Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- Yasser Arafat shared his secrets and thoughts mainly with the small notebooks that he filled and kept in places unknown to members of the Palestinian leadership, even those who were close to the late Palestinian leader. Even after his death, the causes of which are still unknown, nobody dared to open these notebooks, or even open the boxes in which they were kept. There is no indication as to who is in charge of safekeeping them or the nature of the information noted by Arafat. However, all sources agree to the importance and seriousness of these notes, especially as the late leader, since the launch of the Palestinian revolution, would make note of every detail in a small notebook that he would keep in the pockets of his military uniforms that he wore for over fifty years during his leadership of the Palestinian revolution. Yasser Arafat, also known as Abu Ammar never parted with his notebooks. When they were full, he kept them in special envelopes and boxes in his office, allowing no one access to them.
Asharq Al Awsat sought to delve into the secret world of Arafat and discover the fate of Arafat’s journals and the nature of their content. Some of Arafat’s closest affiliates refused to discuss the topic with Asharq Al Awsat, further obscuring the issue, whereas some stated that the notes represented the history and secrets of the Palestinian revolution through the words of its initiator and leader and that the information that the notes conceal may harm Palestinian relations with friendly and foreign countries inasmuch as they may affect living figures and martyrs within the Palestinian revolution itself.
According to all those who worked with him, Arafat’s permanent vigilance and his unprecedented adherence to security caused him to keep many private papers in the four pockets of his green military uniform along with a small notebook. According to his personal photographer Hussein Hussein, his pockets were more like a mobile library that contained secrets and documents to which he would refer during his meetings and tours as well as newspaper clippings. “Abu Ammar would usually take newspaper clippings out of his pockets during his meetings with world leaders to support his statements,” Hussein said. Arafat produced a news article from an Israeli paper to show to US President Bill Clinton during Camp David II talks. The article revealed that half of the newcomers in Israel were not Jews. Neither Hussein nor others who worked beside the late president knew what President Arafat wrote in his private notebook. “What I know is that Abu Ammar would write down some of his own remarks during every meeting of both executive and central committees or with other presidents. When a notebook was full after a number of days or weeks [of writing], he put it in a special box in his office.” This is confirmed by Intisar al Wazir, member of the Fatah movement’s executive committee, who, like many affiliates of the Palestinian leadership, stated that she knew nothing about the fate of Arafat’s journals and the content, pointing out that an ad hoc committee was formed following Abu Ammar’s death to examine the notes. Al Wazir said that the notes most likely contain comments that Abu Ammar would need to remember, such as the decisions of executive and central committees, and private information that he wanted no one to access. She cited that the late president would frequently refer to his notebook during meetings to remind members of Palestinian leadership, foreign or Arab guests and even heads of states of a decision or agreement reached in a previous meeting.
Intisar al Wazir indicated that her husband, Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad), similarly kept a notebook and after his assassination, she discovered that it contained several remarks, both personal and security related, the latter of which could only be deciphered by the writer. Thus she concurs with political analyst Talal Awkal, who told Asharq al Awsat “No one knows for sure how many notebooks Arafat had filled. I do not think there is a leader or president who has left behind so many handwritten or signed documents as Arafat. They are extensive in detail and subjects. Some of the notes are risky and related to security matters, there are those which are political and there are others that affect individuals within and outside of the leadership.”
Awkal also raises doubts about the ability of any hastily formed committee to examine and analyze these documents. “Any committee will require a considerable amount of dedication and means. It will also require a lot of time to search and delve deep into his legacy,” he said.
As a leader, Abu Ammar did not keep a diary the traditional way, just like his modus operandi in the way he managed the national struggle and the method of decision making in a national liberation movement and an authority that manages the complicated daily and political life of the Palestinians, thus identifying with his personality that contained a sum of contradictions. Through his unique style of leadership, he managed to break laws and standards. From the point of view of observers, he was an orator though he did not master oratory. He was content with the possible, yet always sought the impossible. He was strong in spite of the stifling regional and international circumstances. For many reasons, not one of those around him – his advisors or close associates – dared to counsel him to keep a diary. Perhaps this was due to the sensitivity of such action as part of a national liberation movement and the fear was that Arafat might perceive that such a suggestion means that the end of his leadership of the Palestinian people was near.
