USA Today’s Arafat Obituary Distorts History

Yasir Arafat is buried as he lived, in a shroud of lies. These include lies of commission, omission and of minor facts used to obscure larger truths. Common in coverage of Arafat’s death, they stem from uncritical acceptance of conventional wisdom as much as from any intent to deceive. But they are nonetheless dangerous, contributing to revisionist Arab-Israeli history.

Such errors undermine, for example, USA Today’s November 11 Arafat obituary. Barbara Slavin, an experienced writer on Middle East topics for USA Today, is often well-informed and balanced. But her analytical obituary, ” ‘The best and the worst of us’: Arafat pushed Palestinian cause into the global spotlight” includes numerous distortions in both the article and accompanying chronology, as well as tendentious word usage.


Slavin quotes Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, describing Arafat as “the George Washington and the Abraham Lincoln of the Palestinians” and “He was the best and worst of us.” Washington and Lincoln did not push their causes into the spotlight by routinely murdering civilians. Washington did not oppose the existence of Great Britain; Lincoln struggled to maintain the American union, not destroy a foreign nation.

Arafat was, above all, a terrorist. He shot his way into the spotlight and stayed there through continued violence and threats of violence. Arafat was responsible for the murders of more Jews than anyone since Adolf Hitler, and simultaneously responsible — through the Palestine Liberation Organization’s “Black September” insurrection against Jordan, PLO participation in the Lebanese civil wars, and repression of Palestinian Arabs — for even more Arab deaths. So which is it — was he the best of the Palestinian Arabs, or the worst? Asali’s tautology goes unchallenged.

*Slavin writes that Arafat was “identified both with violence and negotiated efforts to achieve peace” and, after September 2000, “he made no moves to end the intifada … maintaining the ambiguous attitude toward violence that had marked his career.” There is no recognition that Arafat consistently pursued a “shoot-talk-shoot” strategy, as evidenced by the PLO’s 1974 “phased plan” for the destruction of Israel (diplomacy used to support terrorism and war) and his own unambiguous post-1993 Oslo explanations in Arabic that he had agreed not to peace with Israel but a temporary truce in a larger jihad.

* Slavin claims Barak’s successor, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “withdrew the offer” made at Camp David. In fact, President Clinton warned the Palestinians that the proposal would lapse when he left office in January, 2001.

*Slavin says “Arafat witnessed Arab-Muslim riots in the late 1930s, as Jews fled a growing Nazi threat in Europe and settled in British-run Palestine. The influx antagonized the Arab population.” Arabs massacred Palestinian Jews in the 1920s too, before German Nazism spurred additional emigration to eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). The Arabs  were “antagonized” by Jews who insisted on living as equals and on building a homeland of their own in accordance with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which the British Mandate incorporated.

*Slavin writes that post-Oslo, Israeli settlements “increasingly encroached on land under Arab rule before the 1967 Middle East war.” Before Israel gained the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a result of self-defense in the 1967 Day War, the former was illegally occupied by  Jordan, the latter illegally occupied by Egypt. Israeli claims in the disputed territories are at least as legitimate as those of the Arabs; Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza have not displaced Arab residents.  Furthermore, those lands were under “Arab rule” only for 19 years.Prior to that, for 400 years (1517 – 1917), the land was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottoman Turks were Muslim but not Arab.  Also prior to 1967, for a brief 30 year period, (1918-1948), it was ruled by the British Mandate.

*According to USA Today, “750,000 Palestinians … became refugees after Israeli independence.” Based on the last British and first Israel census figures for what became Israel, approximately 600,000 Arabs fled, of whom 100,000 returned. Those who became refugees did so as a result of aggression against Israel by the Arab states and Palestinian Arabs, not because of Israeli independence.

Word Choice

*In both the article and timeline, USA Today describes Arafat as the child of  “a Palestinian merchant.” When Arafat was born, in 1929, Arabs generally shunned the term “Palestinian” — except for a few, mostly Christian intellectuals. Arabs commonly understood Palestinian to be a synonym for Zionist. Jewish organizations included The Palestine Post, Palestine Philharmonic, Palestine National Fund, and Palestine Legion.  “Palestinian” typically referred to Jews until after the new Jewish state took the name Israel. Largely for propaganda purposes, anti-Zionist Arabs confiscated the term to prop up allegations of dispossession.

*The time line says Arafat formed the “Fatah guerrilla movement.” Guerrillas are irregular military forces fighting regular army troops. Fatah is both the Arabic word for “conquest” and a reverse acronym for Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine. It, like the PLO, in which it became the major faction, was and is a terrorist organization (the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and Tanzim are current terrorist components of Fatah) primarily targeting non-combatants.

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