Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, a symbol of the Palestinian people, died early Thursday morning. Two and a half years ago my life was dramatically changed when I was trapped by the Israeli military in President Arafat’s compound in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. While I had been living in occupied Palestine for over two years, and had been active in nonviolent, direct-action resistance to the Israeli occupation, this one-night encounter with Arafat marked me with a symbolic identity for people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Though my encounter with him was brief, that night I gained some insights into President Arafat from his conduct. The reality of our short discussion was far different from the sensationalized stories spawned from slanderous headlines that labeled me “A Jewish Taliban” and “A Self-Hating Jew.” That first night during the invasion of Ramallah, all of us in Arafat’s compound expected a full assault and certain doom. As hundreds of young men sat caged in the compound, essentially awaiting their death, President Arafat was frantically seeking international help. After a sleepless night of unheeded appeals to spare the beautiful Palestinian city and its inhabitants, Arafat emerged from his office in the morning to speak to each person individually. He asked about the men’s families and encouraged them to remain steadfast. He even came up to me and thanked me for risking my life that night, and he also thanked me for the efforts of the International Solidarity Movement to organize nonviolent resistance and international support for Palestinian freedom.
The personal concern for every individual, even under life-threatening circumstances, is a side of President Arafat that is rarely portrayed in the media. Just over a year later, he welcomed the parents of Rachel Corrie and expressed his gratitude for their daughter’s sacrifice in Rafah, Gaza. Rachel was a 23-year-old American volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement who was crushed to death when she was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian family home.
For too long now, Arafat has been a symbol of the Palestinian people. Some would say his own internalization of that symbolism negatively affected his ability to lead. Indeed, the troubles for the Palestinian people begin with occupation, but subsequently came to include poor leadership.
Perhaps with Arafat’s passing, the symbol too, can be laid to rest, and instead the world will deal with the neglected human, political and national rights of the Palestinian people. The daily realities of house demolitions, checkpoints, curfews, house-to-house searches, mass detentions and withholding of humanitarian aid are anything but symbolic. Israeli settlements, military bases, the wall and the random killing of Palestinian civilians are all too real.
Palestinian nonviolent resistance to these measures has also been very real. Palestinians have been resisting the occupation nonviolently every day since it began, in 1967. Despite determined civilian resistance, their homes have been destroyed, their land has been stolen and their lives taken by the overwhelming Israeli military machine. Nonetheless, like President Arafat, the Palestinian people have been too often stereotyped as terrorists.
Arafat’s life and legacy will be argued over for many years to come. His task was perhaps unprecedented for any national leader. There was no script for this national symbol to follow.
Some Israeli and American politicians suggest that Arafat is the principal obstacle to a solution, and that it will be far easier to achieve peace with a new Palestinian leadership. By personalizing the situation, they overlook the underlying problem that Arafat struggled to make the world face–the denial of the basic rights of the Palestinian people. New Palestinian leaders will now struggle to find a path to realize these rights under the near-impossible circumstances of Israeli military siege and land seizure, crushing poverty, increasing chaos and hostility from the US government.
There is, however, a clear script for the international community to end thirty-seven years of the tyranny of occupation and promote Palestinian freedom and liberation. The world must act decisively to implement all relevant UN resolutions and international law, all of which Israel has consistently ignored. With one symbol of Palestine now gone, Palestine and the Palestinian people should not be made enduring symbols of the international community’s failure to act for justice.