The Death of Arafat

BEIRUT — Among the Palestinian refugees packed into the 13 camps scattered around Lebanon, the mood in the days before their leader’s death was one of anxious waiting. They were waiting for word of the death of khatiab — The Old Man — as Yasser Arafat was affectionately known among his people.

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*Palestinians in Lebanon grieved for Yasser Arafat Friday at a symbolic funeral.* ((c) 2004 Christopher Allbritton)

BEIRUT — Among the Palestinian refugees packed into the 13 camps scattered around Lebanon, the mood in the days before their leader’s death was one of anxious waiting. They were waiting for word of the death of _khatiab_ — “The Old Man” — as Yasser Arafat was affectionately known among his people.
In the tangled alleyways that thread between the poorly constructed concrete shelters of Sabraa and Shatila in south Beirut — the site of the September 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalanges militia members allied with the Israeli Defense Force under the command of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon — children now play under memorials to the dead and the soon-to-be dead. Posters of Palestinian youths killed in the struggle against Israel, _shaheed_ (“martyrs”) to the refugees, adorn the walls made of carelessly stacked cinderblocks. They are almost as numerous as the posters of Arafat, all of which proclaim him the symbol of Palestine, a father to his people. He smiles down from buildings three stories high and intended to be temporary when this camp was established in 1948. He surveys the dirt tracks that turn to lakes of open sewage when it rains. He overlooks the stalls of the souk, selling everything from sweets to shoes, vegetables from the Bekaa Valley and children’s clothes. Tables groaning under coconuts, toys, jackets, radishes and potatoes serve as defensive positions for the ubiquitous children, all of who seem to be clutching toy pistols and Kalashnikovs, shooting at imaginary Israeli soldiers.
While Arafat lay on his deathbed in Paris, residents of Shatila expressed prayers for his recovery while admitting that the symbol of their struggle was soon to be gone. “We hope he gets better quickly,” said Mahmoud Zurouri, 38, who was born in Shatila. “After all, he is our president. But he wasn’t the first or the last person to die. We’ll be sorry, of course, to see him go, but the cause remains.”
“May God make him better,” prayed Hassan Mustafa, who said he fought with Arafat in Jordan and Lebanon in the 1970s. “He is a revolutionary. He is a great mind. An Israeli journalist once described him as the man who couldn’t be controlled. After Abu Ammar,” he continued, using Arafat’s _nom de guerre_, “there is no one person.”
But the next day, Arafat died, and the mood in Rashidiyah, outside of Tyre, was somber and quiet, with none of the wailing or gunfire seen in the Occupied Territories. Instead, quiet men filed into a reception hall festooned with green, black and white bunting and posters of Arafat in his youth. There, they worked their way down a reception line, shaking hands with the Fattah leadership in Lebanon, for Rashidiyah is a Fattah camp. Parliament members from Sidon, Nasserites and even members of the al-Qaf Islamic group came by to pay their respects.
Sultan Abu Aynayn, the head of Fattah in Lebanon, sat in his grief, and accepted handshake after handshake of well wishers.
“I can’t express my feelings at this moment,” he said. “Death is a right, but when it becomes a reality, you can’t believe God’s will has actually been carried out. The symbolism of Arafat for 40 years, no other Palestinian can take that symbolism.”
Arafat’s death hit the younger generation of Palestinians hard. “It is the worst day for the Palestinian people because we lost our president,” said Hisham Sharari, 20, a member of the Fattah Youth Movement.
“It was the biggest shock to us,” said his friend Ali Ramadan, also 20. “It was worse than the day of _nekbah_.” The _nekbah_, which means “catastrophe,” is the day Israel was founded.
Arafat’s death leaves a power vacuum in the region, with many looking to fill it. The existing Palestinian leadership, which includes the new PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, wants to maintain stability, something neighboring governments want as well. Lebanon’s Karami government, a Syrian client, is taking a wait-and-see attitude to the post-Arafat era. “The Palestinians know very well they need a leadership that is able to make a dialogue with the United States,” said Elie Firzli, Lebanon’s new Minister of Information.
