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The war for Jerusalem that began after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's failed peace offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 has become the subject of legends and fables, each one of which is colored in the distinctive shades of the political spectrum from which it emerged: Yasir Arafat tried to control the violence. Arafat was behind the violence. Arafat was the target of the violence, which he deflected onto the Israelis. Depending on which day of the week it was, any combination of these statements might have been true.
In his patchwork uniform, which combined a military tunic with a traditional kaffiya, the Old Man, as those who had known Yasir Arafat the longest called him, was a strange and defiantly contradictory person. He was the father of the Palestinian nation, and the successor to the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem, Omar Ibn al-Khattab and Saladin. His official title was rais of the Palestinian Authority, a title that is ambiguously translated as "chairman" or "president." Arafat was also the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the head of Fatah, the PLO's central faction, which he founded in Kuwait in the late 1950s. The title that came first on his personal stationery was head of Fatah, which means "conquest"—a backward acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Falistiniya, the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Spelled forward the acronym yields "Hataf," which means "death."
"No doubt Arafat was a great man," al-Masri says. "No doubt he had vision. Most of the people that you see now being very important, I see them wanting the grace of Yasir Arafat. They want to be in his grace. Ah, he thought money was power," al-Masri adds, with a wistful glance around his study. The money he spent to buy the loyalty of his court, al-Masri gently suggests, could easily have paid for a functioning Palestinian state instead.
"With three hundred, four hundred million dollars we could have built Palestine in ten years. Waste, waste, waste. I flew over the West Bank in a helicopter with Arafat at the beginning of Oslo, and I told him how easy we could make five, six, seven towns here; we could absorb a lot of people here; and have the right of return for the refugees. If you have good intentions and you say you want to reach a solution, we could do it. I said, if you have money and water, it could be comparable to Israel, this piece of land."
The corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat was breathtaking. Samuels cites a 1996 PA report which indicated of the year’s budget, 43% had been embezzled, 12.5% went to Arafat’s personal office (to be spent at his discretion), and 35% went to the myriad of security and intelligence services which Arafat maintained, leaving less than 10% for all other expenses like education or health.
Arafat’s corruption was not personal but megalomaniacal. Defying the stereotype of the Third-World dictator living lavishly in his palaces, Arafat, when not travelling abroad, lived simply with minimal personal expenses. Arafat’s corruption, rather, was all about power - a never-ending series of Swiss accounts and secret hoards with which he bought off virtually everyone in Palestinian society. It was to the point that if a poor Palestinian couldn’t get medical treatment, Arafat would pay for it out of pocket, so they would all be dependent on him.
The whole world was complicit in this scam called “The Oslo Accords.” Much of Arafat’s money was funneled to him from taxes on Palestinian products by Israel through accounts that allowed him to siphon off whatever he wanted. As blameworthy as Israel’s actions were, it is important to remember that whenever Israel held up Arafat’s payments, he was criticized by the European Union, the Arab states and the UN, and sometimes even by the United States. The whole world was aware of this fraud and went along with it.
Samuels discusses how Arafat maintained his control over Palestinian terrorism throughout the 1990s even after denouncing it before the world. Arafat would arrest members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to make a show, and then when negotiations weren’t going his way, tell them it was okay to launch an attack. This has been known for years, and openly acknowledged now.
A sad but comical example of Arafat’s brutalization of the Palestinian people is told through the story of Iyad Sarraj. Sarraj, a human rights activist and leader of a mental health organization, told Samuels that during the 1980s most of his patients were victims of torture by the Israelis. But during the 1990s, they were victims of torture by the Palestinian Authority. When he complained, Arafat had Sarraj himself arrested, beaten and tortured. What a tortured “peace process” this was.
For the diplomats of the European Union, whose dream of creating a new kind of political organization that would rival the United States for global influence was burdened by the historical guilt of colonialism and the Holocaust, the image of the Jew as oppressor that Arafat offered the world was both novel and liberating; the State of Israel would become the Other of a utopian new world order that would be cleansed of destructive national, religious, and particularistic passions.
The second intifada also began with the intention of provoking the Israelis and subjecting them to diplomatic pressure. Only this time Arafat went for broke. As a member of the High Security Council of Fatah, the key decision-making and organizational body that dealt with military questions at the beginning of the intifada,[Mamduh]Nofal [former military commander of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] has firsthand knowledge of Arafat's intentions and decisions during the months before and after Camp David. "He told us, 'Now we are going to the fight, so we must be ready,'" Nofal remembers. Nofal says that when Barak did not prevent Ariel Sharon from making his controversial visit to the plaza in front of al-Aqsa, the mosque that was built on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, Arafat said, "Okay, it's time to work."
Absent the formal police-state structure that existed in Iraq and still exists in Syria, the reality of Palestinian social and political life under Arafat can best be described not as totalitarian but, rather, as an extreme kind of political narcissism, in which millions of people were reduced to tokens in the fantasy life of the man they had been educated to think of as their father.