Gumer Isaev: “Arafat shouldn’t be either idolised or demonised. He was a pragmatist”

With an olive branch and rifle: the debatable character of the charismatic leader of Palestinian opposition

Gumer Isaev: “Arafat shouldn’t be either idolised or demonised. He was a pragmatist”

It was the 90th birthday of Founder of the Palestinian state, leader of Fatah and the PLO, Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat on 24 August. 15 years have passed since the politician’s death, however, debates about this personality haven’t calmed down yet: who Abu Ammar was, a peacemaker or terrorist. Moreover, he is evaluated ambiguously not only in Israel but also in the Arab-Muslim world. Realnoe Vremya’s correspondent talked with political expert in Eastern studies, head of the Saint Petersburg Centre for the Contemporary Middle East Studies Gumer Isaev more about turns and twists in Arafat’s life, its views and the political legacy.

“He demonstrated religious commitment when it became a trend

Mr Isaev, Yasser Arafat’s origin is still a mystery, which gives foundation for different conspiracy versions. Who was he in fact, a Palestinian, Egyptian or Jew?

There are a lot of rumours about Arafat’s origin. To start with, the Palestinians as a nation formed quite late, however, as well as the Lebanese, Iranians or Israelis. It is widely assumed to consider Palestinians as an Arab-speaking people that lives on territory that was historically named Palestine. It is debated, especially in the context of relationships between Arabs and Israel if Palestinians existed as a nation previously. Zionism is based on the idea that there weren’t any Palestinians on this territory, these lands belonged to the Jews. Zionists had a famous slogan: “A land without people to people without land”. But it is speculation in fact. These lands have never been empty. Even if people who populated them never called themselves Palestinians, it doesn’t mean that nobody lived in Palestine. The case is that nobody thought about nations some 150-200 years ago. There were Muslims, Christians, Jews. They all were residents of Palestine.

As for Yasser Arafat, yes, he studied in Egypt (and, according to some data, he was born there), he called himself a Palestinian anyway, he was a representative of the established Palestinian nation. Other ideas — if he is a Jew or Egyptian — aren’t worthy of attention. Moreover, Muslim history has a lot of great people of the same ethnic origin who played an important role in history of other peoples. I think it doesn’t really matter who Arafat was and where he came from. In the end, he distinguished himself as a leader of the Palestinian movement. And he remains in history as a Palestinian.

It is said about Arafat that he was pronouncedly unreligious. Why was he quite popular among Muslims around the world, not only among Arabs, despite this?

At the dawn of Palestinian opposition, from the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel in 1948 and then in the 50s, 60s, secular ideologies reigned in the Near East. Religion didn’t play that role it does now, moreover, it had played in the Middle Ages. The Palestinian opposition to the Israeli occupation was more secular. Yes, political Islam already existed, for instance, Muslim Brotherhood (Editor’s Note: the organisation is banned in the Russian Federation) appeared as early as the late 1920s, but they didn’t play that political role they play now. Arafat represented the left and nationalism in Arab political theory and practice and was in line with such political activists as Gamal Nasser or Muammar Gaddafi.

Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, 1977

If we look at the history of Arafat’s life, we will see that he completely dedicated himself to the fight for independence and statehood of Palestine and tried to be sensitive to moods in society. By the end of his life, he demonstrated religious commitment when it became a trend. Pay attention to that many political activists of that era of Arab secular nationalists demonstrated their secularity in the 60-70s but began to behave differently by the 1990s — photos of leaders in military uniform changed for photos of praying Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Arafat. They became more religious (at least formally) in conditions of the growing role of Islam in the social and political life of the Near East.

The Palestinian issue in Muslim countries was traditionally considered in the context of Jerusalem’s status — the city that had an important meaning for Muslims. Jerusalem was conquered by the Israelis in 1967, further, the history of wars and talks between Israel and Palestinians boiled down to the control over the territory of Jerusalem. Let’s remember Trump’s statement about the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which caused a serious outcry in the Muslim world. Even those ethnicities who are far from Arab-Israeli debates, for instance, in Indonesia and Pakistan were touchy about the fact that Jerusalem isn’t managed by Muslims, while Palestinians are subjected to different types of discrimination, including the limit or even ban from visiting Muslim holy sites in the Holy City. For this reason, Arafat, who became a bright, charismatic representative of the opposition to this occupation, was popular in Muslim countries even among those people who didn’t consider they were Arab nationalists or left-wing politicians.

“Arafat’s relations even with his brothers in opposition were complicated

When did he have a split with other military and political forces of Palestine?

Arafat was famous already after 1967 when during the Six-Day War Israel defeated Arab armies, assaulted the territories of Gaza, the Western Bank, completely took the territory of Jerusalem, which Jordan used to control. Arafat’s star rose against the backdrop of losses of territories, a new flow of refugees, sufferings of a considerable number of Palestinians in occupation. He showed off for the first time in the Battle of Karameh — a local clash between Israeli militaries and fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Then he became famous not only as a successful field commander but also as a political leader who was considered by Arab leaders as Palestinians’ leader and interacted with them as equal. He had a lot of complicated issues, including conflicts. It is Black September events, the war in Lebanon, Intifada, talks in Oslo…

As we know, the Palestinian opposition has never been homogenous. There were bright political or military activists who distanced themselves from Arafat, considered his stand insufficiently principled, for instance, Abu Nidal — a famous Palestinian rebel who acted on his own. Arafat faced plenty of challenges, dilemmas. Arafat’s relations even with his brothers in opposition were complicated. Even now we see that there are different groups among Palestinians: there are Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organisations.

