A Visit with Arafat

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat; drawing by David Levine


Street names in Tunis are a nice mix of colonial French and third world nationalism. The Avenue de France intersects the rue Gamal Abdul Nasser. Raspail runs into Lumumba; Jaurès into Palestine. Driving out the rue Palestine, lined with garages and hardware stores, one quickly reaches the wide belt of new garden suburbs that rings Tunis to the north all the way up to the ruins of Carthage. In Sidi Bou Said, the picturesque old fishermen’s village, now a luxury resort, guides show you the house where André Gide lived and the sumptuous villa where, in 1988, Khalil al Wasir (alias Abu Jihad, the PLO’s minister of war) was assassinated by Israeli commandos.

The nearby suburbs of al Manzah and al Manar are less chic; many streets are so new that they have only numbers, and some are not yet paved. But the lawns and flowering flame trees behind the high garden walls and forged iron gates are well tended. In their driveways one spots Mercedeses and other luxury cars.

Into this well-to-do, even bucolic world of middle-class and upper-middle-class comfort, the desk-bound guerrilla leaders and revolutionaries of the Palestine Liberation Organization withdrew, in the early Eighties, after their forced ouster from Beirut along with an army of bodyguards, bureaucrats, and butlers and an annual income variously estimated at around one billion dollars. (The PLO fighting army of some twenty thousand men was not allowed into Tunisia; they are said to be encamped in Libya and South Yemen.) Yasir Arafat himself picked Tunisia for his new headquarters because of the relative political—though not military—freedom he was offered at the instigation of the French and the Greek governments, and because of President Bourguiba’s wife, Vasilla, a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause. A formal accord signed between the two sides spelled out the military restrictions. Other Arab countries at that time imposed more severe limitations on the PLO, and Syria was actually waging war against them.

A decade later, here at al Manzah and al Manar, the surviving guerrilla leaders are still around, each with his chef de cabinet, his fax machines and computers, his fleet of luxury cars fitted with cellular phones, grim-looking bodyguards, and burgeoning retinues of counselors, secretaries, valets, maids, chauffeurs, and cooks. Palestine is more than a thousand miles away. But Sharp, the Japanese electronic company, has custom-built an elaborate communication system enabling PLO members to keep in touch with their men and women throughout the Arab world.

There has been no lack of friction over the years with the Tunisian government. The authorities have clamped down whenever the Palestinians seemed to violate the original accord or threaten, by their very presence, the thriving Tunisian tourist industry. In 1985, the Israeli air force bombed a PLO command post outside Hamam al Shat, north of the city of Tunis, in retaliation against a Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli yachtsmen…

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