Yahia Rabah, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council refers to other reasons that prevented President Arafat from keeping a diary, mainly his keenness to avoid any political crises that may involve Arab presidents and leaders, indicating that Arafat was reserved about informing his advisors of a lot of information and reiterated, “What I will say may create a commotion that we, the Palestinians, do not need.”
This is confirmed by Ahmad Abdul Rahman, the former cabinet secretary-general and a close associate of the late president. “Abu Ammar did not keep a diary, because he led a revolution and a diary may have divulged secrets regarding the revolution that as a leader would have made his role difficult,” he says. “However, throughout his life, he recorded the daily events in a small notebook that he kept in his pocket because it contained secret information.” Abdul Rahman calls these small-sized notebooks the history of the Palestinian people’s revolution. “Abu Ammar was very accurate in recording all important observations throughout the decades, from the summaries of his meetings with leaders, or Arab and non-Arab presidents to the names of attendees as well as his remarks and the date and venue of the meetings. When we asked him about such extraordinary persistence in writing down everything in his small notebook since the siege of Beirut, he said ‘This is the history of our people. Next generations must know all of what we have been through.'”
This is confirmed by Jamil Majdalawi, member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). “The late president took a small notebook from his pocket during his meetings with PFLP leadership to support his comments a countless number of times. From the notebook, he personally read a statement, decision or expression made by a PFLP leader during closed meeting months earlier,” he said.
Majdalawi stated that Abu Ammar had most likely prepared the relevant notebook before coming to a meeting. “It is impossible that he kept the same notebook in his pocket or that he did not change it every few months. This shows that Abu Ammar kept many notebooks which he personally and regularly maintained and that he produced the right notebook at the right time,” he said.
Former cabinet secretary-general Ahmad Abdul Rahman is unaware of the exact number of notebooks that Arafat filled with his writings. He also refused to disclose their whereabouts, saying there were many and that they were kept in boxes. Abdul Rahman told Asharq Al Awsat that he knew nothing of the committee mentioned by Intisar al Wazir (Um Jihad) that was assigned, according to her, to examine these papers and notebooks. “The committee is just an idea that was proposed at the leadership level, but it has not yet been formed. These boxes have not been opened and not one of Abu Ammar’s notebooks has been read. The matter requires a decision to be made at leadership-level because they certainly contain secrets that affect those alive and those who have been martyred. However, I know they are in safe hands,” he said. According to Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed al Daya, the former bodyguard of the late president, the last person to handle the notebooks after Yasser Arafat was Dr. Ramzi Khouri, the director general of the President’s office, who used to receive a full book from Arafat and place it in the drawer of the president’s desk after handing him a new empty notebook. Asharq Al Awsat could not reach Dr. Khouri, who has not spoken to any media since the death of Yasser Arafat and his appointment by the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to head the national Palestinian treasury in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Asharq Al Awsat failed to reach three other officials who played an important role in the matter during the last few days of his life—his office general manager Fayez Hammad, who left the Palestinian territories immediately after the Arafat’s death in a way that caused many to hold reservations; Youssef Abdullah, chief of presidential security who was appointed counselor at the Palestinian embassy in Moscow; and Saeed Zahran Allan, also known as Abu al Saud, the head of public relations in the late president’s office who spends his life traveling between Beirut, Amman, and the United Arab Emirates.
However, Lieutenant Colonel al Daya, who was President Arafat’s bodyguard for 18 years, says, “No one dared to open a notebook, even me, his personal bodyguard. When I helped to change the suit that the President was wearing, I took what was in his right pocket and put it in the right [pocket of the other suit] and that which was in the left pocket in the left. His pockets often contained a small notebook and other papers he received from ministers and officials as well as documents that belonged to citizens requesting treatment, medicines and [other] help.”
