Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in The Media Line - November 12, 2010 - 1:00am

Six years after he died in a Paris hospital, leaving behind a failed peace process and a Palestinian government plagued by inefficiency and corruption, Yasser Arafat remains the object of veneration by Palestinians, even as they are divided between nationalist and Islamic factions.

Construction on a museum dedicated to his life and containing many of his personal effects – including the black-and-white keffiyeh he turned into a symbol of Palestinian nationhood – has begun in the Muqata compound in Ramallah, where Arafat spent his last years besieged by Israeli troops.

With the Palestinians split between the followers of Arafat’s Fatah organization and the Islamic Hamas movement, many rue the loss of a leader who for all his faults succeeded in keeping the Palestinians united under the single rubric of the Palestine Liberation Organization for close to four decades.

“The Gaza split would never have happened had Arafat remained alive,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst based in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “He is missed for his ability to keep the Palestinian people united.”

Arafat died at the age of 75 on November 11, 2004 in a Paris hospital of an undisclosed ailment. An autopsy was never performed.

He commanded such respect among Palestinians that he was able to steer the PLO away from its declared aim of destroying Israel and seek a negotiated peace agreement that would lead to a Palestinian state. Today, Israeli leaders are engaged in on-again-off-again talks, but most are skeptical that the current generation of Palestinian leaders is strong enough to deliver on any peace agreement.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat’s successor, remains committed to negotiations, but his writ is limited to the West Bank. The Hamas movement, which rejects negotiations and claims to speak for all the Palestinian people, controls the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, the two sides failed again in efforts to end their rift.

The Arafat museum, which will cost about $3.5 million to build, will showcase thousands of objects: photographs, sunglasses, pistols, and the former PLO chairman’s trademark military-style suits. It will also feature an archive of his writings, and the last keffiyeh he wore.

“It’s not washed. It even still has his smell,” Tami Rafidi, one of the museum’s curators, told The Media Line.

The museum is scheduled to open by November 2011, and will be free to the public. It is being financed by the Yasser Arafat Foundation, which was founded in 2008 to preserve Arafat’s legacy by Abbas, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, along with other Palestinian and Arab leaders, politicians and intellectuals.

Rafidi said Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has so far refused to hand over Arafat-related items it holds, including the Nobel Peace Prize Arafat was awarded in 1994 along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for signing the Oslo Accords

While Hamas officially venerates Arafat, it is arch enemies with his Fatah movement, which is still lead by Arafat’s allies. At an Arafat memorial in Gaza today, Hamas’s security forces detained international television crews filming and ordered them to turn over their footage. The Islamist organization also banned photographers from covering the event.

In a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, over 86% of those polled said they missed Arafat, even if some said he left behind a mixed legacy.

“He was a very complicated character,” said Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director at the American Task Force in Palestine, and a former adviser to Abbas. “On the positive side, he founded the movement, but on the negative he brought in a lot of corruption.”

Al-Omari told The Media Line that Palestinians miss Arafat so much because he was a “mythical leader” with great charisma. “For Palestinians he’s imprinted into the collective consciousness,” al-Omari said.

By comparison, the people leading the Palestinians today have failed to capture popular imagination. The economy of the West Bank is booming while security and government efficiency have improved under the leadership of Abbas. But polls show little support for the Palestinian Authority president, who only garnered an 18.9% approval rating in a recent survey from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Hamas doesn’t fare much better among Palestinians, even though it scored a historic victory in 2006 elections, ending the near monopoly of power Fatah wielded over the Palestinian movement. Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, received just a 9.7% approval rating.

In Israel, Arafat is little respected even though he opted in 1993 to go the route of negotiations rather than violence to achieve his dream of a Palestinian state. Indeed, many Israelis doubt Arafat was a genuine advocate of peace and question whether Palestinian moderates, like Abbas, are any different.

“Arafat never had any intention to make peace with Israel,” Mordechai Kedar, research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told The Media Line. “He used and abused naïve Israelis who fell in love with some of his expressions and thought he was serious about making peace.”

But for Palestinians, Arafat remains a symbol and the father of their national movement.

“He was responsible for keeping the Palestinian issue on the table for years,” said al-Omari. “For a lot of people, the rest is just details.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017