The couple had arrived in Cairo in 1927 and settled in the middle-class Sakakini neighborhood, where the young Arafat spent his youth. Aside from short stays, he never lived in Palestine prior to 1947, or for that matter at any other subsequent time, until his arrival in the Gaza Strip in July 1994 as head of the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA).
Throughout his career, Arafat has gone to great lengths to blur the circumstances of his childhood, especially the fact that his father was half Egyptian. When questioned about his birthplace, Arafat would normally claim to have been born and reared in the Old City of Jerusalem, just a few houses away from the Wailing Wall.3 Yet he has often contradicted himself. “I was born in Gaza,” he told Playboy magazine in September 1988. ‘my mother died when I was four and I was sent to live with my uncle in Jerusalem. I grew up there, in the old city. The house was beside the Wailing Wall. The Israelis blew up the house–demolished it in 1967 when they captured the city.”4 Whenever confronted with these contradictory versions and asked for a definite answer, his winning formula was that ‘my father was from Gaza and my mother from Jerusalem.”5
These claims, especially his connection to Jerusalem and the ­Israelis’ demolition of his alleged birth house, create a neat symmetry between Arafat’s personal biography and the collective Palestinian experience of loss and dispossession, despite both Arafat’s birth certificate and university records naming Cairo as his birthplace, as well as his strong Egyptian accent betraying a childhood spent in Cairo’s schools.6 Indeed, throughout his decades at the helm of the PLO, Arafat has never been able to overcome the widespread displeasure among the organization’s rank and file with his strong Egyptian accent. Dialects and accents constitute a central element of collective identity in Arab societies, not least among Palestinians with their persistent sense of loss and the attendant attempt to construct a national consciousness. Every Arab can detect, on the basis of dialect, accent, or intonation, his interlocutor’s regional origin, and Arafat’s accent leaves little doubt as to his Egyptian, rather than Palestinian, origin. Salah Khalaf (better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Iyad), Arafat’s close associate throughout their political careers, recalled his deep dismay at discovering, during their first meeting in Cairo in the 1950s, the heavy Egyptian accent of an aspiring chairman of the Palestinian student union.7 He wasn’t the only one to feel this way. When in the spring of 1966 Arafat was arrested by the Syrian authorities for involvement in the murder of a Palestinian activist, Abu Iyad rushed to Damascus, together with his fellow Fatah leader Farouq Qad­doumi, to secure his release. In a meeting with General Hafez al-Assad, then Syria’s defense minister, the two were confronted with a virulent tirade against Arafat. “You’re fooled that he is a Palestinian,” Assad said. “He isn’t. He’s an Egyptian agent.” This was a devastating charge, especially in light of the acrimonious state of Egyptian-Syrian relations at the time, and one that rested solely on Arafat’s Egyptian dialect. Yet for Assad this was a sufficient indictment. “You can go to Mezza [the prison] and take [him] away,” he said eventually. “But remember one thing: I do not trust Arafat and I never will.”8 Assad was true to his word until his death on June 10, 2000.
Such is the extent of Arafat’s sensitivity to his Egyptian origin that in his meetings with his subjects in the West Bank and Gaza, whom he has come to rule since the mid-1990s as part of the Oslo process, he is regularly accompanied by an aide who whispers in his ear the correct words in Palestinian Arabic whenever the chairman is overtaken by his Egyptian dialect.
