Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arafat - Obituary

PV Vivekanand

THE DEATH of Yasser Arafat has deprived not only the Palestinian struggle for independence of its symbol but also liberation movements around the world a source of inspiration. For Arafat fought against all odds and never compromised on his commitment to realise the goal of an independent Palestinian state.
Leaders of liberation movements looked up to him and paid tribute to him for his firm determination to pursue the struggle regardless of all odds and for having tirelessly worked to install his cause at the centrestage of international politics.
At the same time, he was realistic enough to accept that it would be a folly to hope to realise the 50s and 60s goal of eliminating the state of Israel through armed means, and it was in this vein that he declared before the UN in 1974 that he was also wielding an olive branch and ready to negotiate peace with Israel on the basis of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
However, no Israeli leader had the courage or the ability to sense that what Arafat was offering was the only realistic way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they sought to whittle down the proposal and applied pressure, military, political and financial, on him to make many compromises. Arafat did make compromises but he had always hoped that at the right moment — a make-or-break point — he would be able to muster enough international support led by the US to prevail upon Israel to see reason and accept that nothing short of an indpendent Palestinian state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital would be the basis for a just and durable solution to the conflict.
His efforts received a great boost when the Palestinian people, realising that one way to pressure Israel was to make the occupied territories ungovernable for the occupation forces, rose up and launched the first intifada in December 1987. That prompted the late king Hussein of Jordan to give up all territorial claims to the West Bank which the kingdom ruled for 17 years before it was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
The Jordanian move removed all questions about the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and freed Arafat's hands to exercisie his options.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was a turning point for the Palestinian struggle. Arafat backed Saddam Hussein and promptly lost Arab support for his cause.
In late 1991, several months after Kuwait was freed from Saddam's occupation, the US made good a pledge it had given to the Arabs at the time of the war over Kuwait and convened an international conference in Madrid with the participation of all key Arab players in the Middle East, Israel and the international community. The international conference launched Arab-Israeli peace talks, but soon it became clear that the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, was only pretending to engage the Palestinians in peace talks under American pressure. Israel also had the key benefit — a halt to the Palestinian intifada.
Soon Shamir's Likud party lost elections and a Labour-led government came into power and hopes were again rekindled when Israel proposed secret negotiations that eventually produced the 1993 Oslo agreements.
Arafat had understood the shortcomings in the interim agreements but he had no option. His relations with the Arab countries were strained as a result of his support for Saddam in 1990 and the Israelis were constantly reminding him that the PLO was losing support among the Palestinians living in the occupied territories because of its inaction and groups like Hamas was gaining ground.
And so he signed in September 1993 the Oslo accords that called for five years of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza while the "final status" of the territories was being negotiated.; and what followed was a series of Palestinian compromise after compromise.
At one point, Arafat was even ready to accept shared control of Jerusalem with Israel if that would be open the door for Palestinian independence.
Indeed, the only Israeli leader who showed some signs of accepting that Israel's "security" would not come through the barrel of American-supplied guns was Yitzhak Rabin. who signed the Oslo agreements with Arafat under American auspices.
A former army general who has learnt his lessons from the perpetual state of conflict and war in the Middle, Rabin had realised that he had to accept the inevitability of having to recognise and respect the rights of the Palestinian people to set up an independent state.
However, Rabin was shot dead by an extremist Jewish Israeli who represented the hardline groups which had realised that Rabin was ready to make compromises that they blindly believed would totally undermine the very concept of a Jewish state between the "river and the sea." — the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
From that point when Rabin, leader of the relatively moderate Labour coalition government, fell to the assassin's bullet on Nov.5, 1995, the so-called Middle East peace process fell apart. There was nothing Arafat could do to advance it towards his goal of independent Palestine. All Israeli governments which followed that of Rabin sought to pressure Arafat into making more and more compromises without giving anything in return (an example was Arafat's acceptance in 1996 under American pressure that the town of Hebron be split into two — one for a Jewish settlement where 450 settlers lived and the other for 30,000 Palestinians). He had no choice whatsover.
