Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza participated in commemoration ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary since the death of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader and a former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, remembered mainly for the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The historic agreement established the Palestinian Authority and forced the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel's right to exist.
For many Israelis he was the man who planned and executed terror attacks as well as encouraged them ideologically and gave Palestinian militants financial support, but for Palestinians he has always been a national hero.
"Every Palestinian has a piece of Arafat. He was more than a leader – he is in our DNA," said Hassan Asfour, Arafat's former advisor and one of his closest allies. Asfour was involved in the Oslo Accords and rejected allegations that Arafat supported terrorism.
Describing his former boss as a visionary and a revolutionist, Asfour admits that he was a man of many faces. Clever and hard-working, emotional, difficult and at times moody, he believes that Arafat always put the good of the Palestinian people as his prime and only objective.
"When news about his death came," recalls Asfour, "I was in Ramallah and it struck me like thunder. At that moment I knew that his efforts for peace were buried together with him," he says.
But he was not the only one who felt that way. Dimitri Diliani, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, who met Arafat on a number of occasions, said he couldn't hold back his tears that day. "I never cry but on that day I couldn’t hold my emotions. When news spread, people started coming en masse. I have never seen such a big crowd of people mourning for somebody," he recalls.
Point of No Return
Asfour believes that peace efforts were given a blow in 1995, when a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Accords opened fire and killed Prime Minister Rabin. Although that didn’t stop Arafat, he realised that the chances of getting a breakthrough with the right-wing Israeli government that was established soon after were slim.
Then came Ehud Barak. "I remember that in 2000, after the Camp David failed, former Prime Minister Barak said that there was no partner for peace, referring to the chairman," says Asfour, adding that Barak's comments put the final nail in the coffin of the already crumbling hope for peace.
Although the former aide refrains from talking about conspiracy theories, according to which Israel poisoned Arafat, he does believe that it was in the Jewish state's interests to remove him from the political arena. But Israel was not alone. Arab leaders wanted to see him gone too.
One such leader was Hafez Al Assad, the father of Syria's current leader. Regarding Palestinian territories as part of Greater Syria, he raised the idea of establishing his own leadership over the Palestinian people. Another example was the late King Hussein of Jordan. Palestinian fighters, known as fadayeen, were believed to be part of Fatah - an organisation that Arafat headed. The fadayeen not only staged multiple attacks on Israel using Jordanian territories, but also attempted to assassinate the Jordanian monarch himself. The last straw occurred in September 1970, when a number of fighters hijacked several civilian aircraft, forcing them to land in Zarqa, some 30 km north of Jordan's capital Amman. After taking foreign nationals as hostages and blowing up the empty planes, Hussein opened fire on the fadayeen and forced them out of Jordan.
Now, however, 15 years after his death, many miss Arafat and what he represented, says Diliani.
"I am sure that had he lived now, he would have cried looking at the situation we are in right now," he added.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Palestinian economy deteriorated in 2019, with unemployment increasing and poverty deepening.
But for Diliani the problem goes beyond just the dire economic situation. "We lost half of Palestinian territories to Hamas when they seized control of Gaza in 2007, the rift between factions representing the Palestinian public became wider and we became an autocracy. In the past you could slam Arafat for his stance without fearing for your safety. Now, you cannot tweet against the government without being interrogated by the security forces," he complained.
Even though Diliani believes that the current Palestinian leadership is not interested in keeping the memory of the former chairman alive, let alone pursuing peace, he also puts the blame on the Israeli leadership, and Asfour shares his beliefs.
"It has been 15 years since Arafat has gone and we still haven’t achieved much. Israel is not interested in a breakthrough; all it wants is to keep Hamas in power simply because it fits their agenda [of frightening the masses]. Governments might change but their intention remains the same – zero concessions to Palestinians and zero efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state," he concluded.