The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation

Stephen Howe
18 November 2004

Yasser Arafat’s death marks the end of an era. So everyone says: the notion became a weary cliché well before his demise was even, finally, announced on 11 November 2004. But those who say this mean only that an era in Palestine’s history, in Palestinian-Israeli politics, or the middle east “peace process” has ended. Arafat’s departure, though, marks also the final closing of something far wider than these. It is the symbolic end of the “third world”, and of a certain idea of liberation.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s a great wave of anti-colonial liberation movements swept the world. European colonial rule almost vanished from the globe. Over a hundred new states were created. This was one of the most profound transformations the world political system ever experienced.

It was not only regions under direct colonial rule which witnessed radical upheaval. Revolutionaries targeted also indigenously-ruled states and regimes that were seen as reactionary, racist, or under too much western influence: South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the Shah’s Iran and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, Arab monarchies, Latin American oligarchies, and of course apartheid South Africa. Even within Europe, small groups espousing separatist or ultra-leftist aims copied the rhetoric and tactics of third-world revolutionaries – in Italy, Germany, Spain, Northern Ireland, Corsica and many more.

For a couple of decades, the ideas of anti-colonial revolution and national liberation seemed ubiquitous. Often, the rhetoric of revolution could be misleading, for the old colonial powers – especially Britain – were increasingly willing, even relieved, to transfer power to locals. Negotiated independence, more or less bloodless, was more typical of the era than protracted anticolonial war. The new successor regimes often proved really rather conservative: not to mention inept, corrupt or authoritarian. But the reality as well as rhetoric of armed struggle was very widespread, with Algeria and Vietnam the most globally influential, successful examples. Some argued that only through guerrilla war could true freedom be attained and a new society built: without it, a merely “neo-colonial” form of pseudo-independence would result.

Also by Stephen Howe on openDemocracy:

  • “Troubled links to the narrow land” (June 2001)
  • “American empire: the history and future of an idea” (October 2003)
  • “Edward Said: the traveller and the exile” (July 2003)
  • “An Oxford Scot at King Dubya’d court: Niall Ferguson’s Colossus” (July 2004)
  • “Dying for Empire, Blair, or Scotland?” (November 2004)

There wasn’t a clear, shared ideology among all these diverse movements, beyond the slogans of anti-colonialism, national liberation and armed struggle themselves. Their ideas about military combat too varied enormously, from all-out war to “propaganda by deed”, and from the African National Congress’s relative scrupulousness over targeting civilians to some others’ utterly indiscriminate attacks. But most declared adherence to some kind of socialism: sometimes pro-Moscow, some aligned with Beijing, some more independent-minded or idiosyncratic. And there was a pervasive belief that a natural solidarity or fellow-feeling existed among them all, uniting what one of their most eloquent visionaries, Frantz Fanon, called the wretched of the earth. Grand schemes of post-imperial third world unity were in the air, their early symbolic moment of aspiration the 1955 Bandung conference. There would be a global march forward from localised anti-colonial nationalism to universal liberation and social justice.

That era and movement of third-worldist revolution threw up a remarkable array of dynamic and charismatic leaders. Most were anti-colonial nationalists, but also looked beyond national independence to those wider visions of global liberation. Many combined the roles of theorist and activist. An astonishing number of them were also writers and poets, though often not very good ones. Emblematic figures include Ahmed Ben Bella and Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral and Fanon, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela, George Padmore and C.L.R. James, Mao Zedong and Malcolm X, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Yasser Arafat and the movement he created were parts of that great wave. He saw himself in that company, shared in that rhetoric and (apparently) in those global aspirations. Indeed the Palestinian struggle became, perhaps second only to that against apartheid, the most widely known and supported of all national “liberation movements” across the global south. The ghost of such solidarities can be heard in the wake of Arafat’s death, as postcolonial leaders from South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki to India’s Manmohan Singh pay him warm tributes, starkly contrasting to the chilliness of most “northern” rulers’ appreciations.

But it is just a ghost. The aspirations and the solidarities of post-1945 third worldism which the tributes evoke have long shriveled. The moment that formed Yasser Arafat died long before he did, so that –in ways and for reasons far wider than the abject failure of his own immediate plans – Arafat himself in his last few years came to seem a kind of ghost. The very language of the “third world” sounds archaic. The most popular replacement term, “postcolonial”, itself points to the anomaly if not tragedy of Arafat’s fate, for he and his people never became “postcolonial” in any of the main senses of that promiscuously-used word.

