Eight years after the passing of Yasser Arafat, new speculations have arisen concerning the previously mysterious circumstances of his death. Tests from his clothing indicate unusually high levels of plutonium, giving rise to accusations of poisoning. Authorization has been given from his family and the Palestinian Authority for an autopsy of his remains and full investigation.

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Yasser Arafat's tombstone in Ramallah has become a national symbol for Palestinians. Credit: Creative Commons/Tristam Sparks.

The charge of homicide carries several implications, perhaps the greatest of which is, with so many fingers to point and people to blame, how will this hinder any possibility of mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians? If it becomes apparent eight years on that Arafat was assassinated, one can only imagine where the peace process will lead.

Cause of death aside, Arafat remains a controversial figure of modern history, and an excellent example of the power and enigma of political legacy. Unquestionably, Arafat holds a unique place in the consciousness of many Palestinians. While recently living in the West Bank, I heard his nickname, Abu Ammar, referenced at least as often and with a greater degree of reverence than any living Palestinian representative such as Abbas.

For many Palestinians, Abu Ammar elicits certain nostalgia. In the days of his leadership, negotiations held more promise, peace talks had not fallen through quite so many times, and there was a certain hopefulness that has now been usurped by futility. Regardless of the multitude of charges brought against Abu Ammar (corruption, terrorism, etc.), his legacy for those who admire him is one of integrity. He was first and foremost a leader and genuine representative of the Palestinian people, with their rights and best interests at his heart. His mandate was unquestionable. He was never propped up by outside forces or governments.

With any leader, the legacy he or she imparts can often paint an overly homogenous picture of their life and work. He or she is either loved or hated, revered or reviled. Arafat is an exemplary case of the stark dichotomy in opinions with which people become remembered, especially those who have been at the heart of such extreme and volatile situations. He is a hero to some, and a murderer to others.

I spent the summer of 2011 volunteering as an English teacher at a local center in the city of Hebron, Palestine. The center shares the third floor of a building with a two-bedroom apartment, where a single woman lives with her two young kids. We would often meet each other in the hallway, and sometime around my second week there, they invited me in for lunch. In typical Palestinian fashion, they showered me with an enormous meal, even sending the young son out to buy Snickers, knowing that I would recognize and appreciate the American candy. Moreover, they opened up their home and their lives to me, a foreign stranger who spoke little of their language.

We conversed, and at some point in the conversation, the woman explained that her husband died eight years ago, leaving her with two kids and a long commute to work. She did not share the cause of death, but it was apparent he had died young. I sympathized with her, and shared that my mother, too, died eight years ago. Regardless of how superficially different our lives where, I felt some sort of mutual understanding with the family, especially the two young kids, ages fourteen and nine, who had grown up with only one parent.

After enjoying their hospitality and returning to work, my coworker explained to me that her husband, the father of these kids, had been killed during the last Intifada, in that very building. He had been a target hit, killed by plane.

One program we offered at the center was a summer camp for kids ages eight to twelve, designed to promote English language learning and leadership and teamwork skills. I was pleased when the nine-year-old son from next door came to join our camp. On some level, I empathized with him.

Frequently during those days of running the summer camp, I would pause to look around the room at these children and ponder my surroundings. They laughed and ran and screamed with a familiar glee. They might as well have been American kids, but with one huge difference in my mind: these were children of the second Intifada. With a war in their backyard, their first years were so fundamentally different from any typical American child. From what roots had these children come? How does the Intifada form a small child?

Sometimes my Palestinian friends would tell me stories about the last Intifada. They would tell me of the excessive numbers of checkpoints, for example: one at the end of your driveway, one every 100 meters on the road. To get to school, five kilometers away, would take an hour, let alone to travel 30 km to the next city, which would take 10. Army tanks stationed everywhere became so commonplace that children growing up at the time never understood the machines’ abnormality. They would chase after the tanks and create games around them, in fearless ignorance of their meaning. This was the status quo. It was difficult for me to imagine or visualize, coming from America. Yet looking around at these summer campers, it was impossible to detect whatever traces remained in them. The Intifada is over and people carry on as normal.

On the final day of camp, we took the campers on a field trip to Ramallah, with one of the first stops on our itinerary being Arafat’s tomb. The campers went up to the headstone respectfully, posed for some photos gracefully, and got ready to leave, relatively uninterested in the site as children tend to be with all things called “historical” or “educational.” The boy from next door was the only one who lingered in the back, taking longer than the rest to observe the grave. It became obvious that he was honoring Abu Ammar in a much deeper way than the rest of the kids, his attitude much more somber and contemplative. He finally ended his visit with a full salute to the departed, the image of which still remains in my mind.

That this little boy was shaped by the Intifada is indisputable. The question still in my mind is, what sort of person will he grow up to be? What does the pain and injustice of never knowing one’s father, combined with heroes like Abu Ammar produce? What sort of man will he become, and by which principles will he guide his actions? It is on these children, not aging politicians like Abu Ammar or Mahmoud Abbas, that the foundations and hopes for peace ride.

Arafat’s enigma, like any other legacy, billows and continues to affect people in a multitude of ways. Should one fear that people of such controversy only serve to divide, rather than unite? Will the memory of Abu Ammar, and new allegations of assassination and wrongdoing only further accentuate people’s differences instead of working to bridge them? Would it be better for this little boy to have a role model whose character is morally ambiguous, or no role model at all? Or, does Abu Ammar retain any potential to unite people, even under today’s circumstances? In effect, he led Palestinians to the closest that they have ever come to real negotiations. He brought the PLO to recognize 1967 borders as the foundation of two states for two peoples. Is there something in what he stood for that can be extrapolated as universal?

The challenge of political legacy increases tenfold in a place where memory already dictates so much. Whether it is memory of the Holocaust, memory of the Nakba, memory of a homeland, memory of the Temple Mount, collective memory undeniably provides the framework for so much of daily life in Israel and Palestine. The issue of legacy is not simply that it is subjective, but that you cannot disprove to someone his own point of view. If Abu Ammar has shaped who someone is, in any capacity, it will be hard to dissuade that person or make him change his fundamental view of the man. How can such variance and diversity be brought toward one common goal, by one common method?

As I look at this little boy, at the seriousness, humility, and sense of duty that he expresses at the site of Arafat’s grave, it is impossible not to recognize that he will carry this for the rest of his life. In the same way that we all have rocks we carry, this little boy will forever carry the Intifada with him, along with the father he never knew, and the leader who maybe could have made things right.

Inasmuch as the past weighs us down and presents the power to make people feel fundamentally separate from one another, does it not also give valuable lessons and potentially beneficial insight? The past is inescapable, and thus it must be harnessed in such a way as to empower people and ignite mutual recognition. Memory is only helpful inasmuch as it makes us cognizant of our own humanity. At the end of the day, we must remember that we are all only human, and we are all of questionable moral character, striving to achieve better, and to err on the side of good, together. This is the power of legacy, at its best. It is not black and white, but willing to admit the truth.


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