Arafat: From Defender to Dictator
by Said Aburish
Bloomsbury Publishers, London, 1998
Born August 24, 1929 in Cairo. Named Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat Al Qudua Al Husseini.(Muhammed Abdel Rahman-first name, Abdel Raouf – father’s name, Al Qudaua – grandfather’s name, Al Husseini – klan name). (page 7)
1927 – The family had moved from Gaza to Cairo, after Arafat’s father gained some land from a questionable law suit. (page 9)
1933 – Arafat’s mother dies. Father cannot deal with seven children alone so he decides to send Arafat and his brother Fathi to their uncle Selim Abul Saoud, in Jerusalem. (page 11)
1937 – Father calls the two brothers back to Cairo to help take care of the rest of the children. Ever since than, Arafat disliked his father and never forgave him for making him leave Jerusalem. Once back in Cairo, in order to escape his father, Arafat started to visit the Al Akbar family. That is where Arafat got his Koran training, while he started running a neighborhood gang creating a small army of Muslims. Jews and Christians in the neighborhood were not allowed to join because Arafat’s gang needed an enemy. (pages 13 -14)
1946 – Hajj Amin Al Husseini, Mufti of Palestine arrived in Cairo from six years of exile in Nazi Germany, along ith Adul Saoud, who was of distant relation to Arafat whom he called ‘uncle.’ Also, Sheikh Hassan who was a Palestinian nationalistic leader and the Mufti’s chief assistant and personal advisor, had arrived in Cairo after the British exiled him.
At age 17, Arafat became the Sheikh’s errand boy. Yasser did everything from personally delivering important letter from the Arab Higher Committee to visiting Arab leaders; offices of the Arab League, collected money from sympathetic donors, and reported on pro – Palestinian Arab activities in Egyptian schools and universities. (pages 15 -16)
1947 – Arafat entered King Fuad I (now Cairo University) with financial backing and a push from Sheikh Hassan, always at student political meetings and Palestinian gatherings. He began buying arms and sending them the Mufti’s Arab partisans in Palestine. (page 16)
1948 – when the British left and the Arab – Israeli war broke out, Yasser and many of his classmates returned to Gaza. (page 17) He got to Palestine as a member of Al Ikhwan Al Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood). Being part of the Muslim Brotherhood at that time less disccounts what Arafat said about fighting alongside Abdel Kader Al Husseini -, a marytred military leader in Palestine and the Mufti’s cousin. Abdel Kader saw the Muslim Brotherhood as the opposition.
This was when Yasser adopted the name Yasser Arafat and stopped using his given names. (Yasser bin Ammar was a celebrated Muslim warrior and companion of the prophet. By calling himself by this name, Arafat enhanced his religious credentials). Later on, Arafat also used the name Abu Ammar. Being the ‘father’ of someone or something showed to be an important title in Muslim society. (page 21)
1949 – Arafat returned to Cairo with fabricated stories of his heroism in the war. (He claimed he was a special military assistant to Abdel Kader during the battle of Jerusalem, except that the Muslim Brotherhood never got to the Jerusalem area). (page 18)
Arafat believed that Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq who were all involved in the 1948 war were all struck with incompetent leadership and corruption. If they would have stayed out of the war, Arafat was sure that the Palestinians would have won. (page 19)
The Arab Higher Committee of the Mufti and the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the Arab armies for not being prepared and for the corruption of the regimes, without admitting that they were guilty of the same thing.
Arafat adopted the Higher Committee’s views of distinguishing efforts of groups like the Muslim Brothers from the failure of the Arab armies and he praised Arab fighters who belonged to popular movements and distinguished them from the governments of their countries. (page 20)
When Arafat returned to Cairo he joined 2 groups:
- Egyptian Union of Students – whose aim was to treat the causes for the 1948 defeat and punish King Farouk for it. (Membership to this group was closed to Palestinian Arabs). (page 21)
- Federation of Palestinian students.
Arafat’s commitment was to the Muslim Brotherhood because the Brotherhood was committed to an inclusive Islamic picture which was bigger than an Palestinian or Egyptian.
