This month, 45 years ago, the United Nations welcomed Yasser Arafat
On October 14, 1974, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 3210 (XXIX), which invited the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to participate in the discussion on the “Question of Palestine” to be held on November 4 of the same year. In a vote with 105 countries in favor, four against and twenty abstentions, the resolution was passed. Resolution 3210 (XXIX) has an extension of just three lines, but its impact on the history of the relationship between the UN and the PLO, and therefore Israel, was enormous. The General Assembly, which until then had recognized and endorsed the merits of the Palestinian cause and implicitly recognized the PLO as the spokesperson for that cause, with this resolution explicitly legitimized the PLO as the “representative of the Palestinian people” and through this recognition and subsequent invitation extended to Arafat to speak before the General Assembly, it supported the cause of a terrorist organization dedicated to the annihilation of a member state of the UN. This in itself constituted a violation of the Charter of the United Nations, as articles 1, 22 and 33 call for the resolution of international disputes in a peaceful manner (not to mention that the PLO was not even a state).
Arafat’s visit required a security deployment worth of hundreds of thousands of dollars and generated much controversy over the very nature of the invitation extended to the then most famous terrorist in the world to speak before a prestigious organization dedicated to the promotion of peace. In addition, a scandal ensued due to his carrying of a pistol within UN premises. Arafat at the UN was treated with honors: by order of the president of the General Assembly, the Palestinian leader was escorted to the pulpit of the Assembly by the chief of protocol, an honor generally reserved for heads of state only. Dressed in his classic military uniform and keffyia, Yaser Arafat delivered an almost two-hour-long speech, in Arabic, to the distinguished audience. Throughout it, he compared Zionism with colonialism, presented Israel as an enemy of the Third World, anointed himself as a defender of monotheism, described the PLO as a charity organization, urged the international community to restrict Jewish immigration to Israel, rewrote the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and proclaimed himself a pacifist: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter´s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Arafat received a standing ovation from the members of the General Assembly. That same afternoon -and for the next nine days- the General Assembly discussed the speech of the Palestinian leader. Of the eighty-one countries that participated in the debate, sixty-one spoke in his favor. As Harris Schoenberg showed in his book A Mandate for Terror: The UN and the PLO, the allies of the Palestinians had only praise for Arafat’s speech. Bangladesh defined it as “inspiring.” Somalia found him “moving.” Madagascar labeled it “moderate and conciliatory.” Nigeria said it was “touching.” Mauritania considered it “bright and extremely moderate”. Tunisia said that “the mental openness, nobility and tolerance that characterized Mr. Arafat’s speech … are tangible proof of the political maturity and sense of responsibility of the great Palestinian people.” Before the Israeli ambassador could react, the General Assembly voted to limit Israel´s chance to respond to a brief right of reply at the end of the day. However, the voice of the Israeli ambassador resonated clearly when he said: “On October 14, the UN hung a sign that says ‘murderers of children are welcome here’.” The international media expressed its disapproval through painful editorials and cartoons, while demonstrations against the visit were organized in several countries. After all, the sight of a terrorist in uniform preaching morality to the world with the endorsement of the UN was not a spectacle to which the West was accustomed.
The degree of prestige granted to the Palestinian organization by the UN was irreversible and, if anything, accelerated the process of international acceptance and legitimation conferred on the PLO by the United Nations since the late 1960s. During the following years a series of resolutions would follow that would further enhance the positioning of the PLO within the bureaucracy of the United Nations.