Burying Yasser Arafat

Let's bury more than his body


In the endless, turgid dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I take a third position: I'm pro-civilian. With that bias, I can't say I'm unhappy to see Yasser Arafat buried. The least appropriate claimant of a Nobel Peace Prize since Henry Kissinger, Arafat built his career killing civilians on one side of the conflict, and he capped it by multiplying the miseries of the civilians on the other side. The first half of that record is widely understood—the one thing everyone knows about Arafat is his history of terrorism—but the second deserves more attention.

I'm not referring to the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, an event for which Arafat is widely but probably unfairly blamed. (As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley pointed out two years ago in The New York Review of Books, there was plenty of culpability to go around.) I'm referring to his tenure atop the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the brutal statelet he ran in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Before the Oslo accords created that body, Palestinians protested the iron fist with which Israel ruled the occupied territories: the detentions, the torture, the censorship, the everyday humiliations. Given a modicum of authority over the same people, what did Arafat do? Let me quote Amnesty International's 1999 report on the PNA—that is, its report from a year when the peace process was not yet dead, the second intifada was not yet launched, and Arafat was still sometimes regarded as a born-again man of peace:

At least 450 people were arrested on political grounds; they included prisoners of conscience. More than 500 political detainees arrested in previous years, including prisoners of conscience, remained in detention without charge or trial. At least two political prisoners were sentenced to prison terms after grossly unfair trials before the State Security Court. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees remained widespread. Three people died in custody in circumstances where torture or ill-treatment may have caused or hastened their deaths. Unlawful killings, including possible extrajudicial executions, were reported.

That same year, the Committee to Protect Journalists—an international press-freedom group that, like Amnesty International, does not shy from exposing misbehavior on the Israeli side—reported that "the PNA showed little tolerance for outspoken journalism. Throughout the year, authorities harassed local media by arbitrarily arresting and interrogating reporters and by closing private broadcast outlets." In exchange for this abuse, Arafat's subjects received…more abuse. Israel's restrictions on Palestinians' freedom to trade and travel persisted after Oslo, with hardly a peep from the man who was supposed to represent his people's interests.

Not content to be repressive, Arafat's regime was also corrupt: He and his cronies skimmed millions from the till. After a 1997 audit revealed some of the graft, the PNA responded by putting an end to public audits. Whether or not Arafat was essential for the creation of a Palestinian state, he clearly performed miserably once he had the rudiments of a state under his command.

Indeed, his misrule helped create the conditions that left many critics questioning whether Palestinian nationhood was such a great idea after all. In the last few years, figures from Tony Judt to the late Edward Said have revived the idea of a "one-state" solution to the conflict. This would not mean one big Israel cleansed of Arabs, nor one big Palestine whose Jews have been driven into the sea, but one binational country with federal self-government, equality before the law, and separation of church and state. This is of course anathema to those who are more interested in invoking God as a land-use planner than in achieving equal rights for Palestinians or physical security for either side. But from the pro-civilian position, it seems like the best possible outcome.

"The best possible outcome" does not necessarily mean "an outcome I'd like my country to fight for." The U.S. has a long history of failing to bring peace to this part of the world, and rather than watch it get behind yet another doomed proposal I'd be happy to see it disentangle itself and its funds from this tarbaby and let the locals sort things out themselves. But I'll say one thing for binationalism. Writing in The Boston Review, Lama Abu-Odeh has argued persuasively that the best route to the one-state solution is "a Palestinian civil rights movement based on a King-like strategy of long-term civil disobedience." The Palestinians are not strangers to such methods: The tactics of the first intifada, after all, included mass protests and a tax revolt. Gene Sharp, one of the leading theorists of militant nonviolent resistance, has pointed out that such a struggle is itself a "democratization experience" that, if it's successful, "diffuses power in the society."

That's a welcome alternative to any model that centralizes power, especially in the hands of a thug like Arafat. Anyone who pulled it off would actually deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.