A surreal encounter, 20 years ago, with Yasser Arafat
It's strange how we are none the wiser: no one knew quite what to make of him then, and still we still basically do not
You could never quite be sure that Yasser Arafat would show up. But there he suddenly was, Palestine-shaped keffiyeh meticulously arranged upon his head, lapel pins decorating his fatigues with images of Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the requisite olive branch.
It was December 8, 2001, and I was going to interview the legendary Palestinian leader. No one knew quite what to make of him and 20 years later we still basically do not. That’s what’s so damn strange; we are, in almost every way, none the wiser around these parts.
The Second Intifada that erupted in September 2000 trashed the peace process, brought Arafat’s arch-enemy Ariel Sharon to power in Israel, and left a trail of devastation all across the land. This, even though Sharon’s predecessor Ehud Barak had offered the Nobel Peace Prize winner an independent state, fulfilling his supposed lifelong goal.
Was Arafat the one sending young crazies to blow themselves up in Israeli buses and cafes? After all, some attacks were claimed by his own Fatah movement. Sharon had no patience for any version other than the one in which an unreformed terrorist was being certainly duplicitous, and possibly an idiot.
The Palestinian narrative said violence began organically to protest Sharon’s September 2000 visit (as opposition chief) to the Temple Mount, and Israel overreacted. That infantilized the Palestinians as unable to control a tantrum, even if it cost them their national emancipation.
Something didn’t quite add up and my colleagues and I at the Associated Press resolved to figure the whole thing out.
First, I called Col. Olivier Rafowicz, the IDF’s foreign press spokesman, to advise him of our impending trip to Arafat’s “Muqata” headquarters, known to be a possible target. “That is a dangerous place,” he mused, in his quizzical French accent. Olivier was not one to make false promises, nor let war impede his jollity.
The armored car carrying me and several other journalists passed the Qalandia Crossing into Ramallah without incident as the sun set. Within 10 minutes, we were pulling into the dusty courtyard of the Muqata, which looked every inch the Israeli lockup it once had been.
We had arrived some 15 minutes early. I was relieved that we would not be late. We were told to wait in what appeared to be a cooks’ entrance. There were some chairs where several disconsolate Palestinian policemen were smoking. After about an hour, I began to worry for the Palestinian leader. Perhaps he was unwell?
An escort arrived to take us upstairs and led us down a hall to the office of one Ahmed Abdel Rahman, secretary-general of the Palestinian cabinet and essentially Arafat’s main aide. I might have betrayed impatience. Abdel Rahman eyed me with amusement.
“I am told you would like to see the ra’is,” he asked. I confirmed it, trying to ignore the implication of a hurdle yet to be crossed.
“Tell me: What would you like to ask the ra’is?”
I replied diplomatically – something about how he balances the pressures of his historical role with the grind of quotidian affairs when so many around him are up to no good. “Very good, very good,” said Abdel Rahman, waving away a cloud of smoke.
We were shown into another room, adjacent and larger, and again told to wait. More time passed. It felt like three hours since we arrived when at last Arafat walked in. He welcomed us energetically, seeming neither overwhelmed by pressures nor as a man who would be dead within three years. Not by natural causes, anyway.
Arafat sat across from me while TV cameras were organized. His spokesman Nabil Aburdeineh arranged himself behind Arafat, and the interview began.
Arafat was peeved that his efforts to prevent violence were not meeting their due appreciation. He noted that Palestinian police had already arrested 17 key militants and promised to do more.
I suggested that if violence so devastating was happening against his will for over a year, the forces carrying it out must be very strong indeed. “You are speaking with Yasser Arafat,” he admonished me. “I know how to do it. I know how to do it.”
Still, though, I said, 1,000 Palestinians had been killed by that point, according to exacting counts done by AP and other news outlets (four times more than the Israelis killed, a ratio that would hold until the bitter end). Did he not regret not doing more to prevent the outbreak?
Arafat said the death toll actually stood at 2,000. I tried to argue, but Arafat insisted, and then I noticed Aburdeineh behind him, gesturing in the universal way that means “ignore it.”
I asked whether Arafat did not regret not having more usefully engaged with Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with complex arrangements to share Jerusalem in ways that no one had ever considered sharing a city.
“We have our independent state,” Arafat protested. This would have been a major scoop! Did they sign a secret deal that they were keeping from the world? Arafat smiled in conspiratorial fashion: “Ask Barak.” Aburdeineh made the same gesture again.
At one point Arafat got out of his seat and walked up to me saying, “You are tough!” I replied: “Not as tough as you!” We both seemed happy enough with this exchange.
The interview lasted over an hour, more than intended, which will always please a journalist. Arafat readily agreed to be photographed with our entourage, the two of us in the middle. One image captures me looking down in alarm, for something grabbed my hand. It was Arafat reaching down for mine, before hoisting it aloft in the revolutionary gesture of comradely triumph.
As we were leaving, on the way to the staircase, Abdel-Rahman came rushing over and dragged me away from my colleagues, back down the hall with his arm around my shoulder.
“Tell me,” he said, deploying the phrase a second time. “Did the ra’is say anything, uh, crazy?” I have learned that there are times for telling people what they want to hear. “Absolutely not,” was my reply.
The poor man seemed visibly relieved. “Good! Good! Good! Make us look good! You will take the presidential elevator!” And he shoved me into a heavily mirrored box which also contained a submachinegun-toting officer who contemplated me with no discernable approval.
We certainly did not accede to his request, but as I read it now, I do notice the article reveals little of the berserk air that prevailed. I supposed we just didn’t know what to make of the stranger things.
Arafat did not live to see the end of the intifada. He suddenly took ill in late 2004 and died weeks later in Paris. There is more than one theory about what or who it was that hastened his demise.
I gaze upon our picture and imagine Arafat’s military getup was the sole one of its kind. Perhaps it’s borrowed from a play about a fairytale army whose ranks contain one single, solitary man. A very senior officer, who believed that everything was real.
(Appeared initially in the Times of Israel)