Nor did Arafat take any part in the formative experience of Palestinian consciousness–the collapse and dispersion of Palestine’s Arab community during the 1948 war–in spite of his extensive mythmaking about this period. “I am a refugee,” he argued emotionally in a 1969 interview. ‘do you know what it means to be a refugee? I am a poor and helpless man. I have nothing, for I was expelled and dispossessed of my homeland.”9
As a native and resident of Egypt, Arafat lost no childhood home in Palestine, nor witnessed any of his close relatives expelled and transformed into destitute refugees. As a Palestinian biographer of Arafat observed, “He was not a child of Al Nakba or the disaster, as Palestinians call the 1948 defeat, nor did his father lose the source of his livelihood.” Arafat himself complained to a close childhood friend, ‘my father didn’t leave me even two meters of Palestine.”10
Arafat’s bragging about his illustrious war record is equally dubious. One famous story involves the young Arafat stopping an attack by twenty-four Jewish tanks in the area that would come to be known as the Gaza Strip by knocking out the first and the last and trapping the others.11 Another story tells of Arafat being the “youngest officer” in the militia force of Abdel Qader Husseini, scion of a prominent Jerusalem family, whose death in the battle for the city in early April 1948 instantaneously transformed him from a controversial figure with a mediocre military record into a national hero.12 “I was in Jerusalem when the Zionists tried to take over the city and make it theirs,” Arafat is fond of saying.
I fought with my father and brother in the streets against the Jewish oppressors, but we were out-manned and had no weapons comparable to what the Jews had. We were finally forced to flee leaving all our possessions behind . . . My father gathered us–my mother, my brothers and sisters, our grandparents–and we fled. We walked for days across the desert with nothing but a few canteens of water. It was June. We passed through the village of Deir Yasin and saw what the Jews had done there–a horrible massacre. Finally we reached Gaza, where my father’s family had some land. We were exhausted and destitute. It was upon our arrival that I vowed to dedicate my life to the recovery of my homeland.13
Like other parts of Arafat’s biography, this account contains a mix of dramatic ingredients designed to transform his alleged personal experience into the embodiment of Palestinian history: a heroic but hopeless struggle against a brutal and superior enemy, a crushing defeat and the attendant loss and exile. Not only did the Israeli army have no tanks when this alleged incident took place (May 10, 1948), but according to another of Arafat’s own accounts he was in Jerusalem at the time and did not take part in the fighting in Gaza. As for Arafat’s alleged participation in the battle for Jerusalem, when asked whether he actually engaged in combat operations, he retorted angrily: “You are completely ignorant, I am sorry to say. You have no idea. The British army was still there with all its armaments. The main British forces were in Jerusalem.”14
With regard to the alleged escape of Arafat’s family to freedom, aside from telling two of his biographers that he had arrived in Jerusalem (in late April 1948) on his own, making no mention of other family members,15 the village of Deir Yasin was captured by Jewish forces in early April 1948, like most of the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem highway, and there was absolutely no way for Palestinian refugees to cross it on their flight. But even if some refugees had passed through the village in June, they would have found no traces of “the horrible massacre” that had taken place two months earlier. Had Arafat and his family really fled Jerusalem via the desert, as he claims, they would have gone in the opposite direction of Deir Yasin. But then the tragedy of Deir Yasin, where some one hundred people were killed in the fighting (the figure given at the time was more than twice as high), has become the defining episode of Palestinian victimization, and as such an obvious choice for appropriation by Arafat.
The truth is that while the Palestinian Arabs were going through the trauma of defeat and dispersal, Arafat “was completing secondary school in Cairo and did not stray far from the Egyptian capital during the great catastrophe.”16 He was of course as mindful as the next man of the ­unfolding Palestinian tragedy, but it is hard to say whether it affected him on a personal level, as he did not even do what thousands of non-Palestinian Arabs did–Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and the like–and volunteer to fight in Palestine.