Between militarism and politics

In some respects Arafat was always an anomalous member of that liberationist company. He was a relative latecomer to it: born in 1929, and although politically active from around 1948, only really emerging as a leader in the 1960s – after the great wave of decolonisations had already peaked.

Unlike most of them, not only was he not an intellectual - he did not aspire to be thought of as one (quite apart from the genuine thinkers like Cabral or Fanon, almost every “national liberation leader” from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung to Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré felt it obligatory to issue multivolume “collected works”, invariably ghostwritten and mostly of staggering banality). He did not write – neither poetry like Mao, Cabral or Guevara, nor essays in political theory. Apparently, he did not read much either.

He had no particular clear-cut ideology: there was certainly never an “Arafatism” to which even his most devoted admirers could point. Neither he nor his Fatah component of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) elaborated an economic or social policy. They were not socialists or Marxists. Indeed Fatah was long bitterly at odds with Palestinian Marxists, whether in the old Communist party or the Democratic Front for the liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

Nor were they explicitly religious. Arafat in private was a conventionally pious though not notably observant Muslim. In his youth he had been close to the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ movement. Fatah sought alliances with Islamic leaders and groups: most obviously, in recent years, its uneasy on-off relationship with Hamas. But it remained mostly a secular organisation, including Palestinian Christians (and even a few maverick Jews) in its ranks. Yasser felt no particular obstacle to marrying, late in life, a Christian; though this dismayed some of his followers.

More important by far was the unique, anomalous situation of the Palestinian national movement itself. Its status as a central part of the global liberationist wave rested on establishing its credentials as embodying a “genuine” anti-colonialism and a “real” national aspiration. Both were hugely contentious. The former involved seeing Zionism as essentially a colonialist and dispossessing movement rather than one of Jewish national liberation (amazingly few commentators seemed able to get their heads round the really rather obvious idea that it could be both at once.) Pro-Israeli polemicists naturally dismissed that claim as a simple lie or a cloak for antisemitism. Even more thoughtful critics felt it risked overlooking the power of Zionism as an idea among Jews, neglecting the complex internal debates within Zionism including those currents that genuinely wanted to respect Palestinian rights.

Arafat’s own efforts, mostly in his later years, to express understanding of these things often seemed clumsy and, at least to his enemies, insincere. There seemed too little recognition of how the Zionist movement differed from normal colonial patterns in a number of respects: in its lack of strong ties to a metropolitan centre or “mother country”, and in the Jews’ own history of suffering which, even pro-Palestinian analysts often suggested in various ways, must modify Palestinians’ attitudes to the moral issues involved.

The “authenticity” of Palestinian nationalism was almost equally hard to establish. It was extraordinarily difficult to construct and present, especially to western audiences, a coherent narrative of Palestinian existence or history. In part because of the conditions of exile and dispersal, in part because of the complex relationship of Palestinian identity to narrower local and wider pan-Arab ones, but perhaps above all because of the overwhelming weight of the Zionist-Israeli historical narrative and its denial of authentic existence to the Palestinian one. “There seems” as Edward Said urged “to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.”

Many people felt that Arafat and his associates were not very good at telling the story. The Palestinian leadership failed to act effectively towards redressing American, European, and indeed Israeli ignorance of the facts of Palestinian peoplehood. Arafat’s great achievement, so many obituarists rightly suggest, was simply, repeatedly, obdurately to say to the world, and not least to Palestinians themselves: “We exist! We are a people!” He was far less effective in conveying a coherent or attractive story beyond that basic, albeit all-important message.

For too long, especially in his earlier years, he seemed to think militant armed action would in itself sufficiently convey the message, when instead it often undermined it. Even later, his carefully constructed public persona – the bristles, the military fatigues, the keffiyeh, let alone the poor command of English, the lack of any apparent non-political interests, the vile habit of pouring tea and honey on his breakfast cereal – seemed less persuasive the further it travelled from his core base of support.

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Fatah was never really a socially radical movement: although its leaders, including Arafat himself, mostly came from humbler backgrounds than the “notables” who had dominated Palestinian politics before the 1960s, they were still middle class. Almost none came from peasant or even refugee backgrounds. The vast funds Arafat came to control, and the social or welfare institutions the PLO created, were used to buy support and exercise an often manipulative patronage, not for social mobilisation. And Arafat’s own lack of intellectual interests was reflected in the organisation more widely: unlike many other third-world movements of the era, it never undertook a thorough strategic appraisal of its own strategy and options, nor made effective use of the thinkers and experts on whose skills it could have drawn. Improvisation, expediency and secretiveness ruled.

