A Czech perspective on the life and death of Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat, photo: CTK

Yasser Arafat was for some the symbol of Palestinian nationalism, for others a terrorist. If one thing is certain, it's that his death heralds an unclear future for the peace process in the Middle East, with all sides asking who will fill Arafat's shoes.

Yasser Arafat,  photo: CTK
But Beshara Trabulsi from the Palestinian Embassy in Prague says, no matter who succeeds Mr Arafat, Czech-Palestinian relations will remain the same:

"From our side, relations will not change because there is no reason for them to change. The death of our president is very tragic but we will continue in his footsteps and his legacy."

The head of the Czech diplomatic mission in Ramallah, Radim Pecl, will be working with the new Palestinian leader, whoever that may be. He spoke to Radio Prague's Jan Velinger about his experience with Arafat, prospects for the future, and the situation in Ramallah on Thursday morning.

"I have to say that ordinary people had time to prepare for this event, they were aware it was coming. But, when it happened it meant a shock. The people are gathering in the streets and they are calm, they are mourning. The Palestinian Authority declared three days of national mourning, for three days the private sector will close down, the shops and so on, but the mourning will continue: 40 days according to Muslim custom in such cases."

Palestine,  photo: CTK
In your opinion how important was Yasser Arafat to the Palestinian people? Here you had a man who was dedicated to the Palestinian cause for forty years of his life - how important was he?

"Certain groups of people could have different opinions on the role of the late leader and his former activities, but one thing was certain: among ordinary people he was extremely popular. On of the leaders who 'stood up' during the struggle for independence, so he was on the same level like some outstanding personalities like during the de-colonisation of Africa and so on. On the other hand, still he was very close to his people, they had an open door to his office, they were sharing their personal troubles directly with him and he was judging them and so on, making recommendations. As I said: some will criticise him but the ordinary people loved him. And, it seems for me at the moment that it is impossible for this personality to be replaced."

What about the Czech perspective? In recent years Czech diplomacy expressed a desire to play a part in the Middle East in helping to broker some kind of peace. I imagine there was a well-established connection with Mr Arafat; what happens now, after his death?

"Uh, I don't expect any changes at the moment or even in the near future. We are witnessing that the policy of the Czech state towards the Middle East is very balanced and active and we are trying to make good relations with all parties involved in this unfortunate conflict. There is continuity too from the time of Czechoslovakia, even pre-war Czechoslovakia, and we are keeping with that. We would like to continue with it and the nice proof of our success is that we opened a direct mission in Ramallah."

Palestine,  photo: CTK
Finally I'd like to ask about your personal recollection of Mr Arafat, if you had dealings with him.

"Oh yes, that's very nice. I must say from my point of view he was a very intelligent man. In discussion "between four eyes" he was quite open and he was also open to words of others. In public he strictly refused any kind pf criticism because he was definitely a leader and a "wise leader", an experienced leader, and he was not in need of following anyone else's suggestions. But in private discussion he was very open and from my personal point of view he was a very charming man."

The last days of the Palestinian leader have been closely followed in the Czech Republic, a country that has many historic links with the Middle East. Eric Martin went out into the streets of Prague and asked a few people how they felt about President Arafat's death:

"I think there will be some fighting between the Palestinian factions. ... All will depend on who the new leader will be, because of some of the factions like Hamas or other terrorist factions of the Palestinian population or government. I don't think the Israelis will want to negotiate with them. So it will all depend on who the new leader will be."

"I think it's a pity for all of us - not only for Palestinian people - because he was a good man who can do something for the Palestinians and for the situation in the Near East."

"It would lead to more problems between Israelis and Palestinians ... because the situation in the leadership of the Palestinian state and representatives is complicated. Nobody's in a position to take a leading role in this process."

While some countries have welcomed the death of Yasser Arafat, saying he was an obstacle to peace, the Czech Republic's reaction has been far more reserved. This, according to Beshara Trabulsi from the Palestinian Embassy in Prague, may be due to the fact that Czech-Palestinian relations have a long tradition:

Yasser Arafat,  photo: CTK
"The relations we had have always been on a state-to-state level and not just between Palestine and a particular party or grouping with a specific ideology. They were on the economic, social, and cultural levels and peaked during Communist Czechoslovakia. After the Communist regime fell, these relations continued to be good. This is proven by the fact that the Czech Republic recognises the state of Palestine, we both have diplomatic representation in each other's country, and there have been several official visits from senior politicians of both countries, such as your foreign minister Cyril Svoboda and Yasser Arafat, who came to celebrate when the Czech Republic was formed."

But Mr Trabulsi does admit that bilateral relations have declined since the Velvet Revolution...

"This does not mean that relations have declined due to political change in either country. The Czech Republic has limited possibilities unlike those that Czechoslovakia had when it supported developing countries. The numerous scholarships it gave out then have decreased, for example. However, in comparison to other countries, the help the Czech Republic gives Palestine is on a very high level. The country is on the list of donor states and Palestine has been receiving various forms of help. For example, it helped supply electricity to over twenty villages in an underdeveloped part of Palestine."