Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Yasser Arafat: The Father of Palestine

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Yasser Arafat: The Father of Palestine

Article excerpt

"This is the most difficult situation that we've ever had to face," Yasser Arafat told me one day in 1982. We were in his little hotel room overlooking the sea, a few kilometres outside Tunis, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had recently gone into exile after the war in Lebanon. ' And yet," he went on, "there is a glimmer of hope because we now know that we must choose between existing or not existing."

Suddenly he broke into a smile and said, "Have you heard the latest one about Abu Ammar(1)?" Sometimes he talks about himself in the third person. "They say that one day he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. When it came to his turn to stone the devil by throwing the customary seven rocks at him, Abu Ammar only threw six. When somebody asked him why he hadn't thrown the seventh rock, Abu Ammar answered, 'Do you think I'm crazy enough to cut off all my links with the devil?"' And he burst out laughing.

I said I was surprised to see him laugh at a joke that made him look like a common opportunist. Still laughing, he answered, "It's a long time since I was upset by accusations of opportunism. Because of the secrecy that surrounds them, some of our decisions can only be understood by a small number of leaders. But that's not the most important thing. What counts is whether or not a leader can face up to his conscience every night before he goes to sleep-when he has the opportunity to sleep!"

I think that this is one of the keys to Yasser Arafat's personality. The revolutionary rushes impetuously to the edge of the precipice and then at the last minute stops himself from tumbling into adventurism and, political animal that he is, gets ready to take one or two steps backwards, open up an escape route and then return to the logic of revolution by another route, or else open up a new avenue for political action to harvest the fruit of revolutionary action.


In the early days of his combat he believed in the total liberation of Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, by force of arms. He talked in terms of permanent revolution, and his watchword was that Palestine could only be recovered at gunpoint. With experience, more direct contact with reality and growing awareness of the real power struggles between Arabs, between Arabs and Israelis, and between Arabs and the rest of the world, the political animal began to mature, merge with the revolutionary activist, keep an eye on him and calculate what the revolution could accomplish in material terms. His goal shifted from the liberation of the whole of Palestine to establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

He stopped defending the hijacking of aircraft and terrorist operations against Israeli civilians, and focused armed operations exclusively on Israeli military targets. Later, he refused to let the Intifada use weapons, insisting on the use of civil disobedience, strikes and stone-throwing against the Israeli security forces. After being admitted to the United Nations, he made it increasingly clear that he was determined to recognize Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders in exchange for recognition of the Palestinian people and the PLO.

He also refined the strategy of harassment and political cat and mouse with the Arab regimes without ever going so far as to break with them. He has often said that "Breaking off ties with an Arab country is a luxury that beleaguered Palestine can ill afford, no matter what insults or personal grief are involved. …

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