It was only natural for Arafat, by way of bridging the glaring gap between his personal biography and the wider Palestinian experience, to create a mythical aura around himself from his first days of political activity in the early 1950s at King Fuad University in Cairo. This was the only way he could compensate for his inherent inferiority vis-“-vis fellow Palestinian students, who really did arrive in Egypt as destitute and dispossessed refugees, and establish his credentials as a quintessential Palestinian, equal to the ambitious task of national leadership he had earmarked for himself. The higher he climbed, the greater was his entanglement in the intricate web of lies and fiction he had woven, steadily blurring the line between his own persona and that of Palestinian collective identity. In the words of two sympathetic biographers: “His own murky identity [is] a metaphor for all the Palestinians. He is the fatherless father, the motherless son, the selfless symbol of a people without identity, the ultimate man without a country.”17
This carefully contrived world of self-invention, where reality and fiction blend, was to become Arafat’s defining characteristic. He claims to have declined a studentship from the University of Texas in the early 1950s, but according to one biographer it is unlikely that he had ever been accepted given his poor command of the English language and the strict requirements at that time that foreign students have both a clean political slate and proof of the means to support themselves. He boasts of cofounding a construction company during his stay in Kuwait during the 1950s and the early 1960s, which made him a millionaire, while in actuality he was an ordinary civil servant who moonlighted in his free time, earning thousands rather than millions of dollars. His boasts of guerrilla exploits in the West Bank and Gaza in the months attending their occupation by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, where he was supposedly on the run from the Israeli authorities until early 1968, are dismissed by two of his biographers as being almost certainly an exaggeration.18
Arafat’s gift for invention extends well beyond his personal biography. Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, a staunch supporter of the PLO, sent a television crew to film a ‘model raid” on Israeli targets. Receiving the crew in Damascus, Arafat promised to lead the raid in person, asking the Yugoslavs to wait for him at a certain spot near the Lebanese–Israeli border. They waited there for two full days, only to return to Damascus empty-handed after Arafat failed to show.
Meeting the furious director again in his office, Arafat offered to stage a mock raid on the spot. He instructed the crew to start filming while he sat behind his desk shouting some orders. A number of young fighters dashed into the office and Arafat indicated to them certain areas on a huge map of Palestine, after which the fighters saluted him and left the room. When the filming was over, the director was beside himself with enthusiasm. “You’re a good actor, Chairman Arafat.” “I used to be, you know,” Arafat retorted.19
Even among Arafat’s admirers and followers he has been viewed as a congenital liar, so much so that in May 1966 he was suspended from his post as Fatah’s military commander for, among other things, sending “false reports especially in the military field.”20 “Arafat tells a lie in ­every sentence” is how a senior Romanian intelligence officer with whom Arafat worked closely described the PLO chairman, while one of Arafat’s intimate Palestinian associates has said, “If Arafat ever once stumbled and told the truth, he would say, “Please forgive me!””21
Terje Larsen, a Norwegian academic who played an important role in the conclusion of the Oslo accords and who later became the United Nations special envoy to the Middle East, recalled an occasion when Arafat was attempting to persuade the Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres that Peres had made a specific commitment to him:
Arafat said, “You told me on the phone–” Peres said, “No.” Arafat said, “Yes, you said so. Larsen was there in my office. And Mr. Dennis [Ross]” (U.S. peace mediator). “Larsen, you are my international witness. Mr. Peres, I have an international witness!” Everyone else in the room knew that this was untrue.22
The American-Arab academic Edward Said had a similar experience some fifteen years earlier when he passed on to Arafat the U.S. administration’s offer to recognize the PLO in return for the latter’s implicit acquiescence in Israel’s existence.
[I]n March of 1979 I flew to Beirut and went to see Arafat. I said to him, We need an answer. The first thing he said was, I never received the message. So for at least ten minutes he began to deny that any message came. Luckily, Shafiq al-Hout [director of the PLO’s Beirut office] was sitting with us in the room and he said, I delivered the message to you. Arafat said, I have no recollection of it. Shafiq went into the next room and brought a copy of it. Arafat looked at it and said, All right, tomorrow I’ll give you my answer.23
Others had a less cavalier attitude toward Arafat’s inability to tell the truth. Shortly after the signing ceremony on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, Jordan’s King Hussein informed the Rabin government that Arafat was certain to violate the peace agreement he had just signed. “Israel is doing business with the worst possible person,” read a royal message. “Arafat has proved time and again that his word cannot be trusted.” Since the late 1960s, King Hussein had reached numerous agreements with Arafat only to see each and every one violated by his partner. “I and the government of the kingdom of Jordan hereby announce that we are unable to coordinate politically with the PLO leadership until such a time as their word becomes their bond, characterized by commitment, credibility, and constancy,” a somber Hussein stated in an address to the nation on February 19, 1986, shortly after being duped yet again by Arafat.24
President George W. Bush has had a far shorter relationship with Arafat than the deceased Jordanian monarch. Yet when in early 2002 he was reassured in writing by the chairman that he had had nothing to do with a ship carrying some fifty tons of prohibited weapons, purchased by the Palestinian Authority from Iran, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, Bush appeared to have joined the list of world leaders profoundly disillusioned with Arafat’s credibility.
