Arafat, who died yesterday aged 75, was the unchallenged leader of the
Palestinian people and their movement for statehood over more than 30
Machiavellian grasp of political bargaining, an uncanny talent for
personal and political survival, and an ability to work harder and
sleep less than his rivals bore fruit in 1993 with an agreement with
Israel that laid the shaky foundations of a Palestinian state in scraps
of land prised from the grip of the occupying power.
high point (in 1994 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with
the Israelis Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) was followed by a decade
in which Arafat presided over a politically stagnant and corrupt
administration in the West Bank and Gaza, and his people's lives
declined into penury, repression and anti-Israeli violence.
the time of his death, he had been living as a virtual prisoner in a
single, windowless room in the besieged remains of his administration's
compound in Ramallah, protected by a small core of loyalists, surviving
on bread and olives. His only value to his people was as a symbol of
stubborn resistance to Israeli domination.
the time he emerged on to the international stage in 1968 as the
spokesman for Fatah, the Palestinian independence movement which he
jointly founded, he made an erratic evolution from guerrilla leader to
politician, ceding the gun to the olive branch. While seeming to thrive
on political flux and chaos, he was guided by two consistent
principles: that the Palestinians themselves should speak for
Palestinian aspirations, and that no one but he should decide how their
struggle for statehood should be waged.
completely did he dominate the politics of Palestinian nationalism from
the 1960s onwards that the history of the Palestinian people and his
political biography are virtually inseparable. It was a role that
Arafat played to the limit: he was rarely photographed without his
kaffiyeh, or Arab headscarf, which he wore carefully draped to hang
down at the front in the shape of a map of Palestine.
1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel did little to improve the lot of
ordinary Palestinian people. Arafat was willing to concede a great deal
to secure Israel's recognition of his leadership and the right to
establish Palestinian governance on Palestinian soil, even of the most
Arafat represented a confluence of
paradoxes: an autocrat who was in thrall to Palestinian public opinion;
a loner who was surrounded by sycophants; a man impervious to material
temptation who tolerated conspicuous corruption among his lieutenants.
The elusiveness of his character was increased by a tendency to
exaggerate and invent in matters of fact, particularly about his own
Muhammad 'Abd al-Rahman 'Abd al-Raouf
'Arafat al-Qudua al-Husseini was born in Cairo on August 24 1929, the
sixth of seven children. (He assumed the forename Yasser, after a
companion of the Prophet Mohammed, in the 1940s.) His father was a
respectable wholesale foodstuffs merchant of modest means who moved the
family from Gaza to Cairo.
As a boy in Cairo,
Arafat showed a precocious aptitude for leadership. He would organise
neighbourhood boys into regiments, which he would drill in the streets
and lead in demonstrations against British rule in Egypt. Too
hyperactive to attend school regularly, he was fascinated by politics.
the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948, Arafat joined a unit of
irregular soldiers formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic
fundamentalist movement based in Egypt. The unit fought with regular
Egyptian forces in southern Gaza. Arafat earned a reputation as a
fearless fighter at this time, though he would later greatly embellish
his accounts of his own exploits.
After the Arab
defeat, and the establishment of the state of Israel, Arafat enrolled
at the University of Cairo as an engineering student. He became active
in the militant Egyptian Students' Union, as well as in the Palestinian
Students' Union, in 1952 (the year Nasser seized power in Egypt) being
elected its president.
Arafat trained fellow
students in guerrilla warfare and led small bands on raids inside the
Israeli border. As a student activist in Cairo, Arafat met three men
who were to be his closest political colleagues for more than 30 years:
Khalil al-Wazir, Salah Khalaf and Faruq al-Qaddumi. This group later
founded the Palestinian independence movement Fatah and formed its core
leadership. In later years, as top officials of the PLO (Palestinian
Liberation Organisation), they represented the only effective check on
Arafat graduated in 1956, and immediately
found a job with an Egyptian construction company. When Britain, France
and Israel launched their attack on Egypt that year, he joined the
Egyptian army as a lieutenant, and led a bomb-disposal squad into Port
He left Egypt for Kuwait the following year,
joining the Kuwait public works department as an engineer and
afterwards starting a profitable construction firm. His political
activities also prospered in Kuwait's more liberal atmosphere, and with
his colleagues from Cairo University he founded Fatah, which was based
on the principle of Palestinian political independence.
1963 he moved to Damascus to organise Fatah in Syria, Lebanon and
Jordan. More hotheaded than his colleagues, he led a faction in Fatah
that was impatient to begin guerrilla attacks on Israel, and worked
feverishly to organise armed groups. Attacks began in early 1965.
were supported at first by the Syrian defence minister, Hafez al-Assad,
but when Assad sought to bring Fatah more closely under Syrian control
Arafat resisted. In 1966 Assad ordered Arafat's arrest, and he was
jailed for a month.
