ARAFAT, LIKE CASTRO and countless other modern revolutionaries dating back to the Russian Nihilists, got his start in college politics. His full name was Muhammad Abdel-Rauf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini; “Yasser” was a nickname that meant, ironically, “easygoing” or “carefree”—words that would never be used by anyone to describe this volatile, vain, and demanding character, who never expressed an interest in anything other than the Palestinian struggle. So devoted was he to the revolutionary cause that, he explained, he had no time to shave—he could not afford to lose 15 minutes a day, 450 minutes a month, “in the midst of guerrilla warfare.” One of his few relaxations was watching cartoons—he claimed to like “Tom and Jerry” best because “the mouse outsmarts the cat.” His monomania did not make him an easy person to like, but it did not set him apart from Che, Mao, or other successful revolutionaries—nor, for that matter, from many others who are successful in occupations ranging from business to sports.
Embarrassingly for a Palestinian patriot, Arafat’s birthplace was probably Cairo, where his father, a merchant, had emigrated in 1927, two years before his birth, to pursue business interests. After his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage to a stepmother he hated, young Arafat was sent to live in Jerusalem with family members for a few years in the 1930s, but he soon returned to Cairo. In spite of his later claims of heroic battlefield exploits (“I fought in Jerusalem, in the south of Jerusalem and in Gaza,” he told an interviewer in 1988), there is no evidence that he played any part in Israel’s War of Independence in 1947–48, which led to the exodus of 700,000 Palestinian refugees. The following year he entered King Fuad University, later Cairo University, to study civil engineering. But as one of his friends recalled, in virtually the same words that were used about Castro (who entered the University of Havana in 1945), “His only activity was politics. Very seldom would he come to the School of Engineering.”
His major achievement was to become president of the Palestine Students’ Union—a feat he accomplished with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Arafat would never become an Islamist like the founders of Hamas but, unlike George Habash, Wadi Haddad, and many other Palestinian activists of the 1960s–1970s, he was not a radical leftist either. He was from the start a traditional Muslim with no ideological program beyond Palestinian statehood.
After graduation in 1956, Arafat moved to Kuwait—lured, like many other Palestinian professionals, by the oil-fueled economic boom. While working as a lowly road engineer for the Ministry of Public Works, he got together in a “discreet house” in 1959 with fewer than twenty other Palestinian exiles to create an anti-Israel group called Fatah (Conquest). Early support came from Syria and Algeria, which in 1964 allowed the nascent organization to establish its first training camps for a few hundred fighters.
Terrorism against Israeli settlers was hardly a new phenomenon; it had been a fact of life since the Arab Revolt of 1936–39. Following Israel’s formation in 1948, which of course was partly the result of a terrorist campaign by Zionist groups against the British authorities, the Jewish state had faced a nonstop stream of infiltrations by Arab fedayeen (self-sacrificers). Between 1948 and 1956, these attackers killed more than two hundred Israeli civilians and many soldiers and helped precipitate the war against Egypt in 1956 and numerous smaller retaliatory raids. But these terrorist operations were undertaken by neighboring states such as Egypt and Syria, not by independent Palestinian groups. The Palestinians were too divided by clan loyalties and economic interests and insufficiently nationalistic to be a powerful force in their own right. Arab leaders were anxious to keep it that way: they wanted to use the Palestinian issue but not to give the Palestinians their own voice. Authoritarians to a man, the Arab heads of state did not want any Palestinian leader challenging their authority. Thus the Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964 under the auspices of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose domains included the Gaza Strip. (The West Bank was ruled by Jordan.) Its first leader was a nonentity totally dependent on Nasser’s support. Arafat decided to launch his own campaign of terrorism in 1964, at a time when many thought Fatah was not yet ready, largely to steal a march on the PLO and its Egyptian patrons.
