Freedom fighter or unrepentant terrorist? Corrupt politician or traitor and weak-minded leader?
Whatever the perception, Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini, better known as Yasser Arafat, will be remembered as the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an organization dedicated to the creation of an independent State of Palestine.
The early years
Little is known about Arafat's childhood other than some conflicting data that suggest he was born in Cairo on August 29, 1929 Â or in Jerusalem on August 4 of that year Â or was it Gaza? His father was a textile merchant of Egyptian and Palestinian ancestry; his mother was from a long-standing Palestinian family in Jerusalem. She died when Arafat was five years old.
Young Yasser was shuffled among relatives in Jerusalem for a time, before his father brought him back to Cairo. An older sister was placed in charge of the household.
By the age of 17, Arafat began to smuggle guns into Palestine, and by the age of 19, attempted to fight for the Palestinian cause in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He was turned back by Egyptian border guards because he was not trained militarily.
Arafat had studied briefly at the University of Faud I (later Cairo University) before the war. He returned and became involved with politics via the Muslim Brotherhood and the Union of Palestinian Students, of which he served as president from 1952 to 1956. He received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering and joined the Egyptian Army as a second lieutenant during the Suez Crisis. Soon after, Arafat donned what became highly visible trademark, the traditional black-and-white-checked keffiyeh.
He moved to Kuwait to practice his trade and then began a contracting business. During that time, Arafat became convinced that the only way to defeat the Israelis and regain control of Palestine, was to fight independently and not expect help from neighboring Arabs.
So, in 1959, he and some friends founded al-Fatah, a cluster of secret cells that would carry out attacks on the enemies of Palestine, and began to publish a magazine advocating an armed conflict with Israel. Fatah forged a two-part battle plan: establishment of an independent Palestine and destruction of the state of Israel.
By 1964, cells were established in Jordan and had launched raids into Israel. It was at that time that Arafat established the PLO and included other groups of Arabs willing to support his effort.
The PLO in action
The first target of Fatah, in 1965, was an Israeli water pump station. The attempt to blow it up was unsuccessful.
After the Six-Day War, and subsequent defeat of the Arabs in 1967, the underground groups and cells became galvanized in their renewed effort to establish a Palestinian state.
In Jordan. With control of the West Bank now belonging to Israel, the PLO had no place to call home. This desperate situation forced a takeover of some Jordanian territory by the fedayeen, the heavily armed resistance unit of the PLO. From here they launched intermittent attacks on Israeli citizens and other targets. Tensions began to fester between the Jordanians and the Palestinians.
A major turning point occurred in 1968, when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) invaded Jordan in an attempt to destroy a Fatah cell. About 150 Palestinians and 30 Israelis were killed, but the Palestinians claimed victory based on the IDF's withdrawal from the area. The skirmish was covered by Time magazine, featuring Arafat's image on the cover, which subsequently boosted him to "national hero" status for standing up to the Israelis. Fatah ranks grew as hordes of Palestinian youth joined in the cause.
The PLO was expelled by Jordan's King Hussein, however, when open fighting started in June 1970; subsequently the fedayeen highjacked and destroyed three airliners.
In Lebanon. Next the PLO tried to gain a foothold in Lebanon and did, due in part to the weak central goverment there. Then they attacked their targets across Israel's northern border.
In what was a widely criticized action carried out by an arm of Fatah, 11 Israeli athletes were captured, tortured, and killed at the Munich Olympic Games in September 1972. The militant group "Black September" was responsible for the murders. Arafat performed some major backpeddling in publicly disavowing having anything to do with the killers.
During the next few months, Arafat issued orders to stop the attacks on Israelis outside of Palestine because they attracted too much negative international attention. In spite of that, in the mid- to late 1970s, leftist Palestinian groups with ties to Fatah, renewed attacks on civilians. Once again, Arafat denied responsibility.
