probably just as well. Because that brief snippet really told me all I needed to know about the state of political discourse in the U.S. right now, especially on the Palestinian issue. In the five minutes that I listened, I learned:
1. “The scene is disorderly, but seems fairly peaceful. It hasn’t turned into the complete chaotic mess that we were hoping for…”
2. Arafat was a “rodent-looking weasel”.
3. “Lebanon and Syria have lots of land. They could fence off a bit of that for the Palestinians”.
4. “Yasser Arafat’s fat wife didn’t make it to Ramallah for the funeral. And if she had, she’d never have made it out alive anyway.”
And apparently that wasn’t even the worst of it. By leaving for the school bus stop when I did, I apparently had the good fortune to miss the additional insights that Palestinians are "stinking animals", and we should "kill 'em all right now":
DON IMUS: They're (the Palestinians) eating dirt and that fat pig wife of his is living in Paris.
COLLEAGUE: They’re all brainwashed, though. That’s what it is. And they're stupid, to begin with, but they’re brainwashed now. Stinking animals. They ought to drop the bomb right there, kill ‘em all right now…
IMUS: Well, the problem is we have (reporter) Andrea (Mitchell) there; we don't want anything to happen to her.
COLLEAGUE: Oh, she's got to get out. Andrea, get out and then drop the bomb and kill everybody… Look at this. Animals. Animals!
Yes, I know Don Imus has a reputation as a big-mouthed racist idiot. But that’s not the point. MSNBC knows too that Don Imus is a big-mouthed racist idiot, and yet decided that that big-mouthed racist idiot was the best person to provide commentary on the funeral of someone who, whether Americans like him or not, was a leading figure in an Arab-Israeli conflict in which we are deeply entangled, and whose satisfactory resolution is in our own fundamental interest. But instead of taking the opportunity to explain who was that man in the kaffiyeh, why he means so much to the tens of thousands who packed his compound in Ramallah and to the various nations whose leaders paid their last respects at his funeral in Cairo, and what are the likely repercussions of his death for the Middle East and beyond, the best insight that MSNBC can offer U.S. viewers is that Arafat, in the opinion of Don Imus, looked like a “weasel”.
For anyone who might want to know more about Arafat than the fact that he was a stinking animal with a fat pig of a wife, there follows a collection of articles by Israeli, Palestinian, U.S. and U.K. commentators, offering varying perspectives on Arafat's life and times, and on the implications of his death for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
1. Our Shadow by Meron Benvenisti
When all is said and done, Arafat is the shadow who follows us [Israelis]… What will we do when the sun rises and we discover that the shadow has disappeared? To whom will we give the job of the demonic villain? Nobody can fill the shoes of the person who played the role so perfectly. We need a scapegoat on whom to cast the blame for everything, and to clear our consciences. Now, when he has tired of the job of demon and discovered that he is mortal, we are looking for an heir - not a partner but the scapegoat, which carries our sins, our frustrations and our hatred.
Arafat was fated to serve as a symbol in his life and in his death. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently sensed that when he declared that as long as he himself is alive, Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem. In his haste to humiliate the sick Arafat, Sharon provided a clear symbol of the destiny he shares with many of the Palestinians: lacking a homeland, lacking a cemetery in which they can join their ancestors. How civilized it could have been had we shown understanding and empathy for our shadow - the vanquished leader - for his suffering, his successes and his failures.
2. Missing Arafat (Ari Shavit interview with Uri Avnery)
"I was a terrorist, too. When I was 16, if my commander in Lehi had given me an explosive belt I would have taken it and I would have blown myself up amid civilians without any problem. So I don't have a sentimental attitude toward this matter of terrorism. I understand what violence is. And I know that a nation that is not offered a political solution resorts to violence. Therefore it was always clear to me that Arafat would resort to all means to realize the longings of the Palestinian people. He was not a violent person. I think he was a nonviolent person. But it was always clear to me that, as a national leader, he would resort to violence if the road of peace was blocked for him. I find that self-evident."
3. A Tragedy And An Opportunity by Jonathan Steele
Unlike other independence leaders, Arafat was not working in a situation when the settler community had reached its peak and the metropolitan governments that supported them were starting to lose heart. He had to fight against a constantly expanding settler tide linked to a determined government and a rock-hard military, both of which were backed, or at least not opposed, by a world superpower. Nor was the definition of the territory fixed. It was under constant threat of shrinkage - and is to this day.
To hold firm in these conditions, to maintain political unity and keep up his people's morale and resistance under conditions of siege, house demolitions and assassinations, was extraordinary. To move from defensive consolidation and to start to build a nation was nigh impossible. That Arafat has managed to do it and retain the affection of his people, not just as a symbol of independence but as a respected and approachable human being, is a tribute to his greatness.
