Yasir Arafat was a contradictory figure who personified the Palestinian struggle for national identity while also undermining the success of that struggle, according to "In A Ruined Country: How Yasir Arafat Destroyed Palestine" by David Samuels in The Atlantic, September 2005 issue.
Through candid interviews with Palestinian figures close to Arafat, visits to Gaza and to Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramalla, and interviews with Israeli officials as well, Samuels portrays the complexity of Arafat.
Though born and educated in Egypt, Arafat was the father and leader of the Palestinian struggle. He founded Fatah, a backward acronym for the Palestinian Liberation Movement, (meaning "conquest" or reversed meaning "death") in the 1950's and survived the deaths of two other founders of the Palestinian cause.
Like a father, he could be loving, generous and caring to many of his people. He adopted and supported a number of orphaned children. After a Black September terrorist was killed while high jacking an airliner to Tel Aviv, Arafat adopted his children, and gave financial and emotional support to their upbringing, Samuels reported.
Arafat was patient and persistent and a master of intrigue. He kept open lines of communication with leaders throughout the world. A great actor, Arafat could play the role of progressive, Islamist, or conservative, but he never compromised "the independence of the Palestinian movement. He believed…that if he did not preserve the independence of the Palestinian movement from the other Arab regimes, he will be doomed," according to his propagandist, Yasir Abd Rabbo.
Yet with his secret bank accounts, idiosyncratic bookkeeping, and patronage, Arafat diverted billions in donations and tax levees that could have been used to educate the Palestinians or to build housing, businesses and infrastructure. Although Arafat lived frugally himself, the money was used to manipulate and control people and to finance his terror operations, according to public records and interviews with Palestinian officials and a major Palestinian donor.
Samuels also gives examples of how Arafat was directly involved in decisions to choose the path of confrontation, violence and terror. There were the raids on Israel from Gaza, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon in the 1960's, his challenge to Jordanian rule that led to his expulsion to Lebanon, his attacks on Israel and Lebanese Christians in the 1970's and 80's, and his role in the renewing the intifada and acquiescing to the suicide bombings of Hamas. When confronted with his violent acts, Arafat often told fanciful tales to absolve himself, according to the article.
Arafat could also be rebelliously independent. When the U.S. state department attempted to have himdeclare that he condemned all forms of "terrorism" completely and unequivocally, he instead denounced all forms of "tourism." Furthermore, when invited to a meeting at the Communist Kremlin, while inside and in public view, Arafat defiantly kneeled to recite mid-day prayers, thereby also making a show of his piety to Saudi Arabian leaders, according to Samuels.
With the expulsion of the senior Palestinian administration from Lebanon to Tunis in the 1980's, Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian cause was repeatedly challenged by a younger generation of Palestinian fighters. However, due to the fact that Arafat was the only Palestinian with worldwide recognition, it was he who signed the Oslo accords in 1993, he who returned to Gaza in 1994, and he who met with U.S. President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David.
Through it all, Arafat had a dramatic flair for his struggle, from his military tunic with ribbons, to the way he arranged his Kaffiya in the shape of the Land of Israel, from his rage at being slighted by an Israeli leader leading to his call for a new round of violence.
Yet Samuels also poignantly portrays the sad state of Palestinian affairs, the poverty and rubble and tsenchantment of officials with Arafat's legacy. In general, this is a relatively balanced piece, presenting background on the complex state of Palestinian politics, discussing the different faces that Arafat displayed to the world, as well as providing a glimpse at some of the more internal dimensions of this multifaceted leader through exploring his own personal struggles.