Yasser Arafat Was Symbol of Palestinian Struggle

Nov. 11, 2004 — -- 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.

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.

A Rebel Is Born

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.

Capturing World Attention

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.

Working for Peace

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.

While granting limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza with Arafat as president of the Palestinian National Authority governing the area, the signatories of the Oslo accords agreed to postpone decisions on the contentious issues of Jerusalem and the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Arafat was making the transition to statesman, but not everyone was prepared to accept him. In 1995, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani booted the Palestinian leader from a concert held for heads of state and other dignitaries in town to celebrate the United Nations' 50th anniversary.

Many observers thought Arafat sabotaged his own future as a world leader -- and his people's chances of winning an independent state -- in July 2000 when he rejected a land-for-peace deal brokered by President Clinton. Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had been prepared to make extraordinary compromises, but that Arafat rebuffed him.

'A Historic Turning Point'

Seasoned Middle East watchers predicted the worst, and in September 2000, the worst seemed to have arrived when Palestinians launched a second intifada that cost thousands of lives and cleaved a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli voters replaced Barak's government with Sharon, a hard-liner who was not inclined to deal with Arafat.

Even Arafat's death did not lessen Sharon's hostility toward the man. He addressed the Palestinian leader's death without mentioning his name, saying: "The latest events are likely to present a historic turning point in the Middle East."

Tensions escalated in the years that followed as Palestinian suicide bombers continued to strike deep within Israel and Sharon tried various ways to weaken Arafat's influence. The old guerrilla faced a siege at his Ramallah headquarters, efforts by U.S. and Israeli officials to sideline him through the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, and threats to exile him. He would remain virtually confined in his Ramallah compound from December 2001 until Oct. 29, when he was taken to the French hospital for treatment of his last illness. He slipped into a coma Nov. 3 and never regained consciousness.