Biography of Yasser Arafat

Name: Yasser Arafat
Bith Date: October 24, 1929
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Cairo, Egypt
Nationality: Palestinian
Gender: Male
Occupations: political leader, military leader, president
Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat (born 1929) was elected chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969. Though originally an advocate of all-out guerrilla war, from 1974 on he and the PLO sometimes seemed to be seeking a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian problem. He was awarded the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal by the World Peace Council in 1975. Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1994.

Yasser Arafat was born Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini on October 24, 1929 to a Palestinian family living in Cairo, Egypt. He was related, through his mother, to the Husseini family, who were prominent members of the Sunni Muslim community in Jerusalem. His youth was spent in Cairo and Jerusalem. At that time, the area of historic Palestine was ruled by the British, under a mandate (license) from the League of Nations. Palestine was also a magnet for Jewish immigrants from Europe, who sought to build a Jewish homeland there. Jewish immigration was opposed by most of the country's existing population, who for the most part were ethnic Arabs of both the Muslim and Christian faiths.

Youthful Politics

While still in his teens Arafat became involved with a Palestinian Arab nationalist group led by cousins from the Husseini family. When the British moved out of Palestine in 1948, fierce fighting broke out between the Jewish and Arab communities. The Jews were easily able to beat the Palestinians. As a result, around a million Palestinians were forced to flee their ancestral homeland and sought refuge in neighboring Arab nations. Two-thirds of prewar Palestine then became the Jewish state of Israel. The rest came under the control of two Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.

After the Palestinians' 1948 defeat, Arafat went to Cairo, where he studied engineering. He founded a Palestinian student union, which expanded rapidly over the following years. At the end of the 1950s it was one of the main constituent groups in the new Palestinian nationalist movement "Fatah". (The name is a reverse acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastinivva--the Palestinian Liberation Movement.)

Arafat was one of Fatah's most prominent founders and sat on the movement's central committee. Fatah rejected the many complex ideologies which were fought over in the Arab world in the late 1950s and rejected reliance on any of the existing Arab regimes. Its members argued that Palestinians should seek to regain their own country by their own efforts, which should include guerrilla warfare against Israel. This armed struggle was launched in 1965. The attacks did not seriously scar the Jewish military, but did increase Palestinian morale and Arafat's credibility.

Birth of the PLO

Meanwhile, in 1964, the Arab countries had created their own Palestinian confederation, which they called the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). At that stage the PLO did not take on the Israelis directly.

In 1967, the Israelis defeated the Arabs in the full scale Six-Day War. Israel managed to occupy the rest of historic Palestine, along with chunks of Egyptian and Syrian territory. The Arab states were discredited by their defeat in the Six-Day War and the Fatah guerrillas who had long criticized them seemed vindicated. In 1969, Fatah and its allies were able to take over the PLO apparatus, and Arafat was elected chairman of the executive committee.

Many guerrilla camps were set up in Jordan along the border with Israel. In September 1970 Jordan's King Hussein sent his army against these growing camps, killing many Palestinians in what was known as Black September. Lebanon then became the guerrillas' main base of military operations. After this, the PLO engaged in terrorist acts, including the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

The Peace Process

In October 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War, trying to regain the lands Israel had occupied six years earlier. They did not succeed in regaining the lands by force, but their action stimulated American efforts to seek a negotiated settlement in the region. In 1974 the PLO's ruling body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), voted to seek inclusion in such a settlement, calling for the creation of a Palestinian national authority in those two areas of historic Palestine which the Israelis had occupied in 1967. (These were the West Bank--known by the Israelis as Judea and Samaria--and the Gaza Strip.)

In November 1974 the support of the Arab states enabled Arafat to participate in a debate on the Middle East at the United Nations General Assembly. His famous words there were: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." But he failed to use his appearance to spell out the PLO's call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, so the Israelis still refused to have any dealings with the PLO. In 1975, the United States government vowed to do likewise, at least until the PLO should openly recognize U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 and Israel's right to exist. Under pressure from Palestinian hardliners, Arafat and the PLO refused to satisfy this condition.