By this time he had already adopted his trademarks—a black and white kaffiyeh (head scarf), a face full of stubble, dark glasses, which he wore day and night, and, in spite of his lack of actual military service, an olive-green military uniform complete with a holstered Smith & Wesson revolver. These symbols became as important for him, and served much the same purpose, as Montgomery’s beret or MacArthur’s corncob pipe. They also helped distract from his unprepossessing appearance: “Only five feet four inches tall, with protruding eyes, a permanent three-day old stubble, and potbelly, Arafat was not,” the journalist Thomas Friedman aptly noted, “what one would call a dashing figure.”
Arafat’s political astuteness more than made up for what he lacked in physical stature. From the start he made a habit of establishing shell organizations that would claim responsibility for attacks while providing him with plausible deniability. The first of these was called al-Asifa (the Storm). Under its banner, in the first days of 1965, Fatah operatives based in Syria launched their first attack on Israel—a failed attempt to sabotage the waterworks. Although most of the early operations were equally unsuccessful, each was heralded with a bombastic press release that claimed historic achievements. In the early days Arafat would tool around Beirut in his Volkswagen Beetle personally distributing his “boastful communiqués.” Later he would develop a world-class propaganda machine to get his message out; in common with many other modern revolutionaries, he had internalized T. E. Lawrence’s dictum that “the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.” Arafat was abstemious when it came to cigarettes and alcohol, but he was addicted to publicity.
His early, amateurish attempts to organize a Mao-style insurgency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came to little. Shin Bet, the internal Israeli security service, was “relentless, fast, and ruthless.” It was particularly adept at finding Palestinian informers through a combination of inducements (money, work or travel permits) and threats (prison, deportation). In late 1967 Arafat was fortunate to escape from a Ramallah safe house just ahead of a raid; the security men found his mattress still warm.
An Israeli officer was dismissive of Fatah: “We cannot dignify them with the name guerrilla or commando. . . . They are nowhere near Viet Cong standards.” True, but irrelevant. No matter how much Arafat might deny it (he insisted the terrorist label was a “big lie” from the “Israeli military junta”), Fatah was a terrorist, not a guerrilla, organization, and its operations were designed to generate publicity and political support, not to militarily defeat, or even seriously harm, Israel. By that standard Arafat was succeeding. With the start of his attacks, wealthy Gulf Arabs began making substantial donations. The PLO was well on its way to becoming, in the words of one scholar, “by far the richest irredentist movement the world had ever seen.”
Arafat was the only person who would know where the PLO’s funds, eventually amounting to billions of dollars, were stashed. This became a powerful instrument of personal power that helped to explain his long-term survival. But while many of his associates were widely suspected of corruption, Arafat was not. Like Che Guevara, he seemed indifferent to material comforts—for most of his life he led a nomadic existence with few personal possessions other than his Rolex watch and his Smith & Wesson revolver. “There is,” a journalist was to note in 1989, “no bric-a-brac in Arafat’s life.”
Arafat’s early reputation was made by the battle of Karameh. This was a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan that Fatah used as a base of operations. Israeli ground forces attacked it on March 21, 1968, in retaliation for a mine that had been planted on an Israeli road, blowing up a school bus. The Israelis encountered much heavier resistance than anticipated, losing 33 men. The defenders suffered more—the PLO lost 156 dead and 141 captured. It was hardly a victory in the conventional sense, and most of the fighting had been done by the Jordanian army, not the PLO. But Arafat showed a genius for spinning military dross into public-relations gold. He trumpeted Karameh as the first battle the Israelis had lost—and Arabs, eager for good news after the 1967 Six-Day War, believed him. Thousands of volunteers flocked to Fatah, and the Arab states substantially increased their support.
In 1968 Arafat appeared on his first cover of Time, which proclaimed that “everyone in the Arab world knows who he is.” In 1969 he was elected chairman of the PLO, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. With his newfound wealth and power, he was able to expand his network of bases in Jordan into a state within a state. Palestinian gunmen swaggered around extorting “donations” at gunpoint and openly talked of overthrowing the “fascist regime in Jordan.”
