My afternoon with Yasser Arafat

Ten years after Arafat’s death, an Arab citizen of Israel reflects on a solidarity visit to the father of Palestinian nationalism in his besieged Ramallah compound.

By Seraj Assi

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2001. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2001. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Ten years ago, on November 11, 2004, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in mysterious circumstances in Paris.

Theories ranged from natural causes to assassination. The French, Russian and Swiss teams that investigated the cause all agreed to disagree. In a sense, Arafat was made in the image of Palestine: the mystery of his life and death remains largely unsolved.

I met Arafat three years before his death. That was in late December 2001, nearly one year into the Second Intifada. The country was touching off a new spasm of violence. Israeli tanks and troops had already moved in force and put Palestinian cities under curfew. In the wake of three suicide bombings inside Israel, Arafat was grounded and confined to his headquarters in Ramallah. He claimed to have orchestrated the uprising.

Those who witnessed the failure at Camp David were hardly surprised. To steal a line from Alexis Tocqueville, no other event in Palestinian history was so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen. In this view, Arafat, the usual scapegoat who was widely blamed for the collapse of the talks, did orchestrate the uprising.

By that time, I was attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The visit was an act of solidarity organized by a group of fellow Arab students. The idea was to remind the Israelis that Arafat was our leader too. Having witnessed Israel’s brutality against Palestinians on both sides of the border, we sensed that our destinies were now intertwined.

I remember travelling for two hours to cross the 10 miles separating Jerusalem from Ramallah. Roads were partly destroyed, partly blocked with concrete blocks, piles of dirt, and deep trenches. For us, as for many Palestinians across the border, this unbearable interruption in time and space was yet another consequence of the Oslo Accords.

After an extra hour in the line, we finally passed the last checkpoint and walked all the way to the Mukataa, aka, the Arafat Compound. We were greeted by the guards and guided to an office complex with other visitors. There were no enemies, only comrades. People came in packs to show sympathy. The man hailed by many as the freedom fighter par excellence was now under house arrest.

Finally, I was introduced to the Khityar (the Old Man). Arafat has been called the Old Man since he was 30 years old. He had such knotty lines in his face, large pores and deep wrinkles. His khaki fatigues were the last vestige of his militant makeup. He also wore a starched black-and-white kufiyya, carefully folded to match the map of Palestine.

His body had undergone some visible metamorphoses. He looked pale, weak and feeble. His lips trembled, and his hands shook constantly. I could hear his voice slurring, as if he was having his own intifada. Despite his physical condition, he seemed restless. He inquired into events, debated decisions, and gave orders. From his confinement, Arafat still had grand plans for Palestine.

I kneeled down and kissed him on the head. He saluted the people of sumud (Arabic for steadfastness), referring to fellow Palestinians on the other side of the border, aka the Israeli Arabs.

For many Palestinians, including those living inside Israel, Arafat was the locus of national unity. Like nearly every other Palestinian at the time, he too dreamed of a comprehensive, lasting peace. At some point in his political career, he also envisioned Palestine as a secular, democratic bi-national state. Ironically, and thanks to the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, his one-state vision has now become a reality on the ground.

Like the land that hatched him, Arafat was the sum of his survivals. Death had passed him by a dozen times. He survived an airplane crash in the Libyan desert, countless air strikes, and a dozen attempts on his life by the Israelis. Due to his fear of assassination, he rarely slept in the same place two nights in a row. Ironically, and until his sudden collapse, his three years under house arrest was the most secure period of his life.

Despite his constant persecution, Arafat was ready for all possibilities: war or peace, whichever came first. Judging from his tragic fate, one could clearly see that the burden of Camp David haunted him to the end of his days.

I remember someone asking him about Camp David.

“There was no offer, but we turned it down,” came the response, followed by a heated talk.

A cloud of anger and frustration quickly loomed over, meshed with memories of betrayal and conspiracy. That’s when I shook his hand, bid farewell and left one hour before the curfew began.

Three years later, I received the news: the man who had baffled death for over seven decades finally succumbed. For the first time in his life, Arafat could rest and enjoy a permanent, lasting peace.

Seraj Assi is an Arab citizen of Israel; he is currently a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

Read also:
10 years after Arafat: Where did the Palestinian leadership go?
How three Israeli journalists brought Arafat into Israeli homes
More subtle than it seems: The mystery of Arafat’s death