While it may seem as if Arafat has remained the unshakable symbol of Fatah, the movement’s members have gone to great lengths since his death to distance themselves from his legacy, which tried to have it both ways: On the one hand, pursue peace and an agreement with Israel, and on the other hand, failing to to abandon the armed struggle.
“We replaced the uniform and the keffiyeh with a suit, and his famous holster with a tie,” a senior Palestinian official once told me.
The fashion likely isn’t the only thing that has changed since then, so have quite a few of the people who surrounded him. Only few of his close associates and the people who filled the most senior positions in the security apparatuses during his rule still remain. Most of them were forced to retire or realized that reality had changed and went to live abroad, primarily in Jordan.
There was never much love lost between Arafat and the current Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas. During the second intifada, Abbas was the only leader who spoke against it and argued that it was harming the Palestinians rather than serving their purpose. His resignation from the position of Palestinian prime minister in 2003 was also—and some will say mainly—because of Arafat’s conduct and the spokes he put in his wheels.
Nevertheless, after Arafat’s death Abbas paid his respects to him and built his mausoleum at the entrance to the Muqata'a compound in Ramallah as well as a museum edicated to his life. Abbas understands that a symbol can and should be nurtured, especially given the fact that the symbol is already dead and can no longer do him any harm.
Between Arafat and Barghouti
The few people familiar to the Israeli public who worked around Arafat and remained part of the Palestinian leadership include the eternal spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, who kept his post during Abbas’ term; Jibril Rajoub, who managed to maintain his relative status with Abbas despite the ups and downs; and Saeb Erekat, who has been an almost exclusive center of knowledge in the rounds of negotiations both in the Arafat era and during Abbas’ term.
The only senior Fatah member with a classic Arafat-style conduct who is still considered strong is Marwan Barghouti. From his cell in Israel's Hadarim Prison, he keeps trying to convey the same message of a rifle in one hand and an olive branch in the other.
Barghouti’s popularity and his approach towards the conflict received no sympathy from Abbas over the years, which is why the PA leader went to the trouble of “downgrading” Barghouti in the Fatah leadership during the organization’s seventh general conference last winter and did everything in his power to crush the solidarity protests in the West Bank during the prisoners’ hunger strike led by Barghouti several months ago.
The Palestinians' Ben-Gurion?
On the Palestinian street, Arafat is an admired mythical figure. There is hardly no one who wouldn’t praise him and his work. The Palestinian people see Arafat like the Israelis see David Ben-Gurion, although former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is worthier of this title. He is the one who built the PA’s government institutions with maximum efficiency.
The Palestinians know how to conceal and suppress the corruption affairs Arafat and his people were involved in, as well as how he trod between the peace process and funding and backing terror attacks by turning a blind eye.
So Fatah isn’t the same Fatah, the PA isn’t the same PA, the security apparatuses are not the same security apparatuses, but Arafat is the same Arafat—a symbol in his death, just like he was in his life. The hundreds of thousands of people who gathered at Gaza’s Saraya Square last month to mark the 13th anniversary of his death can attest to that.
While the Ramallah leadership keeps perpetuating the dead symbol, it has been making an effort to sweep the vague circumstances of his death (for example, the hypothesis that he was poisoned with polonium) under the rug and to conceal any sign of his unique legacy.
‘There will be one security force in Gaza’
Hisham Abdel Razak, a senior Fatah official in the Gaza Strip, told Ynet following the November 11 memorial: “This isn’t the first time a mass ceremony is held in Gaza on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. The 2007 rally was attended by nearly one million people.”
What does this mean? Can you, Fatah, suddenly make an appearance in the strip and perhaps remind people of their life before the Hamas rule?
“The masses in the strip have always supported Fatah. It was never any different. It’s a known fact that the majority of the population in the Gaza Strip supports Fatah.”
Did Abbas attend the rally?
“He gave a recorded speech, which was broadcast, and he said he would come to Gaza as soon as the moves that were agreed upon in Egypt are implemented and the Palestinian government is the only sovereign power in the Gaza Strip.”
Abbas hasn’t entered Gaza yet. Are there still concerns? Is his life in danger? Or is there a chance that Hamas will say: We’re willing to discuss disarmament and only play a political-diplomatic game?
“Abbas knows there’s a process here. Who’ll be responsible for security in Gaza? Only the Palestinian government.”
What are the chances of that happening? Will there be one PA security force with all of the other organizations?
“Absolutely. There will be one security force.”
Israel doesn’t believe in this process.
“It’s an internal Palestinian issue. Whether Israel believes it or not, it’s not our business. We believe Gaza will have one security force under the Palestinian government.”
Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report.