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

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.

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.

In 1990, he reversed earlier avowals that he was "married to the cause" and married Suha Tawil, a Palestinian Christian who'd worked for him in Tunis. She converted to Islam when they married, but the fact that he chose a Christian for a wife was reassuring to Palestine's large population of Christians. In 1995, they had a daughter, Zahwa.

Arafat was always a controversial figure. His role in organizing and, later, apparently condoning Palestinian violence made Israelis fearful and angry. But for Palestinians at home and abroad, the guerrillas' actions - though militarily negligible - restored a sense of confidence and nationhood.

After 1973 he switched his emphasis from guerrilla struggle to diplomatic engagement. In 1974, Fatah adopted a new, more moderate program of creating a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza, instead of replacing all of Israel as it and the PLO had earlier urged. In 1975, I saw Arafat at a huge rally here in Beirut, using extravagant hand gestures and emotional evocations of the Palestinians' many losses to argue for the new "two-state" program.

In 1993 the push for this program achieved some success when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin concluded the Oslo Agreement with the PLO. (Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Shimon Peres for that breakthrough.) The following year, Arafat met an adoring welcome from residents of Gaza and the West Bank. Two years later, they swept him to victory in the only free and fair election they have ever been allowed to hold. By then, though, Palestinian leadership was already in disarray. Fatah had started out with a deliberately collective leadership. But by 1994, other key leaders had died or been killed, and Arafat was alone, aided only by figures of lesser political weight.

In addition, after his return to Palestine in 1994, the tactics of underground organizing and military planning that Arafat had perfected during long exile proved quite incapable of winning the full-fledged state for which he and his people yearned. Thus started a decade of slowly unfolding tragedy - for him, for Palestinians everywhere, and for the large number of Israelis who wanted to see a two-state solution to their nation's dilemma.

Other Israelis, led by Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party, had other ideas. They used the "interim period" decreed by Oslo to expand their grip on Palestinian lands, and absent any braking hand from the US, they were very successful. The number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank doubled in the Oslo years. Arafat never developed an effective strategy to resist that land grab. Instead he drifted - sometimes condoning the violence by some Palestinians, sometimes cracking down hard on internal opponents.

Arafat's tragedy and that of his people was that he wasn't up to the challenges that history assigned him. He was not a Mandela; but equally, he did not for long have a De Klerk figure to deal with. Rabin, who started to play that transformative role, was killed by an Israeli extremist before he achieved anything lasting.

But at least Arafat and his colleagues achieved this: Back in 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir voiced a judgment shared by many in the West when she said, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people." But today, few people doubt that the Palestinian nation exists, and neither Israel nor its supporters can ignore the Palestinians' claim to establish a sovereign state in a portion of historic Palestine.

Helena Cobban is author of 'The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power, and Politics.' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, still in print).

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