For decades Arafat has consistently engaged in a pattern of deceit as Europeans, Arabs, and even Israelis have been willing to indulge him despite the blatant transparency of many of his lies. Even the most incredible falsehoods, such as accusing Israel of carrying out suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists, assassinating its own minister of tourism in the winter of 2001, and murdering Arab children to get their organs, have failed to dent Arafat’s imagined identity.25
This pattern of deceit has also allowed Arafat to disguise another major issue of his personal identity. As he rose to public attention in the late 1960s, Arafat’s personal life came under increasing scrutiny. Not only had he not married and established a family like most of his fellow terrorists but, since adolescence, he had never been seen publicly with a woman in romantic circumstances, let alone been associated with one on a lasting basis. This has given rise to persistent speculation about his potential homosexuality. According to one of his siblings, Arafat was mercilessly taunted, as early as age three or four, by his peers and by his father for what they viewed as his girlish demeanor.
At this time in his life Rahman [i.e., Yasser] was fat, soft, ungainly and completely unimpressive. He had a very high voice, and was beginning to suffer from comparisons to girls which were made by the other boys. Even my father started to curse him out in such terms, and he would often shout at my mother for wishing for a daughter before Rahman was born. He blamed my mother for much of what he thought was wrong with Rahman, saying that her dreaming of a girl had caused Rahman to be born more like a girl than a boy.26
Arafat was cold and detached toward his father, refusing to attend his funeral in 1954 and abstaining from visiting his grave when he arrived in Gaza forty years later as head of the Palestinian Authority. Death in Muslim and Arab culture is “the great unifier” shared by all human beings, and reverence for the dead supersedes past enmities, feuds, and grudges. Yet for all his religious devotion, and Arafat is a far more committed Muslim than is recognized, his resentment of his father was so deep that he did not even attempt to excuse his absence from his father’s funeral.27
Arafat’s sexual identity was further conflicted by his mother’s untimely death when he was four, and by his father’s two subsequent remarriages. The family was rife with internecine feuds, with the children violently hostile to their stepmothers. Without a male figure to adjudicate between the parties, as Arafat’s father was busy in his work and involved in a prolonged legal battle he was conducting against the authorities over a family property, Arafat was left to be reared by his strict and willful older sister, Inam. “The shouting and the rows, mainly between the females of the household, hurt and scarred Yasser,” wrote a biographer. “From that moment on and for nearly twenty years he became, to an extent, anti-woman. Some fifteen years later he was to say to a fellow student at university that he had not so much as shaken the hand of a woman.”28
Insinuations of Arafat’s homosexuality have long been a staple on the Middle East’s political grapevine.29 Leaked intelligence reports told of his alleged liaisons with foreign volunteers who trained in the PLO’s camps in Lebanon during the 1970s and early 1980s, while the Syrian minister of defense Mustafa Tlas subtly alluded to Arafat’s homosexual­ity by saying, “One with ugly features does not hope to have women.”30 While such rumors have been dismissed by Arafat’s apologists as a defamation campaign by his numerous enemies, no such claim can be made with regard to the revelations by Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa, head of the Romanian External Intelligence Service (DIE), who defected to the West in 1978.