When Egypt's President Anwar Sadat launched his peace process with Israel in 1977-1979, the PLO opposed it. The Camp David accords signed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States in 1978 called for the institution of a Palestinian autonomy plan in the West Bank and Gaza, but this plan never went into effect. Most Palestinian residents of these occupied areas feared that 'autonomy' meant the continuation of Israeli rule, and they supported the PLO's call for an independent Palestinian state there.

In 1982 the Israeli government decided to try to smash the PLO's military capability in Lebanon. The Israeli army knocked out PLO positions in south Lebanon and encircled Arafat and his remaining forces in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. American diplomacy finally resulted in the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut.

In February 1983 the PNC voted to pursue a reconciliation with Jordan and Egypt, with a view to suing for peace with Israel. This angered the Syrians, who set about forming an internal PLO rebellion against Arafat's leadership. Then, in November 1984, Arafat convened a meeting of the PNC in the Jordanian capital. This provoked a final break with his pro-Syrian critics, and afterwards he felt freer to pursue his moves toward the Jordanians.

In February 1985, Arafat and King Hussein healed the rift which had divided them since 1970 and agreed on a joint strategy toward Israel. Their announced aim was the creation of a confederation between Jordan and a Palestinian entity which would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. They sought the help of the United States in pressing the Israelis to agree to this. One obstacle to be overcome was the Americans' ten-year-old ban on talking to the PLO. In midsummer 1985, plans were made for a series of diplomatic moves which would include Arafat's open acceptance of resolution 242. But by early 1986 King Hussein broke off negotiations with Arafat, citing PLO refusal to compromise.

The Oslo Accord was signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the fall of 1993. The accord placed the city of Jericho, the Israeli occupied Gaza Strip, and eventually the remainder of the West Bank under Palestinian self-rule. Arafat was elected president in January 1996.

Late in 1996, Rabin's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, signed the Hebron agreement with Arafat which removed Israeli occupiers from the last occupied city in the West Bank. In return, Arafat promised to amend the portion of the Palestinian National Charter which calls for the destruction of Israel.

Return to the Status Quo

The decision by Israel to build homes in Jerusalem started up the terrorism campaign in the Middle East. The resulting hostility between the Israelis and the Palestinians placed the peace process on very shaky ground. Jewish settlement in Jerusalem remains a controversial issue.

On July 3, 2000, the PLO's mini-parliament approved Arafat's plan to declare an independent state by the end of the year, regardless of whether a peace agreement was established with Israel. Later that month, he divulged his administration's financial secrets in a report posted on the Palestinian Authority's website. Arafat admitted the existence of a multimillion dollar slush fund, a state monopoly on cement and a $60 million share in a profitable casino.

On July 11, 2000, Arafat met with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to begin Middle East peace talks. The summit took place at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. After a week, no agreement had been reached. Clinton had to go to Japan for a global economic summit. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took over in his absence. Unfortunately, the peace summit ended on July 26, 2000, without an agreement being reached.

On August 1, 2000, Arafat authorized negotiations 24 hours a day over the next six weeks in an attempt to reach a peace agreement with Israel. He arrived in Egypt the next day to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on reviving peace talks with Israel. Arafat returned to his home country and told reporters that he remained committed to declaring a Palestinian state on September 13, 2000, with or without an agreement with Israel.

However, that decision was changed when the Palestinian Central Council announced on September 10, 2000 that it would not declare an independent Palestinian state at the September 13 deadline. The decision was made in order to extend the time frame for further negotiations with Israel. Arafat met with Barak in the latter's home on September 25 in an effort to move the peace process forward. The three-hour meeting ended at 12:30 a.m. After the meeting, Arafat left by helicopter for his Gaza headquarters to confer with his top advisors. No breakthroughs as a result of the meeting were reported, but officials said the meeting was intended to pave the way for more substantive talks later.

