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A Visit with Arafat

1.

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 in Cyprus. The Tunisian government immediately ordered Palestinian “military” personnel removed from Tunisia and the Palestinians no longer could launch terrorist attacks from Tunisian bases, or at least they hid them more carefully. By and large they have been allowed by a sympathetic regime to pursue their political cause. They remain under constant surveillance by the mukhabarat, the Tunisian secret police.

There is no central PLO administration building in Tunis. Offices are spread out in various suburban villas, large and small, in al Manzah and al Manar, much like those of the FLN leaders in the Fifties, but more comfortable and with the latest electronic gadgetry—revolutionary technology having impressively advanced since that time. It is the government of a phantom—some say a pantomime—state, elected by a phantom parliament from throughout the Palestinian diaspora (a parliament not unlike the Zionist congresses of old, and as ridden by rivalries and schisms). The leader is still Yasir Arafat, as it has been since 1969. The man who often proclaimed in the past that he didn’t want peace—“We want war, victory. Peace for us means the destruction of Israel”1—has in the past four years, under pressure from the Palestinians trapped in the occupied territories and from the US, recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and renounced terrorism. He insists he now favors a two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel living peacefully side by side. In Madrid and Washington he has been negotiating a peace settlement with Israel indirectly, through Palestinian delegates from the occupied territories. They fly in and out of Tunis constantly to receive instructions from him.

At sixty-four, he is a short, plump man, with oddly protruding eyes, wide hips, small pale hands with veins that stand out like river systems. Recovering from head injuries incurred in an airplane crash last year, he is almost completely bald under the checked kaffiyeh which he wears whenever a visitor or photographer is in sight. The trademark beard, now graying, is said to have been inspired by Fidel Castro.

Arafat’s public image is still that of a romantic guerrilla fighter. He is always in uniform, never without a Smith and Wesson pistol on his hip. Yet he is first and foremost an accomplished politician, or, some would say, superb actor. No other third world figure has been so adept in the successful use of the mass media. In the words of Edward Said, Arafat has put “the Palestinians as a group in circulation.” Thomas L. Friedman, who first knew him in the squalor and relative obscurity of the Beirut Palestinian slums, wrote that he was the “Teflon guerrilla—nothing stuck to Yasir Arafat, not bullets, not criticism, not any particular political position; and most of all, not failure.” And, as Friedman wrote, he succeeded almost single-handedly in bringing the Palestinians out of the deserts of obscurity into prime time.

He has been an embarrassment for most Arab governments; at the same time he has managed to play them off against one another for financial support. And he was able to keep together his loose band of warring politicians, gunmen, guerrillas, mullahs, Marxist intellectuals, and excited youngsters (mesmerized by the successes of the Algerian FLN, Fidel Castro, and Baader-Meinhof) who, even before there was a Palestinian state, were ready to tear it apart. He gave them a sense of cohesion. Even as a leader of hijackers and terrorists he has achieved an international standing for his PLO that no other national independence movement or raw terrorists ever had since the days of Gandhi and Nehru in India and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in the 1960s.

For decades, every twist and turn in the rise and fortunes of the PLO and the inflection of every statement by Arafat was scrutinized internationally to prove one point or its opposite. He was the first and, as far as I can tell, the only leader of a national independence movement invited to address the United Nations and to open the embassy of a nonexistent state in dozens of foreign countries. He made it impossible to look at the Middle East, and at Israel, without also seeing the Palestinians. The Kurds, the Basques, the radical wing of the IRA, the Angolans—to mention only a few—have never come anywhere near to such recognition or to the accumulation of a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio, one large enough that the interest supports a great many military and civilian payrolls.

By what means Arafat and the PLO achieved all this is a question worthy of some discussion. No other guerrilla movement has ever forced itself with such ruthlessness and indiscriminate violence on uninvolved third parties as Palestinians have done since 1968. Arafat initiated a mounting cycle of violence, counterviolence, and oppression until, in the end, Israeli ruthlessness was beginning to match his own. The Kurds, the Armenians, the Afghans have never blown up or hijacked Swiss, American, German, French, or Belgian airplanes, or randomly thrown bombs into foreign mosques and air terminals that have killed and maimed innocent bystanders. Only the IRA and the Basque ETA can claim to compete with the PLO in these respects. The PLO’s standing in Europe, and elsewhere, may have benefited from the long-standing, perhaps unconscious sediments of anti-Semitism and at the same time from a sense of guilt over the fact that the Palestinians, who bore no responsibilty for the crimes of anti-Semitism in Europe, were in the end punished for them.

The cold war and the oil crisis of 1973 greatly increased the international impact of the PLO. The romantic enthusiasm for their cause seemed part, paradoxically, of the Arab oil boom. In addition, the Communist bloc helped to provide the Palestinians with weapons, safe havens, and political support. A generation of Fatah field officers was trained in Soviet army academies. The use of Semtex explosives was taught in Czech and East German army installations. Such unity within the ranks as Arafat was able to maintain (there were frequent schisms) came at the price of courting the lowest common denominator. Yasir Abed Rabuh, a member of the Executive Committee who was active for years in Nayif Hawatmeh’s Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told me that there were always many good reasons to criticize Arafat, but not even his loudest opponents within the movement have ever accused him of being “undemocratic.” I understood this to mean that he was always eager to maintain a consensus.

2.

Arafat flies in and out of Tunis almost every day in his private jet. This June during my visit, he went abroad every other day; an aide told me he visited, among other destinations, Cairo, Amman, Vienna, and Saudi Arabia. Almost as frequently in the air are the fifteen members of the PLO Executive Committee, who come directly under Arafat in the hierarchy and who mostly live in Tunis. A PLO staff of eight is on duty at the airport around the clock to help with their arrivals and departures. “I practically live at the airport,” one of them told me.

The executives head a dozen semi-ministerial departments charged with specific responsibilities: political—or foreign—affairs, administration, culture, finance, education, youth, propaganda, and welfare. The Israeli military government has never succeeded in blocking the transfer of PLO funds into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Through its subsidies, salaries, and welfare payments, the PLO is the second most important employer in Gaza and in the West Bank. According to a recent report in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, citing Arab sources, the various PLO departments pay out 16,000 monthly pensions to the families of Palestinian convicted prisoners, detainees, and casualties of the Israeli army. In addition, the organization pays salaries to 23,000 Palestinian teachers, youth leaders, welfare and hospital workers, and activists of professional and civic organizations in the West Bank and Gaza—lawyers, newspapermen, trade-union activists, and the like.

It is easy to mock the vanity postage stamps and passports issued by other PLO departments in Tunis which cannot be used to mail a letter or enter a foreign country. And yet the PLO is recognized today by over a hundred governments. It maintains embassies or diplomatic representations in ninety-two countries. On the surface the twenty-seven-year-old Israeli taboo on negotiations with the PLO is being upheld, although top Israeli officials openly admit that by negotiating with PLO militants in the occupied territories they are in fact negotiating with Arafat and the PLO.

  1. 1

    See the interview with Oriana Fallaci, in Interview with History (Houghton Mifflin, 1976), p. 131.

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