November 11, 2004 | National Review Online

The Father of Modern Terrorism; The True Legacy of Yasser Arafat

The true legacy of Yasser Arafat.

For the last week of his life, the scuttlebutt about the Palestinian movement’s centrifugal force concerned whether his impending demise was driven by AIDS, likely contracted, according to leaked foreign-intelligence reports, by his omnivorous, orgiastic sexual appetite. This as if, after three quarters of a century’s worth of megalo-sadism, additional indicia of Yasser Arafat’s throbbing depravity were somehow necessary. And so, evidently, they were. Thus is reflection on his life, a signal emblem of the late 20th century’s triumph of terror and fraud over security and reason, as instructive about our times as it is about him.


About him, while there is much to say, there is little to glean. He was a thug. One of the most cunning of all time for sure, but quite simply a ruthless, thoroughly corrupt, will-to-power thug.

As is often the case in the modern information age, just about everything in his life is known and almost nothing in his proffered legend is true. The man airbrushed in Thursday-morning encomiums from Kofi Annan and Jacques Chirac (among others) as the courageous symbol of Palestinian nationalism was not really named Yasser Arafat, was not a native Palestinian, and tended to sit out warfare with Israel whenever conventional fighting was involved.

Although he occasionally claimed to have hailed from what are now the Palestinian territories, Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini was actually born in Egypt in 1929, the fifth child of a well-to-do merchant. He was educated in Cairo, although, after his mother's death when he was four, he lived at least part of the time with an uncle in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was then the heart of the territory known as Mandatory Palestine, which chafed under British rule as a result of a 1918 League of Nations mandate. The era, to put it kindly, was not the Crown's finest hour. Sowing seeds for recriminations that persist to this day, the Brits appeared during WWI to promise some or all of the territory alternatively to Arabs and to Jews, only to exacerbate matters by keeping Palestine themselves for three decades.

Arafat's formative years were thus spent in a milieu of sectarian violence, annealed in a hatred for Jews that, far from ever subsiding, propelled him. As an engineering student in Cairo during World War II, he was powerfully influenced by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Islamic mufti of Jerusalem who was closely aligned with Hitler and schemed from Berlin to import the Fuhrer's genocidal program to Palestine. Indeed, as the New York Sun observed in an editorial last week, one of el-Husseini's biographers relates that Arafat was a blood relative of the mufti, who preferred him to another up-and-comer, George Habash (al-Hakim), among the fiercest of Israel's Nasserite enemies who eventually founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a frequent Arafat ally.

Nevertheless, though he may have been a local gun-runner, the 19-year-old Arafat refrained from combat in 1948, when, upon Israel's declaration of independence, it was attacked by the Arab League (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq), which was defeated in the war still regarded by Palestinians and other Arabs as “al-Nakba” (the Catastrophe). Nor did he partake in the 1956 Suez War, although, as recounted last week by the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, he later claimed to have done so.


While Arafat's mantel as the “Father of Palestine” is dubious given that he is singularly responsible for the failure of a Palestinian nation to emerge, his credentials as the “Father of Modern Terrorism” are solid. In the late 1950's, he co-founded Fatah, the “Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine.” His métier, and thus Fatah's, was the sneak attack on soft Israeli targets, the better to maximize carnage and fear. The first efforts were ham-handed: failed attempts in 1965 to bomb the national water carrier and the railroad. But the organization soon hit its stride, successfully attacking villages and civilian infrastructure. By 1969, Arafat was the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group he never ceased to dominate after merging Fatah into it a year earlier. The PLO had a single purpose: the destruction of Israel.

Actually, make that two purposes. The PLO was also a fabulously profitable criminal enterprise. Though Arafat purported to have made it big in the engineering business in Kuwait, British investigators, as Stephens reported, concluded after a searching probe that his wealth stemmed from sidelines his organization maintained in “extortion, payoffs, illegal arms-dealing, drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud” that yielded billions. Throughout his career, moreover, Arafat proved a master at culling funds — whether from levies on strapped Palestinian workers or gushing subsidies from starry-eyed European and American governments. From these, he skimmed millions and stashed them throughout the world — including in Israeli banks — keeping his wife on a lavish $100,000-per-month allowance in Paris while his people starved, and, of course, blamed Israel for their troubles.

By the late 1960s, the PLO had set up shop in Jordan, wreaking havoc in the kingdom. Arafat and his affiliates soon became innovators in a tactic later refined by al Qaeda: the civilian airliner as terror weapon. On February 21, 1970, the PFLP — by then also under the PLO arch — bombed SwissAir Flight 330 enroute to Tel Aviv, murdering 47 passengers and crew. Eight months later, on September 6, they attempted a spectacular atrocity: a quadruple hijack, which now appears an eerie harbinger of the tectonic bin Laden operation on another September day 31 years later.

As recalled in the riveting account of “Black September” by hostage David Raab, all the hijacked flights were bound from Europe to the United States. One, a Pan-Am 747, was taken to Cairo, where it was blown up on the tarmac just after the passengers were allowed to exit. A second, targeting an El-Al aircraft, was foiled in flight by Israeli sky marshals. But a TWA 707 and a SwissAir DC-8, with a combined 310 passengers and crew, were hijacked to a Jordanian dessert. The terrorists segregated Israeli, American, Swiss, and West German passengers for captivity — releasing the others — and threatened to kill the hostages and blow up the planes unless jailed militants were released. Under international pressure, King Hussein resolved to reassert control. War broke out on September 13. By the time it ended two weeks later, the hostages had been released, but over 2,000 people had been killed as Arafat and his terrorist band were driven out of the country.

In the first of his many rises from the ashes, Arafat relocated to Lebanon. Staging from there, the PLO embarked, almost exactly a year to the day later, on another of the late 20th century's most infamous murder sprees. On September 5, in the midst of the Munich Summer Olympic Games of 1972, eight PLO operatives (a wing of Arafat's Fatah group known as the “Black September” brigade) carried out a plan that enabled five of them to steal into the Olympic village, quickly murder two members of the Israeli team (the wrestling coach and a weightlifter), and take nine other Israeli athletes hostage. The terrorists demanded the release of 200 Arab prisoners and safe passage back to the Middle East. German authorities lured them, with their captives, to the airport, but a rescue attempt was badly botched. In the resulting battle, the Palestinians killed all nine Israeli athletes by grenade and gunfire, as well as murdering a German policeman. Five of the terrorists were killed in the struggle, but German authorities managed to capture the remaining three. True to form, Arafat's organization responded the following month by hijacking a Lufthansa jet and taking the passengers hostage. The Germans capitulated, releasing the killers.

Arafat, meanwhile, also kept Israel's support network, the U.S., in his sights. On March 1, 1973, another eight-member Black September cell raided the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, taking as captives two American government officials, Ambassador Cleo Noel and the Charge d'Affaires George Curtis Moore, as well as a Belgian diplomat named Guy Eid. The terrorists demanded the release of Sirhan Sirhan in California (jailed for the 1968 slaying of Robert F. Kennedy), of Palestinians imprisoned in Jordan (including Black September's own Abu Daoud, who later claimed to be the master-planner of the Munich Olympics massacre), and of Palestinian women jailed in Israel. When they were rebuffed, the terrorists murdered Noel, Moore, and Eid, and then anxiously surrendered to the Sudanese authorities.

These murders, theoretically an act of war against the U.S., were never “solved” in the sense of convicting the man ultimately responsible. The FBI was reported to have reopened an investigation of them earlier this year, and at least one State Department spokesman has strangely claimed the link between Arafat and Black September was never conclusively established — even as he acknowledged Black September's membership in Arafat's own Fatah faction.

Nonetheless, a number of Israeli and American intelligence officials have long maintained that Arafat personally ordered the killings by issuing a radio message, to wit: “Why are you waiting? The people's blood in the Cold River cries for vengeance” — Cold River reportedly being a predetermined code directing the executions. Furthermore, in the kangaroo court that passed for a Sudanese prosecution, one of the terrorists, Salim Rizak, testified: “We carried out this operation on the orders of the Palestine Liberation Organization”; while another witness, the Sudanese official who conducted interrogations, reported that the killers had taken their cues from radio messages emanating from Fatah headquarters in Beirut. Thus abound dark suspicions, not to mention an explicit allegation by former NSA official James J. Welsh, that Arafat's complicity was shunted aside for what was perversely perceived as the greater good of diplomatically cultivating him. Meanwhile, of the eight surrendering Black September terrorists, two were released immediately by the Sudanese due to purportedly insufficient evidence, while the remaining six were convicted, sentenced to life-imprisonment, and…released the very next day to the open arms of the PLO.

From his Lebanese perch, Arafat's rampage of Israel continued apace. On April 11, 1974, the PLO slaughtered eighteen residents of Kiryat Shmona in their apartment building. A month later, on May 15, Palestinian terrorists attacked a school in Ma'alot, murdering 26 Israelis, including several children. Then, in June, the PLO — through the “Palestinian National Council” — endorsed what it called a “phased plan” to obliterate Israel.


Seven years earlier, of course, Egypt, joined by Syria and Jordan, had foolishly launched yet another war of aggression against Israel. They were routed in the Six Day War of June 1967, at the end of which Israel's territorial holdings had drastically swelled to include the West Bank and East Jerusalem (taken from Jordan), the Suez and Gaza (from Egypt), and the Golan Heights (from Syria). It was understood that this expansion would not be permanent — in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, Israel agreed eventually to withdraw from some undetermined portion of these territories in exchange for peace treaties that settled borders and acknowledged Israel's right to exist. In Arafat's 1974 phased plan, however, the PLO reaffirmed its rejection of Resolution 242 and committed itself to establish, in any ceded territory, a Palestinian state that would work toward Israel's destruction.

Adumbrating the global strategy for dealing with terror that would reign supreme through the quarter century leading up to the 9/11 attacks, the world reacted to Arafat's contemptuous belligerence with weak-kneed appeasement. The PLO was rewarded with observer status in the U.N., and on November 13, 1974, a triumphant and utterly unrepentant Arafat, holster strapped to his hip, addressed the General Assembly in New York City. By 1980, the European Economic Community recognized him as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people.

Not that there weren't setbacks. In 1979, Israel had struck a historic peace deal with Egypt in which it agreed to a phased pull-out from the Sinai (completed in 1982) and acknowledged that there should eventually be some form of autonomy for the Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank and Gaza. With its southern flank calmed, Israel wearied of continuing missile attacks and other sorties launched against its northern communities from the PLO's Lebanese stronghold. Israel invaded in 1982, inducing Arafat to flee to Tunis.


The PLO's bloodlust did not abate. In 1985, a cell identifying itself as the Palestine Liberation Front, led by Mohammed Abu al-Abbas, hijacked the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro. As his horrified wife looked on, the terrorists viciously shot a 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound Jew named Leon Klinghoffer, then tossed him overboard to die in the sea. Despite indications that the PLF was acting on instructions from PLO headquarters in Tunis, a State Department spokesman incredibly contended as late as 2002 that the PLF had been a renegade group broken off from the PFLP, and that Arafat was probably blameless in the Achille Lauro operation. But, aside from the fact that the PLO's website (for its U.N. mission) listed the PLF as one of its constituents, Abbas had actually been a member of Arafat's own PLO Executive Committee. More to the point, when Abbas died last year in Iraq (where he had been harbored by Arafat's staunch ally, Saddam Hussein), Arafat issued an official statement lavishly praising him as a “martyr leader” and “a distinguished fighter and a national leader who devoted his life to serve his own people and his homeland.”

Not long after Achille Lauro, Arafat began in 1987 to blaze the path that, by the mid-1990's, sickeningly transformed him into a regular White House guest and a Nobel Laureate. As was his Orwellian wont, he started on the road to faux respectability with a terrorist barrage that became known as the First Intifada. (With Arafat, it had to be the First Intifada because there would, of course, be a Second.)

The siege was ignited by two unconnected events in the powder keg of Gaza: the December 6 murder of an Israeli, followed quickly by the tragic December 10 death of four Palestinians in a car accident which was falsely, but unrelentingly, hyped as a revenge killing. Skirmishes quickly broke out in Gaza, and careened through the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The violence, a roller-coaster of lulls and explosions, lasted over six years. In the first four years — that is, the period before the ebb that marked the onset of the 1991 Gulf War — Israeli defense forces responded to more than 3,600 Molotov cocktail attacks, 100 hand grenade attacks, and 600 assaults with guns or explosives, all of which killed 27 and wounded over 3000. Although the PLO was rivaled in the operation by militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat's group dominated the so-called “Unified Leadership of the Intifada,” using leaflets to direct the days and targets of attacks.

Israelis were not alone among the terror casualties. Arafat unleashed PLO death squads to kill numerous Arabs who were deemed to be collaborating with the enemy. In 1990, the Arabic publication Al-Mussawar reported Arafat's defense of the tactic: “We have studied the files of those who were executed, and found that only two of the 118 who were executed were innocent.” As for those putative innocents, Arafat sloughed them off as “martyrs of the Palestinian revolution.”

Even as the violence hummed, Arafat assumed his statesman's face for the West, to great effect. As the body count mounted in 1988, the U.N. granted the PLO's observer mission the right to participate, though not vote, in General Assembly sessions. In addition, the administration of George H. W. Bush held open the possibility of direct dialogue if Arafat would renounce terrorism and agree to be bound by Resolution 242. This he purported to do on December 16, 1988, claiming to acknowledge “the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security…including the state of Palestine and Israel and other neighbors according to the Resolutions 242 and 338”; and asserting: “As for terrorism…I repeat for the record that we totally and absolutely renounce all forms of terrorism, including individual, group and state terrorism.” Like the Europeans, the U.S. officially recognized Arafat as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians.

The bankruptcy of these claims was revealed as the Intifada ensued and Arafat blundered by publicly aligning with Saddam both after the invasion of Kuwait and throughout Iraq's scud missile attacks on Israel. But just as it seemed he might finally fade away, the strongman caught a lifeline when Gulf War victory failed to carry the first President Bush to re-election. Bush's successor, President Bill Clinton, saw in the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict the chance for an enduring legacy, and saw in Arafat a viable “peace partner.”

With Clinton as determined midwife, Arafat and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the ballyhooed Oslo Accords of 1993. The Palestinian Authority was created, Arafat was appointed its chief executive, and a plan for eventual self-government by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was set in motion. But euphoria over this seeming breakthrough blurred appreciation of both Arafat's innate mendacity and Oslo's patent failure to resolve key contentious issues, including final borders, the status of East Jerusalem, and the rights of Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees — under the delusion that Arafat would work in good faith toward a peaceful, comprehensive settlement with Israel over a five-year period.

The mega-murderer was suddenly statesman, star, and, in 1994, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — a once-coveted honor now, by his attainment of it, reduced to a joke best listed among his countless victims. Thanks to this peace partner, it soon became clear that Oslo was a charade, a case of a credulous American president choosing his honey over his lying eyes.

The Palestinian Authority reneged on its promises of democratic reform and establishment of the rule of law — holding elections exactly once and never again after Arafat was overwhelmingly elected. Arafat also failed to honor, despite incessant pleading by Clinton administration figures, a commitment that the Palestinian National Charter would be amended to remove clauses calling for the destruction of Israel. The PA made a show of appearing to comply, disingenuously noting the provisions purportedly slated for nullification and calling for a new draft of the Charter to be produced. No revised Charter, however, was ever forthcoming. Meanwhile, what education system existed in the territories, much like Arafat's public statements in Arabic (always far more menacing than the English he spoke to the Western world), continued to instill hatred for Jews and calls for the demise of their state. Naturally, the terrorist activity also proceeded, with the PA ineffectual in halting it — when not encouraging it outright.

There should have been surprise in none of this. As Stephens reports, in 1996, Arafat brayed to an Arab audience in Stockholm, “We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion…. We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.” Asked about his plans on Egyptian television in 1998, Arafat explained that strategic pause was a venerable Islamic strategy, referring specifically to the “Khudaibiya agreement” in which the Prophet Mohammed made a ten-year treaty with the Arabian tribe of Koreish, but broke it after two years — during which his forces used the security of the pact to marshal their strength — and then conquered the Koreish tribe.

