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From the Archive: They came to bury Yasser, not to praise him

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This week marked 10 years since the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In the days after his Nov. 11, 2004 death at age 75 in a Paris hospital, JTA explored the legacy of the infamous terrorist-turned-peacemaker (sort of) whose signature black-and-white kaffiyeh and stubbly beard were iconic images.

JTA’s coverage included a timeline of the Palestine Liberation Organization founder’s life, from his Egyptian birth to his final years in a Ramallah compound.

Of particular focus in the days after his death was Arafat’s metamorphosis among Jews from Public Enemy No. 1 to negotiating partner to enemy to nearly irrelevant, particularly after he rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Camp David offer in the summer of 2000.

“He will go down as the largest mass murderer of Jews since Hitler,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA in an article published the day after Arafat died. “His life was devoted more to killing Jews than to the welfare of his own people.”

That article noted:

In the three years leading up to his death, the aging symbol of the Palestinians’ national hopes found himself quarantined in his Ramallah compound by an Israeli government that viewed him as both “irrelevant” and as the ultimate obstacle to Mideast peace.

In contrast to the frequent White House invitations extended by President Clinton to Arafat, President Bush treated him as a pariah, never once asking him to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Arafat’s sidelining and virtual house arrest capped a raucous progression of more than three decades during which the mainstream Jewish community, both in Israel and the Diaspora, moved from revulsion at the terrorist revolutionary who addressed the United Nations with a pistol on his hip, to cautious optimism about the putative peacemaker who shook the hand of a reluctant Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, to profound disappointment and resentment at the intransigent old man’s inability to abandon terrorism as a political tool and end his people’s conflict with Israel.

Arafat’s death also was an opportunity to address his questionable financial dealings and the whereabouts of his estate:

When Yasser Arafat is buried, he will take with him one of the enduring secrets of the Palestinian regime — the whereabouts of a missing fortune in ill-gotten public funds. Ranked sixth on Forbes magazine’s 2003 list of “the richest kings, queens and despots” with an estimated private coffer of at least $300 million, Arafat never divulged his finances during decades as a terrorist chieftain and later as Palestinian Authority president.

U.S. accountants commissioned by the Palestinian Authority, where Finance Minister Salem Fayyad has garnered global praise for instituting reform, found that part of Arafat’s personal wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion.

The Israeli government would “shun” the funeral, JTA reported in an article with this quote from Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid (father of the current Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid): “I do not usually think we should send a representative to the funeral of somebody who killed thousands of our people.”

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, with President Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

Concerned about unrest, “Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank ahead of Arafat’s burial” in Ramallah, JTA reported.

Indeed, while some Arab-Israelis held memorial services, the Jewish-Israeli response to Arafat’s passing ranged from satisfaction to ambivalence, JTA noted:

In Yasser Arafat’s death, Palestinians lost a national symbol, and Israelis lost the face of the other side. For so many years, Arafat — often shown grinning under his trademark kaffiyeh while overseeing the struggle against Israel — was the opponent Israelis somehow loved to hate.

Mordy Peretz, a 44-year-old deli owner in Tel Aviv, perhaps summed it up best when he told JTA of his mixed emotions upon seeing the frail Arafat board a helicopter out of Ramallah for what would be his final medical treatment:

“He was everything negative and achieved none of things he could have,” Peretz said. “But when I saw him waving goodbye,” he adds, “I felt a certain sympathy, and I felt badly for the Palestinians. Israelis, though they despise him, will still feel the loss of his image as the symbol of the Palestinian people.”

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