Since the late 1960s Arafat and the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau­sescu had developed a close personal relationship, which led to multifaceted cooperation between the Romanian security services and the PLO. (Hani al-Hassan, to mention a prominent example, a leading PLO activist and a close associate of Arafat, was even recruited as a ­Romanian agent and given, under Ceausescu’s personal direction, the female code name “Annette.”) Arafat became a regular visitor to Bucharest where he was received with much pomp and circumstance. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Romanians bugged the guest house in which he and his coterie were staying, thus becoming privy to his personal affairs. “I just called the microphone monitoring center to ask about the “Fedayee” [i.e., Arafat],” General Constantin Munteanu, the liaison officer to the PLO leadership, told Pacepa during a visit by Arafat to Bucharest in the spring of 1978. “After the meeting with the Comrade, he went directly to the guest house and had dinner. At this very moment, the “Fedayee” is in his bedroom making love to his bodyguard. The one I knew was his latest lover. He’s playing tiger again. The officer monitoring his microphones connected me live with the bedroom, and the squalling almost broke my eardrums. Arafat was roaring like a tiger, and his lover yelping like a hyena.”
Pacepa was not surprised. A few years earlier he had read an exhaustive report on Arafat’s personal and professional behavior, prepared for him by Munteanu. “The report was indeed an incredible account of ­fanaticism, of devotion to his cause, of tangled oriental political maneuvers, lies, embezzled PLO funds deposited in Swiss banks, and homo­sexual relationships, beginning with his teacher when he was a teenager and ending with his current bodyguards,” Pacepa wrote in his memoirs. “After reading that report, I felt a compulsion to take a shower whenever I had been kissed by Arafat, or even just shaken his hand.”31
Such sexual antics could finish off a political career in the most tolerant Western societies, let alone in the Middle East, with its intolerant and macho sociopolitical culture. Homosexuality, however prevalent, is publicly derided and its practitioners persecuted or even imprisoned. (In a highly publicized trial in late 2001, for example, twenty-three Egyptian homosexuals were imprisoned for ‘debauchery, contempt of religion, falsely interpreting the Koran and exploiting Islam to promote deviant ideas.”)32 Arafat and the PLO have gone out of their way to discredit any such insinuations. Explanations of Arafat’s sexual behavior have ranged from shyness with women because of his less than impressive appearance, to religious devotion, to stories of alleged romantic relationships, most notably with Nada Yashruti, a widow of a PLO activist who was killed in the mid-1970s in the Lebanese civil war. But the foremost pretext used to explain Arafat’s ostensible prudishness is his ‘marriage to the Palestinian revolution.” “For this reason no girl wanted to marry me,” he told Playboy magazine. “I work sometimes 24 hours a day. During the battles, I never slept. I usually work 18 hours a day. During the early days I slept an hour or two, sometimes a half hour a day. But I cannot be comfortable, cannot live in a comfortable house . . . while I have this job to do for my people.”33
What politician would not substitute his own well-being for the general good, especially in Middle Eastern societies where the role of absolute leaders supersedes that of political institutions? Yet for Arafat, whose entire political existence was predicated on a mythical construction that had little to do with reality, the need to keep an unblemished facade is, literally, a matter of life and death. A stark reminder of this was the fate of Ali Naji Adhami, a renowned Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated on July 22, 1987, on a London street outside the editorial offices of the newspaper he worked for, the Kuwaiti-owned al-Qabas. It was later discovered that the attack was planned and executed by members of Arafat’s personal guard, code-named Force 17, which at the time maintained an extensive network in Britain.
Why did Arafat order the assassination of a nonpolitical figure that did not even live in the Middle East? In a series of cartoons Adhami had questioned the morality of top PLO brass by implying that Arafat had a relationship with a married woman. Though on the face of it Arafat should have welcomed this insinuation as it helped dispel the rumors about his homosexuality, the austere commander who was ‘married” to the revolution simply could not afford to be seen to have compromised this devotion by a relationship with another person, man or woman. Even when in the summer of 1990 Arafat married Suha Tawil, a member of a prominent Christian Palestinian family and thirty-four years his junior, it took a year and a half before the marriage was leaked to the world, and no authorized statement by Arafat or his office was ever given. Instead, one of Arafat’s closest officials commented sardonically that ‘she married him but he didn’t marry her.”34
Fifteen years after Adhami’s assassination, Arafat would use Force 17 to hide yet another blemish on his moral conduct, this time in financial mismanagement. In the evening hours of January 3, 2002, a group of armed men burst into a hospital in Cairo where Jawad Ghussein, an elderly Palestinian multimillionaire, was recuperating from an operation. They locked family members sitting by his bedside in a neighboring room and removed the hapless patient to Gaza, which had been ruled by Arafat’s PA since mid-1994.