The new government has good reason to be guarded in its response: this tiny country suffered two Israeli invasions in the 1980s aimed at destroying Arafat and his PLO, all while it fought a civil war that many Lebanese say started because of Palestinian exacerbation of existing religious tensions. By the time the 15-year war ended in 1990, hundreds of thousands were dead and many more wounded. Lebanon was occupied by Syria and is still considered a vassal state to Damascus. Beirut, the “Paris of the Middle East” was ruined.
The Palestinians suffered their own horror in the Civil War. The Sabraa-Shatila massacre was one of the worst, in which a Phalangist militia, Christian allies of the Israelis, entered the refugee camps and slaughters hundreds of men, women and children while Israeli troops stood by and did nothing. Today, the crime is memorialized by an empty field in the Sabraa camp, with the words “So we shall never forget” over the gate.
It is the burden of such history that any new leadership of the Palestinians must labor under. It will be difficult for Fattah, Arafat’s group and a nucleus of the PLO, to find a new leader who can hold all the different parts of the Palestinian movement together.
“Arafat was able,” said Fathi Abu Ardat, a Fattah commander in Rashidiyah who fought with Arafat in Jordan and Lebanon, “to transform the refugees of the camps from a people who were suffering, people who were lost, just waiting for handouts into people with a national identity, a cause. He turned them into revolutionaries.”
*The Revolutionary*
One such revolutionary is Munir Muqdah, 44, who founded the Al-Aqsa Brigade after the start of the second _intifada_ in 2000. He had his quarrels with Arafat, mainly over money going to Fattah members in Ein al-Helweh, the densely packed camp outside of Sidon, instead of the Aqsa Brigades in the Occupied Territories. But now, he emphasizes the unity of the Palestinian people: “We can guarantee that all the Palestinian institutions and organization are working in close cooperation to find the alternative to Abu Ammar, and to further the Palestinian cause.”
Muqdah is a wanted man, however; he cannot leave the Ein al-Helweh camp because of several convictions for murder hanging over his head. He is the ideological leader and founder of the Al-Aqsa Brigades and has allegedly recruited an unknown number of young men to blow themselves up in suicide operations. He is adept at guerilla warfare and he is prepared to keep the cause alive — against whoever would betray it.
“These are principles that the _intifada_ and al-Aqsa unanimously adopted and that all factions agreed upon,” he said. “And there are red lines that nobody can cross.”
Those “red lines” are these: An independent state in Palestine and a return of the refugees to their homes. “This revolt will not be put down until every single last Palestinian refugee is able to return to his land and country,” Muqdah said. “That is the school of Yasser Arafat.”
Muqdah’s revolutionary statements are a warning sign to Abbas not to give ground on the right of return. Any sign of concession on the part of the new Palestinian leadership could trigger unrest in the refugee camps around the region, with men like Muqdah using their skills honed in the fight against the Israelis against the Palestinian leadership.
This is a very real concern, because there are about 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon alone — about 10 percent of the country’s population. They have no right to work nor are they allowed to become citizens. They subsist on foreign aid and what money they can make mainly as day laborers. The camps are dens of squalor and the situation is desperate. Any sense of betrayal by the new leadership has the potential to send refugees into the arms of others who say they will advance the cause. These seducers whisper, _if nationalism and pan-Arabism have failed you, Islam will not._
*The Islamists*
Arafat’s death is an opportunity for Islamic hardliners in Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other fundamentalist groups. Americans are warned by the Lebanese government not to enter Ein al-Helweh, Lebanon’s largest camp, because Islamic fundamentalists who follow the wahhabist sect of Islam are recruiting among the 90,000 refugees packed into six square kilometers. Groups affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida and Abu Massoud al-Zarqawi’s allied group in Iraq are said to be jockeying for influence against the more established Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Arafat’s nationalist and secular Fattah faction.