Arafat began publishing a magazine called ‘The Voice of Palestine’ which promised to fight the Zionist entity. He continued to help needy Palestinian students by using his contacts to get them into Egyptian universities. (page 23)
1950 – Arafat finished his first year of university, at age 22. (A former classmate said that he had to take the required math course 3 years in a row – making Arafat reluctant to discusshis higher education). (page 25)
1951 – Arafat was elected as chairman to the Federation of Palestinian Students. Meanwhile, he became friends with a Muslim Brotherhood card – carrier named Salah Khalaf – later close associate and became Abu Iyad of Fatah and the PLO. The Muslim Brotherhood supported his election because he incorporated their demands. (pages 23 – 24)
1952 – Egyptian army overthrew the monarchy and Gamal Abdel Nasser came into power. Meanwhile, Arafat’s father died in Gaza. Arafat did not go to his father’s funeral.
Arafat’s friends and political associates of the Muslim Brotherhood were exiled to Gaza. Arafat was not exiled, because the authorities thought that he was Egyptian.(p. 28)
When Nassar came to power, Arafat went to join the fedayeen (“self – sacrificers”) who raided Israel from the Egyptian controlled Gaza strip. (page 29)
1953 – Arafat was elected chairman of the larger General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) – an older organization with branches in all Arab countries. (page 23) GUPS were probably the most important Palestinian organization in the Middle East.
1953-54 Arafat applied to the University of Texas and applied to emigrate to Canada. (page 26)
1956 – Arafat finished his degree in civil engineering. He continued to chair GUPS. In August, Arafat traveled for the first time overseas to Prague to attend a meeting of the International Students’ Congress, with the executive committee of GUPS. Without telling anyone, he made his first appearance in a white Kuffiya. (1936-39, the kuffiya had been the symbol of the Palestinian Arab fighters in the failed Arab revolt against the British in Palestine). Arafat recounted how he cried on the streets of Prague when he saw Israeli Jaffa oranges being sold, which he was unable to buy in either Gaza or Cairo. (page 31)
Late 1950’s – The Muslim Brotherhood went to the Suez Canal zone to harass the British. Arafat went to the canal zone with units of the Muslim Brotherhood. (This was an all Egyptian affair. Other Arabs and Muslims did not participate). When the British troops decided to evacuate the canal area, Nassar decided to send all young men of Egypt for military training. Arafat was trained as an Egyptian army bomb disposal officer and finished the Suez campaign as a first lieutenant. (page 30)
1957 – The United States, United Nations, and the USSR wanted to stop the conflict in the canal zone between the Egyptians and the Israelis. The UN sent in UNEF forces as a buffer between the two. Arafat, disgusted by Nassar and UNEF presence, that he applied for a Saudi visa. After waiting months to obtain it, he decided to get a Kuwaiti visa instead and he got a job as a civil engineer with the Kuwaiti Ministry of Public Works.
In order for an outsider to secure employment in the Kuwait, depended on the sponsorship of an important citizen or company. Arafat had some influential friends because Arafat had a poor academic record and no real work experience, he had no real qualifications. Applicants for jobs in Kuwait were always thoroughly investigated. Kuwait chose to hire and grant residency to a man who did not have many qualifications and had a long history of political involvement, while at the time, its companies were employing people based on their qualifications, not their political involvement. Kuwait was then refusing to grant visas to members of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), the pan – Arab Ba’ath party, and many more. (pages 34-35)
Arafat and many of his Muslim Brotherhood friends moved to Kuwait because Egypt was unwelcoming and most of the other Arab countries considered them dangerous. Most of Arafat’s friends secured Kuwaiti government jobs. All of Arafat’s friends from the Muslim Brortherhood in Egypt and Gaza had reunited in Kuwait. Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad, Adil Abdel Karim, Mohammed Yusuf Al Najjar, Khalid Al Amira, Abdel Fatah Lahmoud – who eventually became the founding members of Fatah, had no difficulties entering Kuwait.(35)
1959 – Arafat’s group in Kuwait began making their appeal to the Palestinian people.
Harakat Thrir Filastin, Arabic acronym reversed into Fatah – Koranic word for ‘conquest.’