Ghussein had known Arafat since the early 1950s and had helped his early efforts to establish a revolutionary organization by introducing him to his cousin Talaat Ghussein, a wealthy businessman in Kuwait who subsequently became one of Fatah’s first benefactors.35 Between 1983 and 1996 Jawad Ghussein served as head of the Palestine National Fund, the PLO’s effective finance minister, with billions of dollars from international aid or Palestinians’ taxes passing through his account books. From the mid-1990s, he increasingly disagreed with Arafat, charging him and his Palestinian Authority with unbridled abuse of power, as well as pervasive corruption ranging from bribery and the use of government monopolies for personal gain, to siphoning off of public funds into private bank accounts.36
This was something Arafat could not afford. For decades he had been carefully cultivating the myth of a selfless leader, one who had donated his personal wealth to the revolution, who possessed no properties or assets of his own, and who maintained an austere way of life. The financial irregularities tied to him in early 1966, which led to his suspension as Fatah’s military commander, had been long forgotten.37 Yet Arafat’s total control of the PLO’s finances, especially his insistence on having contributions diverted to bank accounts registered in his name, gave rise to persistent rumors of his personal corruption. Particularly scathing criticism of Arafat’s irregularities was leveled by the longtime Syrian minister of defense Mustafa Tlas, a sympathizer turned bitter enemy. According to Tlas, during the Israeli siege of Beirut in June 1982 the PLO received ten new Mercedes ambulances as a gift from Kuwait, each worth about $60,000. Rather than use the ambulances to aid casualties, Arafat sold them at half price to the Syrians, then pocketed the difference.38
Ghussein was one of the few people intimately familiar with Arafat’s financial dealings and thus had to be silenced in response to rising discontent in the West Bank and Gaza over Arafat’s financial conduct. To justify its act of kidnapping, the Palestinian Authority claimed that Ghussein had embezzled Palestinian national funds but later changed its story and argued that he had been abducted as a means to force him to repay a $6.5 million loan. Ghussein stood his ground, insisting that he had done nothing wrong and that his unlawful detention had been designed to prevent him from speaking his mind. In mid-August 2002, while being transferred to a Jerusalem hospital for medical treatment, he managed to escape the country with Israeli help and fly to his London home. Once freed, however, he wouldn’t elaborate beyond his initial charges. Arafat’s mafia-like message had been driven home loud and clear.
Arafat is of course not the first Arab ruler to use violence to silence unwanted criticism. From its creation in the wake of the First World War on the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the contemporary Middle Eastern state system has been plagued by constant violence. Israel (and, to a lesser extent, Turkey) excepted, the Middle East is still a place where the role of the absolute leader supersedes the role of political institutions, and where citizenship is largely synonymous with submission. Power in Arab countries is often concentrated in the hands of small and oppressive minorities (Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq); religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts abound; and for sovereigns, the overriding preoccupation is survival. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the primary, if not the sole, instrument of political discourse is physical force.
The scale and the endemic nature of violence in the region are hard to exaggerate. In most Arab countries, political dissent is dealt with by repression, and ethnic and religious differences are settled by internecine strife and murder. (One need mention only Syria’s massacres of its Mus­lim activists in the early 1980s, or the brutal treatment of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish communities and of the Christian minority in southern Sudan.) As for foreign policy, it too is often pursued by means of crude force, ranging from terrorism and subversion to outright aggression. In the Yemenite, Lebanese, and Algerian civil wars, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians perished; the Iran-Iraq war claimed nearly a million lives.
