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In a Ruined Country

(page 1 of 12)

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

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."

Arafat's failure to conquer Jerusalem did not shatter his conviction that history was moving in his favor: under pressure from within and without, isolated in the world, the State of Israel would eventually crack apart and dissolve, to be replaced by Arab Palestine. "We will continue our struggle until a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl waves our flag on the walls, mosques, and churches of Jerusalem, the capital of our independent state, whether some people are happy about it or not," he promised. "He who doesn't like it may drink the water of the Dead Sea." Arafat understood his actions as part of an unfolding within the long duration of historical time rather than as disembodied headlines on CNN. The inability of his diplomatic interlocutors to understand what he was driving at exposed the fatal limits of the Western conception of politics as a way to find a happy medium between competing interests...

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...

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