To reduce casualties, Israel mounted a campaign of psychological warfare. Loud speakers and leaflets encouraged the non-combatant Lebanese to withdraw from areas held by the PLO, warning that the only alternative for the PLO was surrender or annihilation. Water and power supplies were cut off, but were soon re-connected at U.S. President Reagan’s behest, for fear of creating a humanitarian crisis. An artillery and air barrage was begun. Arafat’s response, knowing Israel’s sensitivity to civilian casualties, was to declare that he and his terrorist forces would continue to use the Lebanese as human shields, and turn Beirut into another “Stalingrad.” The term was a calculated red flag for his leftwing supporters around the world.
Sharon called Arafat’s bluff. He maintained the siege and bombardment. Never in their worst nightmares had the terrorists imagined the Israelis willing to engage in such an onslaught, knowing that it caused mounting civilian casualties. But, with the help of its left-wing sympathizers, the PLO propaganda campaign in the court of world opinion, ultimately paid off. Many Israelis and Americans were unwilling to countenance the collateral damage even though Arafat’s tactics of using civilians as shields made it necessary.
By mid-July the PLO had had enough, but Arafat was by no means defeated. Once again as a military leader he had been a total failure. He was paralyzed with indecision when Sharon began the siege of Beirut, and gambled on Israel’s unwillingness to cause civilian casualties. He lost. But he knew that he had the sympathies of European and American leaders who expressed discomfort with the hundreds of Lebanese civilian deaths. Blaming Israel for the civilian casualties, Arafat pleaded to President Reagan, who sent Phillip Habib to arrange for the PLO’s safe departure from Lebanon. The Israeli government itself faltered. It was unwilling to kill Arafat on the problematic theory that he would be replaced by even more uncompromising forces. Even the Israelis seemed to believe Arafat’s propaganda.
No country wanted to accept Arafat and his troops. After weeks of negotiation, Habib finally found a solution. European and American troops would supervise the evacuation, and PLO terrorists would be split up. Some to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; but most (about 8,500) left on August 30, 1982, accompanying Arafat to Tunis.
On September 14, the hope for a peace agreement with Lebanon died when Bashir Gemayel was assassinated.
Arafat was defeated, but with the complicity of the United States and Europe, Arafat was allowed to live to fight another day. More than that, he was able to succeed once again in snatching a political victory from the jaws of military defeat. Israel watched as its military triumph was scuttled by a political turn-about that made the terrorists look like victims, and the victims look like persecutors. It was a turning point in the propaganda war that Ho Chi Minh and the KGB had inspired and that had turned Arafat from a terrorist into a “freedom fighter.”
Arafat’s exile did not stop him from pursuing his agenda. He still had friends in high places, especially Iran, Libya, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and among some political leaders in Western Europe. With their support he was able to carry out a number of attacks, primarily against Jews and Israelis in Europe. Ever the master of spin and dissimulation, he blamed these on the Mossad, claiming that these were propaganda ploys to increase Jewish willingness to emigrate to Israel (See Rubin and Rubin). El-Fatah trainers and gunmen were also involved in the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut by the Islamic jihadist group Hizbollah (241 Americans killed and hundreds more wounded).
After years of these attacks, Israel retaliated with an air strike on Arafat’s Tunis offices, killing 75. Arafat exited one of the buildings merely 7 minutes before it was destroyed by Israeli bombs. After that close escape, he promoted the self-serving legend that, as a “man of destiny” he enjoyed special divine protection and a prescient sixth sense.
The First Intifada
After narrowly escaping death, Arafat was presented with an opportunity that was to define the rest of his career. Following an auto accident in which a Jewish driver lost control of his car and fatally hit four Arabs in Gaza, Palestinian youth launched rock-throwing attacks on Israeli troops patrolling the territories. These riots became known as the “Intifada” (literally, “shaking off”) and took Arafat completely by surprise. When the Intifada spiraled into a bona fide revolt and the “children of the stones” (as the teen-age rock-throwers were called) were augmented by terrorist snipers using them as human shields, Arafat knew that he was in trouble. Far away in Tunis, and disconnected from the population that he wanted to look to him for leadership, he groped for a strategy that would make the world think that he was in command.