4. The Conflict Without Arafat by As'ad AbuKhalil
Israel and America claim that Arafat is responsible for Palestinian radicalism and violence. The death of Arafat will remove an easy excuse and simplistic explanation from the arsenal of Israeli propaganda. Just like Hajj Amin Husseini before him, Arafat is less radical and less militant than his people. He in fact has played a moderating influence in the Palestinian national movement, which explains why he is viewed as a sellout or even a traitor by many Palestinians and Arabs.
Now there will be no Arafat to kick around, as Richard Nixon famously claimed of himself. The United States and Israel will have to find another Palestinian to blame, and to hold responsible for all Palestinian political violence. It is easier for Israel to blame one man for Palestinian political violence than blame what Zionism and Israel have inflicted on the Palestinian people. Palestinian leaders will come and go, and Palestinian suffering will continue as long as Israel -- and the United States behind it -- continue to deny Palestinian national rights, insist on occupying Palestinian lands and reject the Palestinian refugees' right of return.
5. His Death Will Not Bequeath Life By Gideon Levy
Israel accuses Arafat of having blood on his hands, but is there any less blood on the hands of own its leaders, who have led a campaign these past years where hundreds of women and children were killed? Arafat chose the path of terror, when no other military option was open to him, and when the chances of reaching a just settlement with Israel, without bloodshed, were nil. The terror, it must be honestly said, put the fact of occupation on the agenda, exactly like the liberation struggles of other peoples.
Those who succeed him will be far worse from Israel's point of view… The youngsters in the Palestinian refugee camps never met an unarmed Israeli, one who didn't harass and abuse them. No compromise will be found there. Yasser Arafat fought for an eminently just cause - liberation from the yoke of a cruel occupation, even if the means he used were not always moral or just. But his death will not bequeath life to us.
6. Israel Blew It, Big Time By Nazir Majali
With such a leader Israel would have done well to reach agreements and close deals. But Israel blew it, in a big way. Arafat was not a leader who pleased the governments of Israel. This is the most natural thing there is. But any agreement he could have signed, he would have been able to sell to the Palestinian public easily. This quality is not easily found.
7. Behind Arafat's Mask by Akiva Eldar
The demonization of Arafat by the politicians and the media was very successful, like the attitude toward an incurable disease about which nothing can be done. The obsession with the person hid the demographic problem and the danger of Israel's isolation in the world. By the fact of his presence he released Israel from the need to deal with peace initiatives that cropped up on the diplomatic horizon, such as the Arab peace initiative in March of 2002, which for the first time offered Israel normalization with the members of the Arab League and an agreed upon solution to the Palestinian problem.
…Abu Mazen is no less faithful than Arafat to the decision by the Palestinian National Council in 1988 concerning the solution to the refugee problem and a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. No Palestinian leader has the authority to give up a single centimeter of the West Bank - except in the context of a one for one exchange of territory - or Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount). Bitter disappointment and great disaster await anyone who is wishing for a Palestinian leader who has a likeable face that hides a new reality and that beams with a magic solution to the bloody conflict.
8. Obituary - The Electronic Intifada
Arafat's death will not change any of the essential underpinnings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are still 3.5 million Palestinians living under a brutal Israeli military dictatorship in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel still keeps tens of thousands of heavily armed troops and hundreds of thousands of settlers in these territories, in violation of international law and UN resolutions. Millions of Palestinians still live in enforced exile, deprived of their fundamental human right, encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN General Assembly Resolution 194, to return to their own country. These stark facts ensure that suffering will continue, and possibly even escalate, until the root causes of a conflict that has taken tens of thousands of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Israeli lives are directly addressed and resolved.
9. Obituary – David Hirst (The Guardian)
In July 2000, at President Clinton's Camp David retreat, Barak laid before Arafat his take-it-or-leave-it historic compromise. In return for his solemnly abjuring all further claims on Israel, Israel would acquiesce in the emergence of a Palestine state. Or at least the pathetic travesty of one, covering even less than the 22% of the original homeland to which he had already agreed to confine it; without real sovereignty, East Jerusalem as its capital, or the return of refugees. Most of the detested, illegal settlements would remain.
After 15 days the conference collapsed. Arafat had stood firm, evidently deciding that it had been bad enough, and tactically ruinous, to cede historic goals temporarily; but quite another to cede them for all time, in the context of a final settlement. He might be Mr Palestine, but he had no Palestinian, Arab or Islamic mandate for ceding Jerusalem's sovereignty or abandoning the rights of four million refugees. From this collapse grew the second intifada, essentially a popular revolt, first against the Israeli occupation and the realisation that the Oslo peace process would never bring it to an end, and, potentially, against Arafat and the Palestine Authority (PA) which had so long connived in the fiction that it could.
