Remembering Arafat as Palestinians fight their own demons

To think that Palestine, which had stood up boldly against Israel and the United States, is now a fractured ‘nation’ clearly reveals that much as we dislike centrist power, that is what societies need.

Hamas has taken over control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah is pinning its hopes on the West bank and people are talking about a "three state solution" ­that includes Israel that has no business to be there.

All I can do is to bring alive Yasser Arafat once again. This is my personal account of the man, his people and my encounter with them…It was first published in The Friday Times.

Brick in the wall

“Are you mad?” exclaimed Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem, a non-PLO man, when he was told about the idea of replacing Yasser Arafat. Today, it is more than an idea.

Little boys are terrorists? Terrorists throw stones? This is how limited my knowledge of Palestine was. Till I got to know Dr. A. Sabri. He was a medical practitioner, who was kicked out of the hospital he was working in Palestine. “The more you inflict casualties, there is bound to be extremism. How much injustice can a people bear?” he asked. Can a child comprehend injustice? “A ten-year-old may not know what Palestine is, yet he will throw a stone. Why? You call this terrorism, when the Israelis bomb our camps everyday? Anyone who raises their voice on our behalf is better than those who commit treachery or stay quiet.”

Laxmi Hotel, a crummy little restaurant in a bylane of Colaba, Mumbai, was hardly the place to discuss the Palestinian struggle. But we were doing just that. Trust had built up over the months and he finally told me he was a member of the PLO. “Arafat’s trips are such a well-guarded secret that until the last minute even we do not know - he often changes his itinerary because he can sense danger.”

One day he told me, “Arafat is getting married.”

“Oh no!” I said. He looked surprised.

To me, the leader of the PLO represented the sort of romance you reserve for soppy Hindi films, the underdog, a Robin Hood, a lone ranger. Marriage seemed like a let-down. Had he not said he was in love once but, “For me the decision not to marry was very hard. I am a normal man and I would like to have a wife and children; but I did not think it was fair that any woman should be asked to share the troubles I knew I would be facing in my long struggle”?

Initially, Arafat himself was unaware of what struggle entailed. Born in Cairo, he did not even know that a place called Palestine existed. Later, he grasped the message when three-fourths of his people became refugees in their own land. But, like any other young man, he got disillusioned and applied for an American visa! The steaks-and-fries dream was short-lived. When the so-called leaders of Israel called his people “primitive beings” and said, “the Palestinians do not exist”, he decided to show them. Al Fatah was formed with seven trained fighters, five rifles and a cheque for 1000 pounds. Amazingly, he got respectability for an organisation that was created for guerrilla warfare. Are such men born or made?

Ismail Hassani, whose father was expelled from Palestine when he was a child, spent most of his early years in Jordan, then moved to Calcutta and later Mumbai. “I can’t go back to my country, they won’t let me in, but one day I will get back my land. Palestine will become a superpower, even if it takes a thousand years.”

Dr. Sabri explained, “The PLO is like an umbrella, and every child born understands it. From a distance the younger people can see it more clearly. They have to believe in the leadership.”

But how could they feel so strongly about a land whose history was wiped out? As Moshe Dayan had said, “There is not a single Jewish village in this country that has not been built on the site of an Arab village.”

Displacement can be recognised in small ways. In Delhi I had met the Palestinian ambassador to India, Dr. Khalid el Sheikh. There were no armed security guards at the gate. His office was spartan, housed in a dilapidated building that seemed to have aged prematurely. This was a most potent metaphor for what the movement represented.

The ambassador was polite but cautious, steering clear of personal views. What did he think of the attempts to justify the existence of Israel by harking back to Biblical times? “The Jews of today are mostly converts to Judaism and had no racial links with the Israelites or Hebrews who lived in Palestine at or before the time of Christ… how then these conglomerations of people from different races could form a nation?”

