Palestinian Terrorist Yasser Arafat Dies at 75

Palestinian Leader Arafat Dies at 75 (AP)

Yasser Arafat, revered as the beacon of Palestinian statehood but reviled as a sponsor of terrorism, died Thursday at the age of 75. His passing marked the end of an era in modern Middle East history, and prompted calls from President Bush and other world leaders to seize the moment to spur new efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. A wave of grief quickly swept across the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Arafat died in a French military hospital at 3:30 a.m.

Thousands of Palestinians ran into the streets, clutching his photograph, crying and wondering about their future without the man who embodied their struggle for statehood. “He is our father,” Namia Abu-Safia, 48, said sobbing in the Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. “He is Palestine.” Black smoke from burning tires rose across the Gaza Strip, gunmen fired into the air in grief. Palestinian flags at Arafat’s battered compound here were lowered to half staff. Somber music played on the radio, church bells rang out, and Quranic verses were played for hours over mosque loudspeakers.

Fearing the mourning could rapidly turn into rioting, Israel quickly sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increased security at Jewish settlements.

The death of Arafat, who ruled firmly over squabbling Palestinian factions for four decades, left Palestinians without a strong leader for the first time. It raised concern that the scramble to claim Arafat’s mantle could fragment the Palestinian leadership or spark chaos and factional fighting in the streets. In a hurried effort to project continuity, the PLO elected former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as its new chief, virtually ensuring that he will succeed Arafat as leader of the Palestinians, at least in the short term.

After several false alarms, it’s official this time:

Yasir Arafat, Palestinian Leader, Dies at 75 (NYT)

Palestinian Leader Arafat Dies in France (WaPo)

Palestinian leader Arafat dies at 75 (CNN)

Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat Dies (Fox)

Veteran leader Yasser Arafat dies (BBC)

Nice words for the mass murderer, as is diplomatic custom, are pouring out:

Statement by the President (The White House)

The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history. We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors. During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace.

Leaders mark Arafat’s passing (CNN)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said: “The recent events could be a historic turning point for the Middle East. Israel is a country that seeks peace and will continue in its efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians without delay. “I hope that the new Palestinian leadership … will understand that the advancement of the relations … depends first and foremost on them stopping terror.”

Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said: “Arafat missed the opportunity to have peace in the Middle East and a Palestinian state and chose terror as a weapon, not only against Israel but against Western civilization. “He was the godfather of al Qaeda and of bin Laden. And perhaps we now have a new opportunity to start talks with Palestinians who genuinely want to have peace.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was “deeply moved” after learning of the Palestinian leader’s death. He said Arafat would always be remembered for having led the Palestinians in 1988 to accept the principle of peaceful coexistence between Israel and a future Palestinian state. “By signing the Oslo accords in 1993 he took a giant step towards the realization of this vision. It is tragic that he did not live to see it fulfilled,” Annan said in a statement. “President Arafat was one of those few leaders who could be instantly recognized by people in any walk of life all around the world,” he said. “For nearly four decades, he expressed and symbolized in his person the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Annan said that now Arafat was gone, “both Israelis and Palestinians, and the friends of both peoples throughout the world, must make even greater efforts to bring about the peaceful realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination.”

U.S. President George W. Bush expressed his condolences to the Palestinian people and said Arafat’s death was a “significant moment” in Palestinian history. “For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors,” Bush said. “During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace.”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton offered his condolences to Arafat’s family, to his partners in the PLO and to the Palestinian people. Clinton said history would record that Arafat’s greatest moment was on 13 September 1993 when he and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn to sign the Oslo Accords, which led to seven years of negotiation, progress and relative peace. “However others viewed him, the Palestinians saw him as the father of their nation,” Clinton said. But Clinton said he regretted that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring his nation into being. He said he prayed for the day “when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair extended his condolences to Arafat’s family and to the Palestinian people. He said Arafat came to symbolize the Palestinian national movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, jointly with Yitzhak Rabin, in recognition of their efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. “He led his people to an historic acceptance of the need for a two-state solution,” Blair said. “That goal of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is one that we must continue to work tirelessly to achieve. “Peace in the Middle East must be the international community’s highest priority. Blair said the UK would do whatever it could, working with the U.S. and EU to “help the parties reach a fair and durable settlement.”