President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser (centre) as an intermediary in the agreement between Arafat and Kind of Jordan Hussein on end of conflict at Black September during the extraordinary Arab League Summit, September 1970

You have mentioned the Black September events. As we remember, an organisation with the same name attacked at the Olympics in Munich in 1972 with an assault of Israeli athletes and murder of captives. Yasser Arafat himself denied his implication in this event. Was anyway he linked with this terrorist attack or not?

Nobody will answer this question for you. But I will repeat that in conditions of different approaches that Palestinian groups had, it was quite easy to find activists who were ready to hijack planes, hold diversions and do any other terrorist activity. This was the way they saw Palestine’s liberation from occupation. I must say that the terrorist activity often played into the Israelis’ hands by giving them foundation for a harsh response.

It is hard to claim if Arafat was behind the notorious terrorist attacks or not. But I think he was to understand that such painful hits as the attack on the Israeli athletes could do nothing for the Palestinians.

It was important for Arafat that Palestinian have full-fledged rights so that they wouldn’t live under apartheid. The restriction of the Palestinians’ right in occupation generated new aggression, new acts of terrorism. This is why the most optimal solution of the Palestinian problem was to provide all citizens of territories we call Palestine with equal rights, without building a wall, without limiting people’s ability to move, pray, get married and so on. The conditions the Palestinians live on the occupied territories cause different reactions: there are people who are ready to come to an agreement to improve their living conditions, look for compromises, but there are those who think there is no place for talks, that only violation will help to find liberty and they must fight till the end.

Arafat shouldn’t be either idolised or demonised — he tried to find a way to create a Palestinian state, fought for his people’s rights. When needed, he sat down for a talk, when needed, he urged the people to take up arms. And he didn’t do it out of lucrative motives but because he had a task he dedicated all his life to.

Palestinian rebels of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Do you want to say he was a pragmatist?

It can’t be otherwise in big politics. Arafat was a pragmatist who acted in accordance with available opportunities. After the Black September events when Jordan hit Palestinian refugees on its territory being scared of the Palestinian riot, Arafat considered the king of Jordan his enemy. But some time later he restored the relations with the king understanding that it would be for the good of the Palestinians in new political conditions. Let’s remember Arafat signing the agreements in Oslo, though Intifada had ended just recently. Then Arafat also acted as pragmatic, a political leader who pursued his goal and could be flexible. When he was promised to recognise the Palestinian state, in answer he promised to recognise the Jewish state. So he wasn’t a fanatic or crazy person like somebody wants to show him as. He was a pragmatist.

“The PLO was also a progressive organisation, in the opinion of the Soviet administration”

As it is known, the Soviet Union supported the PLO. How did the USSR benefit from such support?

Soviet politics regarding Israel and Palestine was very complicated. When Israel was created, the Soviet Union was one of the key states that helped its formation. Soviet officials hoped it would be a socialist state in the heart of the Near East that was controlled by the French and English at that moment. The USA and USSR fought for influence in Israel, the Americans won in the end.

The Israelis had a powerful left movement, again, there were Russian-speaking people who came from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It seemed that the Soviet Union had a chance to cement a position in the Near East through a spiritually close socialist state Israel could have been. But everything turned out the other way round. The Soviet state was from time to time attributed even anti-semitism in foreign politics. The USSR broke relations with Israel twice in the 20th century. But it was linked with a presence of political interests, not ideological instructions or anti-semitism of the Soviet administration.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat when signing Oslo I Accord, 13 September 1993, Washington

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union supported Egypt and Syria. Moscow supported Egyptian President Nasser, again not out of ideological ideas but pragmatism. He was against the West and became the USSR’s ally in the region. We can say that the Soviet politics was only about weakening the influence of the West in the region somehow (and Russian politics still is about it) — it is one of the fronts of confrontation, including the Cold War. Nasser or Assad persecuted communists, but Moscow at the same time continued providing them with weapons and helped with reinforcing the industry. Such regimes started to be called “progressive”, and their anti-Western focus was the most important thing.

Back to Arafat and Palestinian opposition, the PLO was also progressive, in the opinion of the Soviet administration, it was an organisation that was fighting for independence, had left, socialist principles. It was fighting with Israel that was the main receiver of military and economic aid of the USA in the Near East. This is why the PLO and Arafat got the support of the Soviet administration.

Who influenced Arafat the most in the end, Moscow or Washington?

The Soviet Union did the most, of course. But one should look at it from a perspective of different periods. In the 1990s, when the USSR disappeared, the Americans took the regulation process into their hands. Washington perfectly understood that the Near Eastern conflict was simultaneously profitable and harmful, this is why it tried to either inflate or settle it in different directions. In the 1990s when Russia withdrew itself from settling the Near Eastern conflict, Arafat decided to sign the agreements in Oslo under the USA’s patronage.

By Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: