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Raffique Shah


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Arafat, large in life, larger in death

November 14, 2004
By Raffique Shah

AS I watched a piece of history being laid to rest on BBC television on Friday morning, the funeral of Yasser Arafat, I wondered how many people understood the significance of the moment. My generation grew up knowing only the likes of Arafat, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bung Sukarno, Gamal Nasser, Jomo Kenyatta, freedom fighters all, men who put their lives in the direct line of fire in furthering the causes of their people. They were giants, towering in a Third World that was being consigned by the great powers to persistent poverty. They measured up to the developed world's great leaders-Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, Konrad Adenauer, Nikita Kruschev.

Although the former wielded much less power than the latter, both economically and politically, they proved to be no less as adversaries when it came to fighting for their people's freedom. It is why, in spite of their sometimes diametrically opposing world views, they respected each other. It is why Arafat, born Abu Ammar, commanded so much respect and world attention, both in life and in death. In fact, he was unique among his peers in that although he was accorded by almost all the title of a statesman, he never governed a free country. He died fighting to see a Palestine rise from the rubble of Ramallah and other concentration camps, euphemistically called "refugee camps".

Arafat will have meant different things to different people. For those who are fed a diet of western news and analyses, he was a terrorist, a murderer, someone who would not flinch at the thought of Jewish children being killed by Palestinian-planted bombs in school buses. For them, as it is for most Israelis, he was the devil incarnate. The only emotion they felt on learning of his terminal illness, and later his death, was relief, even joy (in parts of Israel people were in a celebratory mood). And if they harboured underlying fears over his demise, it was only because for them he was the Devil they knew. Now they do not know what to expect of the younger generation of Palestinian freedom fighters.

Sadly, such people do not know their history, or if they do, they choose to forget or ignore the geneses of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because if Arafat and his colleagues from the Fateh movement are painted as terrorists, what can be said of Israel's most prominent leaders? I shall not dwell on ancient history, on the conquests of that part of the world by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Arabs, the Crusaders. I shall confine my comments to the modern era, starting with the turn of the 20th century. As early as in 1909, when less than 100,000 Jews inhabited the region (and there was no Israel), David Ben-Gurion, who would later become Israel's first PM, formed the Haganah. In today's lingo, that group will have been deemed a terrorist organisation. It comprised many of that country's leading lights in later years: Yitzakak Rabin and Ariel Sharon (two Prime Ministers), Moshe Dayan (Defence Minister), and Yisrael Galili (Golda Meir's close advisor), and many more of Israel's front line leaders.

Haganah, along with other groups like Irgun and the Stern Gang, committed atrocities that would turn stomachs, even by today's standards of terrorism. They murdered Arab Palestinians by the hundreds, and forcefully drove tens of thousands of them out of the only homeland they had known. These people lost property, lives, everything... hence the reason so many of their future generations would end up living and dying in concentration camps. More than that, up to 1948 when the British opposed the massive repatriation of European Jews to Israel and its independence, their soldiers were massacred by "terrorists" from Haganah and Irgun. They sabotaged roads and bridges. They imported arms and launched terror attacks on Arabs, British and the French.

Later, the Haganah would be incorporated into Israel's army when they blasted their way to independence in 1948. Thereafter, their acts of terrorism against the hapless Palestinians became "official". Add to that the fact that Israel became a client state of the US, receiving full support by way of billions of dollars a year (it's still the biggest recipient of US largesse), modern weaponry, and full intelligence support, hence the wild successes of their pre-emptive wars of occupation.

It was against this juggernaut that Arafat was able to mould the Fateh movement, one part of the overall Arab struggle against the Israelis. There were others, like the radical PFLP led by George Habash. But Arafat stood taller than them all, fighting when it was necessary, but at all times striving for peace, for two states that would co-exist, for which he earned marked assassins' bullets from among his own brethren. But he never flinched. With Israel's superior armed forces attacking his many bases at will, with their Special Forces teams "taking out" many of his close lieutenants, and in his final years, he being all but imprisoned in Ramallah, he stood like a man to the end. He refused to go into exile and leave his people to their fate.

He made the keffeiyeh the universally accepted symbol of Arabism more than any king in neighbouring and infinitely richer Arab countries. Look at it from this perspective: last week the Sheikh who was largely responsible for the creation of the United Arab Emirates died. Few people knew his name or his country. Who is the king of oil-rich Saudi Arabia? Or name any of the monarchs or presidents in the Middle East. You'd hardly remember one name. Not so Arafat, who devoted his entire life to leading the cause of a people who have become the Jews of the Jews. A people painted as "terrorists", not freedom fighters, a people trying to regain their little space on this here earth.

When the Zionists murder scores, hundreds of Palestinian children, raining bombs and other sophisticated death-dealing devices on them, the world remains mum. When one Israeli child is killed in a suicide attack, everyone cries. When Israel razes their shacks and kills their stone-wielding sons, no one pays heed. Another "terrorist" bites the dust. But if the wretched of the Middle East hijack a plane or blow up a bus, they are universally condemned.

Such is the skewed world in which Arafat lived and died, without realising his dream of a sovereign state for his people. In denying him his right to be buried in Jerusalem, the Israelis have created their worst nightmare. It's the fear of the unknown, of what happens now that this sober, giant-of-a-leader has fallen. He now lies in peace. They face the prospect of lying in pieces.