Yasser Arafat Was Symbol of Palestinian Struggle

Yasser Arafat, the only leader most Palestinians have ever known, fought for decades for statehood but was later seen by many as an obstacle to his people's dreams.

The Palestinian Authority president died of multiple organ failure at the Percy Military Training Hospital near Paris at 3:30 a.m. local time today. Hours after his death, a French aircraft bearing his body in a coffin draped with the Palestinian flag took off from a military airfield outside Paris for Egypt. After a ceremony Friday in Cairo, the body was to be flown to the West Bank for burial in Ramallah.

In Washington, President Bush expressed condolences to the grieving Palestinian people.

"For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors," Bush said in a statement. "During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace."

From guerrilla leader to Nobel Peace Prize winner and from terrorist to statesman, Arafat was a key -- and controversial -- player on the world stage.

Under Arafat's leadership, the PLO carried out some of the world's most infamous terrorist attacks. But not even his fiercest detractors would deny that the man with the checkered kaffiyeh was a brave fighter and a consistent symbol of the decades-long Palestinian liberation struggle.

Through years of global wanderings, five Arab-Israeli wars, two violent intifadas and several attempts at peace, Arafat became a rallying point for the Palestinian people, even as they often felt at odds with his dictatorial and sometimes mercurial leadership style.

But his slow transformation from authentic guerrilla to embittered statesman unable to deliver either statehood or peace to his dispossessed people took a toll on his health. A perennial quiver of his lower lip in recent years fueled reports that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease, reports he consistently denied.

Such a Long Journey

For four decades, Arafat was a symbol of the Palestinian people's struggle. Although he spent the last few years holed up in his compound in Ramallah, shunned by the United States and Israeli negotiators, Arafat never lost his hold on the Palestinian people. As news of his death spread, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in a massive outpouring of grief in the West Bank and Gaza. Weeping supporters clutched photographs of Arafat and gunmen fired into the air in mourning.

Arafat made a long journey from a boyhood hardened on the streets of Cairo to the historic handshake with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993, a passage that encompassed the turbulence of the Palestinian liberation movement.

Garrulous and often charming, the diminutive Arafat (he was 5 feet 2 inches tall) had a natural talent for perpetuating a personal mystique. Conflicting reports of his early years were just one example of the Palestinian leader's play at self-mythologizing.

Although Arafat often said he was born in Jerusalem, he was born Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini in Cairo on Aug. 4 or Aug. 24, 1929. His father was a successful Palestinian merchant. His mother died when he was 4 years old.

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