Arafat's dilemma was complete when the right-wing Likud swung into power in 1996 and reneged on whatever was agreed and implemented under the interim Oslo accords. Likud was ousted in 1999, and Labour regained power, rekindling hopes that an agreement was possible.
Arafat turned to the US, the key sponsor of the "peace process" for help and tried yet another time to work out a deal under American-mediated talks at Camp David with the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, in 2000, but found that Washington — the administration of Bill Clinton —  had moved away from the centre and rallied itself behind Israel and was not making any pretensions about it either.
That was the biggest body blow to Arafat, who had always hoped that the American involvement in the peace process was the guarantee that Israel would be pressured into accepting the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and international laws and conventions as the basis for a final agreement.
What was offered to Arafat at Camp David was not acceptable since it did not enshrine the basic principle of the territorial and political rights of the Palestinian people, including their claim to Arab East Jerusalem. What made it even worse was the American approach that the offer was most generous and it was Israel's magnanimity that it agreed to accept the reality of the existence of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.
What the proposal effectively meant was a truncated Palestinain entity in the West Bank under Israel's thumb. There would have no physical continuity of territory since all key highways and access roads connecting Palestinian population centres were to remain under the control of the Israeli army.
Arafat walked out of the negotiations, and the Clinton administration went into the throes of presidential elections and forgot about the Palestinian problem except to declare that it favoured the shifting of the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in explicit acceptance of Israel claim that Jerusalem was its "eternal and indivisible capital."
That signalled the death of the 1993 agreement that had raised Palestinian hopes that their dream of independence was not far being realised.
The Palestinians rose up in fury that translated to revival of the intifada when Ariel Sharon, then a member of the cabinet, paid an arrogant visit to the Haram Al Sharif compound to reaffirm the Israeli stand that it would never give up the Holy City.
Since then, Sharon became prime minister and worked towards realising his objective of denying the Palestinians their rights. He pursued a policy of trying to weaken Palestinian resistance through every means possible and reverse whatever the Palestinians gained through the Oslo process.
He regained Israeli army control of all Palestinian areas given to Palestinian self-rule, destroyed every symbol of the Palestinian National Authority and wiped out the Palestinian police force even as he accused Arafat of not doing enough to keep in check Palestinians organising suicide bombings and armed attacks against Israelis.
He used brutal crackdowns, use of massive military firepower, including the use of fighter/bombers against the Palestinians and systematically engaged in assassinating, maiming and detaining anyone who had the slightest potential of putting up resistance.
In the bargain, he also placed Arafat under virtual detention at the Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah since December 2001 and ruled him out as a negotiatign partner.
He also launched the building of a 700-kilometre "separation wall" that, in his view, would serve to ward off Palestinian infiltration but was never meant to be the "border" between Israel and a Palestinian enity. After all, an independent Palestinian entity in the West Bank is not in Sharon's agenda.
Sharon now plans to withdraw his military from the troublesome Gaza Strip and dismantle Jewish settlements there in a "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians. He is trying to market the idea as a magnanimous gesture, but what the world is not being told is that Israel had always wanted to quit the Gaza Strip since the territory was ungovernable and that in return for quitting it Israel would consolidate its stranglehold on the West Bank and expand and build Jewish settlements there.
Again, the Palestinians and Arabs were dealt another blow when US President George W Bush — who Sharon described as the best friend Israel ever had at the White House — cooly endorsed Sharon's plans and also ruled out Israeli acceptance of the right of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war to return home.
Since then, the writing on the wall became clear that Israel has no intention of recognising the rights of the Palestinians and is only engaged in a brutal exercise that Sharon hopes would eventually allow him to force down the Palestinian throat his version of a "peace" agreement.
But Arafat never gave up. He kept up his fight until the end, and that is what the world remembers today and will continue to remember just as the Palestinian struggle for freedom and life in dignity would continue to rage on.