This Sunday, November 11th, 2007, after three years of planning and construction in the courtyard of Yasser Arafat's "mukataa" headquarters in Ramallah, a mausoleum in memory of the Godfather of Terror will be inaugurated with a full military ceremony. It will launch the memorial day to mark the three years since his death.
Machmud Abbas, a.ka. Abu Mazen, Arafat's protégé and successor, will cut the ribbon, followed by the entire Palestinian and Fatah leadership that will enter the mausoleum. Also invited to the ceremony are ambassadors, diplomatic representatives and heads of international organizations. After the visit to the tomb, a prayer session will be held at a new mosque built next to the mausoleum.
Arafat's tomb is located within a huge spacious oblong building in the form of the Qaba at Mecca, painted white. On the building are inscribed quotations from the Koran.
Having covered Arafat for more than a decade, I am often asked what was it like to cover Arafat and to speak with him.
Indeed, the news agency that I work with in Jerusalem had become known as the "Arafat tape" agency, because of our editing and distribution of Arafat's numerous appearances on the official media of the PBC, the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation TV, which belied any true hint of peace. These videos were also shown in Congress.
In November 1996, on the day that coincided with Thanksgiving eve in the US, this reporter covered a delegation of 10 Israeli residents from Judea and Samaria who met with Yasser Arafat at his domicile in Bethlehem.
To summarize the purpose of the meeting in two words, one participant described it as "reality testing." Arafat had maintained a consistent policy of saying one thing in English, advocating peace and co-existence, while conveying quite another message in Arabic, as he continued to incite the Palestinian Arab people to war with the Jewish state. Arafat had yet to deliver even one message that calls for peace with the state of Israel in the Arabic language.
What the delegation wanted to know was with whom they were dealing: a neighbor of peace or an antagonist at war?
This unofficial "settler delegation" asked Arafat very specific and pointed questions as to whether he would indeed embark on a policy of peace or war.
The idea was to look to the future, not to the past. Would Arafat finally make a speech in Arabic in which he would call for peace with the state of Israel? Would the PBC "Voice of Palestine" Radio, which was under the direct control of Arafat, stop its invective against Israelis, especially against the Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria (The West Bank)? Would Arafat encourage teachers and other officials of the Palestine Authority to participate in programs that encourage tolerance and co-existence?
Arafat was all smiles throughout our two-hour sessions delivering long-winded speeches in which he professed to be a man of tolerance and understanding, well deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.
I then asked Arafat a pointed question: Would he get on the airwaves of the Voice of Palestine and proclaim reconciliation with Israel in the Arabic language to his own people, and would Arafat denounce any and all murders of Jews on that same station, if future murders occur. Arafat nodded his head and said that he "speaks about peace all the time", to which I responded that we have no such record. "You will see," Arafat said and finished the meeting in a cordial manner.
What the participants thought and felt after the meeting was that Arafat would deliver his answer through actions, not with words.
Arafat's "answer" was not long in coming. Exactly two weeks later, on the seventh night of Chanukah, a dimly lit drizzly evening near the Israeli community of Beit El, three Palestinians shot up the car of the Tzur family of Beit El, killing a mother and child in the car. The killers' smoldering vehicle was found in one of the "safe havens" of the Palestinian Authority.
We called Arafat after the attack. So did all major media. He was nowhere to be found.
However, the next morning, Arafat's PBC radio newsreel broadcast that an "incident occurred on the settler road" where "two criminal settlers were killed."
The next day, our news agency dispatched a TV crew to Gaza to give Arafat the direct opportunity to say something about the attack. We had the opportunity to see Arafat once more.
Smiling widely again, Arafat greeted reporters and waved away the question about the murders in Beit El. A few hours later, Arafat then issued a public order that if the killers at Bait El are caught, they would not be turned over.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority confirmed that 10 recent killers of Israeli civilians had been hired as officers in the Palestinian Liberation Army police force.
Arafat had delivered his answer loud and clear to the delegation that came to see him.
In the topsy-turvy Orwellian world in which we live, Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, defined under Israeli law as a terrorist organization, was a Nobel Peace Laureate, while Israeli residents of Judea, Samaria and Katif (in Gaza) are often thought of portrayed as warmongers.
And when Arafat made his first visit to the UN in 1974, the PLO leader grasped an olive branch in one hand and a pistol in the other.
Epilogue One: Two years later, on December 1st, 1998, Arafat appeared at a US State Department briefing that I covered. US Secretary of State Madelyn Albright gave me the opportunity to ask a question of Arafat. I asked Arafat if he would stand by the commitment to preach reconciliation in the Arabic language that he had given two years before, and I presented Arafat with the records of his speeches from the previous few weeks, in which, among other things, Arafat had called the Jews "the Sons of Satan."
Arafat's response was to foam from the mouth and pound on the State Department platform and scream that "I love the Jews, I love the Jews!
Epilogue Two: As the United Jewish Communities meets in its annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations this Sunday in Nashville, Tennessee on the day that marks three years since Yasser Arafat's death, it should be recalled that in October 1999, the same United Jewish Communities (UJC), almost awarded Arafat the Isaiah Peace Prize.
After I was provided with written documentation of the prize, and after I published in the Jewish Advocate in Boston and the Forward in New York, the UJC peace prize to Arafat was cancelled, with no explanation as to why such an award was offered by a Jewish group to Arafat and as to why it was cancelled. What the UJC did, however, was to hire Kroll Associates, a private investigation firm, to determine how the news of this prize was leaked to this reporter. They never found out.
Learn the full story about the UJC/Isaiah Award for Peace that was to go to Arafat to appreciate where we are today.