His strategy was a PLO peace initiative. He would appease the United States by agreeing to recognize Israel, yet at the same time inject his pronouncement with enough anti-Israel rhetoric to convince his colleagues in terror that he had not given up the struggle. Because the PLO was a terrorist group, the United States still refused to recognize it. But President Reagan told his National Security Advisor, Colin Powell, to explore the possibility that the PLO could meet the conditions set by US law for formal relations with the United States. Arafat was thrilled, but his more rigid supporters opposed any move to reject terrorism.
To keep his lieutenants in line and to keep President Reagan thinking that he was indeed committing the PLO to begin a peace process with Israel, Arafat made a series of speeches in Europe, in English and French, using double speak and mis-pronunciation to avoid a clear commitment. On the one hand he condemned terrorism, but then went on to declare that the PLO was not a terrorist group and its actions against Jews and Israelis were part of a legitimate struggle for freedom. On one occasion he stuttered and stumbled on English pronunciation and instead of saying “we renounce terrorism” he said “we renounce tourism.” He never bothered to mention, nor did anyone in the West take the time to inquire, that according to its by-laws, only the PLO as an organization could agree to renounce terrorism. It was not a decision that Arafat could make unilaterally. Therefore, all of Arafat’s pledges, pronounced or mispronounced, were in fact worthless – a fact he was obviously aware of. Meanwhile, a number of factions within the PLO continued to launch terrorist attacks against Israel.
But Washington’s desire for peace was strong enough to give the scheme traction in the State Department which swung its weight behind the “new Arafat” and “new” non-terrorist PLO. The dynamic that would lead to Arafat’s return to power via the “Oslo” peace process was underway.
Madrid To Oslo
Two catastrophes now befell Arafat, all in 1991. The first was the Gulf War, which was triggered when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Having already aligned himself with Saddam in the early 1980’s when Iraq began its 8-year war with Iran, Arafat maintained his support in the Gulf War and suffered a significant loss of face and stature when Iraqi soldiers ignominiously fled before U.S. troops. But worse, since the nearly 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait had vociferously supported Saddam and the Iraqi invasion, the Emir of Kuwait lost no time in exiling all of them within weeks after regaining power.
This bit of ethnic cleansing, never reached the radar screens of any NGOs or human rights groups, but was a major problem for the PLO and Arafat. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who regularly contributed some of their earnings to the PLO coffers had not only lost their jobs in Kuwait, but their homes, bank accounts, cars, furniture, and in some cases even their clothes and jewelry. Moreover, the Gulf States suspended their hundreds of millions of dollars of PLO support because of Arafat’s pro-Saddam politics. Estimates vary, but conservatively, the PLO lost more than $10 billion with the defeat of Saddam’s army.
The second catastrophe was the emergence of Hamas. Organized in the Gaza Strip as an Islamic theology of liberation, Hamas sought to bring about both a Moslem revival and an intensification of terrorism against Israel. Its stated the goal was to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state. Ironically, Hamas was initially encouraged by Israel, because the Israeli government thought that a religious movement would be a counter-balance to the secular PLO. Hamas preached a fundamentalist Islam to those Arabs who chafed under the Marxist ideology shared by the existing terror groups. By 1991, however Hamas had become wildly popular, and presented a serious threat to Arafat’s dominance of the Palestinian cause. (See Karsh.)
The first Intifada had convinced the Israeli government that it could not continue to just coast along maintaining 3,000,000 Arabs in a state of national limbo. The Bush administration in Washington had quickly forgotten the Palestinians’ betrayal during the Gulf War and was using the political capital it had won to pressure Israel to make concessions for peace. A reluctant Likud government succumbed to the American pressures to meet with Arab countries in Madrid.
Representatives of the Palestinians were invited to come as part of the Jordanian entourage, because the PLO was still officially a terrorist group that the United States refused to recognize, and Arafat was not invited. Despite its 1988 make-over, Arafat’s PLO had conducted too many attacks and engaged in too much double-speak for the Israeli government to consider it a negotiating partner, and the American Government agreed to exclude him.
On the eve of the Madrid conference, Arafat was bereft. Starved for funds, ostracized by many of his erstwhile allies, challenged by his new competitor, Sheikh Akhmed Yasin whose Hamas who offered fierce competition for the role of lead terrorist, and the defeat of his idol and mentor Saddam Hussein, he seemed to be a fading star. Two years before the Berlin Wall had come crashing down bringing Arafat’s chief ally, the Soviet bloc along with it. The Communist dictator Ceausescu’s demise, seemed a final harbinger of an ignominious end to Arafat’s brilliant career as the godfather of modern terrorism, a mass murderer adulated throughout the Arab world as a George Washington of the Palestinian people.