Nemesis was not long in coming.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which after Fatah was the PLO’s second-biggest party and over which Arafat exercised little control, precipitated a crisis in September 1970 with its hijackings of Western aircraft, which were blown up in Jordan. Arafat expressed his disapproval of the PFLP’s aerial piracy, but he made no attempt to stop it. This was too much for King Hussein, who had little respect for the double-dealing Arafat and feared that he was losing control of his own country. He ordered his army to expel the PLO. The Jordanian army, a professional force backed by armor, artillery, and aircraft, made short work of the cocky but “totally unprepared” and hopelessly outnumbered PLO fighters. At least two thousand of them were killed. Some of Arafat’s men were so terrified of the ruthless Jordanians that they sought refuge in Israel. Arafat, for his part, relocated his operations to Lebanon. Openly challenging King Hussein was his first major miscalculation but far from the last.166
TO STAGE A comeback, in 1971 he organized a new front group called Black September. Its first victim was Jordan’s prime minister, Wasfi Tal—“one of the butchers of the Palestinian people,” according to PLO propaganda. He was gunned down in Cairo in 1971. In a grisly touch, one of his killers drank the dying man’s blood from the floor. In 1973 Black September operatives invaded a party at the Saudi embassy in Khartoum and killed a Belgian diplomat along with the U.S. ambassador and his deputy—one of the few times that the PLO directly attacked the United States. Over the years Arafat made many enemies, but, in spite of his close links with the Soviet bloc, he was cautious enough to avoid a direct assault on a superpower. Black September’s most notable operation was the seizure of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, the most famous terrorist act prior to September 11, 2001. The photograph of a gunman standing on the Israeli team’s balcony with a stocking mask over his head, looking like a pitiless visitor from another planet, became a defining image of the age.
Israel retaliated immediately by bombing PLO bases in Lebanon and Syria. At the same time Prime Minister Golda Meir secretly ordered Israel’s intelligence agencies, as part of Operation Wrath of God, to hunt down and kill Black September and PFLP operatives wherever they could be found. The use of targeted killings by Israel was not new. As far back as 1956 Mossad agents had mailed a book bomb that had killed Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Hafez, an Egyptian intelligence officer who directed fedayeen attacks from the Gaza Strip.167 But the retaliation for Munich was especially ambitious and controversial.
It included a risky seaborne commando raid into the heart of Beirut in 1973: Operation Springtime of Youth. Several members of Sayeret Matkal, including its commander, Ehud Barak, dressed up as women to sneak past sentries and assassinate three top PLO leaders in their apartments, while paratroopers blew up the headquarters of a PFLP splinter group and other targets. Another high-profile success came six years later, in 1979, when Ali Hassan Salameh (“the Red Prince”), operations chief of Black September and a personal favorite of Arafat’s, was killed in Beirut by a parked Volkswagen that exploded as he drove by.
Despite these achievements, Operation Wrath of God was hardly an unalloyed success. Black September’s commander, Abu Daoud, was shot thirteen times in a Warsaw coffee shop in 1981 but survived. More embarrassing, in 1973 a Mossad team was captured in Norway after mistakenly killing a Moroccan waiter who had been mistaken for Salameh. This was the only documented case of mistaken identity, but many of those assassinated had only the most tenuous connection with the Munich massacre; they were picked because they were more easily accessible than senior PLO leaders. (Arafat was said to sleep in a different bed every night, and he was protected by a large force of bodyguards.) Nor were Israel’s assassinations cost-free. The PLO retaliated by kidnapping and killing Israelis abroad, including a failed attempt on the life of Golda Meir in 1973 and the successful takeover of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok in 1972.
Arafat disbanded Black September in 1973 and thereafter generally refrained from international terrorism while continuing terrorist operations in Israel and the occupied territories. It is hard to say whether Israel’s targeted killings played a role in his decision. Certainly the Israeli habit of retaliation was a more effective deterrent than the tendency of European and Arab governments to release captured terrorists. Wasfi Tal’s killers, for instance, were let go by an Egyptian court, while the three surviving Munich terrorists were released less than two months later by the German government after Black September hijacked a Lufthansa aircraft. (Bonn was rumored to have connived in the hijacking to get rid of its unwanted prisoners.) But it is doubtful that Israel’s Wrath of God campaign alone led to Arafat’s change of heart. Another major factor, surely, was warnings from Saudi Arabia and the United States of serious consequences if the PLO attacked their facilities or personnel again.