They began publishing a monthly magazine, ‘Filastinuna, Nida’Al Hayat (Our Palestine, The Call of Life), shortly before they adapted the name Fatah. It was printed in Beirut without revealing the names of the editors and contributors, they only gave a PO Box number. (page 40)
The magazine was distributed in many Arab countries, yet, because of strict censorship, it did not reach Egypt and Syria. Certainly it did not reach the average Palestinian. Those who published Filistinuna, created Fatah. There is no exact date of the birth of Fatah. 1959 is commonly used. (page 40)
The magazine was edited by Abu Jihad, who had the highest educational level of the group. However, Arafat insisted on writing his own articles since he used his own money to finance the magazine. Filastinuna had a lot of passion and called for the eradication of Israel. (page 41)
Fatah called for the liberation of Palestine through an armed struggle to be carried out by the Palestinian Arabs themselves. Those Palestinians were called the Children of the Catastrophe. Fatah favored an independent Palestinian policy and wanted to arm the Palestinians in order to liberate their country. Fatah thought that liberation came before Arab unity, which in the other Arab nations, it went the other way around. Fatah’s philosophy was not to expect anything from the Arab regimes. They had two strategies for dealing with political conditions in the Middle East: condemn the West for helping to create Israel and to continue to support them. Fatah lost the connection with the Muslim Brotherhood because their ideas of an Islamic identity to the Palestinian problem and the call to Jihad, were in conflict (pages 42-43)
Arafat was still upset withother Arab governments for their lack of success in 1948. He constantly used terms such as: “Violence is the only solution” and “Liberating Palestine could only take place through the barrel of a gun.” He refused to acknowledge the efforts of the other Arab governments and made fun of them. Arafat always criticized Arab governments but he never wanted to alienate any of them. (page 42)
1960 – Arafat divided Fatah into cells and saw to it that no one cell or member was unaware to the activities of the rest. He got rid of doubters who questioned his authority and some he forced to resign. He used to strategic decisions to keep Fatah in existence: Arafat refused to join in Arab feuds and he detached the business of raising money from becoming politically dependant on the donors. (pages 47-48)
Arafat only accepted money that did not put constraints on his freedom of action. (page 48)
Arafat then became a guerrilla leader who also organized in Syria. Arafat placed Fatah above all of the other Palestinian groups including the PLO. He used Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria as bases where he could infiltrate Israel. (page 65)
Arafat’s first target were the wealthy Palestinians who lived in oil – rich countries, the people who had an interest in promoting a conservative, independent Palestinian movement. Arafat also sought help from thousands of Palestinian professionals who were working in the Gulf. However, whoever donated did not became a member of Fatah. Arafat also received assistance from the political and powerful. The Mufti of Jerusalem, who had taken refuge in Egypt, was fearful for the success of Palestinian radical groups, so he gave money to Fatah. Arafat came in touch with members of the Kuwaiti royal family saying, that through Fatah they were increasing the chance for an armed struggle and they were contributing to Palestine. (page 49)
1961, he decided to expand his fund – raising to Qatar. At first he was unable to succeed, but he became friends with Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen of the Oslo Peace Accords. The two of them were eventually able to get large sums of unconditional contributions from the royal family in Qatar. (page 51)
After Qatar, Arafat performed the same magic touch in Libya. (page 52)
Arafat was using money received from the pro-West oil-rich Arab countries to buy arms from Communist and socialist countries. (page 56)
Arafat came in contact with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum (Ahmad Yamani), whom Arafat was able to talk into giving Fatah a substantial amount of money. By 1965, Yamani presented Arafat to Saudi King Faisal who gave Arafat millions. (pages 58-59)
1961 – in Syria, Arafat visited Syria as a representative of Fatah. Syria had just become independent, but they still considered Palestine part of Syria. The Palestinians and the Syrians were already supporting small palestinian guerrilla groups that were conducting raids on Israel. One group was the Palestinian Liberation Front. Arafat considered Syria a safe ally because they did not have enough money to buy Arafat.(53) Furthermore, there were 150,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria who acted as potential recruits for Arafat’s Palestinian force. Syria had hosted numerous Palestinian political groups, but according. to former members of Fatah, there was not another group who could have competed with Arafat’s financial resources. In order to recruit Palestinian fighters, Arafat offered recruits 18 sterling a month. (page 54)
By 1962, Fatah had 200-300 civilian members and no fighters. Eventually, with Arafat’s bribes and salesmanship, young Palestinian refugees grabbed the chance to join Fatah. (page 55)
1962 – the success of the Algerian revolution of keeping an identity alive through reliance on Islam and the use of a guerrilla army against a stronger force, posed as a model that Arafat wanted to copy. (page 53)