After the defeat of the Arab
forces in the 1967 Six Day War, Arafat entered the West Bank, basing
himself at Nablus with a team of 30 men, hoping to establish guerrilla
cells inside Israeli-occupied territory, and sending wildly exaggerated
reports of his success back to the Fatah ruling council.
the guerrillas were no match for the new Israeli military
administration in the West Bank, which promptly rounded up hundreds of
Palestinian fighters; Arafat fled to Jordan. Undeterred, he established
guerrilla bases in the Palestinian refugee camps that had sprung up
The high point of his success as a
guerrilla leader came in March 1968, when the Israeli Defence Forces
launched a retaliatory attack on the Jordanian village of Karamah,
where Arafat had established the core of Fatah's command network.
Supported by the Jordanian army, Fatah put up a bold defence; though
the Israelis won, Fatah inflicted considerable losses, and the battle
was seen as a victory for them.
The world first
heard of Arafat at this time. Fatah's popularity and its membership
soared after Karamah, and Arafat, its hero, was named its spokesman.
His bearded face, hidden by raffish black glasses, appeared on the
cover of Time.
The next year he was elected
chairman of the executive committee of the PLO, a position that also
entitled him to command Palestine Liberation Army units in Egypt, Syria
and Iraq. The PLO had been established in 1964 by Arab governments to
be a client organisation, intended to control and contain the
Palestinian independence movement. Arafat's election set the PLO on a
new, independent course: henceforth it was to be dominated by Fatah,
and under Arafat it became the main Palestinian political vehicle.
PLO now developed into an umbrella organisation, drawing in a variety
of Palestinian factions. Holding them together in a single coalition
was to be Arafat's biggest political headache for much of his career.
He never seemed to be trying hard enough to rein in the excesses of his
radical fringe to satisfy Israel or the West.
1970, Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan were undermining the stability
of the Jordanian state. Their raids into Israel were causing fierce
Israeli reprisals in Jordanian territory, and the guerrillas themselves
were calling for the overthrow of King Hussein. The crisis reached a
climax in September, when the young king launched a military campaign
against the Palestinian strongholds. The Palestinians were defeated,
and Arafat was forced to flee. He spent the next 12 years in Beirut,
rebuilding his power base.
It became clear to
Arafat by the early 1970s that a military victory over Israel was
impossible, and that the only realistic way forward was to accept the
existence of Israel and to use diplomacy to secure a Palestinian state
in what was left of the original Palestinian territory. Bringing the
Palestinian people and the PLO behind such a policy was to take many
years, but would prove a major political accomplishment.
elusive prize which Arafat ardently sought was official recognition of
the PLO by the United States. He seemed close to achieving this for a
moment in 1974, when he made indirect overtures to the American
Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, but the scheme foundered on an
outright refusal by Israel to countenance it.
Palestinian people were disadvantaged by Arafat's unworldly
misunderstanding of the United States. He naively thought that America
would simply order Israel to make peace once his own personal charisma
had effected the opening of relations with the PLO; but he waited
another 20 years for American recognition.
then, Arafat devoted himself to establishing relations with any country
that would allow his plane to land. He spent half his time in jets lent
by sympathetic Arab governments, and was endlessly photographed
embracing heads of state in remote countries whose involvement in the
Arab-Israeli conflict was purely theoretical.
milestone on the path to the diplomatic acceptance of the PLO was
reached in October 1974, when the Rabat conference of Arab heads of
state recognised the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the
Palestinian people". The following month, the PLO was granted observer
status at the United Nations.
He spent the next
eight years leading the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon in a desperate
struggle for survival in that country's complex civil war. As the
commander of Fatah forces, he joined forces with the charismatic Druse
warlord Kamal Jumblatt, a fatal alliance which set the Palestinians in
confrontation with the armed forces of Syria. The price was paid by the
Palestinian refugees themselves, thousands of whom died in a Syrian
siege of Palestinian refugee camps.
At the height
of the war, Arafat led Palestinian forces against an Israeli siege
lasting 88 days. After thousands of Palestinian deaths, Fatah's
military forces were finally defeated in August 1982, and Arafat and
his fighters were forced to evacuate Beirut. He and the PLO elite were
offered refuge in Tunisia.
Arafat experienced the
lowest point of his political fortunes in the mid-1980s. In October
1985, in retaliation for an attack on an Israeli-owned yacht, six
Israeli F-15 fighter bombers swooped over PLO headquarters in Tunis,
reducing the buildings to rubble, and killing 73 people. Arafat was in
one of his safe houses and was unharmed, though he assumed he was the
In December 1987 a popular
Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule broke out in the impoverished
Gaza Strip and quickly spread to the West Bank. The outbreak of the
intifada (as it came to be known) caught Arafat by surprise, but he
moved quickly to impose the authority of the PLO over it, and to
harness the worldwide sympathy it generated to push for diplomatic
recognition by the United States.
