The debate over the legacy of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, who died last week, has reached Georgetown, where students still hope for peace in spite of conflicts over the controversial figure.
Arafat, who died on Nov. 11 at age 75, was a divisive head of state who was revered by many Palestinians but reviled by Israelis.
“Arafat has made a lot of steps towards peace and accomplished a lot for the Palestinian people,” Bayann Hamid (SFS ‘07), Vice-President of Students for Justice in Palestine and herself a Palestinian-American, said. “He is a symbol of resistance. It will be hard to find someone to replace him.”
Other students, including members of the Georgetown Israel Alliance, disagreed.
“His legacy will be that he was a terrorist that killed innocent civilians, who promoted terrorism and was not a partner for peace,” Matt Singer (SFS ‘07), President of the GIA, said. “He will be remembered by Palestinians as a person who has popularized their desire for a state of independence, but as a person who failed to achieve that.”
Arafat began his political career as a guerilla leader in the early 1960s. In the early ‘90s, he revived his flagging popularity by representing the Palestinians in the peace process. He was popularly elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian government, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. While he won the 1994 Nobel Peace prize for his work, he also has been criticized for refusing the 2000 Camp David peace plan. Nonetheless, he was well-loved by the Palestinian people: 20,000 people attended his funeral, with many more prevented from attending by security forces, news organizations reported.
“What Arafat turned down, no other Palestinian leader would have been able to accept,” Hamid said.
The GIA and the SJP debated Arafat’s legacy Tuesday night on GUTV. The SJP is an organization dedicated to raising awareness of Palestinian issues on campus, while the GIA educates students about Israel’s culture, politics and society.
Though both groups have hopes for stability in the region, only the GIA is optimistic, as Singer did not consider the Arafat government to be a viable partner for peace.
“I think there is a lot of potential with Jan. 9 elections that the Palestinians will elect a legitimate government that will work for the people and that will work for peace,” Singer said. “There is a chance for peace in the future, and a two-state solution.”
The SJP has similar concerns about Israel’s prime minister.
“Remember, Sharon is a mass murderer,” Hamid said. “He is called ‘the bulldozer’ by the Palestinian people. They don’t see him as a good negotiating partner. There is not going to be peace until the occupation ends.”
Georgetown English Professor Andrew Rubin, Director of the International Coalition of Academics against the Occupation, said that the debate over Arafat’s legacy has no end in sight.
“He was a figure, though corrupt and anti-democratic in his ways, who has stood as a symbol for liberation and the ongoing struggle for self-determination of Palestinians,” Rubin said. “His legacy will be a divided one, between those who see him as a terrorist and those who see him as a figure that represents the self-determination of the people.”