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A Decade After Arafat’s Death, Palestinians Reflect on the Leadership that Followed Him

Ten years after the death of the icon of their nationalism, Palestinians reflect on Arafat's legacy, including the troubled Palestinian Authority and the leadership that followed him.
Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/AP

When Yasser Arafat died, 10 years ago today, he was the president of the Palestinian Authority, an institution that had already existed for five years longer than intended — and that still exists today.

While hardly the legacy with which he is most readily identified, the Palestinian Authority is perhaps the product of Arafat's leadership that has the most ongoing impact on the lives of Palestinians today.


The PA, as it is commonly known, was originally intended as a five-year interim body to govern the Palestinian people while their final status was negotiated in accordance with the 1994 Oslo Accords, which Arafat signed. The accords, which marked Palestinian recognition of the Israeli state and were supposed to set the stage for Palestinian self-determination, launched a peace process both parties involved have since abandoned.

Explosions and war of words mar anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death. Read more here.

The Palestinians' final status was never resolved. Ten years later, Arafat was the embattled leader of the Palestinian Authority — by then a pseudo-government at the helm of a still-stateless nation, which was, at the time of his death, deep into the fighting of the second intifada. Today, with Arafat gone for 10 years, the PA is still there, under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians are possibly as far away from statehood as they were in 1994, with recent tensions escalating into bursts of conflict that some have already referred to as a "third intifada."

But that's not how Arafat was commemorated today. Flawed and criticized as he was by Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, Arafat, or Abu Ammar, as he was known more affectionately, remains in many ways an icon of Palestinian political history and identity that has yet to be matched.

If anything, today's recurrence was, for Palestinians, not only an opportunity to remember Arafat, but also a chance to reflect on the leaders that have followed him.


"It's not just this anniversary that means something, it's pretty much every year, because every year I feel that we are moving further and further away from freedom," Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — which Arafat led until his death — told VICE News. "This isn't to say that Arafat was an angelic leader or that he was even an effective leader — he wasn't, in the last few years."

"But with Arafat you always felt that he understood what it was that we were going through," she continued, citing checkpoints, settlements, the separation wall, and the imprisonment of Palestinians by Israeli authorities. "All of the things that we experience on a daily basis he articulated and acknowledged. The difference now is that with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] we don't feel that. He's been in power for 10 years, and in all these 10 years he's only once made one positive reference to the fact that he's a refugee [from pre-1948 Palestine, now in Israel]… He's very separate from the people, very isolated."

A "Mixed Legacy"
Most Palestinians and outside observers agree that Arafat had a "mixed legacy." Most of the criticism was leveled against him by Palestinians following his participation in the Oslo accords, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center and The Jerusalem Fund, told VICE News.

"Obviously Arafat was a very central figure in the Palestinian struggle, the central figure," he said. "For a very long time he was in many ways synonymous with the struggle."


While he was a leader of the PLO in Lebanon and then Tunisia, Arafat did much to bring the Palestinian struggle "to the forefront of international affairs" in the 1960s and in 1970s, Munayyer said. He recalled Arafat's 1974 UN speech, in which the leader famously told the General Assembly, "I come to you bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter's gun in the other."

"But, as any leader, he was one with flaws, and he certainly had critics both within the Palestinian community and outside," Munayyer added. "Many to this day and at the time were very critical of his decision to engage in the Oslo process with the Israelis, and critics grew after the accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority."

But while Arafat was blamed for Oslo's failures — and at times accused of being an undemocratic and corrupt leader — he died before many Palestinians grew disillusioned with both his party and the Palestinian Authority itself.

Having spent much of his life in exile, and only returned to Palestine after Oslo, Arafat was able to ride on the legacy of his years as a revolutionary freedom fighter, before spending his last decade as a statesman without a state.

"Because of that history that Arafat had at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for years, that included many very significant personal sacrifices, he had garnered a degree of legitimacy that lasted him for a very long time and that won him credibility with people of a particular generation," Munayyer said. "The leaders that have come after him and the leaders of factions in recent years are unable to capitalize on the revolutionary legitimacy that Arafat was able to tap into when he was around."


Today's Leaders
Today's critics of the PA have had their lives defined by the consequences of Oslo, the failed peace process, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and bitter fighting within Palestinian domestic politics.

"They're dealing with generations of constituents who don't really remember the '60s and the '70s and the sacrifices that leaders made then, but look instead at the policies and the decisions that leaders have made in recent years," Munayyer said.

Abbas in particular — who followed Arafat at the president of the PA, and is now serving his third term after an election planned for 2009 was canceled amid his party's conflict with Hamas — has been the target of much of the criticism. Now 79, Abbas lacks the charisma of Arafat, and has been denounced by Palestinians as passive, if not complicit with the Israeli occupation — despite Israeli leaders repeatedly calling him "no partner" in a peace process that's long been moribund.

