Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 22 November 2004


Yasser Arafat’s death last week marked the end of an era.  The question is, what new era will now unfold?

So many tributes were paid to him.  Most mentioned he was the undisputed leader and symbol of the Palestinian people, how he single-mindedly brought together the disparate Palestinians and placed their plight and cause onto the front of the international agenda against high odds. 

It was, however, disturbing to note how different were the tributes and commentaries made by those in developing and developed countries. 

The mainly Arab and Third World leaders who paid tribute by turning up for his state funeral in Cairo were full of praise.

The Non Aligned Movement said Arafat would be remembered around the world for his immense courage, enormous sacrifices and strong determination in championing and protecting the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and their claim to their own sovereign homeland.

“He will remain the icon of the Palestinian struggle against injustices, brutal oppressions, subjugation as well as against the forces that seek to deny the Palestinian people their dignity, freedom and independence,”  said Malaysia’s Ambassadsor, Datuk Rastam Mohd Isa, representing NAM, at the United Nations General Assembly tribute to Arafat. 

The western media like the CNN and BBC gave hours of live coverage to Arafat’s death and funerals.  This was interspersed with caustic remarks by their commentators, such as that he was an obstacle to peace, and a failure for not being able to establish a Palestinian state.

To her credit, a Palestinian woman who had been asked for her comments, intervened when these kinds of remarks were being made by the main commentator on BBC World TV last Friday.

She reminded the BBC it was unfair to blame Arafat when the main obstacle to peace was Israel which had had illegally occupied Palestinian lands and had continued its brutal attacks.  That, she said, was the main issue that should be kept in the forefront, instead of blaming Arafat. 

But this kind of sharp analysis was mainly absent, as much of the TV focus was on how Arafat, despite his courage, had led his people down, by not compromising for peace and for being an autocrat.

His enemies could not contain their glee.  The Israeli Justice Minister said the sun is shining after Arafat’s death, accusing him of being the leader of terrorism against Israel and a founding father of terrorism around the world including that of Al-Qaeda.

U.S. President George Bush said Arafat’s death was a new opportunity for progress towards peace.  He looked forward to new Palestinian leaders to act against terrorism and to uphold democracy. 

British Prime Minister highlighted the importance of democracy, implying that if the Palestinians set up democratic institutions, they could achieve their goals.

It is ironic that the two men most responsible for dismantling the basis for international democratic governance by ignoring the United Nations and engaging in an illegal war against Iraq, should demand that the Palestinians who are under occupation and siege show more proof of their democratic credentials.

It is also ironic that Bush refused to recognize Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians even though he had been the elected and enjoyed popular support. In a famous speech a couple of years ago, Bush urged Palestinians to get themselves a new leader.

One wonders whether Bush, Blair and Israel will accept the elected successor to Arafat if he or she does not meet their criteria of an acceptable Palestinian leader.

The Western TV commentaries also called Arafat a terrorist, a charge that Israel has been championing.  However, there is no evidence that Arafat was linked to the suicide bombings, which he himself condemned.

The TV reports neglected to portray the state terrorism applied so comprehensively by Israel, including the bombings and missile strikes, the shootings of innocent children and women, the destruction of buildings, houses and orchards, the humiliation at checkpoints, the condoning of the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla camps in Lebanon, and so on.

Former US President Clinton said he regretted that in 2000, Arafat had “missed the opportunity” to create a Palestinian nation, referring to the failed Israel-Palestinian talks at Camp David.  Clinton, in his memoirs, had blamed Arafat for the collapse of the talks, which he called a “colossal error”.

This is like blaming the victim and letting the culprit off scot-free.

An interesting article by former US Ambassador to Greece, Robert Keeley, traces how hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced off their land to become refugees during the Israeli war of independence in 1948-9, which left the Palestinians with only 22 per cent of their former land, which was also eventually occupied. 

Despite the Oslo Agreement of 1993, the Israeli governments continued to expand settlements on Palestinian territory, thus making it more difficult for Israel to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank and Gaza.  Between 1993 and 2000, the number of Israeli settlers doubled from around 100,000 to 200,000.       

It was a big myth that in the Camp Davis talks of 2000, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made a “most generous offer” that Arafat rejected, wrote Keeley in the Washington Report on Middle East (November 2002).

Quoting from Robert Malley, Clinton’s advisor at the Camp David talks, Keeley said that Barak’s was not the “dream offer” it was made out to be.

“To accommodate the settlers, Israel was to annex 9 percent of the West Bank and Palestine would receive the equivalent of one-ninth the annexed land from Israel’s property; how would Arafat defend the 9 to 1 ratio of land swaps?

“In Jerusalem, Palestine would have been given sovereignty over only some Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem but only custody, not sovereignty, over the Haram al-Sharif (mosque); no solution was offered for the refugee problems.

“The Palestinians were accused of offering no concessions, yet they accepted the annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlements; they accepted Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem that were also occupied territory; and they agreed to settle the refugee problem in a manner that protected Israel’s demography by limiting the number of returnees.”

Arafat’s death is a good occasion for the world to remember that the Palestinians are like a David pitted against Goliath, and moreover a Goliath aided by the only superpower in the world.

As the Palestinian representative to the US, Hasan Abdel Rahman, said last Saturday in response to Bush’s press conference, it is unfair to put the onus on the Palestinians to make progress on the peace process.

“We cannot do it without Israeli cooperation,” he said.  “We can’t hold elections when Israeli occupies our cities in the West Bank and Gaza.  The issue is whether Israel is ready to engage in negotiations.”

The key issues which Arafat was grappling with will be passed on to his successors:  how to get sufficient land and sovereignty for the Palestinians; how to deal with Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories;   how to deliver the right to return or justice to the Palestinian refugees who were forced out of their lands; and how to deal with the status Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestinians claim as their capital.

A settlement will require unity and strength of the Palestinians, strong support by the people of the developing world, more active intervention on the Palestinian’s behalf by the European countries, neutrality and fairplay by the United States, and an Israel that is at last willing to give justice to the Palestinians in return for peace. 

In one of his most famous speeches, Arafat proclaimed that “We need peace, but not just peace, we need a just peace which can last because it is just.”

If this dream could not be realized in his lifetime, let us hope it will be shortly after his death.