Probably Arafat calculated that he had reaped all the benefits possible from high-profile attacks such as the Munich massacre and that to continue them would undermine his political strategy. Nineteen seventy-four was a turning point in that regard. That year the PLO was recognized by the Arab League as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people, and Arafat was allowed to address the United Nations General Assembly. Unlike some of the wild men drawn to the Palestinian cause—inveterate adventurers such as the Venezuelan Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (“Carlos the Jackal”), who stormed OPEC’s Vienna headquarters in 1975 to hold the oil ministers hostage, or the Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal, whose men shot up the El Al counters at the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985—Arafat craved international legitimacy. He could be pragmatic in his use of terrorism, but he often miscalculated, and he did so again after establishing himself in Lebanon.168
HERE, IN WHAT became known as Fatahland, he presided over a formidable network of businesses and quasi-governmental ministries, courts and schools, along with training facilities that hosted foreign terrorists such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. He even set up his own semiregular Palestine Liberation Army, 15,000 strong. The presence of these armed Palestinians tilted the delicate balance of Lebanese politics and sparked a destructive civil war in 1975 that would last, on and off, until 1990. The fighting would claim more than 100,000 lives and leave large swaths of Beirut, once known as the Paris of the East, utterly devastated. The PLO found itself fighting alongside Muslim and Druze militia against Christian militiamen who received support from Israel. From its Lebanese lairs, the PLO also staged raids and missile strikes against Israel. These included the infamous “coastal road massacre” of 1978 when eleven Fatah operatives landed in rubber dinghies in Israel and hijacked a bus. In a shootout with Israeli security forces, 35 passengers were killed and 71 injured. Three days later the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded southern Lebanon and established a “security zone” along the border policed by a Christian proxy force.
Yet PLO attacks continued, leading Israel in June 1982 to mount a full-blown invasion of Lebanon that culminated in a ten-week siege of Beirut, which led to widespread condemnation of the Jewish state. This was the point when Israel began to change in foreign perception from an admirable underdog, as it had been at the time of the Entebbe raid, to an abusive imperialist. That transformation, which would have serious repercussions for the Jewish state’s international standing, accelerated after Israeli forces stood by while Christian Phalangist militiamen slaughtered Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982. Before long Israel would come to feel trapped in Lebanon amid incessant guerrilla attacks on its forces from the newly formed “Party of God”—Hezbollah. Yet that was scant comfort for the PLO, whose military inadequacies had been exposed once again for all the world to see. In August 1982 Arafat had no choice but to agree to an American plan that led to the evacuation of the PLO headquarters to Tunisia, fifteen hundred miles away.
He declined, however, to follow the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s helpful advice to commit suicide in protest. Arafat was above all a survivor who might advocate martyrdom for others but would never practice it himself. Although he had to dodge Israeli assassination attempts, he was not truly a front-line fighter like Christiaan de Wet, Michael Collins, or Che Guevara. His role far away from the action, flitting by private aircraft from one high-level diplomatic engagement to another, made it easier for him to continue the struggle undaunted by the dangers and privations faced by his men. He refused even to admit defeat; the evacuation of Lebanon was portrayed as another glorious victory. “Another victory such as this,” joked one of the PLO’s moderates, “and the PLO will find itself in the Fiji islands.”169
“THE OLD MAN,” as Arafat had been known since he was a young man, was able to stage yet another resurgence through a serendipitous occurrence: in December 1987 Palestinian youths in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began clashing with Israeli occupation forces. The Intifada (uprising, or literally “shaking off”) was not planned by the PLO, and it gained much of its power not from terrorism but from strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. The activists abjured firearms in favor of stones, knives, and Molotov cocktails. It was not exactly Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance, but neither was it the deliberate slaughter of Israeli civilians—the PLO’s previous pattern.
