Profile of Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat came before the U.N. General Assembly in 1972 with an olive branch and a gun. The symbolic juxtaposition of peace and violence defines Arafat's political life.

Although he has remained true to his goal of re-establishing a Palestinian homeland, his methods have softened with time.

Arafat was born in 1929 to a successful merchant father and a religiously devout mother. His birth name was Mohammed, but he was quickly nicknamed Yasser, which means "easy." Arafat's mother died when he was 4, and his father sent him to live with a married uncle in Jerusalem.

As a teenager in the 1940s, Arafat became involved in the Palestinian cause. Before the Arabs were defeated by Israel in 1948, Arafat was a leader in the Palestinian effort to smuggle arms into the territory.

After the war, Arafat studied civil engineering at the University of Cairo in Egypt. He headed the Palestinian Students League and, by the time he graduated, was committed to forming a group that would free Palestine from Israeli occupation.

In 1956 he founded Al Fatah, an underground terrorist organization. At first Al Fatah was ignored by larger Arab nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which had formed their own group — the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It wasn't until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Arabs lost the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank, that Arab nations turned to Arafat. In 1968 he became the leader of the PLO.

Evolution of a Terrorist

For two decades the PLO launched bloody attacks on Israel, and Arafat gained a reputation as a ruthless terrorist.

But by 1988, when he told the United Nations that the PLO would recognize Israel as a sovereign state, Arafat had warmed to diplomacy.

Then in 1993, the unthinkable happened. The terrorist leader, who had rarely been seen without his signature ghutra and scruffy beard, met with his avowed enemies.

The secret peace talks in Norway led to the Oslo Peace Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

The agreement granted limited Palestinian self-rule and earned Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

In January 1996 Arafat was elected the first president of the Palestinian Council governing the West Bank and Gaza Strip.