Remember Arafat’s olive branch not simply his gun


Richard Burden MP, Chair of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Group in Parliament today responded to news of the death of Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. Richard, a regular visitor to the region and an active campaigner for greater recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people, had met with Mr Arafat on several occasions during recent years.

He said:

Yasser Arafat was “Mr Palestine” for the best part of 40 years. He and compatriots in the Fateh organisation in the 1950s and 1960s were amongst the first to assert that the Palestinians should take responsibility themselves for asserting their rights as an independent people, rather than relying on existing Arab states to confront Israel for the dispossession they had suffered.

The guerrilla warfare they waged in the 60-s and 70s included actions that were sometimes spectacular and sometimes brutal. But they forced the world to recognise that the right of the Palestinian people to their own homeland was not a side issue in the Middle East conflict, but central to it.

Yasser Arafat rose to prominence as a military figure, but the picture of him as a terrorist hell bent on Israel’s destruction, which the Israeli Government is fond of painting, is simplistic and wrong. As leader of the PLO in the 1970s he was one of those who spearheaded the compromise in which the Palestinians gave up their claim on all of historic Palestine, in favour of an independent state alongside Israel. In the following years he led the Palestinians to an explicit recognition of the state of Israel, to the Madrid Peace Talks in the early 1990s and to the Oslo Accords with Israeli premier Rabin in the mid 1990s.

There is a myth that the collapse of the Oslo process was caused by Arafat’s rejection of a generous offer by Prime Minister Barak at the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000. In reality, there was no Israeli offer of a viable independent state at Camp David. And whilst Arafat and Barak negotiated, confiscations of Palestinian land in the West Bank in Gaza continued and more illegal settlements were built. I was there that summer, so I saw these things for myself. Years of frustration amongst ordinary Palestinians at the failure of the Oslo process to change the reality of life under occupation was bound to erupt sooner or later. That is what started the intifada that September, not intransigence by Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat was no saint. He spent most of his adult life under the threat of assassination by Israel and sometimes by Arab extremists. There is no doubt he was left suspicious, autocratic and unwilling to delegate. But Israel’s demonisation of Arafat and Sharon’s attempts to isolate him both physically and politically, have been utterly short-sighted. They have ended up strengthening Islamist groups like Hamas at the expense of the secular PLO. Indeed, Israel’s actions have even inhibited the emergence of new generation of forward-looking Palestinian leaders because no self-respecting Palestinian wanted to be implicated in Sharon’s persecution of the Palestinians’ existing elected President.

Yasser Arafat once told the United Nations that he carried an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Ariel Sharon was only prepared to see the gun. President Bush’s endorsement of such a blinkered view of Arafat only increased its folly.

Now that President Arafat has gone, the international community – and particularly the United States – must face its responsibilities. It must provide practical help to the Palestinian Authority in the difficult period that will lie ahead, both in Gaza and the West Bank. It must ensure that Israel respects the Palestinians’ right to hold the new elections that are long overdue but which have so far been made impossible by the occupation. And it must insist that Israel fulfils its obligations under the Road Map by seriously engaging with the new Palestinian leadership to secure the peace with justice which the peoples of Israel and Palestine deserve. As players in our own right, Britain and the EU can do a lot to help achieve these things. As America’s closest ally, Tony Blair must also make clear to President Bush that talking about a Road Map is not enough. It needs to be implemented.

This is a sad day. On behalf of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group, I extend our deepest condolences to President Arafat’s family, friends and to the people of Palestine for their loss”

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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