Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has died in Paris at the age of 75. He helped to found the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but ended up as the mouthpiece of great power politics, sustaining a conflict whose solution was endlessly delayed.
Born in Cairo, Arafat grew up in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. He returned to Cairo as a teenager, where he volunteered in the wars the Arab kingdoms launched against the fledgling state of Israel in the 1950s.
Successive defeats demonstrated to many Palestinians the importance of taking control of their own struggle, after the example of the Algerian freedom fighters. In 1968 Arafat led the organisation Fatah to victory against the Israeli army at Karameh in Jordan. Contrasted with the poor performance of the Arab regimes’ armies, the Palestinians were confident.
Arafat’s rival within the PLO, George Habash, led an uprising of Palestinians against the Jordanian King, on the grounds that the ‘liberation of Palestine will come through Amman’. It was ruthlessly crushed in the ‘Black September’ of 1970, leaving thousands of Palestinians dead and the movement once more in the doldrums. But after they suffered another defeat in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Arab leaders met in Rabat in October 1974 to declare Arafat and the PLO as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. Days later, Arafat addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly, demanding the immediate return of Palestine, to US embarrassment and Israeli outrage.
But Arafat’s dilemma was that in gaining control of the movement by the endorsement of the Arab regimes the Palestinians had fought against, it was the movement that was changed. No longer solely an expression of Palestinian interests, it had become an Arab-backed lobby against Israel. As they each in turn made peace with America, and even Israel itself, the Arab leaders funded the PLO as a sop to their own unrequited national pride. Arafat’s strident performance at the UN persuaded a generation of Palestinian leaders that international diplomacy would yield results that popular mobilisation had not. But exiled in Lebanon, the PLO leadership was dangerously isolated from its own popular base. And then Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to the expulsion of the PLO, reducing it to a travelling circus touring Arab capitals and lobbying diplomats, while ordinary Palestinians launched an intifada (uprising) in the PLO’s absence.