Yet, Jews from any part of the world can get instant citizenship in Palestine; they are occupying over 73 per cent of the land. As Dr Sabri stated, “And we get uprooted from our own land. This is the only country created by the UN defying the UN. The West finds it tough to deal with us because we have the highest number of graduates and professionals in the region. And the Palestinians never talk of a jihad.” Arafat was also let down by the Arab League, and at one time President Nasser wanted the PLO to become a puppet of America.

The ironies are many: The first Al Fatah cell was established in Kuwait, now a US stooge; Arafat’s closest confidant was a Catholic priest; he hated the sight of blood; he often recruited a person because, “I feel I can trust him”; he had the task of selling to his people the idea of getting back 30 per cent of their land when they had a claim to all of it; he left instructions with his bodyguards that if he was ever captured by Israelis, he should be shot dead – the Israelis kept him under house arrest in Ramallah.

Nothing could break him. Abu Jihad had described him as, “not just a political symbol… he is living all our fears, all of our dreams and all of our sufferings.”

He once told the UN Under-Secretary General, “Please tell those stupid people in Jerusalem they will be sorry when I am gone. I am the only one who can deliver the compromise to make the peace.” No one listened.

For Arafat the room at the top was destined to be a dark attic.


  1. blog
    This whole situation reminds me of India murdering innocent Kashimiris with it's brutal army.

    India has no business to be there in Kahsmir, too.

    Kashmir is for Kashmiris, they have every right to their own freedom...

    Poor Kashmiris fighting Indian army with stones...

  2. Circle:

    Are you talking about Hindu Kashmiris or Muslim Kashmiris? To whom does Kashmir belong? Now that both of them are forced not to live together...

    I for one would not like to see Kashmir become a foreign land for me as much as I never wanted Punjab to be a Khalistan.

  3. Circle and Amandeep:

    These posts are being retained due to your genuine participation here.

    These are complicated issues and I am talking about Palestine.

    My views on Kashmir are known to many. When I post something on it, it will be made amply clear and your discussions would be valid and important.


  4. i got a little upset i know...

    i just love kashmir. i lived there for a couple of years (+ in Leh for a year)

    i want to go back as a tourist but i am afraid now.

  5. I understand, though my views politically...khair...

    And what are you doing up at this hour??

    I believe tourists are visiting regularly. Mainly Gujaratis.

  6. Doing some office-homework



  7. Awww...

    If I may? It is shab bakhair...

    Technically though it is good morning Monday!

    Am off now...unless I manage some pretty poetry

  8. blog
    Palestine is an integral part of Palestinains...No doubt about it.


    Kashmir and Palestine are facing exactly the same situations currently.Indian occupied Kashmir and Palestine are being enslaved by brutal forces...

    Poor, innocent and helpless humans are being killed with guns and tanks and they have only small pebbles for their self defense.

    What a cruel human tragedy on both parts of the world......

  9. ur blog should crawl in blogstreet, technorati and digg.

    take a look on iran and north korea also.



  10. Circle:

    Why are you not listening to your elders?! Talk about Palestine.

    Okay, I will say it here too: I believe in autonomy for Kashmir. Autonomy. But the two situations of J&K and Palestine are vastly different. Histories set the tone for how contemporary societies are run.

    Cruel tragedies, unfortunately, are a part of most societies.

    Now please talk about Yasser A...I adored him.

    - - -


    Thanks for the info...my blog sure crawls, but at its own pace...

  11. My feelings on Mr. Arafat are mixed. As a child growing up in India, I used to hear the (state-controlled) media praising him all the time - so had formed a positive impression then. Clearly, like most leaders - he thought he was devoted to his people and thought that what he did was best for them. However, at some point, he inadvertantly passed the "optimum" point (possibly after the Norway accord) and his decisions led to a continuation of the present plight of his people. His biggest mistake (sorry to bring in the name of MAJ, but he appears to come to mind) was to not realize when he had demanded "too much"! I personally wish the Palestinian people the best for certainly, they have suffered.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.