Monday, November 12, 2007

Middle East Affairs

UN's favourite terrorist
Kanchan Gupta
This weekend marked the third death anniversary of Yasser Arafat, lionised in life and in death as a ‘revolutionary’ who fought for Palestinian rights. But Arafat was not half the man he was made out to be by his Arab admirers and supporters across the world, notably in India where the lib-left intelligentsia hero-worshipped this false god. Here’s what I wrote after Arafat died – it’s as valid today as it was three years ago.
New York, United Nations: Supreme leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, this morning strode into the hallowed United Nations General Assembly Hall, waving at the assembled gathering of representatives of 191 member states with one hand and holding aloft his trademark AK-56 rifle with the other.
As he took the podium, there was thunderous applause: The entire General Assembly was on its feet, giving a justly deserved standing ovation to the man fittingly described by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “the courageous symbol of pan-Islamic nationalism”.
An impossible scenario?
Not if you consider a similar despatch filed by news agencies (this was before the days and nights of 24x7 live television) that made waves around the world on November 13, 1974. On that day, the United Nations shamelessly opened its doors to a certain Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, alias Abu Ammar, aka Yasser Arafat. Sporting his pistol-in-holster trademark, he was allowed to enter the UN's premises armed, and address the General Assembly which was only to happy to anoint the progenitor of modern day Islamic terrorism as its ‘favourite and favoured terrorist’.
It took Arafat a decade-and-a-half spent masterminding the hijacking and blowing up of civilian aircraft, the massacre of pilgrims at Lod Airport, targeted assassination of diplomats (including one American ambassador), shooting down school children at Ma’alot (an event that played no insignificant role in inspiring the killers of Beslan) and killing Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics, apart from gifting the world with a unique weapon of civilian destruction, the human bomb, and unleashing terror in a myriad forms, to secure legitimacy for his evil deeds from that high institution of low scruples, the United Nations.
A decade from now, that honour could be Osama bin Laden's. If Arafat, who spent his entire life leading a campaign of terror, sowing dragon’s teeth of hatred and fanning religious bigotry in the guise of ‘national resistance’ can be described as 'the courageous symbol of Palestinian nationalism' by Kofi Annan, there is no reason why similar accolades cannot be showered on an unrepentant Osama bin Laden.
After all, the inspirational force behind the ritual beheadings of ‘non-believers’ that are conducted with sickening glee by masked Islamists for Al Jazeera's prime time evening news bulletins is as much Osama bin Laden as Yasser Arafat. It was the undisputed leader of al Fateh, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the president of the Palestinian Authority who made ruthless violence fashionable, even romantic, during the decades of the Cold War; it was he who made terrorism chic among those manning the barricades and in the vanguard of proletarian revolution around the world.
Ironically, notwithstanding his status as the UN’s favourite terrorist and the EU’s favourite despot on whom the latter showered billions of dollars in aid, at the fag end of his life, Yasser Arafat had become irrelevant – in Palestine, in Arabia and in Israel, the country he was determined to obliterate but which reduced him to a pathetic shadow of his past, holding him prisoner in his decrepit and bombed out headquarters in Ramallah.
In the Arab street he was the object of contemptuous ridicule, and not without reason: He was seen as a charlatan who stole from the very people whose interests he claimed to protect. In 2003, when Forbes published its list of the world's richest people in a new category reserved for kings, queens, and despots, President Yasser Arafat ranked sixth, bracketed with Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. According to Forbes, Arafat “feasted on all sorts of funds flowing into the Palestinian Authority”. Even as Palestinians were pushed into increasing impoverishment, desperate to eke out a living, Arafat lavished $100,000 a month on his wife, Suha, safely ensconced in luxury in Paris.
Few remember today that Arafat was not a product of the original Palestinian struggle for nationhood. Licking their wounds after their disastrous campaign against Israel following the birth of the Jewish state, Egypt, Syria and Trans-Jordan hit upon the idea of floating a Palestinian body that would be the Arabs' proverbial cat's paw. Thus was born the Palestine Liberation Organisation, headed by Syria’s nominee, Ahmed Shuqueri, in 1964. Following Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Palestinian National Conference met in Cairo and the radicals, led by Arafat, whose al Fateh had by then emerged as the dominant group, took charge.
Similarly, few remember that Arafat was not a Palestinian by birth. He was born in Egypt and moved to Jerusalem to live with an uncle after his mother's death. He returned to Cairo for studies, spent his early adult years in Egypt and then moved on to Kuwait. A popular Arab street story has it that he changed his formal name from Muhammad Abdel Rahman Abdel Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat not as part of his effort to radicalise his image (that was done with army fatigues, a chequered kafiyeh, dark glasses and a loaded pistol in a hip holster, immortalised by Time) but to erase his kinship with the infamous mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini whose claim to fame was his collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
After becoming chairman of the PLO in February 1969, Arafat never looked back. Like his fellow despots who rule over their fiefdoms, kingdoms and sheikhdoms in Arabia with an iron fist, he ruthlessly established himself as the sole spokesman, the sole leader and the sole public face of Palestinian nationalism, mastering the art of media spectacle and political timing that contributed in no small measure to his gaining an iconic status among liberals and leftists.
In a post-colonial world looking for symbols of national resistance, Arafat emerged trumps: unlike Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh, he was the romantic face of revolution. So much so, he is perhaps the only resistance leader in modern times who was able to convincingly justify recourse to violence against civilians, even make it acceptable as a legitimate instrument of struggle against occupation.
But that does not minimise the fact that it was Arafat who fashioned political terrorism and never in his life apologised for the bloodletting that his Al Fatah is responsible for; on the contrary, even in his dying days, holed up in Ramallah, he continued to sanction repeated assaults by al Fateh’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade on Israeli civilian targets. After being feted with the Nobel for peace, he unabashedly justified suicide bombings – after a young suicide bomber had blown up Jewish civilians, Arafat consoled the boy’s parents by telling them the “young man who turned his body into a bomb is the model of statehood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland”.
After becoming chairman of the PLO in February 1969, Arafat never looked back. Like his fellow despots who rule over their fiefdoms, kingdoms and sheikhdoms in Arabia with an iron fist, he ruthlessly established himself as the sole spokesman, the sole leader and the sole public face of Palestinian nationalism, mastering the art of media spectacle and political timing that contributed in no small measure to his gaining an iconic status among liberals and leftists.
In his lifetime, Arafat proved to be obdurate and intransigent in the face of the most reasoned logic of peace-making. If the Israelis and the Americans learned it the hard way – from Camp David to Oslo to Taba to Aqaba, Arafat moved one step forward only to take a giant leap backward – the Saudis had to rue coming up with their famous proposal that offered Israel full recognition in return of Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. Arafat merely laughed up his sleeve.
In a sense, Arafat managed to maintain his stranglehold over Palestinian affairs by taking a maximalist position on peace-making. He rejected each and every offer on the specious plea that it did not offer the Palestinians the maximum he desired. By unswervingly insisting on Palestine of pre-1948 vintage, he was able to convince Palestinians that history could be rolled back and Israel wiped out from the map of Middle-East. That, or nothing else, was his consistent stand. Now that he is dead, Palestine is a possible reality.
Arafat saw himself as a modern day Saladin; he preached the language of hate and militated against reconciliation and accommodation. Through a skilful mix of Arab nationalism and radical Islamism, which he had picked up during his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he inspired generations to march to death and disaster. His was a life spent on fighting for Palestinian land, not for Palestinian lives.
In the end, he failed to drive the Jews out of Jerusalem, but has left behind a legacy of hatred that continues to drive Arabs against Jews, Palestinians against Israelis. It is a pity that India, and a large number of Indians, should honour such a wasted, and wasteful, life.

