Arafat's War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquestby Efraim Karsh
Established in 1964 with the goal of “liberating Palestine in its entirety,” the Palestinian Liberation Organization has for years been fronted by one of its most outspoken and notorious members, Yasser Arafat. Born and raised in Cairo, Arafat has undergone a radical transformation from a fugitive terrorist leader to a passionate and respected advocate
Established in 1964 with the goal of “liberating Palestine in its entirety,” the Palestinian Liberation Organization has for years been fronted by one of its most outspoken and notorious members, Yasser Arafat. Born and raised in Cairo, Arafat has undergone a radical transformation from a fugitive terrorist leader to a passionate and respected advocate for the creation of a Palestinian homeland. Then why did Arafat reject a plan for Palestinian statehood in 2000, after crusading for this longstanding ideal for close to forty years? Was it a bargaining ploy, or a reflection of a deeper reluctance on the part of the Palestinian leadership to genuinely commit itself to peace with Israel?
Offering the first comprehensive account of the collapse of the most promising peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Historian Efraim Karsh argues that Arafat is less interested with the liberation of the West Bank and Gaza, or even with the establishment of a Palestinian state, than with the PLO’s historic goal of Israel’s destruction. Karsh details Arafat’s efforts since the historic Oslo Peace accords in building an extensive terrorist infrastructure, his failure to disarm the extremist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Authority’s systematic efforts to indoctrinate hate and contempt for the Israeli people through rumor and religious zealotry. The result is a level of violence unmatched in scope and intensity since 1948, a Palestinian campaign of terror that has included suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, stabbings, lynching, and stonings and resulted in thousands of casualties.
Arafat has irrevocably altered the Middle East’s political landscape, and while his place in history has yet to be written, the ongoing IsraeliPalestinian conflict will always be Arafat’s War.
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The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest
By Efraim Karsh
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
The Man and His World
If Arafat ever once stumbled and told the truth, he would say,
"Please forgive me!"
-a close associate of Arafat, October 1996
It is an historical irony that the person who is arguably the
world's most famous Palestinian does not conform even to his
own definition of what a Palestinian is. According to the
Palestinian National Covenant, adopted in 1964 as one of the
PLO's two founding documents and revised four years later to
remain the organization's foremost article of faith to date,
"Palestinians are those Arab residents who, until 1947, lived
permanently in Palestine, regardless of whether they were
expelled from it or have stayed there."
Born Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf Arafat al-Qudwa-al-Husseini
in Cairo on August 24, 1929, Arafat was the sixth
child of Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, a small textile
merchant of Gazan-Egyptian origin, and of Zawda, a member of
the Jerusalmite Abu Saud family. The couple had arrived in
Cairo in 1927 and settled in the middle-class Sakakini
neighborhood, where the young Arafat spent his youth. Aside
from short stays, he never lived in Palestine prior to 1947, or for
that matter at any other subsequent time, until his arrival in the
Gaza Strip in July 1994 as head of the newly established
Palestinian Authority (PA).
Throughout his career, Arafat has gone to great lengths to blur
the circumstances of his childhood, especially the fact that his
father was half Egyptian. When questioned about his birthplace,
Arafat would normally claim to have been born and reared in the
Old City of Jerusalem, just a few houses away from the Wailing
Wall. Yet he has often contradicted himself. "I was born in
Gaza," he told Playboy magazine in September 1988. "My
mother died when I was four and I was sent to live with my
uncle in Jerusalem. I grew up there, in the old city. The house
was beside the Wailing Wall. The Israelis blew up the house-demolished
it in 1967 when they captured the city." Whenever
confronted with these contradictory versions and asked for a
definite answer, his winning formula was that "my father was
from Gaza and my mother from Jerusalem."
These claims, especially his connection to Jerusalem and the-Israelis'
demolition of his alleged birth house, create a neat
symmetry between Arafat's personal biography and the
collective Palestinian experience of loss and dispossession,
despite both Arafat's birth certificate and university records
naming Cairo as his birthplace, as well as his strong Egyptian
accent betraying a childhood spent in Cairo's schools. Indeed,
throughout his decades at the helm of the PLO, Arafat has never
been able to overcome the widespread displeasure among the
organization's rank and file with his strong Egyptian accent.
Dialects and accents constitute a central element of collective
identity in Arab societies, not least among Palestinians with their
persistent sense of loss and the attendant attempt to construct a
national consciousness. Every Arab can detect, on the basis of
dialect, accent, or intonation, his interlocutor's regional origin,
and Arafat's accent leaves little doubt as to his Egyptian, rather
than Palestinian, origin. Salah Khalaf (better known by his nom
de guerre, Abu Iyad), Arafat's close associate throughout their
political careers, recalled his deep dismay at discovering, during
their first meeting in Cairo in the 1950s, the heavy Egyptian
accent of an aspiring chairman of the Palestinian student union.