"When I look back at this man's record, I as a Palestinian can tell you just how far off we are from where we should be," Buttu, who worked as an advisor to Abbas, told VICE News. "In part it's his personality, but the other part is that he's the person that actually created all of these tensions between Hamas and Fatah. That didn't happen in Arafat's time, it happened in Abbas' time."

Hamas and Fatah are friends again, but that's not why the peace talks failed. Read more here.


Tensions between Fatah and Hamas have been virtually constant since the PA split in 2007 — when Hamas, which had won legislative elections the year prior, was forced out of the West Bank. Since then, repeated efforts to form a unity government were attempted and failed, including, more recently, following the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza, which remains under the control of Hamas.

'You can't find someone who's willing to become the president because it means inheriting a really terrible, screwed up system, that is completely dysfunctional.'

Today, at an event commemorating Arafat in Ramallah, where he is buried, Abbas once again accused Hamas of trying "to destroy" the newly formed Palestinian national unity government, after a string of 15 explosions rocked the homes of Fatah leaders throughout the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

At the heart of that conflict is the collaboration between Abbas and the Israeli authorities — itself a function of the fact that the PA is the government of a people under occupation, with little actual autonomy.

It also doesn't help that the leadership of the PA is made up mostly of members of the Palestinian leadership's old guard — when 50 percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 21, Buttu added.

"It's a body that has had cancer for a long time and has died a long time and nobody's willing to sign the death certificate," she said, referring to the PA. "It was supposed to be an interim government leading to our freedom. It's now become an authority where more money is spent on security than health and education combined, and it's not internal security, it's security for Israel."


To his credit, Buttu added, Abbas' job is one nobody wants. "You can't find someone who's willing to become the president because it means inheriting a really terrible, screwed up system, that is completely dysfunctional," she said.

But Abbas' continued insistence on negotiations with Israel — even after the failure of Oslo and progressively more tepid attempts at peace that followed it — is what has cost him the support of a large number of Palestinians, she added.

"He has got one way and that's negotiations," Buttu said. "Unlike Arafat, who at a certain point recognized that the negotiation process wasn't going to lead to our freedom, this man is not there yet. He's still so desperately holding on to this and he doesn't realize that he can and should be directing people to do other things to hold Israel accountable."

But like Arafat before him, Abbas has perhaps done more to keep the Palestinian struggle on the international agenda than to change the lives of his constituents in more immediate ways.

In the last several months, in particular, as one more round of US-sponsored peace talks collapsed, and as Israel continued to announce the construction of new settlements, Abbas has increasingly taken to the international community, getting Palestine recognized before some international bodies and by a growing number of Western countries.

"Many people, they just criticize without providing of any feasible alternative," Xavier Abu Eid, a PLO spokesman, told VICE News.


"In 2011, many of those who are now criticizing President Abbas for not going to the ICC were campaigning against us going to the UN, but how could I go to the ICC without going to the UN?" he said, as an example. "President Abbas went, we got the upgraded status despite all pressures, and now we are in a better diplomatic position than we were. Those are steps. You can be critical he is not using the ICC, but now at least we have it."

Tomorrow's Leaders
Still, many younger Palestinians feel that the PA, which only controls those living in the West Bank and has little meaning for Palestinians in Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel, and the diaspora, is increasingly less relevant to a political struggle a growing number of people doubt can be resolved by statehood.

While clashes and protests have also multiplied in the West Bank and Israel, in the last few months the heart of conflict has moved to Jerusalem — where neither Hamas nor Fatah serve as filter between a frustrated Palestinian population and Israel itself.

"There's only so much before people are gonna start resisting and it's already happening," Buttu said. "You are already beginning to see a lot of this happening against the PA, and not just against the PA but against the Israelis. When Abu Mazen is saying 'no third intifada' and yet Palestinians are going out and protesting, it shows that he doesn't have the measure of authority that he thinks he does."

It's déjà vu in Gaza all over again. Read more here.

So far, the latest outbursts of resistance and violence have been largely leaderless. Unorganized attacks — that have included drivers ramming cars into Israeli pedestrians — have multiplied in a copycat fashion with no clear center. Restrictions over access to Jerusalem's holy sites have spawned protests that have often erupted in clashes with Israeli forces.

But as they commemorate Arafat as a symbol, some younger Palestinians have little memory of life under his leadership, and, for some time now, they have been calling for new leaders — with some referring to Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fatah leader imprisoned by Israel, as the Palestinian "Nelson Mandela."

"Will it be Marwan? I'm not sure," Buttu said. "But I know that people are talking about new leadership and we definitely need that."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi