History Ext 2

Olivia Hall


"One man’s terrorist, another man’s guerrilla freedom fighter."

Examine this statement in reference to Yasser Arafat and the perspectives and constructions of his role in the liberation of Palestine. 

Yasser Arafat, a key political figure involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and quest for Palestinian liberation, has been criticised and praised for his continuous fight, and methods used, in achieving his ultimate mission of Palestinian freedom. Historians have debated the nature of ‘Mr Palestine’, and about his leadership and involvement with the terrorist organisations; Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisaiton (PLO).

Varied perspectives have been influenced largely by political and social contexts of historians, and although many describe their motivations as an empirical analysis, their perspective is evidently in support or harsh opposition to Arafat. However, to gain a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of Arafat and the constructions of him based on historical perspectives, a thorough conception of the changing definition of ‘terrorism’ through history must be ascertained. It is therefore through understanding the contemporary perceptions of ‘modern terrorism’ that varied perspectives can be examined and understood.

The subjective and contentious nature of terrorism, proves difficult in obtaining an objective definition, which is necessary to understand the political differences that influence historical perceptions of individuals. Although the concept of terrorism is not new and has been observed throughout history in various forms, characterised by Robespirre’s ‘Great Terror’ following the French Revolution, it is particularly described as a modern phenomenon. However, its nature and subjectivity has morphed through time.

In Anderson and Sloan’s Historical Dictionary of Terrorism, the modern perception of terrorism is criticised through the degree of subjectivity used by an individual to define it, thus explaining the obscurity of creating an objective definition. It is stated that; “The study of terrorism has been burdened by a continuing and often acrimonious debate over the definition as well as its nature and scope.” (Anderson and Sloan, p.Ii), demonstrated through the statement, 'one man's terrorist, another’s guerrilla freedom fighter’.

This implication of ‘black and white’ morality of an individual and their motives, suggests that depending on one’s perspective, terrorist acts can be justified and therefore discounted. However, an objective truth should remain objective, regardless of subjective justification, and the completion of a crime should not characterise one’s morality, based on subjective perspectives.

The subjectivity involved in analysing ‘terrorism’ is rooted in its purposefully created psychological component of fear. Nonetheless, it is argued that this popular judgement neglects other fundamental elements of a terrorist act; intentional use of violence, intimidation and fear, in order to communicate a message to a broader group. Within this, historians argue the types of terrorism and ways to categorise them.

Sloan argues that the reluctance to include ‘political’ in the definition is to avoid granting terrorism a degree of legitimacy. Through Grant Wardlaw’s definition, terrorism is bound by a political motive, “acting for or in the opposition to established authority… with the purpose of coercing that group into acceding to the political demands of the perpetrators, (Wardlaw, p.16)”. Furthermore, types of terrorism are sorted into Thornton’s ‘enforcement vs agitational’ terrorism, and Schultz’s types of terrorist actors.

The difficulty in achieving an objective definition demonstrates the limitations of effectiveness for historians to categorically judge Arafat as a terrorist without the infiltration of political prejudices. Arguably, Arafat’s involvement in the early years of Fatah and the PLO involved terrorism to intimidate and spark Israeli fear, politically motivated to gain international attention and awareness for the plight and recognition of the Palestinian people.

However, it is explicitly noted by Sloan that in 1974, the revision of Fatah’s goals included the renunciation of terrorism, as diplomatic initiatives were deemed necessary to achieve goals of recognition and self-determination. Thus, it became the intentions of the radical groups within the PLO to betray this, executing “their own terrorist operations and who also tried to depose Arafat from the leadership of the PLO (Anderson and Sloan, p.179).”

It is extremely important to note this shift in aims, as it intrinsically changed Arafat’s involvement in the popularised terrorist attacks of the time. Through shifting his ideology towards diplomacy, Arafat acknowledged the need for international Western recognition and cooperation in order to achieve his aims, and hence cannot be solely blamed for the later attacks accomplished by similar groups indirectly under his control. Furthermore, Barry Rubin argues that terrorism used by the groups, in their eyes, is justified through their hatred of the Israelis, the “expectation that terrorism would be a successful strategy (Rubin, 2008, p.176)”, and to promote political motives.

He also argues that the most effective intention was to use terrorism, “to sabotage any possibility of a negotiated compromise agreement to end the conflict (Rubin, 2008, p.176).” This lies in contention with the new diplomatic approach, but reaffirms the attitudes of the smaller terrorist groups in obstructing Arafat’s changed tactics towards peaceful negotiation.

Therefore, through the objective definition of terrorism as politically charged acts of violence in order to induce fear and intimidation, the actions of the PLO and Fatah under Arafat are conclusively deemed as terrorist attacks. However, the notable revision of strategy to diplomacy demonstrates a definitive alteration of both Arafat’s involvement and perceived involvement and hence opens debate to question the morality and motives of him as an individual, displaying the subjectivity of perspectives through the justification of his actions.

Evidently, Western perspectives and popular history openly criticise and harshly oppose any potential threats to the idea of democracy. Due to the controversial political nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict and widespread reporting of the media, many are quick to condemn the actions of Arafat as a result of known participation in the early attacks of Fatah and the PLO.

Political bias also exists within the Israeli community as a result of the long-term conflict. Its contentious nature, in conjunction with individual interest in Arafat has resulted in many biographies and writings about him by journalists and historians alike. Israeli journalist, Danny Rubinstein, interviewed Arafat many times, compiling these into a biography, in which he aimed to provide a well-rounded account, examining varying perspectives, stating; “most reports about Arafat have been coloured by the reporter’s personal opinions (Rubinstein, p.xii).”

The diverse nature of opinion surrounding Arafat is summarised by Rubinstein through the many political titles and identities he is given; ranging from the common “PLO leader”, used by most writers, to “Mr Palestine” and ““the President of Palestine” by admirers, and as Rubinstein highlights, “… Outside the Middle East, Arafat has for years been called “the head of the Palestinian guerrilla organisations” while among the Israelis he has simply been described as “head of the PLO terrorist organisation. (Rubinstein, p.99)”

This exemplifies the broad scope of perspectives, however, popular Israeli opinion remains that Yasser Arafat is a terrorist figure, agreed by Rubinstein, “the media portrays a tough military leader who is not averse to using terrorism as a weapon, who is unshaven, armed and wears battledress, (but) they found to their surprise a small man, gentle, delicate, and extremely well-mannered. (Rubinstien, p.99)”. It is recognised by Rubinstein that Arafat held an important role to the Palestinian people he represented, and although he is critical of Arafat, made clear through his writing, he openly acknowledges; “In Arafat’s way of expressing himself, despite all the inaccuracies and exaggerations, there is deep down a certain validity. He speaks to the heart of his people (Rubinstein, p.61).”

Therefore, although a political and cultural prejudice influences Rubinstein’s perspective, this is only reflected through his perception of the professionalism and mysterious nature of Arafat’s personality, rather than his morality, or construction of being a terrorist.

However, some are more critical of Arafat and his character, disparaging of his leadership qualities, concluding that through this he allowed terrorism to be the cardinal tactic of the PLO. American journalist and author, Thomas Kiernan, commentates his disapproval of Arafat’s leadership, suggesting he only used ‘narrow revolutionary political techniques - terrorism, assassination, etc (Kiernan, p.221)’ that should not be relied upon to remain effective in establishing political rationale. He argues that Arafat, and the movement itself, was defined by violence and ‘achieved its greatest recognition as a result of violence (Kiernan, p.223)’, suggesting that if self-determination was successfully attained, violence would be the only method in doing so.

Kiernan’s commentary is deeply rooted in a perception of a vicious group whose ‘ambitions will not be limited to an Arab-Israeli War (Kiernan, p.223)’, but continue beyond the Middle East, reflective of the ‘red-scare’ cultural context of the 1970s, rooted in fear and opposition to anything that was not aligned with American ideals of democracy. Kiernan’s construction of Arafat is bound by a history of the conflict before the PLO’s shift towards diplomacy in 1974, restricting his perception of Arafat to the pre-diplomatic shift following the publication of his history. Rubin affirms Kiernan’s judgement in his political biography, aiming to focus on understanding the rationale and catalyst events that shaped Arafat.

Rubin constructs Arafat as an amatuerish leader, focused on using terrorism and loopholes to avoid responsbility for the radical actions of smaller groups. He questions the group’s political legitimacy; ‘There was also an absolute glorification of violence… It [Fatah] was an armed force, not a political party (Rubin, 2003, p.28)’, asserting that tactics used were ‘aimed more at killing the enemy’s civilians than at defeating its army. Equally he [Arafat] lacked any vision of a better society (Rubin, 2003, p.38).’

It is clear that Rubin strongly disagrees with the argument that attacks during Arafat’s change towards a diplomatic approach were not directly his fault, instead arguing that he was able to exploit this to circumvent blame. His morality is challenged by Rubin through reasoning that; ‘Arafat never tried to impose unity, (Rubin, 2003, p.44)’, instead having an ‘af inity for chaos, (Rubin, 2003, p.53)’, and his ‘ineptness, permissiveness towards radical groups and violent acts (Rubin, 2003, p.53)’ resulted in PLO defeat in Jordan, but also exemplified Arafat’s failed leadership.

Rubin ruther reinforces Kiernan’s argument of Arafat’s political ignorance being a major failure of his, and argues that Arafat’s ‘success’ should rather be criticism for failure in accomplishing the plight of his people, stating; ‘He has led his people into more disasters and defeats than any counterpart… yet his standing with them remains high (Rubin, 2003, p.X).’ Rubin acknowledges the empathy Arafat is able to capitalise from, but argues that his poor leadership skills, inability to accept responsibility for the actions of smaller radical groups, and reliance on brutality outweigh any positive attributes.

It is through the perspectives of Kiernan and Rubin that common Western and Israeli viewpoints are personified, highlighting the commonalities of political ideology and international relations, constructing Arafat as a politically unqualified, inept, violent natured, fanatic, whose actions never reflected peaceful or diplomatic intentions, but riotous extremism.

Although Westernised sympathies towards the Palestinian cause and perspective of Arafat are argued by Rubin as being a result of Western appeasement to ‘avoid attacks on their citizens or property and hoping good relations with the PLO would widen commercial opportunities in the Arab world (Rubin, 2003, p.44),’ this suggests that the PLO held substantial political weight in foreign relations, contradicting his earlier argument of the political inaptitude of Arafat.

Construction of the leader in the Wallachs’ political biography; ‘Arafat in the Eyes of the Beholder’, is a humble, underestimated peacemaker, highlighted through their perception of him as; ‘a guerrilla on the go, [playing] the role of peacemaker, patching up squabbles here, helping release hostages there (Wallach, p.6).’

The terrorizing groups described by Rubin and Kiernan, are recounted by the Wallachs’ as a ‘ragtag bunch of guerillas than a regular army battalion (Wallach, p.29)’, only spurred on by a faithful leader who illustrated encouragement and perseverance. In their preface, the authors address prejudices of others, ‘shaped by their own rich cultures… as well as by narrower self-interests (Wallach, p.xviii)’, and state their procedure of providing historical context explaining perceptions of the ‘charismatic character and menacing figure, (Wallach, p.xviii).’

The main difference of construction between the Wallachs’ biography, and that of Rubin, Kiernan and Rubinstein, lies in their inclusion of historical documents from varying perspectives, and their final analysis of the positive actions of Arafat whilst still recognising the bad. It is through this, that a more well-rounded perception is drawn, and contextualised events are able to explicate other perspectives, further reinforcing the subjectivity involved in characterising the morality of a controversial individual.

Finally, the construction of Arafat as a national hero and icon of the Palestinian people, and a symbol of their continuous struggle, is arguably the most prejudiced but truthful perception. The actions of Arafat were paramount in providing social welfare, as recounted by the Wallachs’; ‘to the tens of thousands of refugees… who rely on Fatah for their food, clothing and their healthcare, Arafat is close to God, (Wallach, p.24).’

Arafat took care of his people through providing care, but also hope and a progressive fight for their cause. The pedestal he was placed upon by the Palestinians, and his great significance to them is characterised through the creation of the ‘Yasser Arafat Museum’. Andrew Herbert recounted his experience, describing it as ‘a cohesive story of Palestinian identity (Herbert, p.1)’.

Despite the terrorist acts that occurred, these are justified in their eyes and hence he is seen as a symbol of grit and hope. The encapsulation and historical acknowledgement of Arafat’s involvement in the recognition and plight of the Palestinian people exemplifies the significance of the leader to the cultural identity of Palestine.

In conclusion, Yasser Arafat is a highly contentious political figure, argued as both an inept leader known only for his vicious allowance of terrorist attacks, and by others as a guerrilla fighter who cared for his people and symbolised both ambition and perseverance for the Palestinian cause.

There is no doubt that the attacks launched by both Fatah and the PLO were terrorist attacks; politically motivated, aiming to intimidate through violence. However, the notable shift towards diplomatic tactics and its legitimacy remain disputed, as to whether Arafat truly wanted peace, or continued to permit attacks from happening, knowing this was the only means necessary to achieve his aims. It is here that the heart of the issue regarding the subjectivity of terrorism is highlighted.

Sloan’s argument regarding subjectivity, represented through the chosen quote; ‘one man’s terrorist, another man’s guerrilla freedom fighter’ summarises the unique perceptions of Yasser Arafat from differing perspectives; the politically inept, deceptive, terrorism-focused extremist seen by Rubin and Kiernan, the mysterious anigma percieved by Rubinstein, and the hopeful, humble and underestimated Palestinian figureheard of the Wallach’s and observed by Herbert’s experience at the Yasser Arafat Museum.

Arafat held extreme significance to the Palestinian people, of which cannot truly be comprehended to outsiders, but is dismissed by some as exploiting oppression and inner hatred for the Israelis. Some argue that Western sympathies are the result of fears the terrorists would gain control, however, as observed by Kiernan’s construction, the American attitudes of the time were concerned with the preservation of democracy, and any threat to this was strongly opposed.

The main influence of perspective lies in racial prejudice based on political beliefs and motivations, such as that of the Israelis and Palestinians towards each other, further influenced by Western ideals and involvement of the media. It is through racial and political prejudices that the subjective nature of terrorism is realised, highlighting misunderstandings, resulting in varied perceptions of a single person. It is presented that the influence of cultural, political and social contexts of historians heavily impact their construction of history, particularly that of controversial figureheads, as demonstrated through the analysis of diversified perspectives of Yasser Arafat.