Living on the edge of the abyss

If anyone could write the epic of the Palestinian people, it would be Yasser Arafat. For this man, who for 43 years has embodied the unity of a people without a land, survival on the edge of the abyss has become a natural state of affairs. At least three times in the past, the Western press has declared him politically dead: – In 1970’s Black September when his rebels came under heavy fire from the conservative monarchy of Jordan. -In September 1982 when ultra-right Lebanese forces supported by Israeli forces under Ariel Sharon slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps, forcing Arafat into long-term exile in Tunisia. – In February 1991 when the Palestinians put themselves in international diplomatic quarantine when they alone of the Arab world dared to express solidarity with Saddam Hussein during the war in the Persian Gulf. In all these cases, the leader who spoke to the United Nations General Assembly with a Kalashnikov in one hand and an olive branch in the other has survived. Since 1993, the man formerly seen as a terrorist by Washington and Tel Aviv has become a credible partner in the peace process that started with the Oslo accord. For the first time since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 with its catastrophic outcome for the Palestinians, he and his compatriots have created a Palestinian Authority – albeit in embryonic form – on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the prospect of a sovereign state. At 72, the leader of the Palestinian Authority is once again facing his political, if not his physical, annihilation. Surrounded by Israeli tanks in Ramallah on the West Bank, he has already been declared non-existent by Sharon, who is making use of the Islamist Hamas’s terrorist attacks to undermine the Palestinian Authority itself. At the same time, the call by Arafat for an end to the armed struggle against the Israelis has made many Palestinians, and a number of Arab governments, doubt him. Despite the myriad problems he is facing at present, Arafat found time to answer a few questions from Kathimerini about the prospects for an end to the vicious cycle of violence and revenge in the Middle East. Arafat states that there is a secret plan, code-named Uranim – or hell – concocted by ultra-rightists in the Israeli establishment to deliberately sabotage the peace process. He categorically rejects compromise solutions proposed by some Palestinian representatives on the issue of refugees, and says that the Intifada will not stop unless the international community offers the Palestinians some tangible prospect of hope. But he is prepared to sign a peace accord, even with Ariel Sharon, saying: You don’t sign peace accords with your friends, but with your enemies. That is easily enough said by an outside observer, but it is extremely difficult to say from the bloodied soil of Palestine. Palestinian leader says his hand is always outstretched The Israeli government holds you personally responsible for the recent suicide attacks by Palestinian extremists on Israeli citizens because you seem hesitant to take measures against the terrorists. What is your response to this criticism? The Palestinian Authority vigorously condemned those terrorist attacks and declared a state of emergency on Palestinian soil. We gave orders to security forces to arrest those responsible. Whoever is involved in these activities is to be brought before Palestinian justice. But what has the Palestinian people done to deserve this collective punishment with random bombing, blind murder and a suffocating siege? What has the Palestinian Authority done to deserve it? I speak the language of peace to Sharon and Sharon speaks to me in the language of war. I repeatedly invited him to return to the negotiating table and he refused. Sharon sabotaged every international mediation for a meeting between me and his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. How can the violence stop without negotiations? How can peace prevail when every day Israeli tanks invade the areas that belong to the Authority; when Israeli blockades prevent Palestinians from getting about; when Israeli soldiers insult the dignity of my people, when Jewish settlers and act violently toward my people? How can the Palestinian Authority impose order when Israel bombs the buildings of the Palestinian police and security service and destroys the Palestinian infrastructure? It’s crazy. I repeat, I speak the language of peace and Sharon speaks the language of war. On civil war The measures the Palestinian Authority recently took against Hamas and Islamic Jihad roused violent opposition from fanatical Islamists. Is there a real danger of a Palestinian civil war? That’s what Sharon would like to see, but it will never happen. The Palestinians are conducting a just battle for their freedom and independence and an end to the Israeli occupation. Our people have a high sense of political maturity and cannot be drawn into such conspiracies. The national interest of the Palestinian people comes above everything. Our people will disappoint those who fish in muddy waters. In recent months, whenever there has been a hopeful sign on the diplomatic front of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have observed an outbreak of violence from extremists on both sides that undermines any diplomatic effort. What conclusion do you draw from this? There are certainly some who do not want peace. The forces that murdered my partner in peace, Yitzhak Rabin, don’t want peace. These forces are among the higher echelons of the Israeli army and within Sharon’s government itself. They have created a secret plan called Uranim, which means hell in Hebrew. Whenever we make any diplomatic progress, these forces ignite the fuse of the explosion, either by murdering a Palestinian official or by provoking clashes so that more Palestinians are killed. How can the entire peace process be the hostage of these extremists? How can the peace process be held hostage by anyone who fires a shot here or there? The peace of the brave means not allowing violence to put a stop to negotiations, but allowing negotiations to stop the violence. You’ve often said Sharon is deliberately trying to annihilate the Palestinian Authority. The question is: Do you really hope that you can reach an agreement with the Israeli government as long as Sharon is its leader? Why not? Peace is made between enemies, not between friends. Mandela made peace with De Klerk, Sadat made peace with Begin. And I made the peace of the brave with Rabin. We accepted all the international initiatives, including the initiative of the Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou. We accepted the joint Jordanian-Egyptian initiative. We accepted Tenet’s and the Mitchell report. I have stretched out my hand many times to Sharon to make peace. My hand is still outstretched, but one hand cannot clap alone. US policy How do you see American policy on Palestine since September 11? Is there a specific plan by the Bush government for an overall solution for the Palestine issue? After the September 11 tragedy, the