In the intense media coverage accompanying Yasser Arafat’s death, the man known to many as the “father of modern terrorism” is benefiting from an “extreme make-over,” as some news reports and columns airbrush history to exclude his actual deeds.
An editorial in the British daily the Guardian compared Arafat with the biblical Moses, lauding his “achievements” and only vaguely referencing his “decades of armed struggle.” An Associated Press timeline of Arafat’s life noted that he headed the Palestinian groups Fatah and PLO but the terrorist acts committed by these groups were virtually ignored.
Vital information is missing from these accounts. Arafat’s career was characterized by violent rejection of Israel’s existence. In 1958 — well before Israel took control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip — Arafat co-founded Fatah, a group whose constitution calls for “complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence” via “armed public revolution.”
Since then, groups under Arafat’s direct or indirect command — including Fatah, PLO, Black September, Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — carried out assassinations, massacres, bombings and hijackings in their campaign against the Jewish state.
Just a few examples: SwissAir flight 330 was blown up mid-flight in 1970 by PLO terrorists, killing 47. Terrorists connected to Arafat murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. U.S. diplomats Cleo Noel and George Curtis Moore were tortured, then killed in Khartoum. Terrorists seized an apartment building (11 killed), a school (26 killed) and a bus (21 killed) in Israel. A wheelchair-bound elderly man was shot on a cruise ship and thrown overboard. Since September 2000, hundreds of Israelis have been killed by groups linked to Arafat, and hundreds more by Islamic groups given free rein by the Palestinian leader.
Along the way, Arafat also wreaked havoc on various host countries. When he was based in Jordan, the kingdom was destabilized and thousands died during a 1970 civil war involving the PLO. Arafat moved on to Lebanon, and this time more than 100,000 died in a civil war involving the PLO. Since Arafat returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994, anti-Israel terrorism has spiked sharply, leading to an increase in Israeli counter-terror measures that include restrictions on Palestinian access to Israeli cities.
After the Palestinian campaign of violence began in September 2000, the Palestinian economy collapsed in a way that, according to the World Bank, “exceed(ed) the scale of economic losses suffered by the United States in the Great Depression.” To make matters worse, Arafat himself diverted upward of $900 million of public Palestinian Authority funds into his own accounts, according to the International Monetary Fund.
After years of establishing his credentials as a man of war, Arafat’s rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s unprecedented peace offer at Camp David demonstrated that, despite the moderate face he occasionally showed the West and despite the willingness of some to believe in this facade, he never became a man of peace. Arafat followed up his “no” to peace by launching the current violence, in which thousands of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed.
Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross wrote in the July/August 2002 issue of Foreign Policy magazine: “Is there any sign that Arafat has changed and is ready to make historic decisions for peace? I see no indication of it.” It isn’t necessary to have been closely involved with Arafat, as Ross was, to reach a similar conclusion. But to reach a well-informed conclusion, the public does need information that, unlike some accounts of Arafat’s life, isn’t whitewashed.
Originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 19, 2004.