Nov 14 2014

My First Interview with Yasser Arafat

Published by at 12:09 pm under Articles


By Daoud Kuttab

In the spring of 1994 I had the privilege of having an exclusive interview with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was still in Tunis at the time and the interview was arranged for me by three local West Bank leaders I knew, Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub and Samir Sbeihat, who had been deported by Israelduring the first Intifada.

The PLO leader had signed a few months earlier the Oslo Accords and my friends were part of Arafat’s entourage that was preparing for the triumphant return.

The three had spent time in Israeli jails and knew Hebrew fluently, and thus were key to the important transition that was taking place.

As was customary, the Palestinian leader never gave a particular interview time; one needed to wait around until he would call one in.

I knew from colleagues that he often gave interviews late at night.

While waiting for the interview, I spent a few days with the three Palestinian youth leaders (and also interviewed them) in preparation for the big interview.

The young West Bank leaders had talked to me about their belief that the movement they belonged to, Fatah, should undergo major change. As Palestinians were preparing for statehood, they argued, it made perfect sense for Fatah to become a political party.

Around midnight I was called in. Present during the interview were the three Palestinians, as well as one of Arafat’s advisers,Khaled Salam, who would later become a controversial figure in Palestine.

The interview was a bit rocky. I upset Arafat when I talked about Hamas, but the discussion was manageable until I came to the issue that was raised by my friends about Fatah becoming a political party.

I prefaced the issue by asking Arafat what he thought of the fact that various PLO factions were considering becoming political parties.

He had little problem with the idea, saying it was a natural development.

But when I talked about the suggestion that Fatah become a political party, Arafat became angry, asked that the interview be ended and began a long lecture to me about what Fatah was about.

“We are a movement, we represent all Palestinians, we have people from the right and the left, the religious and the secular,” he said, trying to explain to me that the idea of becoming a party was totally unacceptable to him.

His argument was that parties have to have a program and must declare their position on various issues, whereas the movement he was leading had a single aim, of liberating Palestinian lands, and he was certain at the time that the struggle for liberation had not ended with his handshake with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.

I was taken aback; in time, I came to the belief that Arafat’s anger was directed at the young West Bank leaders who had arranged for the interview.

He was lecturing me, but I think he was trying to send them a message to give up on their idea of turning the movement he headed into a party.

Ten years ago, Arafat, the initiator of the present Palestinian revolution, surrounded by Israeli troops who were trying hard to put down the second Intifada suddenly and mysteriously became extremely ill and later died in a French hospital.

Most Palestinians believe that the Israelis, whose tanks had surrounded the Muqata at the time, had something to do with his death.

Arafat was an unusual leader with strange habits, but with a clear focus.

Like him or hate him, one cannot help but respect this charismatic leader who brought Palestinians from the Nakbeh (catastrophe) of 1948 and the Naksa (setback) of 1967 to become a united coherent national entity led by a national movement whose single goal was the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of an independent state based on the two-state solution.

He was willing to do anything that would help advance the Palestinian cause, which he personally epitomized.

He did not fear controversy and was courageous to go places and take risks most other leaders would not.

For example, many today wonder whether, had Arafat been around in 2007, he would have stood idle by when Hamas took over Gaza.

The revolutionary Arafat was totally against the idea of a political party in 1994.

I often wonder if things would have turned differently if Fatah indeed had turned into a proper political party with a clear nation-building agenda, an economic plan, elections and rotation of power.

And then, again, I look around, and after 47 years of occupation wonder if the struggle for liberation has indeed ended.

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