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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Death of a Leader

Look at the disaster of the PLO, which has been reduced from the days of its glory to an old unshaven man, sitting at a broken-down table, in half a house in Ramallah, trying to survive at any cost, whether or not he sells out, whether or not he says foolish things, whether what he says means anything or not. It has been years since Arafat represented his people, their sufferings and cause, and like his other Arab counterparts, he hangs on like a much-too-ripe fruit without real purpose or position - Edward Said, 2002

Anthony McIntyre • 15 November 2004

A hotel bedroom in Southampton, wakening up after a night on the booze in the city’s Victory Bar, sipping the first coffee of the morning. Such was the backdrop to my finding out from the television news that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had died in a Paris hospital. It was a strange coincidence. I was in Southampton with others from Ireland and further afield to take part in a conference on the 'media and terrorism', and true to form the media was speculating on the potential for peace now that an 'obstacle' to it had gone. No mention of the war criminal Sharon or his backer Bush as being problems blocking a peaceful and just outcome to the Middle East's most festering problem.

For days speculation was rife that the PLO chairman was brain dead and that switching off the life support machine was being delayed so as to allow his followers sufficient time to choose a successor before officially announcing the death. I suppose for some, if George Bush could govern America in his state of mind, it would be eminently reasonable that Arafat could remain head of state in Palestine despite being comatose.

Yasser Arafat was a name many young Belfast people grew up being exposed to. While not fitting the description Richard Gott once gave after a 1963 encounter with Che Guevara - 'he was incredibly beautiful' - his reputation travelled before him. He was a Che Guevara of the Middle East. The nuances didn’t matter – with his head gear and fiery rhetoric he looked revolutionary at a time when 'impure' forms of politics won only contempt from the ghettoised youth.

Initial exposure to the problems of the Middle East was based not even on a rudimentary understanding. If the politics of our own little spot seemed baffling what chance of understanding those in places we had never heard of? Paisley’s riot provoking march to Cromac Square in 1966 and the UVF hate killings of the same year were more than enough for minds not yet able to contemplate puberty. The Six-Day War of 1967 was just something that other people did in far away places that seemed dangerous but which would never affect us.

I had grown up in a household where the Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser had horns. St Colman's School inculcated my mind with little that would challenge the wisdom of 23 Bagot Street. The notion of an idea different to the dominant one was alien then. The teacher seemed very much to be on the side of Israel. We were still of an age when we took our cue from authority figures. Besides, Israel was a Jewish state and, as we all knew, the Jews had been slaughtered in their millions during the war. The idea that they might just be the aggressors never took hold. On top of that, Moshe Dyan had an eye patch which give his demeanour a touch of panache. That patch romanticised the conflict in a way that Arafat's headscarf would do later. When you are young and impressionable it takes little to impress and choices are made easily.

These perceptions all changed three years later although not because of anything diabolical that the Israelis were judged to be doing. Golda Meir was the head of state in Israel at the time and she seemed alright to a young eye which judged matters on appearances rather than political discourse. Leila Khaled, however, was younger and more daring. When she carried out her aircraft hijacking and Hussein later massacred the Palestinians on Jordanian territory the die was cast. There was only one team to support and its colours were red black and green. A bit like Glentoran FC which I also supported at the time. Apart from surface appearances I knew as much about one as I did the other. Palestinian operations were like Glentoran goals - something to be cheered. When Black September arose from the ashes of Dawsons’ field and slaughtered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Palestinian resistance was etched permanently on our adolescent minds. Why it was attacking Israeli sportsmen rather than Jordanian ones was something we never bothered to ask ourselves. All Palestinian operations, even atrocities, carried out by their guerrillas could forever be excused and explained away.

When our own revolution led us into the cages of Long Kesh 'the thing to do' was sympathise with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a Marxist body that possessed a certain chic that lent itself to our minds. It had earlier been behind the plane hijackings although Black September originated in Arafat's Fatah. The real politics escaped most of us. Whatever was most violent and least capable of compromise attracted our sympathy. It was a state of mind that sustained us through years of protest and hunger strikes. And when Arafat condemned the IRA for killing Lord Mountbatten, his PLO looked suspect.

As the years moved on, and the need to reflect sat heavily on our minds, the violence lost its pulling power. Killing Israeli civilians seems every bit as reprehensible as the murderous actions of the Israeli military. Nevertheless, Israeli military strategy leaves little room to dissent from Leila Khaled's recent assertion that intransigent Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Israeli army personnel and key Israeli political figures cannot be afforded non-combatant status.

Arafat’s death is unlikely to change any of that. The people that he led have every right to militarily resist the illegal Israeli occupation. While his critic, the late Edward Said readily admitted that the Palestinian people loved him, he knew that under Arafat’s leadership, the Palestinian cause never advanced as much as it could have were it in more capable hands. The Israeli attitude towards him was often more contemptuous than hateful. The much heralded Oslo accord turned out to be nothing other than an invitation to collaborate: Arafat was being asked to police the West Bank and Gaza not on behalf of the Palestinians but Israel. In this sense it was similar to the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, of which Edward Said was so suspicious. Being unable to lead effectively did little to dissuade Arafat from remaining at the top. In the words of Robert Fisk, he:

clung to power not with authority but with cash, paying off his gunmen and his cronies, ignoring some of the PLO's splinter outfits while promising security, peace, prosperity, statehood and all the other things Oslo would not give him. His cronyism was part of his failure. Unwilling to allow younger, educated Palestinians to run even his public relations network, he surrounded himself with hopeless, middle-aged spokesmen ... And in the end, he became like so many other Arab leaders and - as the Israelis intended him to be - a little dictator.

To go through one's life ostensibly struggling for freedom merely to end it as a dictator sadly devalues the struggle for which so many others gave their lives and liberty. If the opposition only ever end up embracing all they previously opposed, the concept of an alternative world will seem, for many, not worth the effort. As much as Arafat promoted Palestine he also bred cynicism and apathy. Perhaps, as Fisk claims, he really died many years ago.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

15 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Scapegoats & Swastikas
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Death of a Leader
Anthony McIntyre

Ruairi O Bradaigh, RSF Ard-Fheis Address 2004
Ruairi O Bradaigh

Anyone But Kerry
James Davis

Rubber Boa Studies
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain

'8 years in The Belfast SWP - A fraternal parting', and Part 2 of 'The ARN, - A Movement'
Davy Carlin

11 November 2004

Palestine Greater than Arafat
Sam Bahour

Gerry Adams: Man of War and Man of Peace?
Anthony McIntyre

From IRA to OCA?
Dr. John Coulter

The Orange Order: Go Forward by Going Back
Rev. Brian Kennaway

Choosing to Ignore the Facts: Not the Fault of the Left
Tara LaFreniere

Onward Christian soldiers
Tyrone Gottlieb



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