What a difference a birthplace makes: How, contrary to the facts, was Arafat born in Jerusalem?

One of the pieces of information leaked to the Arabs at Camp David (to Muhammad el-Abzi of the international Al-Quds newspaper) stated that Prime Minister Ehud Barak suggested to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat that he set up his presidential offices in the village of Abu Dis, which is actually a suburb of East Jerusalem.

Abu Dis is even closer to the Old City and the Temple Mount than the Israeli Knesset building, and Barak allegedly said to Arafat that this would make it possible for him to pray every day at the Al Aqsa mosque.

To this Arafat purportedly replied, “My office will be in the Old City, on the property that is registered in my family’s name, the Al-Qadwa family.”.There seems to be some mistake in this statement, because there is no evidence that the Al-Qadwa family, which is Arafat’s father’s family, had any property in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The family that did have property there, and still does, is the Abu Sa’ud family, which is Arafat’s mother’s family. The large old house belonging to the Abu Sa’ud family tribe, which was among the oldest and most established Arab families in Jerusalem, stood on what is now the southern corner of the plaza in front of the Western Wall, adjacent to the Mugrabi Gate that leads from the plaza to the Al Aqsa mosque.

That house was destroyed in the summer of 1967 in accordance with a decision by the government of Israel to evacuate and demolish the whole Mugrabi neighborhood in order to expand the plaza at the foot of the Wall.

Arafat has claimed in the past that he was an eyewitness to the destruction of his mother’s home. In the summer of 1967 he was still an unknown figure, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization sent him to infiltrate the West Bank via the Jordan river in order to set up a cell of guerillas to wage a grass roots war against the Israeli occupation. After spending a few weeks in the underground here, Arafat returned to east of the Jordan river, and that is apparently the last time he visited Jerusalem.

Arafat has, of course, enormous national, religious and political interest in Jerusalem, and it was the reason that the sides did not succeed in reaching an accord at Camp David. This interest, however, is coupled with a complex personal story. All the official PLO publications have always stated that Arafat was born in August 1929 in his family’s home in East Jerusalem.

Several newspaper researchers have investigated this statement and found it to be untrue.

Arafat was born in Cairo. His father, Abd al Ra’uf Arafat Al-Qadwa, was the son of a well-known family from Gaza and nearby Khan-Yunis, who had married Zahava Abu-Sa’ud from Jerusalem. In 1927, the couple had emigrated from Palestine and settled in Egypt. Two years later their son Yasser was born. When Yasser was three years old, his mother died and his father sent him to spend some time with his mother’s family in Jerusalem. During the 1930s, Yasser lived alternately in Jerusalem and in Gaza, and after his father remarried, his family sent him back to Cairo, where he spent the rest of his youth.

What is bad about this biography? Is something not correct? It seems that during Arafat’s early years as a PLO activist, he found it a great drawback to have been born in Egypt, in a foreign country, and not in the Palestinian homeland.

His friends also found it strange. Many of the young Arabs who volunteered to serve the PLO immediately after the Six-Day War noted with astonishment that their leader, whom they were meeting for the first time, spoke Arabic with an Egyptian accent. Arabs from Middle Eastern countries can easily recognize the country of origin of any other Arab they meet by his accent – and here the man who claimed to be a warrior representing and leading the Palestinian people spoke with an Egyptian accent.

Could the solution to the hardship of the Palestinian people and the refugees be spearheaded by a man whose speech indicated that he was not a Palestinian and was apparently also not a refugee?

Not only this, but the issue of birthplace is also among the most important components of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There is hardly a discussion in which the Palestinian claim of birthright is not raised – they were born here, this is their homeland, and they therefore deserve sovereignty over it. This counters the Jewish claim to the land, inasmuch as the Jews are foreigners, most of whom were born abroad and immigrated here.

And what could Arafat say to all this, when he, too, was born abroad? Furthermore, his father and mother left their homeland of their own free will. They were not expelled by a hostile imperialistic government and were not refugees displaced by a wave of Jewish settlers who stole their land, but they had simply picked up and gone down to Egypt because they felt they could earn a lot of money there (Arafat’s father apparently emigrated to Egypt to claim ownership of a plot of land in Cairo that had belonged to his grandmother). How credible could all the Palestinian claims to standing firm on their ownership of their homeland be if the father of the national leader deserted the homeland to chase after riches?

Arafat was aware of all this. He understood that it would be better for whoever wanted to lead the Palestinian nationalistic struggle if his biography stated that he was born in Palestine, and there is no better birthplace than the Old City of Jerusalem, in a house adjacent to the Al Aqsa mosque.

It was easy for Arafat to say that he was born in Jerusalem because he was familiar with his grandparents’ home from his childhood. When, several years ago, journalists showed him copies of his birth certificate and other documents attesting to his birth in Egypt, he replied that they were forgeries made by his father so that he would be exempt from paying tuition, as are all Egyptian residents who were born in Egypt. Arafat said that his mother came back from Cairo to Jerusalem to give birth to him in the family home, adding that he spent most of his childhood in Jerusalem and only went to Cairo when he had almost finished elementary school. On several occasions Arafat related his blurred memories as a child in the Old City, near the Wall, when there were clashes between Jews and Arabs during the pogroms (or the Arab rebellion, as they call it) of 1936 to 1939.

In interviews during the 1980s and 1990s, Arafat gave detailed accounts of the years he spent in the Abu-Sa’ud family home in Jerusalem, and spoke very little of the Al-Qadwa family home in Gaza, or about his youth and freedom in Cairo.

There are very few members of the Abu-Sa’ud family tribe still living in Jerusalem. Arafat’s closest relatives there are some first cousins, the descendents of his mother’s brothers and sisters. One of them, the engineer Ahmed Al Husseini who died recently, was the head of the East Jerusalem Electric Company. The family still owns a house and a plot of land in Ras el Amud, above the village of Silwan, next to the section of land that was purchased by philanthropist and settlement supporter Irving Moskowitz, on which a small Jewish neighborhood is now being built.

The place on which the original family home stood, below the Mugrabi Gate, currently serves Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall plaza. Even if a permanent accord grants Arafat presidential office space in the Old City, it is highly unlikely that it would be on the spot where his grandparents’ home once stood.

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