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News of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s rapidly deteriorating medical condition elicited a broad spectrum of emotional reactions on a campus still bitterly divided by the Arab-Israeli conflict, with some members of the Harvard community preparing to grieve and others jubilant.
A senior Palestinian official told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz late last night that the 75 year-old Arafat was unconscious and had suffered a “general systems collapse.” The official said Arafat is on a respirator and his condition appears to be “irreversible,” according to the newspaper.
The Palestinian leader flew to Paris last Friday after falling gravely ill with an as-yet-unidentified ailment. French President Jacques Chirac visited Arafat in a hospital outside the nation’s capital yesterday afternoon and confirmed that the Palestinian leader was still alive.
But some students at Harvard said they were preparing to grieve for Arafat, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with two Israeli leaders after signing the first comprehensive peace accord between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.
“His death should be mourned,” said Rami R. Sarafa ’07, an officer of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. “He was a noble man. He was not selfish. He lived in his compound, wore his khakis and loved his people.”
“We pray for mercy and healing for him,” said Taha Abdul-Basser ’96, a graduate student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations (NELC) who is the Islamic Society representative at Harvard’s United Ministry.
While in the past Arafat has drawn sharp rebukes from pro-Israel Harvard faculty and students, Sarafa said that “you don’t criticize someone during his death...It would be tactless at this time.”
And Avi Matalon, an assistant NELC professor, said that while he disagrees with Arafat’s politics, he hopes “people who are sympathetic toward Palestinians or Israelis—or both, as in my case—will not embarrass themselves by making a spectacle of vengeance.”
Meanwhile, Ruth R. Wisse, the Peretz professor of Yiddish literature, lambasted Arafat for his ties to terrorism yesterday.
“I would certainly not mourn his death. Nor do I think that mourning is the appropriate response on the part of people who value human decency,” Wisse said.
“Yasser Arafat is if he’s still alive—was, if it’s in the past tense—the world’s most notorious terrorist, a man who not only practiced but preached killing as a way of life,” Wisse said.
She said that Arafat’s personal corruption and his domination over Palestinian politics thwarted his people’s goals. “The day of his demise is a happy day for the Palestinians,” Wisse said.
Leaders of Harvard Students for Israel expressed hope that Arafat’s death will give rise to a new Palestinian leadership that could jump-start the stalled Middle East peace process.
“Of course we don’t cheer on the death of anyone,” said Eric R. Trager ’05, the group’s vice president. “That said, we think this is a hopeful day for the Palestinians and Israelis, whose dreams for peace will no longer sabotaged by a tyrant who narcissistically maintained his power against all challenges at the price of thousands of lives on both sides.”
But many at Harvard expressed concerns that Arafat’s death could leave a political vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Nothing is predictable at the moment,” said Ahmad B. Khairi ’08, a Matthews Hall resident from East Jerusalem. “Leadership change would be great but might not turn out to be peaceful.”
Khairi said he does not support Arafat politically, but that the Palestinian leader “deserves to be remembered... He has done for peace as much as [Yitzhak] Rabin has done,” Khairi said, referring to the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated exactly nine years ago yesterday.
But Jessica M. Marglin ’06, co-chair of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said she did not expect to see large events on campus mourning Arafat’s death.
“A memorial service would seriously alienate a lot of people who thought Arafat was a terrorist,” Marglin said.
Hebah M. Ismail ’06 of the Palestine Solidarity Committee said last night that the group is not planning a vigil for Arafat.
“His Nobel peace prize is—to say the least—a sham, and honoring him would be undignified,” Trager said.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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