10. A Dreamer Who Forced His Cause Onto World Stage By Lee Hockstader
For virtually his entire adult life, Yasser Arafat had one dream, and he pursued it with such energy and zeal -- some would say fanaticism -- that he came to personify the dream itself. The dream was of self-determination and statehood for the Palestinian people, and in the end he did not live to see it. Such was his devotion to the cause that Arafat, who died early today at age 75 in a military hospital outside Paris, was willing to tolerate and embrace bloody acts of terror that made him an international pariah, and also to sign a peace agreement with Israel that inspired the wrath of some of his closest advisers, who considered it a sellout.
By dint of ruthless violence often directed at civilians, artful manipulation and the sheer theatrical force of his personality, he managed almost single-handedly to elevate the grievances of a few million disenfranchised Palestinians to a prominent place on the world's political agenda.
11. The Irony of Arafat By Sylvia Shihadeh and Robert Jensen
A Palestinian writer recently recalled that as a child in a Gaza refugee camp, he often saw Israeli soldiers forcing young Palestinians to their knees, threatening to beat them if they did not spit on Arafat's photo. "Say Arafat is a jackass," the soldiers would scream, but the children refused. Arafat is gone, but the spirit of resistance to occupation that gave children the strength to endure pain rather than buckle to that brutality remains. The Palestinians have lost a founder of their movement for independence. Israel and the United States have lost a figure they could demonize easily when they wanted to 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 the project of solidifying permanent Israeli domination. No doubt Palestinian resistance to that project -- a resistance that owes much to Arafat -- will continue. Israel and its supporters in the United States would profit from recognizing that fact and committing to a real peace process that can bring into existence what so many Palestinians have dreamed of but Arafat did not live to see: A truly free Palestine in which peace is secured by justice not power.
12. The Death of Arafat and the Myth of New Beginnings by Mark LeVine
In the weeks leading up to Palestinian President Yassir Arafat’s death American politicians and pundits have repeatedly called on the Palestinian people to use the opportunity of his passing to transform the intifada from a violent uprising into a non-violent, democratic and pragmatic program for achieving independence. This is very good advice, needless to say, except for one small problem: Palestinians have been trying to build such a movement for the last two decades, and the Israeli Government, IDF and American policy-makers have done everything possible to make sure it could not be heeded.
…What of the courageous Palestinians who still believe in non-violence, who are risking their lives working with Israeli peace activists to fulfill the fading Oslo dream of two states living side by side in peace? We could ask this question to Ahmed Awad, founder of the non-violent Committee for the Popular Struggle against the Separation Fence, which has brought Palestinian and Israeli activists together in a relatively successful campaign to redirect the separation wall away from local olive groves. In the process his group has become a model for grass-roots, non-violent struggle. Unfortunately, we’d have to wait at least three months for an answer, as Awad has just been jailed without charge by a military court on the accusation he constituted a “threat to security.” …And on it goes.
13. Arafat's Passing Poses Major Test for Bush by Jim Lobe
Arafat's disappearance makes it more difficult for the administration to argue it should not be more deeply involved, since it has now been deprived of its main excuse – Arafat's presence – for not becoming engaged.
"As long as Arafat was in power, the question was whether there was a Palestinian partner for peace," according to Henry Siegman (a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations). "If he is replaced by a Palestinian leadership that opposes violence, the question will become: is there an Israeli partner for peace, and what is the United States doing to make sure there is?"
14. How to Remember Arafat by Ran HaCohen
The demonization of Arafat is part and parcel of the dehumanization of the Palestinians as a whole. The Palestinians are all reduced to one person, who is reduced in turn to a murderous beast, to help Israeli soldiers, settlers, politicians and other citizens (since none of us is really free of the occupation) clear our consciences in the course of our own bestialization. The narrative was shaped and promoted by Israel's professional killers: right-wing army generals/politicians like PM Sharon or his twin/predecessor Barak. (By the way, how ironic are recent Israeli intelligence reports welcoming the expected shift "from uniforms to suits" in the Palestinian Authority? Shall we ever see a similar shift in the Israeli leadership?)
15. Palestinians Lose A Father by Shimon Peres
Arafat enjoyed the love and respect of his people. This love was dear to him. He lived a modest life and wanted little for himself. He lived for his people. From his position of leadership he opened the door for a historic resolution with Israel of a division of the land between a state for the Jewish people and a state for the Palestinians. But he did not go far enough. In the choice between the love of his people and the betterment of their lives, he unfortunately chose their love. He was not willing to risk losing his popularity and standing in the name of tough decisions he estimated as too controversial.
The passing of a father is always a cause for deep grief. But it is also an opportunity to emerge as a mature adult. The world is watching now the orphaned Palestinian people. The world hopes to see them take control of their own fate, bid farewell to their dreams of youth, and exhibit the courage to live in this world as it is, rather than as they wish it to be.
