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Hail to the chief.

For 25 of of his 62 years Yasser Arafat has been the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The world has come to associate the full-lipped, bearded face topped by the traditional black and white checkered keffiyeh, with the Palestinian cause.

Even those people who claim to have little or no interest in politics recognise his picture and his name, in many cases better than they would politicans of their own governments.

Arafat has weathered many political storms in his long career. But the signing of the peace deal with Israel must count as the most critical of them all. Even before the PLO chairman left Tunis for Washington and the historic signing, riots in Gaza and the West Bank had erupted and the death toll continues to rise.

Opposition to the deal includes more than 10 Palestinian groups, ranging from the Islamic resistance movement Hamas to the left wing Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Several leading lights have resigned from the PLO executive committee and have publicly contested the terms of the agreement.

Meanwhile, in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan there is a sense of betrayal. Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the PLO's information office has said that under the terms of the peace accord Palestinians who fled the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and their descendants, would be allowed to return. Such a return could involve as many as a million people.

However, there has been no mention of the much larger numbers of Palestinians who fled the country in 1948 after the state of Israel was declared and, understandably, these refugees are concerned about exactly where the deal with Israel will leave them. Israel denies it has reached any agreement involving refugee returns at this stage.

Arafat has been criticised, even by those close to him, for the haste involved in signing the accord with Israel. In a recent statement Suleiman Najab, a member of the PLO executive committee who voted in favour of the the peace agreement conceeded he personally felt the operation had been conducted in something of a rush. "We should first secure Arab agreement and backing through an emergency summit. This would be more in harmony with our pan-Arab commitments and with agreements we have made with our Arab brothers", he observed.

Negotiations with Arab states are all very well in theory but in practise have consistently proved unsatisfactory. Ultimately, the Palestinians had to sort out the best deal they could get for themselves and while Yasser Arafat cannot claim to speak for all Palestinians everywhere, as chairman of the mainstream movement Fatah, he is empowered to speak for the majority.

If the haste of striking an agreement with Israel is unseemly, it is no more so than the 40-odd years of enduring suspicion, oppression and fear that has existed throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories.

The terms of the deal are not and can never be perfect for both sides but the signing of the accord has opened up a pathway that for years looked as if it would forever remain impassable. Much credit must be given to Yasser Arafat for his part in the achievement. By June next year, elections for a Palestine National Council are to be held. If he wants to lead the embryonic Palestinian state he will be required to stand for election.

Between then and now Palestinians and the rest of the world will have a better idea of what sort of a peacetime leader the man Israel once named public enemy number one, will be. It is not certain that he will be elected, there has been much criticism of both the man and his methods in recent months, not to mention numerous death threats.

What is certain however, is that he has, after decades of symbolising the Palestinian struggle, earned the right to run. A statement issued via Al Quds Palestinian Radio by the dissident Fatah movement's central committee denounced Arafat as a traitor and called for his execution.

"This recognition", said the statement, "is a national and pan-Arab treason against the Palestinian people and the Arab and Islamic nation. It is a betrayal of the sacrifices... of the blood of the hundreds and thousands of martyrs and wounded shed during a century of struggle and jihad against this imperialist Zionist plan".

It might equally be said that after a century of struggle and jihad that has achieved the return of not one single hectare of Palestinian land, Arafat's option is one worth trying.
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Title Annotation:profile of Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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