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From the Source: Arafat to His People

Ronen Mukamel

Talk of Yassir Arafat is ubiquitous these days. Particularly since the outbreak of the current intifada in September of 2000, the Western media has spilled many words about Arafat’s control, or lack thereof, over the Palestinian side of the violence. Does Arafat in fact condemn terror? How much does he influence his own constituents? The best way to address these questions is to look beyond what is reported in the Western media and to examine what Arafat says in Arabic, to the Palestinian and broader Arab presses. HisArabic words about the intifada and terrorism reveal a great deal about his attitude towards the current conflict.

Many in the Arab world, Arafat included, have blamed the current intifada on Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, the former and current prime ministers of Israel. Arafat blamed the two prime ministers in an interview with a Kuwaiti daily newspaper: “Barak could have stayed in power for another two and a half years, but the agreement between him and Sharon—following which Sharon went to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which caused the well known massacre of the Friday prayers, as a result of which the intifada broke out— that agreement [and all of this] was preplanned.”

This belief, promoted by the Arab press and Arab leaders, is remarkably widespread despite convincing evidence that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and Arafat himself were responsible for orchestrating the uprising. Arafat blames the outbreak of violence on Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount (or, as he would have it, the Al-Aqsa Mosque). Yet Sharon’s visit came after the first violent acts of the intifada (an Israeli soldier was killed at the Netzarim junction the day before the visit). The day after Sharon’s visit, the P.A. closed schools and provided transportation for students to protests at the mosque.

In fact, the P.A.’s Communication Minister ‘Imad al-Faluji, explicitly admitted high-level involvement in the conflict in a speech to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon: “Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque [Temple Mount], is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton.” Arafat’s uncorroborated claims of a conspiracy between Sharon and Barak, two bitter political rivals, served simply to cover up his own involvement in orchestrating the uprising.

Throughout the current period of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Yassir Arafat has repeatedly called on his people to stop terrorist attacks on Israel. The militants under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority have never heeded Arafat’s declarations. Arafat claims that Israel puts him in an impossible position and that he cannot stop the militants while Israel continues its so-called occupation. The Israelis argue that Arafat’s calls are insincere and that the Palestinian leader has made no real effort to stop militants operating from within his territories.

Whose words should we believe? Consider Arafat’s reaction to the bombing of a Tel-Aviv discothèque on June 1, 2001. In an interview with CNN immediately following the attack, Arafat condemned the violence: “I repeat our condemnation of this tragic operation and to all operations that result in the killing of civilians, Israelis or Palestinians. We will now exert our utmost efforts to stop the bloodshed of our people and the Israeli people and to do all that is needed to achieve an immediate and unconditional, real and effective ceasefire.” Yet a documentary entitled “The Father of the Terrorists,” which aired on German television on July 8, 2001, revealed that Arafat had sent a letter of praise to the family of the suicide bomber. In it, he called the attack “the heroic martyrdom operation” and extolled the bomber as “the model of manhood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland.”

Despite Arafat’s declaration of an unconditional ceasefire in the statement above, the P.A. television station continued to incite Palestinians to violence. Less than a week after this first attack and Arafat’s response of condemnation, the station aired a Friday sermon by Sheik Ibrahim Madhi, appointed by the P.A., in which he called for the destruction of Israel (as well as the U.S. and Britain) and blessed the suicide bombers: “Allah willing, this unjust state will be erased—Israel will be erased; this unjust state, the United States, will be erased; this unjust state, Britain, will be erased…blessings to whoever put a belt of explosives on his body or on his sons’ and plunged into the midst of the Jews, crying…. Just as the building collapsed over the Jews in their sinful dancing floor [referring to the collapse of a wedding hall in Jerusalem]—I pray to Allah that this oppressive Knesset will collapse over the heads of the Jews.”

Arafat’s duplicity, condemning the violence in English while inciting it in Arabic, is a pattern that has repeated throughout the past year and a half. On August 8, 2001, after almost a year after the conflict erupted, the P.A. Press Agency released a statement calling for an end to the attacks on Israelis: “The mortal Palestinian attacks on [Israeli] citizens must stop.” Just one day earlier, though, Sheik Madhi’s Friday sermon (which also aired on the P.A. television station) took a very different tone: “Blessings for whoever assaulted a soldier.... Blessings for whoever has raised his sons on the education of Jihad and Martyrdom. Blessings for whoever has saved a bullet in order to stick it in a Jew’s head.” While Arafat repeatedly calls for a ceasefire and condemns suicide bombings in interviews with the Western press, he continues to force-feed anti-Israel rhetoric through the media. It is no surprise that the terrorism continues.

Consider also the Op-Ed piece that appeared in the New York Times in early Feburary, in which Arafat once again condemned terrorism. “Let me be very clear,” he said, signaling a potential shift. “I condemn the attacks carried out by terrorist groups against Israeli civilians. These groups do not represent the Palestinian people or their legitimate aspirations for freedom. They are terrorist organizations, and I am determined to put an end to their activities.” But before believing Arafat this time, keep in mind that four days later, Israel’s Channel Two television station broadcasted a rally in which Arafat told onlookers, “We will make the lives of the infidels Hell” and called for “millions of martyrs [to] march to Jerusalem.”

At this writing, it appears there is hope that Arafat will soon be irrelevant as a peace partner for Israel. His repeated refusal to cooperate with Israeli peace efforts and assertion that he would rather be a martyr than accept exile confirm beyond a doubt that he is determined to continue the violence. Lest this hope becomes cause for more deception, though, it is essential to remember that Arafat is not alone in leading the Palestinian people. It is now clearer than ever that many high-ranking Palestinian officials—even those previously considered “moderate”—have cooperated with Arafat’s duplicity since the P.A.’s founding. They, too, have intentionally misled the Western press while inciting Palestians. Though the removal of Arafat from power may bring greater prospects for security in the region, it should not lead to hasty euphoria. Rather, until all of the top Palestinian leadership is willing to promote acceptance of Israel, it will continue to attempt to deceive the West, alluding to good intentions in English while breeding just the opposite in Arabic.

Ronen Mukamel, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Rochester, New York.

This Issue

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The State of the Jewish State
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