Exhuming Yasser Arafat
Alex Lubin is associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut. Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary will be published in February 2014.
Cross-posted from the University of North Carolina Press blog.
In 2012, French authorities exhumed the body of the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, in order to investigate allegations that he had been poisoned. Arafat died in 2004. Last week, authorities confirmed that Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210, which could be found on the remains of his body. Many will speculate about who might have poisoned Arafat. Suffice it to say that polonium-210 is not a common item and the range of culprits is limited.
Yasser Arafat has meant many things to many people over the course of his life. To some he is a freedom fighter, and throughout the world he is often depicted in posters alongside Che Guevara. To others he is a terrorist. To the Nobel Prize Committee he is a peace-maker. Arafat has had many lives, and his reputation has been exhumed numerous times over his life and now, after his death.
What often gets overlooked about Arafat and the PLO is the impact he and his movement had on a global third-world movement in general, and on the black freedom movement in particular.
Arafat assumed the reins of the PLO in 1967, in the wake of the June 1967 war in which Israel occupied Egyptian-held Gaza and the Jordanian-held West Bank. Following the war, the first leader of the PLO, Ahmad Al-Shukeiri, was deposed of his seat, having taken the blame for the Palestinians’ misfortune. Arafat emerged as the new leader of the PLO and would shift tactics to armed rebellion and resistance, joining other global insurgencies against colonialism and imperialism. Throughout the 1970s Arafat led the PLO in a resistance movement to transform the Palestinian cause into a global movement against imperialism. Under Arafat’s leadership, the PLO joined with resistance movements in Latin America and Asia and even in the United States.
In my book, Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary, I demonstrate the important, yet often overlooked, linkages between the PLO and the Black Panther Party (BPP). The PLO published regular articles in the BPP newspaper, The Black Panther, in which they argued that the Palestinian struggle against imperialism was similar to the Black American struggle against racial capitalism in the United States. The PLO struggle resonated with the Panthers’ vision of a global social movement uniting communities struggling with shared forms of imperialism. They called this vision “intercommunalism.” According to the Panthers, the same powers were oppressing black Americans and Palestinians, as well as colonized peoples across the globe.
Arafat’s influence on black radicalism was not limited to American social movements. Even within Israel, Arafat and the PLO had a great impact on the ways that Arab Jews in Israel understood their predicament. A majority of Jews in Israel descend from Arab countries, although becoming Israeli often meant shedding Arab identities, language, and culture. Yet in the 1970s, largely inspired by the U.S. Black Panther Party and the PLO, a group of Moroccan Jews in Jerusalem formed the Israeli Black Panther Party in an effort to shed light on the plight of Arab-Jews in Israel, a group that was racialized Black. The Israeli Panthers began to realign their political identities away from the project of Israeli state expansion, and toward the Arab nationalist politics of the PLO. Moreover, the Israeli Panthers critiqued racial formations in Israel in ways that aligned their interests to that of the U.S. Black Panther Party. The Israeli Panthers held meetings with both U.S. Black Panthers and the PLO.
By the end of the 1980s, Arafat’s policies radically transformed -- in part because the global movement against imperialism that had sustained the PLO was eradicated by global counter-insurgencies, and in part because Arafat had been marginalized within the Palestinian national movement, as many felt that he no longer represented the interests of the Palestinian people. In 1987 the Palestinian people began a mass uprising (one that would today be referred to as an Arab Spring) that registered anger at increasing Israeli occupation and control as well as frustration with the PLO and Arafat’s leadership. From the perspective of the 1980s, it would have been impossible to imagine that Arafat would be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize by 1994.
Arafat’s first exhumation, at least from the perspective of Israel and its Western allies, took place not in 2012, but in 1993, when Arafat agreed to the terms of the so-called Oslo Peace Accords. The Oslo Peace Accords were not so much a negotiated settlement to the Palestine national question, but instead were a reformulation of the terms of Israeli occupation. Using the language of “self-government” and “sovereignty,” Oslo established a complex system of control over the West Bank and Gaza and created an un-democratically elected political authority, the Palestinian Authority (PA), in charge of Palestinians’ territory. The PA had very limited authority: it didn’t control borders, water, or airspace. Following Oslo, Israeli settlement expansion into the West Bank accelerated at breakneck pace and continues unabated today.
Arafat embraced Oslo, in part because it gave him new international status as the leader not only of the PLO but also of the newly formed PA. He also needed international support after his support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 left him without Gulf state and Saudi donor support and therefore incapable of mounting the political and military opposition he once could. Arafat shifted course by embracing the Oslo Accords, thereby re-entering the international community, this time as a “peace maker.”
Among Palestinians, Arafat remains a trickster figure. He was part of a global anti-imperialist movement that includes various members of radical black communities, including, at times, North African Jews in Israel. Yet Arafat was also the negotiator of the Oslo Accords, and in this capacity he seemed to undermine the radical possibilities of the Palestinian national movement. Arafat’s transition from a darling of the third-world left to a darling of the West says something powerful about the global transition from the Cold War to the era of American unipolar power, as well as the transition from liberal internationalism to neoliberalism.
As the question of Palestine continues to animate debates about human rights and the U.S./Israeli “special relationship,” Yasser Arafat is likely to be buried and exhumed many more times to come.