Lieutenant Colonel al Daya indicates that Abu Ammar himself would particularly use his red pen and a special blue notebook, measuring 10cm by 15cm and containing no more than 40 pages, to write down in detail the minutes of his closed meetings with Israeli prime ministers including Barak, Netanyahu, Peres and others. Al Daya states that there are many notebooks as, “During the twenty years of protecting the president, God rest his soul, I never saw him destroy any of his notebooks.” The agreement of those close to the late President Yasser Arafat on the importance and seriousness of the contents of Abu Ammar’s writings is apparently what prevents his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, from issuing a decision to reveal the content of these notebooks, particularly as the latter inherited an Arafat-tailored political system that is unlike any other political system in the world and which is furthermore difficult for the new president to run, therefore, he needs no other issues that may explode. Arafat led the Fatah Movement, the [Palestinian] Liberation Organization and then the Palestinian Authority in his own way, which was more of a patriarchal totalitarian system than an institutional system.
“Abu Ammar was fully aware of the seriousness of the cause entrusted to him and of the magnitude of regional and international intervention regarding this cause. He was absolutely confident that others were somehow involved in the Palestinian issue; therefore, he was ready for anything and kept secrets from others,” said Yahia Rabah.
Political analyst Talal Awkal raises doubts about the possibility that Abbas gave the go ahead for any committee to access his writings, whether now or in the near future, due to the grave events witnessed by the Palestinian Authority and the nation and to President Abbas’s need for stability in order to handle the current problems, particularly as what was written by the late president may affect people in charge and even Arab and non-Arab presidents.
Despite the importance and dangers of the notes left by Arafat and the reactions that might come about as a result, he was not a writer or a professional in language. Arafat had never written a speech and received help from his advisors and fellow members of the leadership to write his speeches, mainly from Yasser Abd Rabbu, Ahmad Abdul Rahman, al Tayib Abdul Raheem, Nabil Amr and Akram Haniya, as well as Yahia Rabah.
Rabah told Asharq Al Awsat that Abu Ammar was in the habit of meticulously reviewing his speeches, adding his final touches to them, most importantly, those related to the particular political situation. He would always reiterate Quranic verses and colloquial expressions in his speeches.” Furthermore, the late leader would deviate from the script and improvised enthusiastically, which always inflamed others. According to Rabah, Arafat was continuously advised not to improvise, “in case his sentiments should have the political consequences that he avoided; however he did not respond to us.”
In order to keep fit and healthy and despite the long hours he spent in offices or meetings, Yasser Arafat would walk around his office and committed himself to a strict diet. To relax, he would read the Holy Quran or discuss the private lives of his associates or guests.
On the other hand, Arafat worked long hours, sometimes reaching 20 hours per day, during which he read over 3,000 pages, including security, political and economic reports and translations of the major US and Israeli newspapers and short messages and letters asking for help from citizens regarding marriage and seeking medical treatment abroad as well as requests for employment. During those 20 hours, Abu Ammar met with hundreds of his senior officials, guests, leaders and activists from the various Palestinian organizations and civil societies. He was known for having a sharp memory retaining the smallest of details and remembering people’s names.
Abdul Rahman told Asharq Al Awsat, “Abu Ammar was meticulous about every speech and sentence that was written for him, whether in his name or in the name of the PLO’s executive committee or the Fatah movement’s central committee. He usually used a red pen to adjust the language of the speech to arrive at the meaning he wanted. He used to say ‘The price of words is Palestinian blood.’” Abdul Rahman affirms that President Arafat was best at articulating the political situation, even in an informal language. He would always add to the speech that we wrote. He did not deviate from the script in popular and formal addresses at the United Nations and Arab and international summits; he improvised only to mobilize the public and inspire the people without affecting the political situation.
From an observer’s point of view, what Abdul Rahman says of Abu Ammar’s meticulous writing and his writing in the notebooks confirms the great importance attached to the notes that he left behind. Jamil Majdalawi, indicated that Yasser Arafat’s writings have the potential to bring about a qualitative shift in any serious investigation into the mysterious circumstances that surround his death, an investigation that has remained stationary since his death on November 11, 2004. Awkal and Majdalawi attribute this to the confusion, blockade and the change undergone by the Palestinian Authority, and the attempts by some political trends to involve the investigation in their political interests without consideration of the national and historical dimension. Until Arafat’s books are opened and the mystery that surrounds his death is solved, one can say that Yasser Arafat’s unusual, extraordinary and enigmatic life in all aspects was similar to his death, albeit temporarily.