He wasn't the only one to feel this way. When in the spring of
1966 Arafat was arrested by the Syrian authorities for
involvement in the murder of a Palestinian activist, Abu Iyad
rushed to Damascus, together with his fellow Fatah leader
Farouq Qad-doumi, to secure his release. In a meeting with
General Hafez al-Assad, then Syria's defense minister, the two
were confronted with a virulent tirade against Arafat. "You're
fooled that he is a Palestinian," Assad said. "He isn't. He's an
Egyptian agent." This was a devastating charge, especially in
light of the acrimonious state of Egyptian-Syrian relations at the
time, and one that rested solely on Arafat's Egyptian dialect. Yet
for Assad this was a sufficient indictment. "You can go to
Mezza [the prison] and take [him] away," he said eventually.
"But remember one thing: I do not trust Arafat and I never
will." Assad was true to his word until his death on June 10,
Such is the extent of Arafat's sensitivity to his Egyptian origin
that in his meetings with his subjects in the West Bank and
Gaza, whom he has come to rule since the mid-1990s as part of
the Oslo process, he is regularly accompanied by an aide who
whispers in his ear the correct words in Palestinian Arabic
whenever the chairman is overtaken by his Egyptian dialect.
Nor did Arafat take any part in the formative experience of
Palestinian consciousness-the collapse and dispersion of
Palestine's Arab community during the 1948 war-in spite of
his extensive mythmaking about this period. "I am a refugee," he
argued emotionally in a 1969 interview. "Do you know what it
means to be a refugee? I am a poor and helpless man. I have
nothing, for I was expelled and dispossessed of my
As a native and resident of Egypt, Arafat lost no childhood
home in Palestine, nor witnessed any of his close relatives
expelled and transformed into destitute refugees. As a
Palestinian biographer of Arafat observed, "He was not a child
of Al Nakba or the disaster, as Palestinians call the 1948 defeat,
nor did his father lose the source of his livelihood." Arafat
himself complained to a close childhood friend, "My father
didn't leave me even two meters of Palestine."
Arafat's bragging about his illustrious war record is equally
dubious. One famous story involves the young Arafat stopping
an attack by twenty-four Jewish tanks in the area that would
come to be known as the Gaza Strip by knocking out the first
and the last and trapping the others. Another story tells of
Arafat being the "youngest officer" in the militia force of Abdel
Qader Husseini, scion of a prominent Jerusalem family, whose
death in the battle for the city in early April 1948 instantaneously
transformed him from a controversial figure with a mediocre
military record into a national hero. "I was in Jerusalem when
the Zionists tried to take over the city and make it theirs," Arafat
is fond of saying.
I fought with my father and brother in the streets against the
Jewish oppressors, but we were out-manned and had no
weapons comparable to what the Jews had. We were finally
forced to flee leaving all our possessions behind ... My father
gathered us-my mother, my brothers and sisters, our
grandparents-and we fled. We walked for days across the
desert with nothing but a few canteens of water. It was June. We
passed through the village of Deir Yasin and saw what the Jews
had done there-a horrible massacre. Finally we reached Gaza,
where my father's family had some land. We were exhausted
and destitute. It was upon our arrival that I vowed to dedicate
my life to the recovery of my homeland.
Like other parts of Arafat's biography, this account contains a
mix of dramatic ingredients designed to transform his alleged
personal experience into the embodiment of Palestinian history:
a heroic but hopeless struggle against a brutal and superior
enemy, a crushing defeat and the attendant loss and exile. Not
only did the Israeli army have no tanks when this alleged incident
took place (May 10, 1948), but according to another of Arafat's
own accounts he was in Jerusalem at the time and did not take
part in the fighting in Gaza. As for Arafat's alleged participation
in the battle for Jerusalem, when asked whether he actually
engaged in combat operations, he retorted angrily: "You are
completely ignorant, I am sorry to say. You have no idea. The
British army was still there with all its armaments. The main
British forces were in Jerusalem."
With regard to the alleged escape of Arafat's family to freedom,
aside from telling two of his biographers that he had arrived in
Jerusalem (in late April 1948) on his own, making no mention of
other family members,15 the village of Deir Yasin was captured
by Jewish forces in early April 1948, like most of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem
highway, and there was absolutely no way for
Palestinian refugees to cross it on their flight. But even if some
refugees had passed through the village in June, they would have
found no traces of "the horrible massacre" that had taken place
two months earlier. Had Arafat and his family really fled
Jerusalem via the desert, as he claims, they would have gone in
the opposite direction of Deir Yasin. But then the tragedy of
Deir Yasin, where some one hundred people were killed in the
fighting (the figure given at the time was more than twice as
high), has become the defining episode of Palestinian
victimization, and as such an obvious choice for appropriation
The truth is that while the Palestinian Arabs were going through
the trauma of defeat and dispersal, Arafat "was completing
secondary school in Cairo and did not stray far from the
Egyptian capital during the great catastrophe." He was of
course as mindful as the next man of the unfolding Palestinian
tragedy, but it is hard to say whether it affected him on a
personal level, as he did not even do what thousands of non-Palestinian
Arabs did-Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and the like-and
volunteer to fight in Palestine.