(This article originally appeared on on November 19, 2004. See my Rediff homepage at )


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Israel agrees not to convert 'lost tribe' in India

Israel has bowed to complaints from the Indian government and stopped trying to convert to Judaism thousands of people in India who believe they are a Biblical lost tribe, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

Around 7,000 people in northeast India claim they are members of Bnei Menashe, or the children of Menashe, one of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israel.

Efforts to convert them by a specially despatched team of rabbis were called off after India, a major buyer of Israeli defence exports, voiced its displeasure.

Israel's Chief Rabbinate had given the green light to convert Bnei Menashe in India.

"The Indian authorities, through official channels, told us they do not view positively initiated efforts at conversions to other religions," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

"When the Indian government issues a complaint we take it seriously. At the moment there is a freeze on all such conversions taking place," Regev said.

Some 800 members of Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel since the late 1980s and many live in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Some members of the community were among the settlers evacuated from Gaza in an Israeli pullout completed in September.

An Israeli official, who asked not to be identified, said any Bnei Menashe members who choose to immigrate to Israel would be converted to Judaism after their arrival.

Exiled by the Assyrians around 720 BC, the tribe wandered through Afghanistan and China before ending up in a part of India nestled between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Decades after being converted to Christianity by missionaries, descendants in various areas began to reconnect with Judaism in the 1970s.

While much of their Jewish traditions had been lost on the way, Bnei Menashe still practised customs which were Jewish in origin. These included sanctifying a baby on the eighth day after birth, the time when Jewish males are circumcised.