He did spend part of his childhood years in Jerusalem, where he was sent to live with a married uncle after his mother's death. It was in Jerusalem that he was first nicknamed Yasser, which means "easy" in Arabic.
A "hyperactive, intelligent" but "undisciplined" youth, Arafat fought with Palestinian militias in Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war before earning a civil engineering degree from the University of Cairo in 1956.
Arafat headed the Palestinian Students League while at the university, and as early as 1954 began meeting with former members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Liberation Party to fight for the Palestinian cause.
In 1956, he founded Fatah, an underground terrorist organization. At first, Fatah was ignored by larger Arab nations such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, which had formed their own group -- the PLO. It wasn't until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Arabs lost the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank, that Arab nations began to take note of Arafat.
In 1968, Arafat became the leader of the PLO.
The next decade saw his rise as a guerrilla leader. Arafat rubbed shoulders with giants of the Arab world including Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein.
His stormy relationship with the latter reached a nadir in what came to be known as "Black September," when more than 3,000 Palestinians were killed in Jordan between Sept. 16 and Sept. 26, 1970, over allegations that the PLO was involved in the struggle against King Hussein.
Following Black September, Arafat moved to Lebanon. He stayed there until 1982, when he left for Tunisia.
His sartorial style caught world attention on Nov. 13, 1974, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the first time, wearing fatigues and kaffiyeh. "I have come bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter's gun in the other," said Arafat, his gun noticeably on display. "Don't let the olive branch fall from my hand."
Arafat, the PLO and associated groups would be blamed for some of the world's most infamous terror attacks. In 1972, members of a PLO faction killed 11 Israelis at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. In 1985, members of a pro-PLO group hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly, disabled American tourist, was shot and killed, and his body thrown overboard in his wheelchair.
But by the end of the 1980s, the terrorist leader with the scruffy beard was ready for the olive branch. In 1988, Arafat told the United Nations that the PLO would recognize Israel as a sovereign state.
In a further sign that he had mellowed, Arafat, then in his 60s, was married in 1991 to Suha Tawil, a Palestinian half his age. Raised as a Christian, Suha converted to Islam. The couple had a daughter, Zahwa. After the start of the second intifada, Arafat's wife and daughter moved to Paris.
By the 1990s, the international community had come to see Arafat as a man it could diplomatically engage. And on Sept. 13, 1993, when he grasped Rabin's hand in one of history's most televised handshakes, Arafat looked every bit the man who could deliver a diplomatic answer to the political mess in the Middle East.
But the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, which earned Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, swept the most pressing issues under the carpet.