Israeli’s security forces were perplexed about how to respond. “We were caught with our pants down,” notes an official IDF historian. As soldiers of a liberal democracy, and one that was under unrelenting international scrutiny, they could not simply send tanks to crush unarmed demonstrators as the Chinese government was to do in 1989. Sometimes, especially at first, small Israeli units facing large mobs would resort to live ammunition. More often, especially as time went on, various alternatives were employed such as truncheons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The security forces also beat, deported, and, above all, detained perceived troublemakers, some of whom were tortured during interrogation. Eighteen thousand Palestinians were arrested in the Intifada’s first year alone. In addition, from 1987 to 1990, roughly six hundred Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces compared with a hundred Israelis killed by Palestinians. This imbalance helped produce the impression of an Israeli Goliath pummeling a Palestinian David despite the relative restraint exercised by the Israelis. The Chinese army, which exercised no such restraint, killed some two thousand protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. But in modern times democratic Western powers inevitably have been held to a higher standard than illiberal states such as Communist China—as Britain had discovered during the Irish War of Independence and France during the Algerian War and as the United States was to discover in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like their American, British, and French counterparts, Israeli leaders failed to appreciate the importance of appearances. Much of the news media coverage showed young Palestinian rock throwers, their faces obscured by bandannas, pitted against heavily armed, menacing-looking Israeli soldiers and police. Although the PLO leadership did not start the demonstrations, it made sure to use its public-relations savvy to publicize them—a project that the international press corps, always happy to root for an underdog, was eager to cooperate in. “The battle of the narrative,” which had been a relatively minor part of guerrilla warfare as recently as the early years of the twentieth century, had now become more important than actual combat in determining the course of events. The Israel Defense Forces had shown superlative skills in conventional combat; they were far less skilled in this new arena of warfare.
As a result of the Intifada, most Israelis turned against the occupation of the territories and for the first time became willing to recognize a Palestinian state. International sympathy for the Palestinians also increased. The Intifada was a public-relations victory approaching, but never quite reaching, those won in the nineteenth century by Greek rebels against the Ottoman Empire and by Cuban rebels against Spain or more recently by Algerian rebels against France.
Arafat, for his part, acquired a more accommodating mindset because of his disastrous decision to back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which cost the PLO much of its Persian Gulf money and caused a financial crisis. Thus the stage was set for the Oslo peace process. In 1993 Arafat and Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, signed an accord that, in return for recognition of Israel, set up the Palestinian Authority, which would be given limited but growing authority over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.170
Yasser Arafat had nearly died in 1992 in an air crash in the Libyan desert. It was a miracle that he was alive not only physically but politically. A lifelong exile who had not set foot in the Palestinian territories for nearly thirty years, he was able to return in 1994 as co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the internationally recognized leader of a quasi-state. One of the highlights of his long life was undoubtedly the rapturous reception he received from tens of thousands of cheering Palestinians in a Gaza City festooned with the red, green, black, and white Palestinian flag. He took as his headquarters a former Israeli compound in Ramallah in the West Bank, where he would receive a stream of visitors, ranging from heads of state to the author of this volume,171 often meeting them in the early morning hours. (Arafat was an inveterate night owl.)
In 1990 the peripatetic sixty-two-year-old revolutionary even made a move in the direction of settling down by marrying in a secret ceremony a twenty-seven-year-old Palestinian Christian, Suha Tawil, who five years later gave birth to a daughter. The birth occurred, however, in Paris, where she spent much of her time. Her jet-setting caused much resentment among ordinary Palestinians mired in poverty. Their anger only grew when they saw that corruption was pervasive among the returned PLO cadres.
His own people were not the only ones disappointed with Arafat. Rabin had hoped that Arafat would do more to repress Palestinian militants than Israeli forces could do because he would not be restrained by courts, human-rights lobbies, or other “bleeding hearts.”172 It was not to be. Arafat sometimes captured terrorists and sometimes cooperated with them—whatever suited his purposes at the moment. The 1990s saw the first suicide-bomber attacks in Israel: more than thirty of them between 1993 and 2000.173Although these attacks were carried out by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, not by the PLO, Arafat did little to stop them.