Faced with the possibility that the Madrid conference would offer some chance for autonomy to Palestinians without him, Arafat felt the need to do something radical. In September 1991, just a month before the Madrid talks, he convinced the Palestinian National Council’s twentieth session in Algiers to endorse official Palestinian participation in the Madrid conference. Now he and the PLO were de facto key players at Madrid, even though they had been excluded by Israel and the United States.
For both Israel and the United States this was quite a surprise. Although both the United States and Israel encouraged and cajoled the West Bank representatives to enter into substantive negotiations with Israel regarding autonomy, the Palestinians refused. During the conference, they flew several times per week, and sometimes daily, from Madrid to Tunis to confer with Arafat. Arafat ran the conference as an absentee delegate. The Palestinian representatives could not be weaned from their loyalty to their terrorist leader. (See Rubin and Rubin.)
On a personal note, Arafat wed Suha Tawil, a Christian Palestinian woman half his age, in January of 1992. Their only child, daughter Zahwa, was born in Paris in 1995. In April of 1992 he was almost killed in a plane crash over the Libyan desert. Some biographers have suggested that his symptoms of hand tremors, gradual memory loss, stuttering, and the uncontrolled movement of his lips when he spoke, all may be attributed to brain damage sustained in that crash.
Oslo: The Trojan Horse
Fatefully, the Madrid talks convinced some Israeli leaders that there was no choice for Israel but to involve Arafat in any negotiations for peace. This set the stage for Oslo.
When the Likkud government dragged its feet about participating in more substantive peace talks with Arab leaders, the Israeli voting public replaced it with Yitzhak Rabin’s more liberal Labor government in July 1992. Rabin promised to make every effort to achieve peace. Shortly thereafter representatives from Israel and the PLO held secret talks in the city of Oslo. Until then, there had been no official contacts between the Israeli government and Arafat. By May of 1993 these negotiations were at a stage where they could go public. So both sides turned to a delighted President Clinton.
After more months of negotiations, and wrangling about details, both sides were ready for agreement. On September 9, 1993, the “new” Arafat gave Rabin a signed hand-written letter stating that he and the PLO would forever eschew terror and violence, and refer all disagreements to negotiations. That gesture convinced Rabin that Arafat was serious about making peace. And on September 13, 1993, they shook hands (a distasteful act for Rabin, knowing how much innocent blood was on Arafat’s hands) while a beaming President Clinton looked on, and the event was broadcast worldwide.
The Declaration of Principles, the first stage of agreements signed at this time, gave Israel a fairly long list of obligations involving staged retreat from areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, support for a nascent Palestinian state, tax and water treaties, training and arming the newly Palestinian National Authority and its designated anti-terror police force, and educating the Israeli public to see the PLO (now the Palestinian National Authority) as a peace partner.
The obligations of the Palestinian National Authority, to be headed by Arafat, were to put an end to terror, to stop incitement to violence, to create a state that operated according to the rule of law with transparent democratic elections, to educate Palestinian children to see Israel as a peace partner, and to work peacefully with Israel. Since putting an end to terrorism was the primary agenda item for Israel, the Israelis agreed that the CIA could arm and train 25,000 Palestinian police to allow them to use force if necessary to control Hamas and other dissident terrorist factions.
At the very onset of the Accords, more than 96 percent of all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were placed under the control of Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority in regard to civil matters, with security issues to be controlled jointly by Israel and the PNA. Immediately after Oslo, Israel pulled its forces out of the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area. On September 28, 1995, the last Israeli tank had left Ramallah. A year later, most Israeli forces left Hebron.
In theory, as the PNA developed the infrastructure of governance and brought the rule of law to the areas under its control, more and more territory would come under direct and complete PNA jurisdiction. In theory, after about 5 years (which is how long it took for the Camp David I negotiations to reach conclusions about Israel’s ceding the Sinai to Egypt), all areas could come under PNA control as the PNA and Israel reached final status negotiations.
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 The West Bank was divided in to areas “A”, “B”, and “C”. Areas “A” came under immediate control of the PNA. Areas “B” were controlled jointly, military and security issues were controlled by Israel and all civil issues were handled by the PNA. Areas “C” were under complete Israeli control.