Yasir Arafat (full name, Muhammad Abdul Rauf Arafat al-Qudwa) was born to Palestinian parents in Cairo in 1929, although he claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace. Educated in Egypt, Arafat earned an engineering degree in 1956. While a student he met other Palestinians, especially Salah Khalaf (1932–91) and Khalil al-Wazir (1935–88), who would become leaders in the nationalist movement. Although it is not certain that Arafat ever became a full-fledged member, he had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, and some of his associates did join the brotherhood. Arafat served as president of the Union of Palestinian Students and, later, the larger General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) from 1952 to 1956.
After graduation Arafat, along with several other key allies, moved to Kuwait, where in 1957 he cofounded, with Khalaf and al-Wazir, Fatah (Harakat Tahrir Filastin, or Palestine National Liberation Movement). In Arabic the acronym meant victory. Al-Asifah was its military arm. Wazir’s wife, Intissar, also took an active role in the group. Fatah’s first operation against Israel was an attack on a water pump station in 1965. Along with many other nationalist leaders in the mid-20th century, Arafat and Fatah members were influenced by the Algerian War. On the basis of that struggle they concluded that an independent Palestinian state could only be established through armed struggle with Israel. Arafat’s stated goal was the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine. He took the name Abu Ammar as his nom de guerre; al-Wazir became Abu Jihad; and Khalaf became Abu Iyad. The three leaders were known among Arabs as the abus, or fathers.
The Battle of Karameh in 1968 was a major turning point for Arafat and Fatah. In an attempt to crush Fatah, Israeli forces moved into Jordan and attacked the Fatah base at Karameh. Surprised when Fatah fighters fought back, the Israelis withdrew somewhat hastily. Young Palestinians and others who had been dispirited after the major defeats in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War then flocked to join Fatah in the struggle against Israel. As a result Fatah became the largest and most powerful of the Palestinian factions and in 1969 Arafat became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella organization for a number of diverse Palestinian groups. He served in that capacity until 2004. Under Arafat’s leadership the PLO accommodated political factions on the Left and Right and refused to be aligned with any one Arab government.
The mounting power of the PLO posed an open challenge to the Jordanian monarchy. Consequently in September 1970 King Hussein’s forces attacked the PLO forces and Palestinian refugee camps, driving the PLO and Arafat out of Jordan. Black September, the group that subsequently attacked and assassinated Jordanian officials and Israelis, took its name from the war in Jordan. Although Israel and others alleged that Black September and other organizations that engaged in terror attacks were controlled by Arafat, he denied the charges. By 1974 Arafat ordered that PLO attacks be concentrated only in Israel and the Occupied Territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In 1974 Arafat achieved international recognition and spoke before the General Assembly of the United Nations. In subsequent years Arab states and most other countries, with the notable exceptions of Israel and the United States, recognized the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.”
After being ousted from Jordan, Arafat and the PLO moved the headquarters of their military, political, and social welfare activities to Lebanon. As the central Lebanese government imploded in the course of the civil war in the mid-1970s, the PLO became a state within a state. The PLO infrastructure of schools, hospitals, businesses, and cultural institutions grew. Fearing major Israeli attacks into Lebanon, Arafat attempted to moderate PLO invasions into Israel along Lebanon’s southern borders, but as the PLO’s political and diplomatic efforts became more effective, Israel was determined to eliminate the dangers the PLO posed.
In June 1982 Israel launched a full-scale invasion into Lebanon with the purpose of destroying the PLO. Arafat and the PLO were quickly besieged in Beirut, where they held out against massive Israeli bombardments from the sea, land, and air. Negotiations by the international community resulted in the withdrawal of Arafat and the PLO leadership from Lebanon and their relocation to Tunis.
Israel attacked PLO headquarters in Tunis in 1985, but Arafat escaped; he also was almost killed in a plane crash in 1992. He and the PLO remained headquartered in Tunisia until 1993. Late in life Arafat married Suha Tawil, from a notable Palestinian Christian family, with whom he had one daughter. His brother Fatih Arafat, a medical doctor, headed the Palestinian Red Crescent for many years.
Arafat was a master at maneuvering among the Arab leaders, with whom he often had difficult relations, as well as among conflicting Palestinian factions, often playing one against the other. In 1988 the Palestine National Council (the equivalent of the Palestinian parliament) declared a Palestinian state with Arafat as the president. By this time Arafat supported the so-called ministate solution, whereby the Palestinian state would include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, all territory taken by Israel in the 1967 war and occupied by its military forces since that time.
Following secret talks between Israeli and PLO representatives in Norway, Arafat agreed to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided for the phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Occupied Territories and PLO recognition of Israel. The accords were signed by Arafat and Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in a much-publicized ceremony in Washington, D.C. Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Peres.
Israel withdrew from portions of the Gaza Strip and Jericho, and Arafat returned to what Palestinians hoped would be the gradual creation of a fully independent state. Arafat was elected president of the new Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1993 and held the position until his death. Although he personally lived a simple life, Arafat was accused of allowing corruption among high-level Palestinian officials in the PNA and within Fatah. He retained a patriarchal hold on power.
As negotiations faltered, Arafat became increasingly isolated. At the 2000 Camp David negotiations Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to return much of the Occupied Territories in return for an end to conflict, with no terms for the resettlement of the refugees. Arafat rejected the offer but failed to make a counteroffer. Negotiations broke down completely, and many young Palestinians turned to the Islamic nationalist organization Hamas, which launched attacks—including suicide missions—within Israel and the Occupied Territories. In 2000 and 2001 a new intifada (the al-Aqsa Intifada), or Palestinian uprising, broke out. Israel retaliated by reoccupying territory it had previously vacated. Israeli forces surrounded Arafat in his compound in Ramallah, and for the last two years of his life, he remained under what amounted to house arrest.
After some time of failing health he was moved to a hospital in Paris, where he died of uncertain causes in 2004. After Israel rejected Arafat’s wish to be buried in Jerusalem, his body was brought back to Ramallah for burial amid massive scenes of mourning among Palestinians. Although Arafat had failed to achieve an independent Palestinian state, he remained the leader who had made the existence of the Palestinian people and their quest for self-determination a matter of international concern.
- Aburish, Said K. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. London: Bloomsbury, 1998;
- Hart, Alan. Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1984;
- Rubin, Barry, and Judith Colp Rubin. Yasir Arafat. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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