French President Jacques Chirac called Arafat “a man of courage and conviction who has incarnated, for 40 years, the fight of Palestinians for the recognition of their national rights.” Chirac offered his condolences and expressed “in this moment of mourning, the friendship of France and of the French people. “May this loss unite all Palestinians. By remaining united they will continue to be faithful to Yasser Arafat’s memory and will uphold the ideal to which he devoted his life. “France, like her European partners, will firmly maintain its engagement in favor of two states — one Palestinian state, viable, peaceful and democratic, and the state of Israel — living side by side in peace and security.” Chirac said the Road Map, approved by Arafat, opened this perspective. “The international community must weigh in with all its influence to make it happen.”

The NYT obit emphasizes Arafat the statesman rather than his despicable acts of murder: OBITUARY: Arafat, Father and Leader of Palestinian Nationalism, Is Dead (NYT)

Yasir Arafat, who died this morning in Paris, was the wily and enigmatic father of Palestinian nationalism who for almost 40 years symbolized his people’s longing for a distinct political identity and independent state. He was 75. No other individual so embodied the Palestinians’ plight: their dispersal, their statelessness, their hunger for a return to a homeland lost to Israel. Mr. Arafat was once seen as a romantic hero and praised as a statesman, but his luster and reputation faded over time. A brilliant navigator of political currents in opposition, once in power he proved more tactician than strategist, and a leader who rejected crucial opportunities to achieve his declared goal.

At the end of his life, Mr. Arafat governed Palestinians from an almost three-year confinement by Israel to his Ramallah headquarters. While many Palestinians continued to revere him, others came to see him as undemocratic and his administration as corrupt, as they faced growing poverty, lawlessness and despair over prospects for statehood.

A co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994 for his agreement to work toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, Mr. Arafat began his long political career with high-profile acts of anti-Israel terrorism. In the 1960’s, he pioneered what became known as “television terrorism” – air piracy and innovative forms of mayhem staged for maximum propaganda value. Among the more spectacular deeds he ordered was the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 1986, a group linked to Mr. Arafat but apparently acting independently seized the Achille Lauro cruise ship and threw overboard an elderly American Jew in a wheelchair. In 2000, after rejecting a land-for-peace deal from Israel that he considered insufficient, Mr. Arafat presided over the Palestinians as they waged a mix of guerrilla warfare and terror against Israeli troops and civilians that has lasted more than four years.

Indeed, shifting between peace talks and acts of violence was the defining feature of his political life. In his emotional appeal for a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, he wore a holster while waving an olive branch. After his pledge of peace with Israel in 1993, Palestinians associated with him carried out suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He officially condemned such violence but called for “martyrs by the millions” to rise for the Palestinian cause. Mr. Arafat assumed many poses. But the image that endures – and the one he clearly relished – was that of the Arab fighter, the grizzled, scruffy-bearded guerrilla in olive-green military fatigues and his trademark checkered head scarf, carefully folded in the elongated diamond shape of what was once Palestine.

It goes on for eight pages, perhaps appropriate for a figure of Arafat’s impact. Interestingly, the NYT obituary for Adolf Hitler was written in similar language. I had hypothesized that, in an era with greater moral clarity, less parcing of words would have been the fashion.

My views on Arafat’s passing are much closer to those of the Israeli leaders above than with Kofi Annan’s. My co-blogger, Stotch, noted with some dismay the reactions of some to Arafat’s passing.

I’m unsurprised yet saddened to read all the gloating about Yasser Arafat’s death. For a bunch of bloggers tagged as part of the Christian Right, many are acting much more Right than they are Christian.

President Bush’s first response, upon premature notice of Arafat’s death last week, was exactly the one Stotch would have hoped for:

“My first reaction is God bless his soul.” “And my second reaction is we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.”

Longtime readers know that Christian would be an inapt modifier to describe my ideology. I see Arafat’s death, from a human standpoint, about the same as I did/would have the passing of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and other mass murdering tyrants. At some point, one’s actions move beyond simple human flaws into genuine despicability. Surely, Arafat has earned his place in that pantheon.

Stotch goes on to call for greeting this situation with “dignity and maturity,” because it marks a real chance for peace in the region. That does, indeed, seem to be happening. The national leadership, though, is clearly looking to the opportunity that new leadership brings. Bloggers aren’t diplomats, with the need to temper our thoughts with regard to greater consequences. And, to the extent that popular reaction will be exploited by enemies of peace in the Middle East, I would wager that the American public will greet the death of mass murdering terrorist Arafat with much more dignity than the Palestinians greeted the deaths of thousands of innocents on 9/11.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.