By Reem Al-Nimer
November 11, 2014
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of President Yasser Arafat, an iconic leader for an iconic cause. Sadly, the Arab world is too busy burying its dead to pay tribute to a man who did wonders for a people he so often described as “superhuman.”
Arafat was a charismatic and fearless warrior. He was also a genuine peacemaker. He was a leader with talent, vision and character. The West is whining and groaning about the rise of ISIS, but failing to realize – perhaps on purpose – that such terrorism flourished only because secular figures in the Arab world – like Yasser Arafat – were forced to perish. This is what you get when you destroy leaders whose inspiration was Che Guevara, and replace them with ones obsessed by Osama Bin Laden.
I first heard of Arafat’s name at our overcrowded living room in a small apartment overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut, 40 years ago. My father was a prominent banker and early co-founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I was a young teenager growing up in Beirut, the “Switzerland” of the Middle East. Arafat was our swashbuckling hero, promising to bring us back to our home in Palestine.
My generation grew up with Arafat always in the background. He had a miraculous ability to bounce back to life after each battle, defeat and exile. He seemed to be telling us that like the people of Palestine, he was still there, still motivated, and still focused on marching one day into the old walls of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In a rapidly changing world, Arafat was the only constant. Like a true friend, we could always count on him. Being a former member of Fatah and the future wife of one of his top lieutenants, I had the good fortune of meeting Arafat in person – as a leader in Lebanon, refugee in Tunisia and president in Palestine.
My husband Mohammad al-Abbas, better known by his nom du guerre Abu al-Abbas, worked with Arafat from 1967 until death did them apart – within an interval of eight months – in 2004. Abu al-Abbas died in a U.S. jail in Baghdad on March 9, Arafat at a Parisian hospital on Nov. 11.
With the exception of these two men, we know who killed each and every one of our Palestinian leaders, from Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, on to Abu Hasan Salameh and Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin, who was also savagely killed by an Israeli missile in 2004. We still don’t know for sure if Abu Ammar and Abu al-Abbas died of natural clauses – as we were told – or if they too were murdered by the very same man who had pledged time and again to kill them both. The suspected assassin, Ariel Sharon, took the truth with him to the grave last January.
The world remembers my husband for the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, off the shore of Ashdod, in October 1985. It was a failed operation by all accounts that did not go according to plan. Abu al-Abbas had planned it in advance with Yasser Arafat, and executed it in response to the Israeli raid on the PLO headquarters in Hammam al-Shatt, Tunis, days earlier.
Their aim was to land Palestinian commandos in Israel. But the operation went all wrong, and they ended up surrendering to Egyptian authorities, through the mediation of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
Very regrettably, a wheelchair-bound New York Jew named Leon Klinghoffer was killed in the operation and thrown overboard. His story, which has been made into television movies and films, is now on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera has stirred huge controversy, with some saying it is anti-Semitic for “humanizing” the Palestinians.
Both Arafat and Abu al-Abbas apologized for the operation, and last month, I came out with an autobiography, “Curse of the Achille Lauro” saying that all human life is precious, be it Palestinian or Israeli.
We have fought too many wars. Enough is enough. I heard these words so often from President Arafat himself, particularly in the weeks and months after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Perhaps on this day – the 10th anniversary of Arafat’s passing – the time is ripe for us to wake up, grow up, and start anew, and pursue a long overdue peace in the Middle East. Nothing would have pleased Abu Ammar more than a real and lasting peace in the Holy Land – one that brings justice to the Palestinians. Sadly, we are very far from it today.
The last time I saw Arafat was in the summer of 2000. Abu al-Abbas at the time was serving as an MP in the Palestinian National Assembly. Arafat had insisted on bringing him onboard after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. He famously told President Bill Clinton: “If you want this peace to last and if you want real consensus around it, I have to bring two mischievous troublemakers into the Palestinian parliament.” One of them was Abu al-Abbas. The other was Mohammad Salah Odeh (Abu Daoud), who masterminded the 1972 Olympics massacre at Munich. Nothing legitimizes peace more than the endorsement of a peaceful political role for an impassioned warrior like Abu al-Abbas, with plenty of war medals on his uniform.