In November 1988
he persuaded the Palestinian National Congress, the Palestinian
parliament in exile, to support his plan for statehood alongside
Israel. He then announced the PLO's acceptance of Israel's existence at
a special session of the UN General Assembly in Geneva. The immediate
result of his speech was an American decision to open a "substantive
dialogue" with the PLO.
But his success was
short-lived. Within a few months, America abruptly ended talks after
Arafat failed to denounce a seaborne terrorist attack on the Israeli
coast by the Palestine Liberation Front, a radical group affiliated to
When the Gulf war broke out in 1990,
Arafat felt compelled by Palestinian public opinion in the Occupied
Territories to take the side of Saddam Hussein, who had made an
unconvincing promise to evacuate Kuwait if Israel would withdraw from
the West Bank and Gaza. After Iraq's defeat, the Palestinians reaped
disastrous consequences when the entire Palestinian population (about
300,000 people) was expelled from Kuwait, and oil-rich states of the
Gulf stopped funding the PLO.
In 1991 the United
States invited Jordan and Israel to take part in peace talks in Madrid,
on condition that the Palestinians involved were not members of the
PLO. Arafat's response was cunningly pragmatic: he countenanced the
creation of a delegation of West Bank notables who reported to him on
an almost daily basis. It was an open secret that Israel was now, for
the first time, negotiating with Arafat.
to see much virtue in simplicity, Arafat authorised the opening of a
second, secret channel of negotiations with Israel while the
Washington-sponsored talks were still under way. In the end, it was
these talks, held in Oslo under the auspices of the Norwegian
government, that produced the breakthrough. At the end of August 1993
the Israeli cabinet approved the Oslo plan, which provided for the
establishment of Palestinian local government in Gaza and a tiny
enclave around the isolated oasis town of Jericho. On September 13,
President Clinton oversaw the signature of the agreement between Israel
and the PLO at a ceremony on the White House lawn. Arafat shook hands
with the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
conducting the Oslo negotiations, Arafat was interested above all in
acquiring the symbols of statehood (uniformed guards at the borders,
his own face on the new Palestinian Authority postage stamps) and
securing Israel's recognition of the PLO. He paid little attention to
the details of the later agreements that continued the Oslo process.
Palestinians found themselves living under a tighter regime than ever
before, and still humiliatingly subordinate to Israel.
was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, at the same
time as the establishment of a legislature that he eventually
neutralised. Building civil society in the Palestinian areas was of
less importance to him than making himself indispensable. This meant
retarding the growth of Palestinian institutions by turning them into
his own personal instruments, and prizing loyalty above competence, or
even honesty, in his deputies.
Although Arafat was
regarded by Americans, Israelis and foreign aid donors as unreliable,
for the Palestinians life without him was unthinkable, even when
opinion polls showed little support for his policies. His position as
Palestinian leader included the traditional role of arbitrating among
local families in disputes over land, marriages and property, and his
shrewd ability to hold together a wide consensus in Palestinian society
never faltered when the radical Islamist movement Hamas became a rival
force in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s.
gave the Hamas leader Sheikh Yasin a Mercedes Benz as a gift in 1997 on
his release from an Israeli prison, but arrested dozens of his
followers in the months that followed. By 2000, the promise of the Oslo
Agreement had all but withered, and Arafat's position in negotiations
with Israel hardened. At a summit with Israel and America at Camp David
in July, Arafat refused to make concessions on the right of Palestinian
refugees to return to their former homeland, and on Jerusalem as the
possible capital of a Palestinian state.
blamed Arafat for the failure of the negotiations. At Camp David,
Arafat rejected the offer of a larger area of land than the
Palestinians had ever been offered until then, a stand that he later
acknowledged was a mistake. When a new uprising broke out later that
year, more violent than the original intifada, he did little to
discourage his police and security units from engaging in gun battles
with the Israeli military forces that were sent into Palestinian areas
to suppress it.
The first American administration
of George W Bush ceased to take an active role in brokering an
Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It supported the Israeli prime minister
Ariel Sharon's policy of demanding the impossible of Arafat - that he
restrain the radical Palestinian Islamist forces that had seized the
initiative in the violent struggle against Israel, while insisting at
the same time that he was a political irrelevance.
2002 Israeli forces besieged a Palestinian Authority compound in
Ramallah in which Arafat was living; he remained confined there for the
next two and a half years. As his health and political effectiveness
declined, he made belated attempts to reform his administration, and to
find a way out of the impasse. Last year he bowed to American pressure
and appointed a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas; he resigned after three
months, frustrated in his attempts to challenge Arafat's autocratic
control, but is now general secretary of the PLO.
1990, Yasser Arafat married, in conditions of great secrecy,
26-year-old Suha al-Tawil, a Palestinian Christian who converted to
Islam on marriage, and who spent much of her time thereafter in Paris.
They had a daughter, Zahwa.