Holy Land

Mr Palestine

Everyone talks about what will happen after Arafat, but the Palestinian leader has no intention of retiring to private life. His power is still very strong. Above all, he has absolute power over the finances


“The end of Mr Palestine? You journalists have announced it many times, and just as many times, he has made a comeback. You said he had Parkinson’s disease, and then it was discovered that the trembling of his lip is due to his accident many years ago in Tunisia. Lots of people have tried to kill him–nobody knows how many times the Israelis have tried. Hamas would like to see him dead, and Abu Nidal, one of the PLO leaders, has also tried to get rid of him, but he…” The elderly Palestinian who returned to the West Bank after many years, just in time to see another war, gave a skeptical smile. Everyone all over the world talks about the post-Arafat era, and many in Israel continue to make plans and conjectures about what will happen when the Palestinian leader is not there any more, killed by illness or a bomb, or–although it seems impossible–pensioned off by his followers and forced into retirement. But one thing is certain to everybody: Arafat has no intention of retiring to private life.

His escort
The news going around is true: after discovering that his trembling was not due to a progressive degenerative disease, but only to injuries caused by an old accident, Arafat has regained vigor. He knows very well that there are those who would like to see him dead, and he takes every kind of precaution; surrounding him is only his closest guard, his first “safety belt.” These are ten very loyal men whom he has known for years and who would give their lives for him without hesitation. The “second circle,” Al Rhas al Rais, the guard of the chief, comprises three-hundred men led by four colonels, who check the offices and inspect the places where Arafat is to go and the roads he is to travel, and finally the third circle, the thousand men of Force 17, are ready to fight as they did around the Muqada in Ramallah, Arafat’s headquarters placed under siege by the Israelis. Arafat always travels with three cars with smoked windows, and no one, except his personal bodyguards, knows which car he will get into. He could be killed only by a blanket bombing, but Israel knows it would never get away with this, and no one else has the strength to try.

Mistaken calculations
Thus Mr Palestine–as he was called in the 1970s when he was a symbol of the struggle for liberation, and the left had adopted him as a fetish suitable for all demonstrations, like Lenin and Che Guevara–is preparing to make a new shift in order to survive himself, after surviving the collapse of Communism, the Soviet Union, that had supported him as an anti-American move, and even the Gulf War, when he chose to side with Saddam Hussein, infuriating the entire Arab world. Arafat reformed the government reformed the administration of Palestine, and withstood the Israeli siege. Sharon hoped to weaken him, at least on the level of image, by showing the old leader humiliated and forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor and to receive the few journalists and delegations admitted to see him by the Israeli military filter. But it didn’t turn out that way.

“They saw him; he is old and weak and without followers,” a young Israeli student at the University of Tel Aviv told us. “We saw him; he is still the chief, the symbol of the people’s resistance, if he holds out, we too will hold out,” a young Arab girl in a village in northern Galilee told us. Somebody is making a mistake in their calculations.

Terrorism and kamikaze
The fact is that kamikaze terrorism has shuffled the cards. It makes the Israelis furious, especially Sharon, who had based his whole election campaign on national security. It thrills the most extremist factions of the Palestinians. They have labeled it Islamic fanaticism, but among those who have blown themselves up at bus stops or in restaurants, there are girls who are not at all religious, raised in secular Palestinian families who had never shown any signs of fanaticism. And yet, they have not hesitated to kill themselves in order to kill young people and children. Once again, the calculations are off, and nobody knows how hard Arafat has tried to stop the terrorist suicides, in which case he would show that he does not have control over the territories, or to what extent he has skillfully calibrated this new and terrible weapon by alternating condemnation and arrests of the extremists with a subterranean, but efficacious, support of terrorism.

The rifle and the olive branch
Certainly he is not new to this game. The most renowned image of him shows him speaking to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974, with a rifle in one hand and an olive branch in the other. War and peace; international terrorism, or agreements to find a lasting solution to the conflict that has bloodied the Middle East for fifty years now. Afterwards, there was the season of great hopes, the Nobel Prize to Arafat, Rabin, and Peres, and Israelis shouting “Peace Now.” The agreement on the territories under Palestinian administration, the cradle of a future State of Palestine, seemed like a done deal. Then came the rude awakening of the agreements disregarded by Arafat when he already had American and Israeli approval for the definitive cession of 90% of the territories and East Jerusalem as capital of the Palestinian State. This was more than could have been hoped. But everything was blocked after a night of reflection on the question of the re-entry of the Palestinians still in refugee camps. Israel could not agree to this, which meant the risk of bringing what they considered uncontrollable elements to their very borders, and Arafat did not want to give in. Or maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he wasn’t that strong.

Personal charisma
Certainly, his power is still great, and is based on a mixture of personal charisma acting on grass-roots Palestine, and a formidable control of the economics of the Palestinian administration, still tied to the network of banks and companies with headquarters in Liechtenstein that was set up in the 1970s to collect the flow of money coming into the PLO from Arab countries. The aging Rais controls this money, dollar by dollar. And he allows his collaborators to get rich; corruption has always been an effective tool of control.

It is no coincidence that the Americans are pressing the Palestinian minister of the economy, Salama Fayyad, to reform the administration’s finances, reducing Arafat’s absolute power over the accounts. But whenever it is a question of government or money, Mr Palestine is categorical: “I am the chief, and I decide,” he said to the newspapers while he was preparing the new government that would enact the reforms, packing it with his most loyal supporters and trying to checkmate those who might cast a shadow on his leadership, as he has always done in the past. As long as he has been the undisputed head of the Palestinians, he has seen many Arab and Israeli leaders come and go, has been exiled in Beirut and Tunis, and has received the Pope in Jericho as a head of state. And facing him, he still has the old Israeli general, Ariel Sharon. The Palestinian leader was 72 in August, but the post-Arafat era has not yet begun.