IN 2000, AT Camp David, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat a final-status agreement that would have ceded East Jerusalem, at least 90 percent of the West Bank, and virtually all of the Gaza Strip. Rather than sign a treaty that would have transformed him from a revered “freedom fighter” into the leader of a small and impoverished nation—and that might have exposed him to assassination by militants—Arafat unleashed, or at least did not try to stop, the Second Intifada. It began with apparently spontaneous riots in September 2000 after the Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, already hated among Palestinians as the architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and a champion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, briefly visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. This new uprising quickly turned into a campaign of terrorism not of protest, as the First Intifada had been. Suicide bombers penetrated Israel’s largest cities and inflicted more casualties than Israel had ever suffered from terrorism: 649 Israeli civilians died between 2000 and 2005. Arafat, as usual, tried to hide his involvement behind front organizations—the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Tanzim, which cooperated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to carry out shootings and suicide bombings.
Once again, just as during the First Intifada, Israel’s initial response was confused and restrained. “We were kind of clueless,” admitted one senior Israeli intelligence officer. Having given up control of the West Bank’s cities to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, Israelis had little desire to go back even though, in the words of the IDF’s chief of staff, they had become “safe havens for terrorists.” But in March 2002 Israel’s patience snapped. That month 135 Israelis died in seventeen attacks including more than 30 slaughtered at a Passover Seder. “It was clear the situation could not continue as before,” wrote an Israeli general.
Ariel Sharon, now the prime minister, ordered two controversial responses: one defensive, the other offensive. The defensive response was the erection of a costly barrier—in some places a wall, in other places a fence—to separate Israel and some of its settlements from Palestinian communities in the West Bank. This was complemented by an army offensive designed to retake control of the entire West Bank. Operation Defensive Shield, which began on March 29, 2002, went surprisingly smoothly. The only city that saw fierce combat was Jenin. But even that was not the massacre claimed by the Palestinians: the United Nations later determined that fighting in Jenin killed twenty-three Israeli soldiers and fifty-two Palestinians, fewer than half of them civilians. In all five hundred Palestinians, mostly militants, were killed in the initial operations and seven thousand arrested. Once again, just as in Jordan and Lebanon, Palestinian fighters proved unable to stand toe-to-toe with a professional army. In 2002 Arafat found himself trapped in his own Ramallah compound with Israeli D-9 armored bulldozers knocking down his very walls. By the time of his death in 2004, at age seventy-five, he was widely seen as discredited and decrepit—a resistance leader whose long struggle had culminated in disaster.
The First Intifada, unplanned by Arafat, had divided Israeli society. The Second Intifada, which was Arafat’s handiwork, united it. This gave the Israel Defense Forces the backing they needed to score an impressive victory—comparable in its own way to the contemporary success of Colombian forces fighting FARC, of Sri Lankan forces fighting the Tamil Tigers, and of U.S. forces fighting various insurgents in Iraq in 2007–08. In 2002 there were fifty-three suicide attacks in Israel. In 2007 there was just one. And by 2009 there were none. What explains this turnabout, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom, even among many in the Israeli security forces, that determined terrorists willing to lay down their own lives could not be stopped?