Even the emphasis on militarism could be, and in a way was meant to be, misunderstood. As Yezid Sayigh’s massive and monumental history of the Palestinian national movement: Armed Struggle and the Search for State (1997) documents, “armed struggle” served mainly as a means of state institution-building for the dominant Palestinian political groups, especially those around Arafat.

Despite all the rhetoric, there was a notable failure to emulate the Vietnamese ideas of mass-based people’s war; and Arafat may well never privately have believed that guerrilla action could actually overthrow Israel. The only time when truly mass civilian resistance really took shape was in the late 1980s, during the first intifada; and that owed little if anything to Arafat’s own efforts. Yet Arafat in the 1960s was very much the military man, always urging immediate armed action when Fatah’s “realists” wanted at least delay, taking direct personal charge of the first guerrilla attacks.

Sayigh, formerly an active participant in Palestinian policy-making, also shows how the tendencies to autocracy and corruption in PLO politics, and indeed the long years of often brutal and directionless fighting, should be seen as products of circumstances, of rational if often shortsighted political judgment. In that sense, moral evaluations of the means adopted were, for Arafat and many other Palestinians, beside the point: which is not to say that they have no point, that the point is not very sharp, or that it does not dig into the very heart of Arafat’s legacy.

Between nationalism and liberation

For that matter, a never-resolved contradiction ran throughout Arafat’s career, his choice both of tactics and of political language, his very identity. It reflected the chasm between the era and ethos of the “national liberation movement” in which he matured, and the utterly incommensurate demands of the postcolonial, post-cold war, even maybe post-nationalist times of his latter years.

For the first strand, success or failure in war – or the propaganda of war – determines all. The Palestinian nakba of 1948 was not a human-rights tragedy, it was failure in a test of strength. The 1967 war told the same story. The military confrontation at Karameh in March 1968, when Arafat’s guerrillas first effectively took on Israeli troops, was conversely the crucible of Palestinian re-emergence. The unexpectedly effective performance of the Egyptian and other Arab armies against Israel in 1973 was similarly to be celebrated as a major blow against myths of Arab incapacity.

All this was utterly at odds with the view implied by Arafat’s second, later strategy: that a historic compromise with Israel was necessary, that peaceful coexistence was both possible and imperative, indeed that Arab and Jewish identities in the Middle East were inextricably intertwined. The trouble was that Arafat (and, it should be said, most Israeli leaders too) never really announced, let alone argued for, an epochal shift from one era, one worldview, to another. He continued to pretend – maybe to himself as well – that it was a merely tactical change, with some underlying consistency of purpose across the two eras. Even after the Oslo agreement of 1993, and most obviously after the eruption of the second intifada, he acted as if negotiation and violent liberation struggle were just two parallel tracks between which one could shift at will.

It was the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which most starkly revealed how hollow the liberationist rhetoric had become. Arafat and the PLO not only endorsed Saddam’s act, but did so in a wildly extravagant language depicting it as a mighty blow against imperialism and against the forces of reaction within the Arab world.

To portray this sordid piece of land-grabbing by a brutish dictator in such a way not only debased still further the discourse of liberation, but revealed a startling disconnection both from great-power realities and from the moral values which had sustained many supporters of the Palestinian cause. It also showed a disturbing disregard for the fates of Palestinians working in Kuwait (as Arafat himself had once done) and other Gulf states, many of whom suffered greatly in the war’s aftermath. The wild exhortations no doubt concealed a certain desperation beneath: many of Arafat’s associates who mouthed it knew privately all too well how absurd it sounded, and what kind of ruler Saddam really was.

Not only did Arafat never seem fully to acknowledge new realities. He never – at least publicly – recognised what many Jewish and Arab intellectuals came to do: that they must engage in a new kind of dialogue, based on mutual recognition of past suffering, as well as realisation that neither nationality was ever going to just disappear. Creating peace with justice in the middle east required acts of acknowledgement, even atonement, for past wrongs. A “liberation movement” of the 1960s-1970s kind cannot admit that its past is less than pure, that there is anything to regret, to reconsider, to atone for. Arafat, formed in and trapped by that mindset, never learned to say “sorry” for anything.

