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ND ponders Arafat’s legacy

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Though his death remains recent news, the legacy of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is already a matter of serious contention, as some have eulogized him as a freedom fighter while others have condemned him as a terrorist. “Among Palestinians, Arafat after death will in all likelihood become even more of a heroic figure who symbolized and will continue to symbolize their nationalist aspirations and dreams,” said Asma Afsaruddin, a professor in the Arabic and Islamic studies department. “The mistakes he made will be forgiven and perhaps forgotten; he will rather be remembered as a man and leader who selflessly dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause … He was and will remain a national icon for most Palestinians.”Notre Dame student Mohammad Hamad is one of those Palestinians for whom Arafat was a symbol of the hope for self-rule. “Arafat was a man of peace, a freedom fighter and a godfather for Palestinians,” he said, rejecting both the terrorist label that critics have applied to the leader and the accusation that Arafat’s acts of aggression against Israelis amounted to genocide. “He is not a Hitler, not a Stalin, not a Pol Pot. He was a leader in every sense of the word,” Hamad said.Political science professor Keir Lieber took a more negative view of Arafat’s legacy. “History will judge Yasir Arafat harshly,” he said. “He rose to prominence through terrorism and murder and then betrayed the Palestinians simply to maintain his grip on power. He was a corrupt, dictatorial and ineffective leader who was incapable of either peace-making or state-building.”Although he recognized some of Arafat’s shortcomings, political science professor Dan Lindley said history will take a more mixed view of him as a leader. “I think he’ll be recognized as someone who was initially a hero, but ultimately, a failure,” Lindley said. “He led Palestinians to a place where they were a force to be dealt with, but on the other hand, what has he been doing over the last 15 or 20 years that has amounted to much?” Lindley also mentioned the unaccounted-for billions given to Arafat to help aid in the founding of a Palestinian state, saying that if Arafat did in fact embezzle that money, he might be remembered as “a criminal, a king-thief of billions, another klepto-crat” from the Third World. Further complicating Arafat’s legacy is the paradoxical catch-22 that Israel and the West encountered in negotiating with the leader, Lindley said. “Either he was in control of various bombings or terrorist incidents, in which case, he’s someone you don’t want to deal with because he’s a terrorist, or he’s not a terrorist, in which case you don’t want to speak to him because he doesn’t control the side he claims to speak for,” Lindley said. Anthropology professor Patrick Gaffney, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, also commented about the difficulty of knowing how much control Arafat really wielded over Palestinians, saying that Israel’s demonization of Arafat often blew his real power out of proportion. “Israeli officials blamed him for every possible assault on Israeli security, building him up as the source of all their problems in a way that was bizarre and contradictory,” Gaffney said. He also echoed Lindley’s comments about Arafat’s initial successes but ultimate failure, saying that to the end, Arafat remained a guerilla fighter rather than a statesman. “Arafat never lost the habits of someone who was in hiding,” he said. ” … He had a terrific first three quarters of his term, but was not able to change under a new set of political circumstances.”