In the same year, Arafat became the first representative of a nongovernmental faction to address the full session of the U.N. General Assembly. He is quoted as saying, "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
The speech proved to be a major step toward peace in the Middle East and was greeted with an increase of international support for the Palestinian cause.
A civil war broke out in Lebanon, which put the peace process on hold. Arafat aligned himself and the PLO with Lebanese Muslims, while Syria bolstered the right-wing Christian Philangists. Arafat narrowly escaped harm, thanks to the aid of the Saudis and Kuwaitis.
In 1982, Israel invaded Beirut in an attempt to oust the PLO, but Arafat was not among the 20,000 killed. The U.S. and others made a deal for Arafat to be exiled to Tunisia.
Arafat in Tunisia
Tunis would be Arafat's home base until 1993. As the movement lost some of its momentum, many PLO members returned to their homelands. In 1985, Arafat escaped an Israeli bomb because he was out for a jog. The bombing left 73 dead.
In December 1987 came the first Intifada, or spontaneous uprising, against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Within the first few weeks, Arafat was in the middle of things, trying to direct the revolt.
By November 1988, the PLO claimed Palestine, as defined by the British Mandate of Palestine, as an independent state and rejected the notion of partition. In December, however, Arafat accepted Resolution 242 from the U.N. Security Council, in which Palestine was to recognize Israel and stop all terrorism. The U.S. then hosted the two adversaries at Camp David to work out the details.
The Madrid Conference in 1991 was historic, in that Israel agreed for the first time to negotiate with the PLO.
In 1992, Arafat narrowly escaped death once again, when the small aircraft he was flying in crashed in a Libyan sandstorm. The pilot and several passengers were killed. Arafat sustained some broken bones and other assorted injuries.
Peace at last?
A clandestine series of negotiations between Israel and Arafat in the early 1990s eventually led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Palestinians were to phase in self rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip over a five-year period. The following year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Israel's Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, and Arafat of the PLO.
Arafat's return to Palestine was met with mixed reviews Â some called him a hero, some called him a traitor.
Minor military skirmishes continued to disturb the peace process, as did a change in Israel's leadership. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected the prime minister, and peace relations began to deteriorate. It is said by some that Netanyahu wanted to slow the transition to Palestinian statehood.
At that point, U.S. President Bill Clinton offered to mediate the process. The result, in October 1998, was the Wye River Memorandum, which focused on clearing up any misunderstandings over the wording of the original document and what step-by-step action was required and when, by each party.
Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's successor, met with Arafat at Camp David for two weeks in 2000, but to no avail, because each leader was intransigent about what he wanted. The summit collapsed when compromise could not be reached. When a second infitada was launched shortly thereafter, the peace process was essentially over.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Throughout Arafat's buildup of a secular branch of freedom fighters, right-wing zealots of the Muslim faith whipped up religious fervor to take the battle for Palestine to the streets. The incidence of suicide bombings spiked in the first few months of 2002. Arafat could only stand by, because he could not condemn the tactics used by the clerics, lest he risk not only his leadership role, but his life as well.
In March, the Arab League offered another peace initiative, but Israel rejected it because there was no guarantee the suicide bombings would cease. Predictably, more attacks by Palestinian militants killed more than 135 Israelis, prompting a major miltary offensive into the West Bank, called "Operation Defensive Shield" by the Israelis.
The end times for Arafat
Arafat was losing his grip among the Palestinian leadership. Marwan Barghouti surfaced as the new leader during the second intifada, but Israel arrested him and sentenced him to four life terms in prison.
Arafat's health was becoming an issue, along with his personal finances. Forbes magazine put his personal wealth at $300 million. An independent team of American auditers placed his net worth at about $1 billion. His wife, Suha, who was spirited off to Paris when serious fighting broke out, was given a monthly stipend of $100,000 from the Palestinian Authority budget, controlled by Chairman Arafat.
Arafat died in Novenber 2004 from "complications of pneumonia." Cirrhosis of the liver is suspected by many physicians who examined him, but were sworn to secrecy not to divulge information to the media.