Three factors were particularly important. First, the IDF’s success in sealing off the West Bank—an area smaller than the state of Delaware, with a population of two million Arabs. This prevented Palestinian forces from being resupplied. In 2002, for instance, Israel’s navy intercepted a freighter, the Karine A, loaded with fifty tons of Iranian weapons intended for the Palestinians. This was a severe embarrassment for Arafat, who initially and unconvincingly denied that the weapons were bound for his forces. Within the West Bank, the erection of numerous roadblocks inhibited the movement of militants and civilians alike. Second, the IDF’s ability to gather accurate intelligence, through both electronic means and human spies. This necessitated the reconstitution of capabilities that had been lost in the 1990s when much of the West Bank’s population had been turned over to Palestinian control. Once they were able to operate on the ground, Israeli intelligence officers were once again able to recruit informers. Third, and most important of all, was the IDF’s staying power. If the IDF had treated Operation Defensive Shield as a quick in-and-out operation, like so many previous raids into neighboring Arab states over the decades, or like the later operations against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008–09, it is doubtful that it would have achieved lasting success. “If we were removed from the West Bank, it would become like Gaza,” argued a senior Israeli strategist in 2011. “You’ve got to keep mowing the grass all the time.”
Because the IDF stayed on the ground, as the British did in Northern Ireland, it could continue gathering intelligence and acting on it within hours or sometimes minutes. This prevented Hamas, the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, and other terrorist groups from rebuilding their infrastructure. Many suicide bombers still tried to attack (thirty-six in 2009 alone), but few got through. As the terrorist threat waned, the IDF was able to dismantle some checkpoints, thereby improving life for the Palestinians. This was as far as the IDF would go toward trying to win the “hearts and minds” of a fundamentally—and understandably—hostile population. But even in 2011, more than a decade after the start of the Second Intifada, the IDF was still conducting nightly operations in the West Bank leading to the arrest of terrorist suspects. The creation of a truly sovereign Palestinian state—the object of Arafat’s lifework—seemed as far away as ever.174
LOOKING BACK OVER the long span of Arafat’s armed struggle, from 1965 to 2004, it is hard to say whether terrorism “worked” or not. Certainly terrorist attacks put Arafat and the PLO on the map; neither the man nor the movement would have become world famous without them. By sparking an Israeli backlash the attacks also helped to radicalize a hitherto apathetic Palestinian population and gave rise to a national identity that had previously been lacking. But on at least three occasions—in Jordan in 1970, Lebanon in 1982, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2000—Arafat’s resort to terrorism produced major setbacks that delayed the attainment of statehood. It was a double-edged sword: Palestinians’ association with terrorism brought their grievances international attention but also sullied their reputation and made Israel more intransigent.
Arafat apparently believed, at least in the beginning of his career, that through incessant attacks the Jews could be forced to cede sovereignty over Palestine as the French had been driven out of Algeria and the Americans out of South Vietnam. He had visited both Algeria and Vietnam, and came away deeply impressed by the FLN and the Vietcong. His onetime deputy Abu Iyad wrote, “The guerrilla war in Algeria, launched five years before the creation of Fatah, had a profound influence on us. . . . [It] symbolized the success we dreamed of.”175 This missed a crucial distinction. The French and Americans could abandon those distant conflicts without committing national suicide. From the Israeli standpoint, however, surrender was tantamount to another Holocaust. Israeli Jews would not leave their homes unless their armed forces were annihilated, and that was far beyond the modest military capabilities of the PLO. By one estimate between 1968 and 1985 its operations killed 650 Israelis or an average of 40 a year—hardly a fatal blow even to such a small nation.176
There is good cause to believe, as the liberal Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg has argued, that the Palestinians would have made greater gains toward statehood if led by a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. rather than by Arafat.177 Liberal democracies such as Israel are more susceptible to appeals to their conscience than to brutal attacks that stir public outrage. It is significant that the biggest Palestinian gains came after the First Intifada, which was much less violent than the two decades of terrorist attacks that preceded it or the Second Intifada, which succeeded it. But Arafat rose to prominence by the gun, and he could never quite renounce it. He could not make the transition that a few other terrorist leaders, including the Israeli prime ministers Menachim Begin (onetime leader of Irgun) and Yitzhak Shamir (the “Stern Gang”), had made to being normal politicians. And his power, and that of other extremists, made it impossible for those Palestinians who advocated nonviolent resistance or compromise with Israel to come to the fore.
The biggest victims of Palestinian terrorism, in the final analysis, were the Palestinians themselves. More than 3,200 of them died in the Second Intifada alone—and without winning statehood.178