By late 1962, Fatah started sending recruits to Algeria for training. Even better, in 1963, Iraq also accomodated training camps for new Fatah members. (page 55)
1963 – Fatah’s headquarters were moved to Syria. First Arafat moved, disguising himself as a lowly official driving an unsuspicious car and soon the others followed. (page 53)
1964 – Fatah began regional activities. Arafat began sending infiltrators to the West Bank with Syrian approval and help. He also sent organizers to Gaza. Others went to Beirut, which at the time was the center of Middle Eastern journalism and many Palestinian intellectuals had settled there. Lebanon also contained 200,000 Palestinian refugees. (page 56)
In May, 1964, the PLO held a conference in the Intercontinetal Hotel in Jerusalem where they issued a National covenant which committed it to the idea of an armed struggle and appointed itself the representative of the Palestinian people, the guardian of their interests in the Arab world and internationally. ‘Armed struggle’ was not part of the original program of the PLO nor its army. (Arafat did not know whether to joint the PLO or to dissolve Fatah and disappear). Arafat did not attend the Jerusalem meeting instead he sent a delegation of a dozen Fatah members, who did not participate, they just listened. At the same meeting the Palestine National Council (PNC) was composed in a parliamentary – style body which was to control the PLO. Also under the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army was formed. (The PNC was an elitist assembly with little support among Palestinians in refugee camps and in the West Bank and Gaza). (page 57)
Arafat was hoping to be named military commander of Fatah, but his colleagues refused to appoint him. Arafat even though disappointed, took responsibility for the training of troops. Since Arafat was responsible for training camps and the trainees, he was blamed when the Palestinian guerrilla force roved to be ineffective. (page 60)
1966 – Arafat was arrested in April for trying to blow up Tapline, the line carrying Saudi oil to the Mediterranean. Arafat had fired the man who was previously appointed Military Commander, and appointed himself to the position, no one objected. However, in May, he was suspended from the position for refusing to accept the principle of collective leadership, organizing raids on his own and misuse of funds.(62)
Arafat took the defeat of 1967 and turned it to his benefit by turning himself and his group into the symbol of Palestinian resistance and Arab rejection of the loss. (page 70)
When Arafat made his way into the West Bank under Israeli control by disguising himself, he made contact with some Fatah followers. He divided the whole region into southern, central, and northern sectors (Hebron, Jerusalem, and Nablus). He told the local Fatah members to start recruitment in their areas. However, ordinary people of the West Bank were reluctant to join him. (page 72)
Furthermore, the rich and influential Palestinian leaders wanted nothing to do with him. (page 73)
They wanted to maintain the positions of power which Jordan had given them and they did not want Fatah to take charge. They did not trust Arafat or his organization, they considered him and enemy and saw King Hussein as their protector. (page 74)
After three months of failure, Arafat decided to join his colleagues who had moved from Syria to Jordan to set up camps. (page 75)
Arafat had no success with recruiting local Palestinians and thought that he could threaten the public by eliminating those who were collaborating with Israel openly and others whom he offered bribes.
At the same time, the PLO set up the Revolutionary Command Council to
 rival guerrilla campaign. (page 73)
organization in the name of national unity only after Fatah was promised 33 seats on the Palestine National Council (out of 10 seats) and 57 seats were given to the guerrilla groups. (page 78)
1968 – After Fatah became a member of the PLO and its most important component, Arafat invited seven guerrilla groups to join him in establishing a joint command for guerrilla action against Israel. (p. 78)
Arafat was sending groups of Palestinians to train in the Egyptian military and intelligence schools. (Five hundred volunteers from the West Bank were sent to training camps in Syria, Iraq, and Algeria). (page 78)
Special emphasis was placed on the training of educated young Palestinians from Europe and other countries. (pages 78-79)
Fatah’s money raising activities in the oil-rich countries were becoming more successful than ever, while raids from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon into Israel were increasing. (page 79)
One of the Jordanian towns, Karameh, which was located on the main road connecting the West Bank with the Jordan, was repeatedly being attacking by Israel. (page 79)
(Karameh means dignity in Arabic and its name, together with its position and the presence of the refugees, contributed to Arafat’s decision to make his headquarters there with his three hundred Fatah fighters). (pages 79-80)
After the battle for Karameh, volunteers from all over the Arab world came to Jordan to join Fatah. One thousand Egyptians appeared at to Fatah offices in their country to offer their services. Small numbers of Germans, Scandinavians, French, South Americans and nationals of other non-Arab countries also joined. (page 83)
Futhermore, donations from Arab nations increased and Arafat expanded guerrilla training facilities in Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Egypt.
