Arafat's 1982 exile from Beirut: Will history repeat itself?

When the PLO leader was forced out of Beirut in the 1980s, he did so with pride, purpose, and sorrow. After signals that Hamas leaders may be exiled from Gaza, could history be a guide?

Sebastien Thibault

Arafat's 1982 exile from Beirut: Will history repeat itself?

Folklore has it that a delegation of West Beirutis called on Yasser Arafat before he departed from the Lebanese capital in August 1982.

For nine days, the internationally sponsored withdrawal of Palestinian fighters had been underway, coinciding with the arrival of peacekeeping forces from France, Italy, and the United States. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon had begun earlier that June, with the aim of expelling the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon.

Beirut had been subjected to fierce bombardment, which triggered global calls for a ceasefire. Even local Beirutis who had been pro-Arafat for years were now calling on him to leave to save what remained of their city.

The story goes that an Arafat aid approached him and said, “Abu Ammar, the people of Beirut are here to bid you farewell.”

Arafat smiled came up with a characteristic reply: “Oh no! Where are the people of Beirut going?”

The PLO leader’s words were spoken with his heavy Gazan accent. He had been born and raised in the Strip, in the same city that has been under heavy bombardment for the past seven months since Hamas's attack on Israel on 7 October 2023. Now, the amount of destruction there has surpassed— by far—anything the Lebanese capital witnessed back in 1982.

Two months ago, the television network NBC in the United States quoted an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that Israel would not mind an “Arafat-style” exodus from Gaza for Hamas military commander Yahya Sinwar.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Hamas might soon be withdrawing from Qatar. It said that two Arab countries have already been approached to become home to the group’s exiled leaders—one of them being Oman.

So, 42 years after Arafat left Lebanon, a series of questions over how Hamas might react if it is expelled from Gaza—and Qatar—are now swirling around the world. This is the story of that moment in history, which could soon have parallels with the turbulent times of 2024.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, surrounded by heavy security, receives an olive branch from a child as he leaves Israeli-occupied Beirut for Tunis on 30 August 1982.

An emotional departure

During those hot summer months of 1982, Arafat didn’t lose his nerve. He always found the time to joke with staff and well-wishers. But he never lost sight of the importance of the Palestinian sense of identity and the importance of symbols of its nationhood. And the humiliating exodus from Beirut injured his pride deeply. He never fully recovered from how he and his men were expelled from a city they loved as their second home.

One of his aides would later recall seeing Arafat shed a rare tear onboard the Greek ship Atlantis as it sailed away from Beirut. It was a unique moment of weakness and sincerity, he said, given that Abu Ammar cried “for martyrs only.”

It is also rather amazing that Arafat would actually cry for Beirut, taking into account that he was always a guest there, never a native. He spent no more than 11 very controversial years in Beirut, and they left an incredibly negative impact on Lebanese society as a whole, helping trigger the civil war of 1975.

The turning point then was a telephone call between President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Reagan said that his administration was unwilling to tolerate the extent of the Israeli bombing campaign and called for an immediate ceasefire—a sharp contrast with the position taken by his successor in the White House, President Joe Biden, in 2023 and 2024.

Sebastien Thibault

At Reagan’s command, the ceasefire went into effect 20 minutes later, and the US special envoy Philip Habib entered into talks on how the Palestinians would depart from Lebanon. Arafat called for a meeting of the Higher Palestinian Military Council to discuss what the Americans offered: a complete and safe withdrawal to Tunis. Israel would guarantee not to kill or arrest any of the PLO’s top leaders, not even Arafat himself, whom it had at close range.

Some Palestinian commanders voted for immediate withdrawal, claiming that the entire Lebanon interlude should be studied in hindsight—particularly its mistakes—in order for the resistance to regroup and reinvent itself. Others claimed that rejecting the US offer would be akin to political and military suicide for the Palestinian cause.

Lifted by the winds of paradise

Arafat was a master of theatrics. He asked for a moment to perform what Muslims call “Salat al-Istikhara," a prayer seeking counsel from Allah. Muslims resort to it when seeking guidance regarding a major decision in their lives. Arafat retired into a private room, prayed, and then randomly opened the Holy Quran, seeking solace from reading the words of Allah.

The book opened to Suret al-Tobah, where in verse 123 it read: “Oh Believers. Fight the disbelievers around you and let them find firmness in you.” He then walked to his comrades and made his famous remark: “I smell the winds of paradise.”

Philip Habib’s initial offer was for the Palestinians to withdraw by ground route to Syria, wearing uniforms of the International Red Cross. Looking at the matter from a personal, moral, and emotional perspective, Arafat said no. What mattered to him was that the withdrawal was open for all to see.

It had to be neat, orderly, professional, perfect, and honourable. He insisted that his men wear their military fatigues and carry their light arms as a symbol of Palestinian honour. Arafat then called on his Lebanese allies, like Walid Jumblatt of the Social Progressive Party, ex-prime minister Saeb Salam, and the serving incumbent premier, Shafik Wazzan, to inform them of his historic decision.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shakes hands with Lebanese politicians Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt on 30 August 1982 before the Palestinian leader escaped from Israeli-occupied Beirut.

Coordinating directly with them, he supervised every detail of the Palestinian exodus, which took place in stages on Cypriot ships, starting on 21 August 1982. Most showed up wearing their uniforms and white flower necklaces around their necks, raising their rifles high into the air with the V sign for “Victory.”

Was it really a victory? They knew that it wasn’t, and so did the thousands who came out to the port to bid them farewell. Arafat was a smart man. He, too, knew that it was anything but a victory.

Many believed that this would be the end of Palestinian militarism. Israel’s Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who had orchestrated and led the 1982 invasion, famously described it as “a crushing defeat, a blow from which it will be hard (for them) to recover.”

Arafat had been expelled before—first from Syria and then Jordan—after the Black September events of 1970. As he left Lebanon, his latest departure ended the Palestinian presence in what they often described as the “countries of the necklace”, the immediate neighbours of Israel.

When a journalist asked Arafat where he would go upon his departure from Beirut, he replied with a completely straight face: to Palestine.

They were heading further away, to Tunis. What could they ever hope to achieve there, so geographically distant from Palestine? It felt more like the punishment of banishment for Arafat and his top lieutenants.

Even then, Arafat put on a brave face. He remained in Beirut until the very last of the agreed-upon fighters left Lebanon, acting like a captain refusing to leave before all his passengers got off his sinking ship. He paraded through the destroyed streets of Beirut, driving by one building after another, all riddled with militiamen bullets.

"To Palestine"

Whenever he passed a group of Palestinians or any of his Lebanese supporters, they would shout his name or fire their guns into the skies of Beirut, saying farewell. He wore his hallmark checkered black & white keffiyeh, folded neatly to the shape of the map of Palestine over his shoulder, acting like a triumphant general who had just returned from a victorious battle.

His eyes were glimmering, and he was constantly smiling—as if nothing had happened—and when a journalist asked: "Abu Ammar, where will you go?" Arafat just looked at him and said, with a completely straight face: "To Palestine."

Many mocked his remark until his prophecy proved correct. Yasser Arafat would return to Palestine in 1994, not an entire Palestine nor even half of it, but to a small part of his occupied country that was restored to its rightful owners by the Oslo Accords of 1993.  

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