Lessons From Yasser Arafat on Defying Settler Colonialism

Today Palestinians are rising again against the Israeli settler colonial state under the same conditions that happened when Arafat rose to leadership in 1960s.

By Magid Shihade

A new wave of protests by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel’s 1948 borders against Israeli policies of repression, restrictions, and land theft is capturing the world’s attention and leading some to call the recent events the beginning of a “Third Intifada.”

The protests and resistance acts, which have been characterized by their spontaneous character, lack of connections to political parties and leadership, come as we commemorate the 11th anniversary of the death of iconic Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

To write about any leader, especially leaders from the Third World, and especially those who are objects of settler colonial condition, without contextualizing their actions, decisions, and their legacy, does not help us in appreciate the work that such leaders have done.

So, in writing about Yasser Arafat in commemorating the 11th anniversary of his passing, I argue that to better reflect on the life of Yasser Arafat and his legacy, it is crucial to contextualize it in the history of the Palestine question.

Doing so requires framing and giving historical context to the Zionist settler colonial enterprise in Palestine, along with the local, regional, and global conditions that have shaped the initial movement which sought to settle European Jews in historic Palestine. The framing of the Palestine question as a settler colonial one, as it is articulated by the Zionist ideology, helps us understand the nature of the conflict.

It is a conflict between native Palestinian community and a settler colonial invading community that has been supported from the beginning by Western imperial powers who also succeeded in creating states and leaders in the region complicit with their interests.

During the British rule over Palestine after WWII, the Zionist Movement was supported to create economic, political, and military institutions, while at the same time Palestinians’ attempts to create something similar was crushed by the British colonial government of Palestine.

That is how Israel was created in 1948. Soon after the creation of the Israeli state in Palestine and the displacement of 85 percent of its native population, Palestinians started again to organize. And so in the 1950s several Palestinian political groups were formed, including the group that Arafat led—Fatah.

These groups and their leaders had to operate within a context of regional alliances with either the Soviet Union at the time, or with the United States, who were embroiled in the so called Cold War, a war that lasted till the later 1980s and paid with in blood by the peoples of the Third World.

Fatah and Arafat, like other Palestinian groups, called for resistance to Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine hoping that a liberated country could emerge based on secular state with equal rights for all of its citizens, along with the repatriation of Palestinian refugees back into their country-Palestine.

Yet, the so-called international community only supported a state of Palestine in the areas conquered by Israel in 1967, which is about 22 percent of the land of Palestine. This internationally-sanctioned proposal was adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization starting with the late 1980s, due to regional and global changes and conditions.

So, in short, Palestinian political groups, and Palestinian leadership, including Arafat, and their struggle for self-determination were limited by international power structure, by Israeli powerful military and sophisticated arms that are a result of Western support, by regional alliances to global powers, and by internal factors resulting from the dismemberment of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israeli military since 1948, where they became scattered into different geographic locations with different legal rights in each place, and with different social, economic, and political conditions.

The scattering of the Palestinian society into different geographic locations continues to have an impact on the possibility of unified mobilization. This was further exacerbated by internal competition among different Palestinian groups vying for power, each supported by regional and or global powers. All these conditions, led to the weakening of the Palestine national movement, and Arafat, like all other Palestinian leaders, has to contend with that.

Taking this into account helps us better understand why Arafat and the PLO gave up on the liberation of the whole of Palestine and accepted a state in the 1967 borders.

Yet, despite that, Israel continued to deploy all kinds of diplomatic tricks with the support of the United States as well as European and other Western countries, delaying any possibility for the creation of the Palestinian state, stealing more land, and shrinking further the Palestinian communities into smaller areas.

This Israeli arrogance and continued aggression since 1948 was only possible through Western support, and this continues to be the case.

In some sense, the Palestinian people, before, during, and after Arafat, have not been only fighting against Israeli power and aggression, but also against regional alliances of states and leaders that are concerned first and most with their own survival in western dominated imperialist system, and against western powers that have supported the Israeli settler colonial state all along.

Whether Arafat made mistakes or not, like any other leader in such a regional and global structure, becomes secondary issue.

It is a structure of global domination that escalated after the fall of the Soviet Union, where the United States pursued more aggressive global policies in the region and elsewhere, and where the targets have been any possible independent state, all to the disadvantage of the Palestinian people as well as to the disadvantage of all peoples in the Global South that have been facing economic, political, cultural, and or military onslaught by core countries of the global north.

What we see today, and this has been going on for some years now, a weakening of U.S. global power, and the rise of countries in the Global South. This change has the potential to recreate a new form of global solidarity with Palestine, as well as with other peoples in the South, or at least upset the unchecked dominance of the global north with the potential of opening a space for the Palestinian to revive their struggle in a manner that can make it harder for Israeli and its western supporters to crush.

What we see today in Palestine with people rising again against the Israeli settler colonial state is sign of new politics, where young people are dissatisfied with the old style of politics of all Palestinian organizations, disappointed by the Arab states and leadership, and no longer is willing to wait for permission from western countries to rise against a brutal and racist regime.

The same conditions and dynamics happened when Arafat rose to lead the Palestinian people in 1960s.

While he went along Western stipulations for possible resolution to the Palestine question, due to the conditions discussed earlier, he died (or was possibly killed), because he never was willing to sign a treaty of complete defeat and humiliation.

The hope is that this new generation will learn the lesson from the past and create an organized resistance that is aware of internal politics, Israeli power, regional and global dynamics, and hopefully create a new discourse that is not sanctioned by regional satellite states, nor by Western powers, but a discourse that is more true and honest towards the Palestinian people themselves wherever they live.