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Arafat leaves a troubled legacy but no doubt that there is a Palestinian people

By Helena Cobban / November 12, 2004


Yasser Arafat is gone but his legacy - the existence of the Palestinian nation - is intact. He went from being a guerrilla fighter to a Nobel Prize winner to a prisoner in his narrow office in the West Bank. He may have failed to win a lasting victory for the Palestinian cause, but his tireless dedication to it and his mastery of minor tactics did much throughout the past half century to keep the cause alive.

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In 1977, in Algiers, I saw him defuse an ugly-looking rebellion at a big Palestinian meeting by dramatically pulling a piece of paper from his pocket and saying, "In this letter the leader of your faction promised such-and-such!" No one asked to see the paper - which may well have been blank. But his opponent was taken completely by surprise and the rebellion subsided. Mr. Arafat's stage management was flawless throughout.

Arafat, who died yesterday, was the last of the founders of the modern Palestinian nationalist movement.

He was born in Cairo in 1929 to a family of Palestinian small traders. His mother died when he was 5, and he was then shuttled between relatives in Cairo and Jerusalem. He always spoke fondly of the labrynthine streets and alleys of Jerusalem's walled Old City, then ruled under the "mandate" that Britain had over Palestine. But a defining moment for him was the night in his childhood when British soldiers beat down the door of his uncle's home in Jerusalem, terrifying everyone inside.

He was 19, an engineering student in Cairo, when Israel was born. The Palestinians' dreams of winning their own rapid statehood collapsed as their land was divided between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees poured out of what became Israel. Palestinians everywhere feared that their nation's long history, culture, and attachment to their land could be completely obliterated by Israel's raw power, which was buttressed by the guilt that many Westerners felt over their countries' actions - or inaction - during the European Holocaust.

For Arafat, all those early troubles produced a multilayered sense of loss that seemed to motivate him throughout his life: the loss of his mother perhaps, but equally the loss of his nation's independence and dignity, and the ever-present threat of its political annihilation.

As a young man he shuttled between Cairo, Egyptian-ruled Gaza, and Kuwait - where he started his own engineering firm - to brainstorm with other Palestinians over how to restore their losses. In 1957 he helped found the exile-based nationalist group, Fatah, which slowly built networks prior to launching a low-level guerrilla war against Israel. In 1968, Fatah assumed power within the broader Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the next year Arafat became the PLO's leader.

He worked tirelessly for the nationalist cause. I had a number of interviews with him between 1980 and this year. Most started long after 10 p.m. - and a line of other people would still be waiting to meet him after our meeting finished an hour or more later. He was a gracious host and a pious Muslim believer. Within the strange cocoon of a life dominated by security fears he lived simply, enjoying a glass of hot water sweetened with honey and (in recent years) a spartan diet of boiled vegetables. Personally fastidious, he'd arrange and re-arrange his trademark headdress "just so," and his hands were often pink from repeated washing. He was also a sentimentalist. In 1967 he took time off from one guerrilla "mission" in the newly occupied West Bank to visit his childhood home in Jerusalem. But because he judged the Israelis might have it under surveillance, he never went in to greet the aunts who were still living there.