[FOUNTAIN]Next form of the 'phoenix'

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[FOUNTAIN]Next form of the 'phoenix'

Even the phoenix, the mythical bird, has to take on a new form to live forever. The phoenix of Egyptian mythology lives for about 500 years and then becomes a flame, burning its own body, after which it is reborn into new life. The life itself is undying, but the body in which it is housed is not.

The phoenix of the Middle East, as Yasser Arafat is often called, was born in 1929. At 72 years of age, he is an experienced veteran of the seemingly endless struggle of the Palestinian people. He joined the fight against Israel in 1948 when Israel was founded. Half a century has passed since then; he has been at the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization for 34 years.

He has been fighting his whole life, but his methods have varied as the international environment changed. In the '60s he was a terrorist, and in the '70s and '80s he positioned himself as a politician. In the '90s he chose more practical routes, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

The nickname "phoenix" stuck to him after an airplane accident in 1992. He was missing after the accident in the Libyan desert, but appeared safe and sound the next day. The nickname did not pop up from just that one episode, though. Earlier, he had escaped death several times. After he began leading armed groups in 1954, he participated in numerous skirmishes. In 1967, he led a small squad of guerrillas to destroy an Israeli tank platoon on the west side of the Jordan River. The success of the attack catapulted him to the head of the PLO the next year. In 1982, when Israel's current prime minister, then-General Ariel Sharon, led an attack on the headquarters of the PLO, Mr. Arafat suffered a humiliating defeat.

But he has survived all those years of turmoil. In 1991, when he was already over 60, he married his secretary, a woman 30 years younger than he, and became a father. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize was the highlight of his career, but after his Israeli negotiating partner, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated and hawks dominated in Israel, his influence diminished as well.

These days he is locked up in his own office surrounded by Israeli forces that have cut off his water and electricity. He met a group of reporters by candlelight and said, lips trembling, that his only choice was martyrdom. The aging phoenix seems to dream of martyrdom, the most Islamic form of resurrection, but the cold truth and sad fact is that even that dream is entirely in the hands of his enemies, the Israelis.

The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo

by Oh Byung-sang

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