“I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”- Yasser Arafat
We encounter many people throughout life. Most depart the world with merely a ripple left behind. Others, however, leave a lasting mark. I am not sure what drew me to especially love brave heroes as a child, but that passion remains with me to this day. And the person I admire the most, but haven’t met, is my ex-president, Yasser Arafat—or Abu Ammar (father of Ammar), as Palestinians used to call him.
Born in Jerusalem in 1929, Arafat died on November 11, 2004. In addition to his most significant accomplishment—restoring to Palestinians an identity and goal after our people were forcibly displaced by the creation of Israel—he founded the political movement called Fatah (now one of our two largest parties) and was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, following the signing of the Oslo Accords. Although Oslo had disastrous consequences that still haunt us today, I believe Arafat ‘s intentions were pure. He took a bold, risky step to achieve our self-determination. For that, he won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin.
Arafat’s life was a continuous history of struggle, a fight to create a new, more hopeful history (and future) for Palestine. These are the reasons we miss him during such difficult days, with our political leaders divided for years (we still are waiting to see if the latest reconciliation will last) and the Israeli occupation more entrenched. I wonder if our situation as Palestinians would be as hopeless today if our President Yasser Arafat was among us? I think definitely not!
We need a revolutionary leader once again. One of our major challenges is a lack of charismatic, unifying leadership. We miss having a leader who seeks to represent everyone without exception, uniting all of the parties in favor of Palestine only. Although Palestinian political parties existed during the time of Arafat, we never heard of clashes and we certainly didn’t have a civil war. The enemy was only Israel. One people, one enemy, one goal.
Palestinian Declaration of Independence
“The Palestine National Council hereby declares, in the name of God and on behalf of the Palestinian Arab people, the establishment of the State of Palestine in the land of Palestine with its capital at Jerusalem.”
On November 15, 1988, the day I was born, President Yasser Arafat declared the establishment of the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. The declaration came during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers, and that’s why my family named me Karama (“dignity”). They believe that on this day, President Arafat gave the gift of dignity to all Palestinians. I feel so fortunate to be born on that day.
The declaration of independence was written by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. He famously wrote: “On the same terrain as God’s apostolic missions to mankind and in the land of Palestine was the Palestinian Arab people brought forth. There it grew and developed, and there it created its unique human and national mode of existence in an organic, indissoluble and unbroken relationship among people, land and history.” These powerful words paved the way for recognition of the state of Palestine by a number of members of the United Nations. Today, Palestine is recognized by more than 135 countries. The United Nations recognizes Palestine as a state, but has not yet given it full membership. President Arafat started the project of independence and now it is our turn to complete this mission.
There are legitimate disagreements with Arafat’s decision to sign the Oslo accords and with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s support of Iraq during the Gulf War in 1990. But he never budged on the right to return and our right to Jerusalem as our capital. And it is undeniable that he gave us the gift of dignity through his resistance and leadership at a time when we so very much needed pride and identity. He was our symbolic father, as well as leader.
A day to remember
On November 11, 2004, I was only 16 years old. I still remember what happened so very clearly. I was on my way to buy some necessities for my birthday party. The news that President Yasser Arafat had died in Paris spread quickly. I decided to return home, but it was difficult to find a car; the roads quickly became congested with people demonstrating their solidarity and grief. I found all of my family watching the news.
I also remember that shops, schools, institutions and companies closed as a mourning period was declared all over the Gaza Strip, with our flag at half-mast for three days. It’s been 14 years since then, but when I saw the people pour into the streets on the anniversary of his death, it was like that painful day had been restored.
There is a silver lining to this cloud, however: The last time we in Gaza were allowed to mark the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death was in 2007. Then, the split between Hamas and Fatah occurred, and it was no longer permitted. With the unification of our warring parties, we once again are allowed to commemorate his death and remember his gifts. Perhaps this time, the unity indeed will last…