President Arafat’s wife Suha had invited us for breakfast at their small two-floor villa in Gaza. It was nothing extravagant: just a simple meal in a small saloon, with sofas draped with Palestinian embroidery, and photos of Palestine in every corner. At 9 a.m., an aide came in to announce: “Al-Ikhtiyar (the old man) has just woken up.” For as long as I could remember, we had called Arafat “Al-Ikhtiyar” even when he wasn’t really that old. He was the “godfather” of our revolution, after all.
It took Arafat another hour to reach the breakfast table as he always spent a lot of time getting dressed – shining his shoes, pressing his khaki military uniform, hoisting his rifle around his waist, and fixing his black and white checkered kefiyyeh, which he took great care to position in the diamond shape of the map of Palestine. He ate very little, but took great pleasure at recommending simple dishes – thyme-glazed labneh, goat cheese and Palestinian olives. He fed each of us with his own hands. He was every inch humble yet presidential.
Abu al-Abbas and I had sat around Arafat’s dinner table before, in Tunis in 1993. This was shortly after the Oslo agreement was reached and before Arafat actually returned home from Tunis. It was a cozy, private affair. The future first lady of Palestine prepared dinner and I helped in the kitchen. In the other room, the two guerrilla leaders talked politics.
After supper, Arafat took out maps, spread them across the dinner table, and began explaining to us while pointing all over the documents. “This is going to become ours once again!” he said. “That is going to be given to us by the Israelis. See that point over there? It too will be with the Palestinians. All of this section will be ours.” Arafat was very excited, and he believed every single word he was saying. I had never seen him so worked up in my entire life.
Abu al-Abbas just nodded his head and said nothing. In his eyes, I saw disbelief. When driving home later that evening, Abu al-Abbas said to me, “Either he is lying, or they [the Americans and Israelis] are lying to him.” He quickly added, “Can it be true Reem? Can it be true that they are going to be giving us all of that? I don’t trust them. I never did.” The Palestinian National Authority (PA), he believed, and all the trappings of nationhood that the PA possessed – the flag, the national police, and the government in truncated Palestine – were nothing but an illusion.
Today, 21 years after Oslo, his words keep ringing in my head. The PA is an orphaned state, besieged from the outside and crumbling from within. All that is left for us in Palestine are “symbols” of our Cause. They include the olive branch, the orange orchards, the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque – and the legacy of men like Abu al-Abbas and Abu Ammar. Those living in the occupied territories and the diaspora have labeled them the “last standing wall” of Palestine. The “state” that they had dreamed of for decades was systematically destroyed by Sharon, as was Greater Palestine. Whether the world likes it or not, these “A-Class Terrorists,” as the Americans have labeled them, have become symbols for the Palestinian Cause. These men, through military struggle and then via Oslo, restored Palestine to the map of the world. Maybe it was not our vision of Palestine, but it was Palestine, nevertheless.
For long years Palestinians could not travel and had to wait for hours at airports and endure lengthy questioning. After Oslo, they were issued local PA passports, and could fly from their own airport in Gaza. They earned a home to live in, a civil service to join, a police force to bring order to their lives, a government that they could ask for help, and a leader to follow. Now, Palestinians had a parliament, a constitution, an independent judiciary, a social security program, along with their own schools and national universities.
Yasser Arafat and his generation did for the Palestinians what Zionism did for the Jews after World War II. Arafat, Abu al-Abbas and their comrades brought Palestinians out from the obscurity and persecution of the 1950s, from the misery of the refugee camps into the world as key players in international affairs. For 40 years, these leaders were the center of gravity in Palestinian politics. Power went where they went: Amman, Beirut, Tunis, Gaza or Ramallah. Everyone is to blame for the death of my husband and Yasser Arafat: Israel, the U.S. and Arabs.
I have forgiven the criminals, regardless of their identity. I did this for the sake of peace, and for the legacy of Arafat and Abu al-Abbas. So should others in the haunting Arab-Israeli conflict.
Reem al-Nimer is the Beirut-based author of “Curse of the Achille Lauro: A Tribute to Lost Souls” (Cune Press 2014). She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.