If I fall take my place
"If I fall take my place, I am fidai [self sacrifice]." Those were the immortal words of the world's most veteran of the freedom fighters in March 1968 on the eve of leading a resistance against Israeli occupation forces in Karama refugee camp.
The Jewish State captured the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights in the six-day war on 5 June 1967. On 28 June Israel razed Magharba neighborhood adjacent to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was an open assault on the Islamic character of Jerusalem. The Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 called for Israel to withdraw its armed forces from territories occupied in the conflict. Although the State of Israel owes existence to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, it was unwilling to comply with the resolution of the Security Council because of what it perceived to be "the risk to its own security'' and refused to negotiate with Palestinians or any Arab states.
After humiliating defeat Nasser needed time to rearm. The Arabs desperately needed some one to lift their spirit, keep their hope alive and to safeguard religious and cultural heritage threatened by Israeli onslaught. Arafat and his Fatah filled the vacuum symbolically which the war created.
Arafat sent groups of Palestinians to Egyptian military and intelligence academy. Volunteers from occupied West Bank were dispatched to training camps in Syria, Iraq and Algeria. Training centers mushroomed in Palestinian refugee camps within Jordan.
Resistance against Israel through Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian borders were intensified. Arafat was behind every move. Israel responded in a disproportionate way blowing up homes of suspected guerrillas, imprisoning hundreds of Palestinians and crossing the Jordan River to attack guerrilla bases. Arafat with a human touch was there after every raid comforting the wounded and the families of victims and urged the refugees to hold the line.
Located on the main road connecting West Bank with Jordan the Karama refugee camps were the den of the guerrillas and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan threatened to wipe out the stronghold in a matter of hours. Arafat was confronted with a major military decision. Strategists argued that the avoidance of frontal confrontation was intrinsic to guerrilla tactics, brought home experiences of Mao and Giap together vis--vis Israeli strength and outcome of 1967 war. Arafat prevailed, "We want to convince the world that there are those in the Arab world who will not withdraw or flee."
Israel was in for surprise. The ill-trained and ill-equipped Palestinians under the cover of Jordanian artillery heroically held their line in the rocky terrain for hours against estimated fifteen thousand-strong Israeli army. Although Palestinians suffered heavier casualty but performed better than the Arabs in 1948 and 1967. Israelis did not press further and withdrew leaving one tank, one APC and few trucks which the Fatah fighters paraded in triumph. In no time the streets and alleys of Arab capitals were full of the pictures of the Karama martyrs of seventeen who had refused to surrender after being forced in to a cave. Arafat appeared in the picture with Kuffiya [head scarf].
And Kuffiya, first used in 1936-39 during anti-British rebellion, became the emblem of Palestinian fighters. Arafat's Kuffiya was painstakingly shaped resembling map of Palestine. The exercise took nearly one hour every morning. He was in military fatigue with a pendent containing a sura of Holy Koran around his neck but hidden from public view. His became a familiar face in the Middle East and was called Mr. Palestine, symbolizing the country and his people. He displayed natural instinct to interpret what the Arab audience wanted and showed exceptional talent in manipulating international media. Arafat added slogans which immortalized the occasion "If I fall take my place, I am Fidai [self sacrificer], the Palestinians are a Revolution, Revolution until Victory, We shall Return, and in Soul and Blood." His slogans lifted gloom of the past Arab defeats and troubled the conscience of the world.
Hassanein Heikal arranged Arafat's meeting with Nasser. He met the charismatic leader accompanied by Abu Iyad and Farouk Qaddoumi [now Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority]. Arafat joined Nasser's delegation to Moscow as Muhsin Amin carrying Egyptian passport in July 1968. Nasser took Arafat to international stage.
Arafat assumed chairmanship of PLO in February 1969 at the fourth Palestinian National Council in Cairo. PLO comprised about 30 Palestinian resistance groups committed to various ideologies from moderate to extreme. Shortly before he took over PLO Arafat was interviewed by Time Magazine. Arafat was on the cover of Time on 15 December 1968, which was largest single publicity as well as close-range examination of the emerging Palestinian leader. During interview Arafat showed little understanding or appreciation of the history and reasons for Western backing for Israel. To him backing Israel was harmful to Arab relations with the West. He wanted them to be neutral. To the Time interviewers Arafat was a guerrilla leader, an intense and committed advocate of an armed struggle against a superior force.
Time took its toll in the last forty years but envies the steel in the man. In the quagmire of Arab politics Arafat survived, stayed on course with the skill of the acrobat to lead seven million Palestinians in Diaspora. A guerrilla in olive color military fatigue with symbolic freedom fighters gun he matured into a world-class statesman. Time turned Yasser a man of peace to share Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Simon Perez in 1994. But the only people under occupation for 34 years were to form a Palestinian State in May 1999 according to Oslo Plan signed at the White House lawn on 13 September 1993 are still under bondage: 150 Israeli tanks besieged their symbolic headquarters in Ramallah and the leader was bottled up from December 2001.A borrowed line from the Jewish scripture 'The Servant of the Lord', amply reflects the fate of Yasser Arafat today "Cut off from the land of the living.''
The Saudi Plan adopted on 27-28 March 2002 in Beirut was the best bet for all the hooks but rejected by Israel. Israeli hawks like Ariel Sharon needed an external common enemy to keep heterogeneous Jews together inside Israel. It's equally hard for the proud British and the only superpower America to face up to facts of the history and admit the large measure of responsibility which their countries bear for creating the problem in the first place and doing so little to solve it since then.
If the Saudi Peace Plan is carried out under the auspices of the United Nations, which ought to be for the sake of evenhandedness, Israel-Palestinian peace dividend would preclude continued justification of disproportionate American presence in the region. Therefore the Saudi Plan of total Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 line, creation of the State of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip side-by-side Israel with East Jerusalem as capital in exchange for total normalization of Arab-Israeli relation may find its way into the cold storage. The likely scenario for Arafat is to leave "the land of the living". He has already been pushed to the nearest to the brink. His immortal words "IF I FALL, TAKE MY PLACE" appear to be resounding. In a selective Israeli assassination of Palestinian leaders there seems hardly anyone will be left to take over. If Israel throws away the windfall of the Saudi Plan and continues its ruthless policy of occupation, the inevitability of the invisible fighters -- the so-called suicide bombers -- taking over cannot be wished away. The choice is clear for the Jewish state: "He who lives by sword, die by sword."
M. Shafiullah was Bangladeshi Ambassador to Palestine from 1995 to 2000.
Topics: Conflicts And War, Occupation, Palestine