American government spoke openly about a vision for the Middle East. Speaking at the United Nations, President Bush announced his support for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine. In his speech at Louisville on November 19, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of two states, Israel and Palestine, and the implementation of resolutions 242 and 338, the end of the Israeli occupation, the end of colonization and an end to the sufferings of the Palestinian people. We thank the American government for these statements. We hope these statements will be followed by practical steps for the foundation of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Don’t forget that the peace process is under the official aegis of the US and Russia. Don’t forget that the Oslo accord was signed in the garden of the White House. The American government has co-signed all the agreements we have signed with Israel. Consequently, the American government has a moral and political responsibility to implement these agreements. A few days ago Palestinian officials intimated for the first time that you are prepared to relinquish the right of return for refugees if Israel gives up all the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Are you really willing to negotiate on this issue? The right of return for Palestinian refugees and all refugees in the world who have been expelled from their countries as a result of war and occupation is a sacred right. The right of return for Palestinian refugees is guaranteed by and enshrined in Resolution 104 of the United Nations General Assembly. But the Jewish settlements on our occupied territory are illegal according to international law and UN resolutions. So how can we relinquish something legal in exchange for Israel relinquishing something illegal? We have shown moderation and flexibility on all the outstanding issues. We are realists. But we cannot relinquish the right of return for our refugees. We can only seek practical, realistic solutions for this issue, within the framework of an overall peace agreement. The second Intifada Fifteen months after the start of the second Intifada, 900 Palestinians have lost their lives and more than 30,000 have been wounded. Yet you do not seem to have won anything on the political-diplomatic level. Do you plan to continue the Intifada, and for what purpose? I didn’t press a button to start the Intifada. Sharon was the one who sparked the Intifada by his provocative visit to Haram al Sharif (the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem and by the armed violence the Israeli army used during the days immediately after his visit, killing 69 Palestinians and wounding more than 500 in the first week. I had warned Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister of the time, not to allow Sharon to take that provocative action. Even the Israeli security service had warned Barak of the consequences of such an act. The heroic Intifada of our people now expresses their feelings of rage and despair. Our people were patient for a very long time and put up with a lot. How long must they wait for their freedom? How long must they wait for an independent state? How long must they see their land being expropriated and Jewish settlements multiplying? The Intifada is not an end in itself. Don’t forget that the first Intifada lasted much longer, for seven years, but it stopped when the Palestinians saw a ray of hope, when optimism took the place of despair. This optimism and hope peaked when the Oslo accord was signed. Let the world give us a ray of hope, an optimistic prospect, so that our people can go back to building their country and their independent state. We aren’t asking for the moon. We are asking for our minimum rights. We made the historic compromise of confining ourselves to 22 percent of historic Palestine in which to establish an independent state. We want peace. We want peace for our children and for their children. We want peace for the coming generations. How do you explain the evident hesitation on the part of Arab countries in recent months to take initiatives in favor of the Palestinian people? This is not the case. Our Arab brothers stand by us in this process. The Arab summit made important decisions for the political and economic support of our people. We thank them for this help. And I particularly thank President Mubarak, King Fahd and King Abdullah. I am in constant contact with them and we are working together for a just, wide-ranging peace in the Middle East. Of course we completely understand the position of our Arab brothers and of all our friends in the world. The very last of the Fedayeen Born in Cairo on August 4, 1929, Mohammed Abdel Raouf Arafat al Kondua al Husseini, who was to become famous in the mid-1960s as Yasser Arafat, was the sixth child of a typical Palestinian family from Gaza. He got involved with politics while studying engineering at Cairo University and was very active in propaganda work for the Union of Palestinian Students. After a brief term of employment with the Kuwaiti Public Works Ministry, he played a leading role for the first time in 1959 when he and another two important members of the Palestinian resistance (Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, who were later murdered) founded Al Fatah. A secular organization with a wide range of members and heavily influenced by the socialist Arab nationalism personified by Nasser, Al Fatah started taking armed action in Israel in 1965 with the famous Fedayeen urban guerrillas. Arafat’s leadership qualities emerged following the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the Six-Day War. The hardline military leader of Al Fatah managed to maintain the morale of his compatriots, persuading them that vindication would not come from the divided Arab world but from the struggle of the Palestinians themselves. In subsequent years he rallied Marxist groups (including the Democratic Front and the Popular Front) under the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine (PLO), while maintaining delicate balances with all the Arab states. His political triumph came in February 1969, when he was elected president of the PLO and head of its military wing. Arafat never lost contact with his people, whether during the illegal years, the hard time in exile or the false spring of the emasculated Palestinian Authority after Oslo. The proof of this was the first Intifada, which began spontaneously in Gaza in 1987. Despite the powerful influence of the Islamic Hamas during the early phases of the uprising, Arafat hastened to lend his support, maintaining Al Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinians. In the second Intifada, which was triggered in 2000 after the collapse of the Camp David peace process and Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to a Muslim shrine in Jerusalem, Al Fatah took the reins from the first, forging a common front with the Islamists and the Palestinian Left. It is a game of fire for the last of the Fedayeen, who seems to be following the advice of a leading Islamic thinker: It is better to burn than rot.