Much else followed from that failure: Arafat’s tolerance (at best) for the incompetence, corruption and increasingly repressive character of the PLO’s new semi-state; the seeming failures to plan effectively for negotiations with Israel, even to the point of lacking proper maps of the territories under dispute; the equal failures (repeatedly denounced by Edward Said and other Palestinian thinkers in the west) to reach out to United States public opinion or to gain a real understanding of the dynamics of Israeli society itself; the seemingly almost abject psychic need to receive public accolades, even from American presidents or Israeli leaders; the deliberate sidelining, malicious denigration, or assaults on independent-minded Palestinians who were or could have been the cause’s most effective spokespeople.

From early friends of his student days, through confrères like Khalil Wazir (alias Abu Jihad: probably a more consistent and better-informed “third wordlist” as well as a clearer-sighted strategist than Arafat himself), to impressive independent figures like Hanan Ashrawi, Haider Abdul-Shafi and Faisal Husseini in the 1990s, Arafat pushed aside everyone who tried to show alternative paths. He seems always, and very damagingly, to have distrusted autonomous thought and any group which might dilute his personal control.

Arafat never escaped from totalising and exclusivist cultural visions of the coloniser and the colonised, the oppressed and the oppressor. He never advanced from a colonial to a post-colonial intellectual landscape, from “nationalism” to the “liberation” that engages with the real world around it. If anything, there was over time a lapse or decline from a liberatory nationalist vision into a narrower, more sectarian politics of ethnic, communal antagonisms.

Thus, Arafat’s behaviour seemed increasingly and ironically to exemplify the standard Israeli charge that Palestinian nationalism was just an imitation of Zionism, or even the wider, more radical idea that anti-colonial nationalism in general was a mere copy of colonialist ideology itself. This meant that Arafat completely failed what was arguably his greatest challenge - to get Israelis, or indeed Americans, to see themselves as others, especially their victims, saw them.

Arafat was widely credited with near-genius at mediation, at connecting disparate fragments of Palestinian life, at keeping a flame of hope alive among dispersed and disposessed people. But in doing so, he came to believe his own myth: that of the identification of the Palestinian struggle with the person of “Abu Ammar”. This personalisation then came to be itself a cataclysmic disaster for the Palestinian cause. Edward Said, earlier one of the foremost praise-singers for Arafat’s “genius”, came to see him as merely a “sheer genius at surviving”. The ostentatious consumption – vast new villas, limousines, lavish hotel receptions – and often gross corruption of Palestinian Authority ministers after 1994 made even the survival seem ignoble.

No wonder some came to see the only hope as lying in a renewal of the long-abandoned PLO slogan of establishing a unitary, secular democratic state in all of historic Palestine. The trouble is that hardly any Israelis, maybe barely more Palestinians, and miserably few outside observers either, think the slogan actually means what it says.

Between history and hope

Many children and, now, grandchildren of Palestinian refugees throughout the world have in effect chosen to remain or become Palestinian, when they could have chosen otherwise: to be American or British, Egyptian or Jordanian, or just Arab, Muslim or Christian. Their political commitment to be Palestinian was one which Arafat’s early career, in a sense, made possible and then sustained. It did the same, in ever-widening circles, for non-Arab sympathisers worldwide, whose emotions of compassion and moral togetherness with Israel’s victims were often part of a global solidarity with multiple liberation struggles. Some came to see Arafat’s lifelong complicity with violence as betraying that moral identification. Others, seemingly taking quite the opposite tack, viewed his later years’ compromises and negotiations with Israel as a great betrayal.

On a wider view, both are wrong: and equally, both are right. Arafat lived through, embodied, breathed the world in which anti-colonial nationalism and “national liberation” were so widely seen as the routes to universal social justice. He saw, equally he embodied, all the ways in which it was also the negation of such justice: the Palestinian Authority’s co-option of trades unions and appropriation of workers’ pension funds was as grim and pitiful an example of that as one can imagine. He lived and exuded all the contradictions and the failed promises of that mood, that era, that global moment of “post-imperial” hope.

He also lived and struggled – failingly and worse, dishonestly – through that moment’s end and aftermath. He never adjusted, never rethought, never publicly asked whether blaming all his people’s ills on outsiders – above all those monstrous abstractions, “Zionism” and “imperialism” – was a politically disastrous exercise in self-pity, evasion of responsibility and moral blindness.

That was Arafat’s small personal tragedy. It is also the far greater, continuing tragedy of the Palestinian nation. Without the Arafat of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, there might well not have been a Palestinian national movement at all. Without the Arafat of the 1990s and since, though, there might have been a state. More important, Palestinians under occupation and in their diaspora might have a little more hope and a little more justice than they now do.

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