Such machinations were certainly no secret to the governments and media in the U.S., Europe and Israel itself. They knew precisely who Yasser Arafat was. But politically and culturally, hopeful hearts and good intentions were for them more essential than results on the ground — the “process” always took precedence over the “peace.” Thus, in the Wye River Accords of 1998, the Clinton administration and Israel, now led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took the terrorist at his word when he promised, yet again, to crack down on terror, this time in exchange for a pull back of Israeli forces (which had entered the territories in response to terror attacks), the ceding of additional territory to PA control, and even the release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — many of whom had been incarcerated for terrorism offenses.

14 9/11s

The violence never stopped. Yet, with his presidency winding down in 2000 and desperate for an accomplishment that might balance a record besmirched by scandal, President Clinton boldly sought a final time to forge a comprehensive settlement. He brought Arafat and yet another new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to Camp David. Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel offered the creation of a Palestinian state over 90 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with its capital to be in East Jerusalem. In a move comprehensible only if one accepts that Arafat was incorrigibly devoted to Israel's extermination — in which case, it was entirely comprehensible — Arafat rejected this stunning offer, with poison-pill insistence that millions of Palestinians be accorded a right of return to Israel.

The breakdown of negotiations resulted, like night followed day with Arafat, in a new round of terror: the Second Intifada, which continues to this day. This program has been pursued mostly by suicide bombings — often including explosives strapped to children encouraged by the culture of shahada, or martyrdom, which thrived under Arafat's corrupt and dysfunctional leadership. In the main, attacks have willfully targeted civilians in busses, restaurants, shopping centers, synagogues, hotels and other public centers. Since 2000, approximately 900 Israelis, three quarters of whom were civilians, have been murdered. To extrapolate to American proportions, for a country the size of Israel this is the rough equivalent of over 40,000 dead — or, as the Hudson Institute's Anne Bayefsky has calculated, about 14 9/11s.

Arafat's world, like everyone else's, radically changed on September 11, 2001. The Bush Doctrine, announcing a commitment to eradicate terrorists and terror supporting governments, did not immediately spell the end for the Palestinian strongman. He was, however, gradually marginalized and reduced to pariah status — but for the markedly less frequent, and ineffectual, paeans from Europe, the Islamic world and the U.N.

The magic began to fail even his most trusted old tricks. For example, on December 16, 2001, with American forces suppressing terrorists in Afghanistan, an ostensibly chastened Arafat appeared on PA-controlled Palestinian television to warn Hamas and Islamic Jihad against “all military activities” against Israel, and to purportedly “renew” his “call to completely halt any activities, especially suicide attacks, which we have condemned and always condemned.” This time, the ploy fell flat — undercut, no doubt, after the Nobel laureate characteristically followed it up only two days later with a speech at a Ramallah rally — the kind of red meat always conveniently ignored in the halcyon pre-9/11 days. “With God's help,” he boasted:

next time we will meet in Jerusalem, because we are fighting to bring victory to our prophets, every baby, every kid, every man, every woman and every old person and all the young people, we will all sacrifice ourselves for our holy places and we will strengthen our hold of them and we are willing to give 70 of our martyrs for every one of theirs in this campaign, because this is our holy land. We will continue to fight for this blessed land and I call on you to stand strong.

The jig was up. Arafat's celebrity might be a product of the “international community” but his relevance was strictly made-in-the-USA, and America was no longer buying. The administration of President George W. Bush let it be known that Arafat would no longer be dealt with. When the president eventually proposed his “roadmap” to resume negotiations toward an eventual Palestinian state, he snubbed Arafat and made unconditional cessation of all Palestinian terrorism a nonnegotiable prerequisite. Critically, the administration also eased the restraints that had for decades compelled Israel to accord its sworn enemy so wide a berth.

Now under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel responded forcefully to the terror onslaught, including through high-profile “targeted assassinations” of Hamas leaders. Its forces tightened the noose around Arafat. Unable to leave his squalid Ramallah compound with any assurance that he'd either survive or be permitted to return, the “president” of what was more a racket than a government — and decidedly not a nation — remained holed up there for over two years until his evacuation to Paris, in extremis, in late October. There he died on Wednesday, one of history's most repulsive conmen and killers.

“The power of bad men,” Burke famously observed, “is no indifferent thing.” The power of this evil man informed an age — the age of terrorism. The Israelis and Palestinians may never coexist peacefully, but as long as Yasser Arafat lived they didn't even have a chance.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.