Outbreaks of violence began occurring between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. As a result, peace talks were put on hold until something could be done about the clashes. On October 4, 2000, Arafat and Barak agreed to a draft accord to end the violence occurring in the West Bank and other areas. However, there was no agreement about the inquiry commission to look into the violence. The Israelis had previously accepted an American proposal to have representatives of both sides and the United States hold the investigation. But the Palestinian side was said to be holding out for a broader composition for the inquiry team, possibly including representatives of the European Union and Arab states. On October 16, 2000, Arafat, Barak and Clinton met again to broker an agreement to end the deadly violence occurring in the Middle East. They left the meeting with a "statement of intent" to end the violence, but neither side was completely satisfied and both Arafat and Barak said they were anxious to see how their agreements were implemented. The statement, which was read by Clinton but not signed by either Arafat or Barak, called for immediate steps to end the violence, the reopening of Palestinian territories and the Gaza airport, for redeployment of Israeli troops from the edges of Palestinian territories, and a commission of inquiry into the weeks of violence. Nearly 100 people, almost all of them Palestinians, had been killed in the clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

In November of 2000, Arafat told Fatah activists to cease firing on Israelis. The move came after Clinton called him and asked him "to take immediate steps to end the violence." However, steady gunfire followed news of Arafat's announcement, with Palestinians shooting at Israeli positions from an apartment building. Israeli forces returned fire with machine guns.

In January 2001 Ehud Barak suspended the Palestinian peace talks. Then that July, Ariel Sharon defeated Barak to become Israel's next prime minister. Barak's candidacy had been hurt by an Arab boycott of the election in protest to the killing of 13 of their constituents during a protest in sympathy with the Palestinians. Sharon, an outspoken hawk in negotiations with the Palestinians, had previously called Arafat a murderer and a terrorist.

In September 2000, for example, Sharon had expressed his determination that Israel would never relinquish control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The shooting of seven unarmed demonstrators by Israeli police the next day led to a major Palestinian uprising. Between September 29, 2000 and November 1, 2002, 667 Israeli's died as a result of Palestinian violence, including suicide bombings. During the same time the Palestinians suffered three times as many casualties at the hands of the Israelis.

Professor Fouad Ajami of The School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., writing in April 2002 in U.S. News & World Report, offered the following assessment of Arafat's influence in the Israeli elections, "Arafat broke Barak. [W]aves of suicide 'martyrs' sent a bewildered Israeli nation in search of a leader who would deliver it from merciless terror. Over 18 months, Arafat came to present Israel with a sadistic challenge: With indiscriminate terror his instrument of war, he set out to wreck the nation's peace of mind, taunt its liberal culture, and destroy its modern economy."

From December 2001 to April 2002 Arafat was held under house arrest in his presidential compound in Ramallah under orders of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In September 2002, Sharon placed Arafat's compound under military siege. The reason for Sharon's action was not entirely clear, but there was speculation that it came in retaliation for the Palestinian suicide bombings, or even that it might have been designed to give Sharon an advantage over his political rival Binyamin Netanyahu in upcoming elections. Whatever Sharon's motivation, the Israeli siege proved to be a public relations nightmare and it was lifted after ten days in response to intense international pressure. By then Arafat's compound was in ruins, but his stature as a Palestinian spokesperson had risen, even as Israeli politicians called for his expulsion.

Associated Organizations

Associated Events

Arab-Israeli Border Conflicts, 1949-, Middle East Peace Talks, 1991-

Further Reading

  • The major biography of Arafat is Alan Hart, Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker (1984). An earlier and more critical biography, which contains many errors, is Thomas Kiernan, Arafat: The Man and the Myth (1976). The politics of the PLO are detailed in Quandt, Jabber, and Lesch, The Politics of Palestinian Nationalism (1973), and Helena Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics (1984). One interesting biographical account by a close Arafat colleague is Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle (1981). Additional Arafat articles include "Don't Insult Me With an Offer Like That," Time (June 23, 1997), and "Hope and Fear," Scholastic Update (September 20, 1996). More recent articles have appeared in Global Agenda (October 2, 2002), and U.S. News & World Report (April 8, 2002).

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