While still a teenager, Yasser Arafat took up arms to fight for a Palestinian homeland, and for three decades he has been regarded by most Western governments as a bloodthirsty terrorist. Since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, however, a political settlement for Palestine has become a major issue—and Arafat, as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has assumed the unfamiliar (and, to some, still unlikely) role of diplomat. He is finding new friends in high places. The prime ministers of Spain and Austria have met with him, and France, Italy and Greece are making gestures toward the PLO. But Arafat’s greatest piece of luck was the firing in August of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young after he had held an unauthorized meeting with a PLO representative. Since then many American black leaders have taken up the cause. Last week, after meeting with the PLO chief, the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced that President Carter had “a moral obligation” to hold talks with Arafat as well.
Pamela Andriotakis of PEOPLE visited Arafat two weeks ago in one of his tightly guarded Beirut offices. She found him surprisingly gracious, intuitive, moved easily to laughter—but also a highly mercurial man, whose mood could change instantly from geniality to rage. He still speaks with deep, intemperate bitterness of Israel. The hour was midnight, and Arafat was clearly exhausted, but when the subject of Palestine arose he came to life and spoke excitedly until 2 a.m. Here are excerpts:
You have made a reputation as a terrorist. Are you one?
This is a lie from the Israeli secret service. How can someone like Begin, who was wanted by the British for terrorism, call me a terrorist? Yasser Arafat is asking for the rights of his people. He is fighting for the freedom of his people.
Then terrorism is justified?
A gun alone is a brigand. A gun with people who have a cause and an ideology, who are working toward a new life—this makes a revolution. We are the cement that unifies the Arab nation, and we can be the dynamite that blows up the region.
What do you want for the Palestinian people?
I want them to be able to establish their right to self-determination and to establish their independent state in their own land.
Do you think you can accomplish that?
I am sure of it. I expect victory. We started this struggle as unknowns, without any possibilities, and we have changed our people from refugees to freedom fighters. But it will be a long struggle, because we are facing a fierce, barbaric, unhumanitarian enemy; they have completely forgotten what they suffered under the Nazis. They are repeating those miseries, with up-to-date weapons, against my people.
Doesn’t language like that prove that you are an enemy of the Jewish people, not just the Israeli state?
No. This military junta [in Israel] is not just spoiling the area. They are destroying Judaism. Judaism never in its history committed occupation—but now they are occupying and exercising the worst kind of repression against the Palestinian people.
But, in fact, aren’t your people really fighting for the destruction of Israel?
We have said that we are ready to live together in a democratic state. They replied, “This is unacceptable. Arafat is coming to threaten us. He is a terrorist.” So we said, “Okay, we’ll establish our independent state on any part of Palestine from which the Israelis withdraw.” They said, “No, we don’t accept that.”
Why do you refuse to recognize Israeli statehood?
If you were in my place, would you unmask all of your cards? Let me say this. We don’t hate anybody. We are not against Jews. We are ready to live with them together in peace. But we don’t like to be thrown into the desert.
If the Israelis retreated from the occupied territories…
“If!” Don’t say “If!” I can’t give my people “If.” I have to give them realities and facts. I can’t build the future of my people on one so-called “If.”
Has the rift between blacks and Jews over the Andrew Young affair increased your American support?
I don’t believe what happened has caused a controversy between Jews and blacks. It is a controversy between the Israeli lobby and blacks. Those who stood for a just cause, like blacks, identify with the Palestinian people. The Conference of Churches in Georgia has extended an invitation to me to visit the States. We seek support from other communities in the U.S. as well. But blacks have been the pioneers.
Are you seeking a direct dialogue with the U.S. government?
I have declared it to the American administration, but they still refuse to recognize the Palestinian people and Palestinian rights. They are making an important moral error—giving all their support to the aggressors and completely neglecting the victims.
What do you think of President Carter’s attitude toward the Palestinians?
He started by saying he favored a Palestinian homeland, if you remember—and I thanked him. Now, in his third year in office, he says he doesn’t accept an independent state for the Palestinians. “It would be a destabilizing force,” he says. “It would be unsuitable.” Why? We have lived here for hundreds of centuries. Don’t you think it is amazing and unacceptable to hear something like that from the President of a superpower? Would you accept it from me to say the same thing about another state?
Are there other presidential contenders you prefer?
The Israeli lobby prepares itself well. They squeeze every candidate to support their bombing, and every candidate will do his best to satisfy the Israeli Zionist lobby and the Jewish institutions. In shellings and bombings of refugee camps, we Palestinians, Lebanese, women and children will pay the price for the bartering and competition of the presidential campaign.
Do you live in constant fear for your life?
All people who carry principles live in danger. I am a freedom fighter resisting occupation, terrorism, aggression. All freedom fighters live in danger. I look to the prophets, who risked danger to allow coming generations to live in peace in the Holy Land. I believe in what I am doing. That is enough.
Do you believe that coming generations will ever live in peace in the Holy Land?
I am sure that one of our children will have the ability to achieve the victory. Our generation is paying with death, genocide, massacre—all kinds of hell. But this is our fate, and nobody escapes his destiny. The bones of our grandfathers have been buried in Palestine. The bones of our grandsons will be buried there in the future.