Meanwhile, the French government under General Charles de Gaulle had become the first major non-Arab country to accept a permanent Fatah representative. (page 90)
In Lebanon – Arafat moved hundreds of his poorly trained fighters into Lebanon where he set up a command center in the Fakhani district of Beirut. The Palestinians were creating a ‘country’ of their own which they named Fakhani Republic after the area in Beirut which they occupied. (pages 93-94)
In 1969, help was coming from new governments of the Sudan and Libya. Donations and offers of assistance came as far away from Pakistan and Malaysia. (page 84), while Arafat started a military program to train ten-to-thirteen yearold refugee children. (page 88)
The Damascus-based Fatah leadership was uneasy about some of Arafat’s activities but they still decided to appoint him the organization’s official spokesman, meaning that every item of news carried the imprint of Al Assifa (the military wing of Fatah) had to have Arafat’s personal approval. (page 86)
Yet by 1968, after the battle of Karameh, some Arab governments increased their financial contributions and encouraged the collection of money for Fatah non-governmental organizations. Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other wealthy countries contributed unknown millions of dollars in direct assistance, and Arab businessmen everywhere competed with each other in their donations. (page 84), while Libya, Syria, Iraq, the USSR and China each sponsored specific groups within the PLO. (page 102)
Oil-rich states always provided him with financial support which went into funds controlled by Arafat personally. Once a Palestinian construction magnate gave the PLO $70 million, but to this day not even the dead man’s family knows what happened to this money. Other smaller bequests and donations also went missing. (page 195)
Through the years, Arafat lived alone in a small apartment that the Ministry of Public Works provided. His apartment always had 2 or 3 sports cars parked in front. He liked to have many at one time. He did not have a woman companion and furthermore said he was not interested at the time. During this time in Kuwait, there was a shortage of manual laborers to perform light maintenance and building work. This is how Arafat made his money, operating a network of several thousand workers who transmitted funds to him, while he had a salary of $30,000 a year and free housing. In 1997, he told Larry King “I have never received a salary (from Fatah). I am still spending the money I made in Kuwait).” Arafat liked to be seen wearing his kuffiya which he tried to shape to resemble the map of Palestine. He wore the American-style sunglasses, which he even wore indoors, and he was usually in military fatigues. In some photos he carried a stick which resembled a field marshal’s baton which acted as a symbol of his power and he used it to point to locations of heroics acts. He always wore a pendant containing a sura from the Koran around his neck. (page 82)
Arafat always liked to tell the press that he wants “the Palestinians to be like other people and have no need for him.” (page 93)
The recognition of the PLO and of his individual leadership by the world community was singular political triumph for Arafat. He loved his new status, and it showed in the way he walked and talked – the firm step, the broad smile, and the statesman like references to the ‘peace of the brave’ and ‘an end to war and conflict’. He took to speaking slowly and more deliberately, even making frequent references to his poor English. The participants in Oslo became ‘my friends’. He exhibited a sense of confidence.
Arafat realized that he needed financial advisers more than political ones. He commissioned a number of studies to determine what it would take to enliven the economies of Gaza and the West Bank. He equated the welfare of the PLO with that of the Palestinian people. The PLO’s financial situation became a major factor in determining the outcome of negotiations with Israel. (pages 262-263)
Before the Oslo process, it was moderate Palestinians and pro-West Arab governments who had tried to ‘sell’ peace to Arafat. After Oslo, he was doing the selling. Oslo was his alone and it cast him in the role of peacemaker. (page 264)
Arafat’s first concern was to gain greater Palestinian support for Oslo. The agreement had originally been rejected by guerrilla groups, Hamas, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, most of the leadership of the occupied territories and Palestinian intellectuals. (page 264)
Arafat was less concerned with the rest of the Arab world providing political support, and was more interested in the resumption of their financial backing – at least getting them to release tax money collected frm Palestinians working in their countries. (page 265)
With the inception of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, all disbursements of aid money were determined by Arafat, usually on the telephone. The measure of anyone’s importance was their ability to meet him and to have their picture taken with him. (page 280)
Arafat, as head of the PA, kept personal files on all the important people within the Fatah organization which became known as the black files. Arafat always tried to reason and turn people who were opposed to his policies. He would give them options, most commonly their own black file to read,which often included accusations of financial misdeeds, whoring or cowardice. The accused would usually turn around and become a loyal follower. When this occurred, Arafat would make sure that they were offered money and jobs which would make them more loyal.