Yasser Arafat for decades was the quintessential symbol of the Palestinian people. As an American of Palestinian heritage, I have had a complicated, love-hate relationship with him. During my adolescence, I watched CNN the way other teens fixated on MTV. I took special note of the way Arafat was portrayed in the American media. He appeared invariably dressed in unfashionable olive-drab military fatigues, the black-and-white checkered keffiyeh he carefully folded each morning into the shape of pre-Mandate Palestine, and with a five-o-clock shadow. His rough edges were especially apparent when matched up against politically polished, accent-less Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu . Needless to say, Arafat did not play well in Peoria .
Most Palestinians were exasperated by the widespread misconceptions about their conflict with Israel . For them, Arafat's predicament was easy to relate to. The U.S. government has fostered a cozy relationship with Israel since its birth in 1948, lavishing it with more foreign aid than they give to any other nation. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were an occupied people, brutally repressed by the fourth most powerful military in the world. Surrounded by electrified fences and a gauntlet of fearsome military checkpoints, they were virtual prisoners in their own homes.
Many journalists have used language in their reporting that distorted reality. Illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were often referred to as "Jewish neighborhoods" or "suburbs." The massive concrete wall slicing through the West Bank that cut off Palestinians from their families and neighbors has been routinely described as a "security fence."
On the world stage, Palestinians were incessantly pressured to recognize Israel when Israel , by continuing to seize land, impose curfews, imprison children and bulldoze homes, failed to recognize them. The U.N. designated Palestine a "non-member entity," rendering its people officially invisible.
The Palestinians' struggle for their independence, for years, has been criminalized, delegitimized and demonized. "The Raid On Entebbe," an action blockbuster starring the hard-charging Charles Bronson as Israeli Defense Force commander Jonathan Netanyahu (Benjamin's brother), liberator of Jewish hostages from a force of fanatical Palestinian terrorists, typified the portrayal of Palestinians by Hollywood . Though this film was released in 1976, Palestinians have hardly enjoyed more sympathetic depictions in American popular culture.
To many Americans with little historical knowledge, Palestinians have waged war on the underdog Israelis for "thousands of years." They cannot exist with Israelis, according to this canard, because of vast cultural and religious differences. The culture in the West Bank and Gaza, Americans have been conditioned to believe, is infected by violent fanaticism. Such gross misperceptions added urgency to the Palestinians' search for good PR. But alas, their de facto leader, Arafat, could seldom provide it. At the same time, a people under siege were loathe to disparage their leader, however flawed he might have been.
Yasser Arafat was conferred through a series of tragic circumstances with the role of spokesman for millions of Palestinians around the world. Born in Cairo in 1929, Arafat claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace. He did so for purely political reasons: Jerusalem was the symbol of Palestinian national ambition and the flashpoint of its conflict with Israel .
At age 19, he fought in the war that resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and created the state of Israel. He helped found the Palestinian nationalist organization Fatah in 1958, and in 1969 became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization .
The PLO, with its own military wing, became a state within Jordan . Arafat used Jordan as his base to launch guerrilla attacks against Israel . King Hussein of Jordan expelled the PLO when the pressure from Israel and his own constituents made the Palestinians in his midst a political liability. Arafat attempted to regroup in Lebanon , but was forced out after a blood-drenched Israeli military invasion. Both the PLO and its leader were remarkably resilient, moving to Tunisia until finally reaching the Occupied Territories in 1994.
Arafat first established himself on the world stage with a dramatic speech before the U.N. General Assembly in November 1974. "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," he declared. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." For certain Palestinians, the mystique surrounding that speech evaporated when they discovered that Arafat did not pen it. Its true author was renowned Palestinian intellectual and Columbia University professor Edward Said. Said was fiercely critical of Arafat for his role in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. Arafat rewarded him by banning his books in the West Bank .
The famous handshake on the White House lawn between Arafat and his reluctant counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin , seemed to assure Palestinians land in exchange for peace. Yet the results were a disaster. The Palestinian Authority was granted symbolic control over the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel continued to control the occupied territories' borders and airspace. Israeli settlements grew exponentially and the hallmarks of military occupation-- home demolitions, military checkpoints and extra-judicial assassinations--did not cease. Arafat and Rabin failed to reach agreement on key issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land.
Instead of fulfilling his people's hopes for sovereignty, Arafat tightened his grip on a Palestinian Authority marred by charges of corruption and despotism. He rounded up political opponents and imposed restrictions on media outlets. He funneled millions of dollars into his personal accounts. His wife Suha, angered many Palestinians when she decided to give birth to their only child in France after denouncing sanitary conditions at Gaza hospitals as "terrible." That same year, Arafat, in a typically dignified moment, told MTV's Tabitha Soren that he was a swinging bachelor before finally marrying at age 61.
Arafat was given a Nobel Peace prize for his role in the Oslo accord. The man once branded a terrorist was hailed a peacemaker by TIME magazine. Then, with the beginning of the 2000 Intifada, the agreement fell apart like a house of cards . Arafat suddenly lost the adulation of the West. Thus, the peacemaker became the scapegoat of the failed Camp David Summit.
The Camp David Accords, cast as a "generous offer" by Israel in the American press, were never even put in writing. This proposal, like Oslo , took no position on the status of the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the globe. And once again, under Camp David, Israel was granted control of Jerusalem , as well as a new Palestinian state's water, borders and security. Arafat finally found the backbone he lacked during the previous negotiations and asserted that he could not return to his people with a proposal they deemed wholly unacceptable.
Arafat's death in November 2004 was shrouded in mystery. For weeks leading up to it, Israel had threatened to assassinate him if he dared to venture out of his Ramallah compound. Rumors swirled that he was poisoned or died of AIDS . In the end, even Arafat's fiercest critics mourned him and the dream of statehood he represented.
The prospect of a Palestinian state appears more remote than ever. Even a well-orchestrated PR campaign seems unlikely to help.
Laila Al-Arian is a freelance journalist living in New York. A graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she has written for The Nation magazine, Huffingtonpost.com < http://huffingtonpost.com/ > , United Press International and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She is the co-author of a forthcoming book on atrocities in the Iraq war, "Collateral Damage: America's War on Iraqi civilians," (Nation Books, 2008).