16. Arafat Leaves A Troubled Legacy But No Doubt That There Is A Palestinian People By Helena Cobban
Arafat's tragedy and that of his people was that he wasn't up to the challenges that history assigned him. He was not a Mandela; but equally, he did not for long have a De Klerk figure to deal with. Rabin, who started to play that transformative role, was killed by an Israeli extremist before he achieved anything lasting.
But at least Arafat and his colleagues achieved this: Back in 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir voiced a judgment shared by many in the West when she said, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people." But today, few people doubt that the Palestinian nation exists, and neither Israel nor its supporters can ignore the Palestinians' claim to establish a sovereign state in a portion of historic Palestine.
17. The No-Partner Myth By Neve Gordon
Israel’s problem is that Arafat’s death will not resolve anything. The reasons for the conflict will persist. Prime Minister Sharon must therefore choose between two radically different courses of action. He can decide to address Palestinian claims, which undoubtedly would entail painful compromises by Israel but could eventually lead to peace in the region. Alternatively, he can fashion a new myth, one that would again divert the public’s gaze from the real issues, and enable Israel to continue expropriating Palestinian land and destroying the population’s infrastructure of existence. This latter option is the one Sharon will most likely embrace. The question then becomes: What new myth will be created?
18. America's Arafat Obsession by Mark Perry
Charges in the Israeli report, "Arafat's and the PA's Involvement in Terrorism," have been taken at face value by the American administration (and particularly by Bush), despite the skeptical stance of French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - both of whom told Bush last August that there were "a lot of problems" with the Israeli intelligence report. "It was worse than that," a highly placed American intelligence official confirms. "Blair was stunned that Bush believed this stuff. He basically told him to run it through the CIA's fact-checking apparatus. But that never happened."
19. Blaming Arafat For Israel's Torpedoing Of Oslo by Nigel Parry
…Arafat and his Fatah faction were seen by Israel and its US sponsor as having the size and brute power necessary to 'control the street'. The US-Israel tag team hoped that a compliant Palestinian leadership would be able to make the further concessions that Israel wanted from this people who had already generously conceded 78% of their historic homeland. Israel and America subsequently used the failings and flaws of the very regime that they helped install to demonize the entire Palestinian people after it turned out that there were limits to the level of continued Israel violations Arafat could convince his people to accept.
And here we are again today, with the same people on the same TV screens, expressing the same hope for a new Palestinian leadership to mediate a Palestinian surrender -- with no lessons learned a decade later. The real question that the talking heads should be asking is whether Israel will become a genuine partner for peace this time around?
20. Why We Are Still Backing Arafat by Karma Nabulsi
What defenders of Likud strategy don't grasp is well understood by the Palestinians, who continue to support Arafat. In order to be a leader you must first represent your people, and not abandon them to their conquerors in times of foreign occupation or colonial rule. Arafat seeks peace, but not at any price. You can be a great leader in prison, in a broken-down compound, in hospital, even once you've given your life. That's why the Palestinians overwhelmingly voted for Arafat, and would do so again today.
21. I Am So Sorry, Yasser by Ahmed Amr
In offering my condolences to the Palestinian people, I am obliged to offer a humble apology to their late leader. If he made mistakes, it was for the Palestinians to decide how to hold him accountable. At his funeral, they demonstrated that on balance he had done an incredible job of keeping the Palestinian cause alive. They genuinely adored the man. In the past, I have called him ‘Yes Sir’ Arafat – because I thought both Oslo and the Road Map were a sham. But Arafat had to deal with the weak hand of an incarcerated leader. All I ever did was pontificate from my laptop. Arafat had to deal with immediate Palestinian needs and constant international and Arab pressures to capitulate – while facing daily threats of bodily harm from a thug like Sharon. All I had to cope with was a little hate mail.
Right now, all I can do is say “I am so sorry, Yasser”. I know this is a bit late. But it had to be said.
Update, 3 Dec 2004: Thanks to reader A., who drew my attention to this reflection on the meaning of Arafat's death which, had I seen it earlier, would certainly have been listed above:
We went inside to a large dining hall filled with long wooden tables. There must have been 500 children there waiting for their dinner. Mr. Arafat motioned me to a place at one of the tables next to a five-year-old girl. All of the children were standing, politely, waiting for Arafat to speak -- except for the little girl, who was gulping down her food. "She couldn't wait," the boy across the table said to me in perfect English. He flashed a smile.
Arafat spoke then, reminding the children to pay attention to their teachers, to finish their lessons, and to show respect for the memory of their parents -- most of whom had died during the civil wars in Lebanon. The girl, now finished with her dinner, tugged at my sleeve and pointed: "Chairman Arafat," she whispered. I nodded: "That's right," I said. And then she tugged at my sleeve and pointed again: "Daddy," she said.
And whether we like it or not, that is how Palestinians view him.