Ten years ago today, the news reports announced the death of Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). After spending two years essentially incarcerated by Israeli forces in his Ramallah compound, Arafat was airlifted to France on a French government jet and fell into a coma at the Hôpital d'instruction des armées Percy in Clamart, a suburb of Paris. He died shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath of Arafat's death, many called foul on what was officially labelled a brain haemorrhage. Aljazeera’s report on the cause of death revealed evidence of high strength polonium isotopes on Arafat’s belongings, which would have implied an even higher bodily content, though theories that Arafat was poisoned remain unproven. Palestine entered a state of national mourning, and mystery continues to surround his death. Regardless, Arafat's passing signalled a key turning point in Palestinian politics, from unification to fragmentation.
Regarded as the linchpin of Palestinian self-determination by some and an inveterate terrorist by others, Arafat’s role in galvanising international awareness for the Palestinian struggle was unprecedented. His work through the PLO, PA, and Fatah made him the figurehead of the Palestinian cause, and whether one condones the often violent actions of Arafat’s leadership, or condemns them, his time in power represented an extraordinary period of resistance for the Palestinian people. Internationally, opinions on Arafat were unsurprisingly varied: one obituary stated that “his legacy is not the proud Palestinian state of his people’s aspirations,” whilst another said “with all his limitations, abuses of power and murky handling of the levels of power only Arafat evoked a certain consensus among his people, who might criticise him but would have no-one else in his place.” Certainly the dominant image is of Arafat as a Palestinian saviour figure who propelled the Palestinian cause to new levels.
The importance of Arafat’s leadership was that he legitimized the struggle of an internationally delegitimized people by actively encouraging Palestinians to resist their oppressors. His success in rallying the people was achieved despite spending his strongest years operating a decentered political rule from the PLO's base in Tunis. Palestinian rule returned with the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, though ironically it was at this point that Palestinian political power began to dwindle.
If it is possible to single out one event which fractured the political landscape of Palestine, it would be the signing of the Oslo accords. The nationalist discourse proposed by Arafat had stirred in people the desire to fight, and the emergence of the PA (Palestinian Authority), governing the Palestinian people with a view to sustaining peace, ran contrary. Those in favor of direct violence often migrated their political affiliation to Hamas, which became the party of choice for those seeing direct action as the only meaningful form of resistance.
Edward Said discusses Yasser Arafat and Oslo Accords on the first anniversary of Sept 11th attacks.
Palestinian politics entered an era of dislocation, with the PA on one side trying to prevent direct action, and Hamas openly encouraging it. This deadlock in Palestinian politics has characterized the field since the death of Arafat. Looking back over the effects of Arafat’s leadership, his legacy has been fundamentally problematic. In one sense, he enfranchised the Palestinian cause for resistance, and in another, left the political field in turmoil.
Arafat managed to do what others could not: unite a dispersed, disrupted and disenfranchised people. The incompatibility of resistance with the impact of the Oslo accords has been the key tension point arising from Arafat’s legacy. Ten years after his death, news stories tell of fresh clashes sparked by the closure of the Al-Aqsa mosque and a desperate political situation in which Israel bars Palestinian parties from the Knesset, but only allows a derivative political power to a Palestinian Authority deemed to suffer from weak leadership.
Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. He graduated from the University of York with a BA in English and Related Literature. He is currently studying towards an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin. He has experience in writing about representations of conflict in film and literature, and his research focuses on genocide theory and military technology. Twitter @garethaledavies