The same is true of Arab policy toward Israel. From the very beginning, the Arabs’ primary instrument for opposing Jewish national aspirations was violence, and the relative success or failure of that instrument in any given period determined Arab politics and diplomacy. As early as April 1920, Arab nationalists sought to thwart Zionist activity (and to rally support for incorporating Palestine into the short-lived Syrian kingdom headed by King Faisal ibn Hussein) by carrying out a pogrom in Jerusalem in which 5 Jews were killed and 211 wounded. The following year, Arab riots claimed a far higher toll–some ninety dead and hundreds wounded. In the summer of 1929, another wave of violence resulted in the death of 133 Jews and the wounding of hundreds more.
Arab violence intensified in 1936–39, when a general Palestinian uprising claimed hundreds of Jewish lives, reaching its peak in November 1947. Then, in the face of the imminent expiration of the British mandate, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine. Rejecting this solution, the Arab nations resolved instead to destroy the state of Israel at its inception and gain the whole for themselves.
This was the political scene into which Arafat entered in the late 1950s when, together with a number of fellow activists, he established the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine (Harakat Tahrir Filastin), its Arabic acronym reversed from Hataf (death) to Fatah to match the Koranic word for “conquest.” He did not draw up the rules of the game in the cruel system of inter-Arab politics, though he has undoubtedly been one of its most devious and savage players. While for most Arab leaders, with the partial exception of the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, violence is a necessary evil, something to be unflinchingly used for political survival or national expansion, for Arafat it has been an integral part of his personal being. When Jordan’s King Hussein killed thousands of Palestinians in the single month of September 1970, or when President Assad of Syria slaughtered many thousands of his subjects in the city of Hama in February 1982, they were fighting for their political and physical survival. They did not glorify the violence they unleashed, or for that matter any ideology of violence. But for Arafat and his Fatah cofounders, violence has assumed from the outset mythic proportions.
Arafat’s love affair with violence, however, goes well beyond the ­issue of practicality. His domineering nature and strong streak of cruelty apart, violence has constituted a useful tool to surmount his intractable problems of identity and self-denial. It has allowed a physically unassuming young man–short (5 feet 4 inches tall), chubby, soft, with bulging eyes and protruding lower lip–to prove his manliness, and the Egyptian ­outsider to establish his patriotic Palestinian credentials. Like other twentieth-century outsiders who came to reign over their supposed
nations–the Austrian Adolf Hitler and the Georgian Joseph Stalin ­being the best known examples–only to take them to monstrous heights
of violence and brutality, from the onset of his political career Arafat
has pursued a zero-sum approach of all or nothing vis-“-vis Israel, regardless of the true interests and wishes of the Palestinians, with the “armed struggle” –the standard euphemism for terrorism–as its foremost
Arafat killed his first victim sometime in 1949 or 1950. Those were the immediate postwar days, the full scope of the Arab defeat was just sinking in, and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the former mufti of Jerusalem, who had led the Palestinian attempt to abort the creation of the state of Israel with devastating consequences for his own people, was trying to reassert his authority in the Gaza Strip, then occupied by Egypt. The young Arafat was part of a group of Husseini thugs whose task was to intimidate supporters of the less militant Nashashibi clan, the mufti’s erstwhile rivals. One night, as the squad was about to set fire to an orchard, they were ambushed by a group of Nashashibi laborers armed with knives and clubs. “We regrouped back in the city, in a shed behind the cemetery,” recalled one of the squad members.
It was just dawn. We were all bruised and bloody, all but Hamid [a member of the group]. He looked very sheepish. We had several pistols stored in the shed. Yasser kept looking accusingly at Hamid. I guess we all did. We were all thinking to ourselves that he was the one who had forewarned the Nashashibis of our mission. Finally, in a very soft voice, Yasser spoke what we were thinking. Hamid vehemently denied it. Yasser stood up and we all noticed that he had a pistol behind his back. He walked over to Hamid, who was by now in tears over the accusations, and shot him in the head.
