When I visited the Holy Land in 1995 with a Palestinian-American group, I was excited to meet relatives, experience my heritage, and visit Holy sites during Easter week. The scheduled meeting with President Yasser Arafat elicited neutral feelings due to personal disappointment that Arafat signed the much heralded but terribly flawed Oslo Accords two years earlier.
Surprisingly, one of the most vivid memories of my trip was the meeting. Israeli soldiers held our bus at a Gaza checkpoint as they claimed they were not ‘aware’ of any meeting. When the proof! ‘came,’ it was nightfall and we were told to get off our bus and walk to the nearby checkpoint where another bus would take us to Arafat’s headquarters. I cringed as I watched the elderly slowly walk but they managed, perhaps in anticipation of meeting Arafat. After we arrived, we were led to a modest-looking boardroom. People took their seats. I decided to stand in the back and videotape parts of the meeting for my travel diary. As a Ramallah city official read a letter of salutations, Arafat looked up at me, practically interrupted the speech, and motioned that somebody should bring me a chair because he thought I had no place to sit. Having sat through political meetings in the past, I can tell you that most politicians could care less if you’re comfortable or not.
At one point, he apologized for his weak English language skills. Arafat was immediately told in Arabic by a straight-faced gentleman that he spoke better than any of us. Arafat grinned with a sarcastic ‘Who are you kidding?’ look, and we all laughed. I looked across the room at this man – it was hard to believe that this was the master chess player who had survived so many Middle East milestones. And yet it was.
Ultimately, I found him l! ikeable though I still disliked his politics for the lop-sided Oslo and Wye agreements he signed with Israel in his later years. Many Palestinians were also disappointed with his leadership style which did not advance the interests of the Palestinians on the ground.
Israelis disliked him for different reasons, and amid the pre-celebrations and flurry of Israeli reports announcing Arafat’s death before the formal announcement was even made, I thought to myself: The Israelis are ecstatic now but do they realize they no longer have any one person to blame for the failed peace? Whenever a problem arose in the peace process, it was easy to point the finger and blame Arafat. He was even blamed for turning down Ehud Barak’s offer in 2000, which would have led to the creation of a NON-viable state.
The simple fact is that he was indeed one of the most important ! symbols of the Palestinian struggle. Love him or hate him, nobody can dispute that he worked tirelessly to ensure the world never forgot about the dispossession and occupation of his people. For this, his place in history is cemented and appreciated. He will be known as the father of the Palestinian nation.
However, he was not the only important symbol of Palestine. The other important symbols are a vibrant heritage and a rich Palestinian history that has spanned centuries. These are embodied in the spirit and resilience of the Palestinian people.
Always resolute, they waged the Strike of 1936 against the British Mandate’s policies. Fast-forwarding to recent history, the first Intifada (1987-1993) was launched — a successful and spontaneous grassroots rebellion that brought to the world the infamous and real images of the Palestinian stone throwers versus! the heavily-armed Israeli soldiers.
The American ‘experts’ on the Sunday shows ignored these other important symbols and events, choosing to stick to the same tiring theme — ‘Get rid of Arafat and the problem will be solved.’ The expectation was that Arafat was somehow able put a stop to the Intifada or uprising for freedom. But this yearning for self-determination was always bigger than one man. It was always bigger than Ariel Sharon’s mighty army. It was always bigger than the defunct Oslo Accords. It was and is about the human spirit and the desire to be free.
The reality is that when Israel ends the Occupation and implements UN resolutions, as well as deal with their Palestinian counterparts as true equals, peace just might be achieved. The Israeli PR equation of blaming one man is now effectively void.