It was only natural for Arafat, by way of bridging the glaring gap
between his personal biography and the wider Palestinian
experience, to create a mythical aura around himself from his
first days of political activity in the early 1950s at King Fuad
University in Cairo. This was the only way he could compensate
for his inherent inferiority vis-à-vis fellow Palestinian students,
who really did arrive in Egypt as destitute and dispossessed
refugees, and establish his credentials as a quintessential
Palestinian, equal to the ambitious task of national leadership he
had earmarked for himself. The higher he climbed, the greater
was his entanglement in the intricate web of lies and fiction he
had woven, steadily blurring the line between his own persona
and that of Palestinian collective identity. In the words of two
sympathetic biographers: "His own murky identity [is] a
metaphor for all the Palestinians. He is the fatherless father, the
motherless son, the selfless symbol of a people without identity,
the ultimate man without a country."
This carefully contrived world of self-invention, where reality
and fiction blend, was to become Arafat's defining
characteristic. He claims to have declined a studentship from the
University of Texas in the early 1950s, but according to one
biographer it is unlikely that he had ever been accepted given his
poor command of the English language and the strict
requirements at that time that foreign students have both a clean
political slate and proof of the means to support themselves. He
boasts of cofounding a construction company during his stay in
Kuwait during the 1950s and the early 1960s, which made him a
millionaire, while in actuality he was an ordinary civil servant
who moonlighted in his free time, earning thousands rather than
millions of dollars. His boasts of guerrilla exploits in the West
Bank and Gaza in the months attending their occupation by
Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, where he was supposedly on
the run from the Israeli authorities until early 1968, are dismissed
by two of his biographers as being almost certainly an
Arafat's gift for invention extends well beyond his personal
biography. Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Yugoslav president
Josip Broz Tito, a staunch supporter of the PLO, sent a
television crew to film a "model raid" on Israeli targets.
Receiving the crew in Damascus, Arafat promised to lead the
raid in person, asking the Yugoslavs to wait for him at a certain
spot near the Lebanese-Israeli border. They waited there for
two full days, only to return to Damascus empty-handed after
Arafat failed to show.
Meeting the furious director again in his office, Arafat offered to
stage a mock raid on the spot. He instructed the crew to start
filming while he sat behind his desk shouting some orders. A
number of young fighters dashed into the office and Arafat
indicated to them certain areas on a huge map of Palestine, after
which the fighters saluted him and left the room. When the
filming was over, the director was beside himself with
enthusiasm. "You're a good actor, Chairman Arafat." "I used to
be, you know," Arafat retorted.
Even among Arafat's admirers and followers he has been
viewed as a congenital liar, so much so that in May 1966 he was
suspended from his post as Fatah's military commander for,
among other things, sending "false reports especially in the
military field." "Arafat tells a lie in every sentence" is how a
senior Romanian intelligence officer with whom Arafat worked
closely described the PLO chairman, while one of Arafat's
intimate Palestinian associates has said, "If Arafat ever once
stumbled and told the truth, he would say, 'Please forgive
Terje Larsen, a Norwegian academic who played an important
role in the conclusion of the Oslo accords and who later became
the United Nations special envoy to the Middle East, recalled an
occasion when Arafat was attempting to persuade the Israeli
foreign minister Shimon Peres that Peres had made a specific
commitment to him:
Arafat said, "You told me on the phone-" Peres said, "No."
Arafat said, "Yes, you said so. Larsen was there in my office.
And Mr. Dennis [Ross]" (U.S. peace mediator). "Larsen, you
are my international witness. Mr. Peres, I have an international
witness!" Everyone else in the room knew that this was
The American-Arab academic Edward Said had a similar
experience some fifteen years earlier when he passed on to
Arafat the U.S. administration's offer to recognize the PLO in
return for the latter's implicit acquiescence in Israel's existence.
[I]n March of 1979 I flew to Beirut and went to see Arafat. I
said to him, We need an answer. The first thing he said was, I
never received the message. So for at least ten minutes he began
to deny that any message came. Luckily, Shafiq al-Hout
[director of the PLO's Beirut office] was sitting with us in the
room and he said, I delivered the message to you. Arafat said, I
have no recollection of it. Shafiq went into the next room and
brought a copy of it. Arafat looked at it and said, All right,
tomorrow I'll give you my answer.
Others had a less cavalier attitude toward Arafat's inability to tell
Excerpted from Arafat's War
by Efraim Karsh
Copyright © 2003 by Efraim Karsh.
Excerpted by permission.
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This masterful expose demonstrates convincingly once and for all that Arafat's goal is, and always has been, the destruction of the Jewish state. Karsh shows that Arafat, while shamelessly lining his own pockets with billions in donations from gullible donor nations and organizations, continues to arm and employ as many terrorist killers as he can. Karsh makes clear any state headed by Arafat will perforce be a terrorist state.