Abu Ardat warned that the vacuum of Arafat’s personality would leave an opening for other groups to try to gain influence. “He had his special methods to keep control,” he said obliquely. But he blamed any rise in Islamic fundamentalism on the failure of the peace process and the Israelis. “When you have a peace process and it stalemates, the more extreme forces become stronger,” he said.
These Islamist groups have two assets, said Soheil al-Natour, a central committee member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They have a culture of vendetta and revenge, and they have a lot of money. If Mahmoud Abbas fails in the eyes of the refugees, the Islamists will be there waiting to exert their influence, said al-Natour. Camps such as Ein al-Helweh harbor the fundamentalists, he said, and that men like Muqdah work with them for operation inside Israel. If Palestinians feel their national cause is not being advanced by the new PLO leadership, they will turn to the Islamic cause to return them home. And men like Muqdah are ready to work with the Islamist groups.
“The Palestinian issue is an Islamic issue for all,” Muqdah told me and added that he has good relations with the wahabbist groups in Ein al-Helweh.
*A Question of Money*
Mohammad Salam, a news analyst in Beirut, who has reported on the Palestinians since 1970, warned that the Islamists are ready to buy the Palestinians’ loyalty.
It’s a question of money. As the head of the PLO, the president of the Palestinian National Authority and of Fattah, the dominant faction within the PLO, Arafat controlled a vast fortune that has been estimated in the billions and includes funds from foreign aid, Israeli tax transfers and revenues from companies controlled by the PLO. His personal net worth has been estimated at anywhere from $200 million to $1.3 billion. He supposedly had dozens of bank accounts around the world — in Switzerland, Malaysia, the Cayman Islands, just to name a few. He had both numbered accounts and in his own name. He allegedly held stakes in hotels, mobile phone companies and an airline.
This money went to buying friendships. Over the years, Arafat was able to pull funds from a variety of sources to pay off enemies and reward friends. He kept the fractious PLO together this way. And he paid the salaries of thousands of refugees who belonged to Fattah in the camps scattered around the region.
There is real worry that with the death of Arafat, Fattah’s finances will be tied up and the money won’t go out. Arafat for many Palestinians “is simply a job,” said Salam. “If Arafat ceases to exist, they would sign with whoever would sign the check.”
And those people include Islamists who base themselves in the lawless camps. Ein al-Helweh is home to the Al-Ansar League and the Ashan Soldiers, who subscribe to Osama bin Laden’s severe wahhabist interpretation of Islam. And these Islamists have money. Beirut is a popular summer spot for vacationing Gulf Arabs, and it’s not uncommon for them to arrive with a trunk of cash for disbursement to wahhabists in the camps, Salam said.
“They will start working for the Islamists, planting bombs,” said Salam. “It’s going to be bad. It’s _jihad_ for hire, just like in Iraq. And some Palestinian extremists try to go to Iraq to join the insurgency there.”
Salam said he knew of several Palestinians from Ein al-Helweh who tried to get into Iraq to commit suicide bombings, but were turned back and returned to the camp. The Palestinians are a powderkeg that has been kept under control because of Arafat’s patronage, Salam said.
Salam’s fears are echoed by the Lebanese government. Firzli, Lebanon’s Minister of Information, acknowledges that Arafat’s passing will leave a power vacuum that would be only partially filled by his successors — an opening Islamic groups would likely exploit. “The Islamic groups found him a real obstacle,” said Firzli. “When he’s not there, the job is much easier for them.”
Fundamentalists will initially support whoever succeeds Arafat, but on the bet that the successors will fail and lose support of the Palestinian masses, he said. “Then they will then be justified.”
“I think the Arab governments and George Bush will miss Arafat,” mused Salam. “Who will control the Palestinians after he’s gone? Islamists are stealing the Palestinians.”