“We discovered later that it hadn’t been Hamid who betrayed us,” the eyewitness continued. “It was one of Hajj Amin’s own men, and it was done deliberately in the hope that we would be killed and the killings would turn the whole of Gaza against the Nashashibis. When Yasser learned this, it did not bother him in the least that he had killed Hamid. I remember him saying that Hamid had been the first person he had ever personally killed, and for that reason Hamid had served a valuable Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] purpose.” Another member of the squad corroborated the story, describing the twenty-year-old Arafat: “He was almost what you called a dual personality, very diffident at times, very hyped up at others.”39
Arafat’s ruthlessness and his indifferent attitude to human life were to become the hallmarks of his political career. “This is my brother Hani Hassan,” Arafat introduced his longtime associate to the Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu in October 1972. “He is the one who, just a few months ago, prepared our answer to the Olympic Committee’s decision not to allow a team of Palestinian athletes to participate in the Munich games. He is the brain who put our organization’s name on the front page of every single newspaper.”40
Arafat was referring to the September 5, 1972, massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by a team of PLO terrorists during the Munich Olympic Games. While the crime was universally condemned, for Arafat it was a public relations coup that brought the PLO and its leader worldwide attention. So did the murder of the U.S. ambassador to the Sudan, Cleo A. Noel, and his charg” d”affaires, George Curtis Moore, the following year. The two were taken hostage, together with several other foreign diplomats, on the evening of March 1, 1973, when a group of PLO terrorists stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum during a farewell party for Moore. In exchange for their hostages, the terrorists demanded the release of a group of international outlaws, including Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin, the Palestinian archterrorist Abu Daoud, then imprisoned in Jordan, and several members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang, serving long prison sentences in West Germany. As the United States, Jordan, and West Germany all refused to negotiate, the terrorists remained in close and constant contact with Fatah leadership in Beirut throughout the affair and looked to their headquarters for instructions. Shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday, March 2, 1973, twenty-five hours after storming the embassy, the terrorists received the order to kill the hostages. ‘remember Nahr al-Bard,” Abu Iyad told the commander of the operation. “The people’s blood in the Nahr al-Bard cries out for vengeance. These are our final orders. We and the rest of the world are watching you.” Nahr al-Bard (cold river) was a refugee camp and terrorist training facility in northern Lebanon, raided by the Israelis shortly before the Khartoum operation was launched. It was also the code word for the execution of the Western diplomats. The diplomats–one of whom was the highest-ranking African American in the foreign service–were thus taken to the embassy basement, tortured, and killed in cold blood. The torture they suffered was so barbarous that later “authorities couldn’t tell which was black and which was white.” To prolong the agony of their victims, the terrorists fired from the floor upward, striking them first in the feet and legs, before administering the coup de gr”ce.41
Two months later, during a private dinner with Ceausescu, Arafat excitedly bragged about his Khartoum operation. “Be careful,” Ion Gheorghe Maurer, a Western-educated lawyer who had just retired as Romanian prime minister, told him. “No matter how high-up you are, you can still be convicted for killing and stealing.” “Who, me? I never had anything to do with that operation,” Arafat said, winking mischievously.42 Shortly before the attack, American intelligence intercepted a phone conversation between Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir (aka Abu Jihad), the PLO’s chief of operations, discussing an operation about to occur in Khartoum. In addition to the logistics, the intercepts revealed the code name for the operation–Nahr al-Bard–but owing to some mix-up between the National Security Agency and the State Department the warning reached Khartoum only on March 2, by which time the diplomats were already dead.43
Arafat was directly implicated in ordering the killing of the diplomats. Unaware of their execution, he personally contacted the terrorists’ commander to ascertain that they understood the Nahr al-Bard code word, only to be told that the murders had already been committed. In a subsequent radio transmission from Arafat to his henchmen in the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, intercepted by the American embassy in Beirut, he told them that their mission was over: ‘release [the] Saudi and Jordanian diplomats. Submit in courage to [the] Sudanese authorities to explain your just cause to [the] great Sudanese Arab masses and international opinion. We are with you on the same road. Glory and immortality to [the] martyrs of the Nahr al-Bard.”44
Copyright ” 2003 by Efraim Karsh. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.