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Arafat “had a great admiration” for Switzerland

Yasser Arafat with Annick Tonti in 1998. DEZA

A former Swiss aid official in the Middle East, Annick Tonti, shares her recollections of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who has died in a Paris hospital.

Arafat, who led the Palestinians for decades, had been hovering between life and death for two weeks.

Tonti ran the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) office in Jerusalem between 1994 and 2001, also serving as Swiss government representative to the Palestinian Authority.

It was in this role that she met Arafat on a number of occasions, and is well placed to explain the paradoxes of one of the best-known figures of the late 20th century.

swissinfo: What is your reaction to Yasser Arafat’s death?

Annick Tonti: My reaction is probably like that of many people, especially Palestinians. Arafat was somebody who faced a lot of criticism, particularly during the latter part of his life, but who will be missed now he is gone.

You realise he played an important role, and that the world, along with the Palestinians, has lost a major figure.

swissinfo: Who will feel this loss the most?

A.T.: All Palestinians, even his worst enemies, will feel his loss now. Arafat was a charismatic man, and even if you hated him, he was still a symbol of a certain Palestinian unity.

One of my Palestinian friends said he would miss Arafat, but added that it would be a chance for Palestinians to make a fresh start. I believe that is a common feeling in the Palestinian territories.

swissinfo: Do you believe his death could lead to chaos in Gaza and the West Bank?

A.T.: Not at first. In a Muslim society, there is a period of mourning which lasts 40 days. So for 40 days at least, I’m sure the Palestinians will remain unified.

But there could be a period of chaos afterwards as people feud for power. All the factions that have kept a low profile could reappear.

One cannot be sure about this though. People may, out of respect for Arafat, stay united.

swissinfo: You met Arafat a number of times. How would you describe him?

A.T.: He was a very warm, charismatic person, who treated visitors with kindness. But after spending an hour with him, you realised that he wasn’t listening to you, sticking to his own ideas instead.

And if you came to deliver a message to him, you always left with the impression that he was the one handing over a message.

swissinfo: Do you remember anything particular from these encounters?

A.T.: I remember one meeting in particular when I had to give him the Swiss government’s position on human rights, especially in Palestinian jails. It was very hard for him to have to listen to what I had to say.

He listened to me the whole time like a child who was being punished, looking up at its mother.

When I was finished, he embraced me and told me that he heard me, but that he didn’t want to hear any more. And he did that with his usual kindness.

I realised then that despite my best efforts, and although he had politely listened to me, he really wasn’t interested in my message.

swissinfo: What did Arafat think of Switzerland and its role in the region?

A.T.: It’s hard to know since he wasn’t one to reveal his thoughts, especially to foreigners. But I think he respected Switzerland. He used to say we could understand the Palestinians, because we were a small country in the middle of Europe with different languages, cultures and religions.

He admired Switzerland and said he would like to use it as a model. He also repeated on a number of occasions that he approved of Switzerland’s role in the Middle East. He said that because we didn’t try to influence his decisions, but supported those we thought were right. The Palestinians didn’t view the Swiss as a colonial power either.

swissinfo: What did he think of the Geneva Accord?

A.T.: At first, he wasn’t very happy about it. He only found out about the initiative at a later stage when everything was underway. He reacted like someone who is used to giving orders.

He wanted to know why there was another initiative, and why nobody had told him anything when some of his ministers were involved. But he still sent someone to the launch ceremony in Geneva. It was his way of saying he supported the Accord, but that he was also upset about the way things were done.

Switzerland did make an effort to explain the Accord to the Palestinian leadership after that. One of his ministers came here to get all the details to pass on to Arafat.

After that, he put some of his weight behind the initiative. He supported it, even if he didn’t give it his full backing. But this happened as his health was beginning to fail.

swissinfo-interview: Kamel Dhif

Annick Tonti is the head of SDC’s Middle East and North Africa division.
From 1983 to 1987, she worked as SDC coordinator in Bangladesh.
In 1994, she was sent to Jerusalem to the SDC office there and represented the Swiss government in the Palestinian Territories.
She came back to Switzerland in 2001.

Yasser Arafat was born on August 24, 1929 in Cairo.

He was leader of the Palestinian Authority from 1993 and president from 1996.

He chaired the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1969 and led Fatah, the largest of the factions within the PLO.

In 1994, he was co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres.

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