Yasser Arafat was born during August 1929 in Cairo, Egypt and played a leading role in the Palestinian independence movement from its inception. As a teenager Arafat was involved in smuggling weapons to Palestine to aid the fight against the British and the Israelis. Although he left his studies at the University of Faud to fight with the Arabs at age nineteen, he returned and completed an engineering degree in 1956.
For the next several years, Arafat lived in Kuwait employed in the department of public works. In 1958, he and several others formed al-Fatah, which would become the primary power base within the Palestinian leadership. Through al-Fatah, Arafat and others published a magazine advocating arms smuggling to oppose Israel. Arafat left Kuwait in 1964 and moved to Jordan, where he began organizing raids into Israel and advocating other revolutionary actions. Around this time Arafat also worked, in conjunction with Arab states and the Arab league to form the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). When the Arab nations were defeated in the 1967 Six-Day War Al-Fatah was left as the strongest organization in the PLO. This eventually led to Araft becoming chairman of the PLO Executive Committee.
Although initially conciliatory towards the Israelis, the PLO took on a different tone when Arafat and al-Fatah became the leading member organization in 1969. In 1970 King Hussein of Jordan forcefully expelled the PLO from his country after increased guerilla violence. The PLO had been using fortified bases in Jordan to launch strikes into Israel. The Jordanian Army drove out the PLO in a war that came to be known as Black September.
From Jordan the PLO took up residence in Beirut, Lebanon. Here they joined Muslim soldiers fighting against Christians in that country's civil war. Just as in Jordan, Arafat built a series of bases in Lebanon and estabalished his own mini-state. By some accounts he had more power and territory than the Lebanese government.
In 1974 Arafat made a landmark appearance before the U.N. General Assembly. He described himself as bearing an "olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun" and cautioned the assembly, "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." His appearance brought about PLO diplomatic recognition on a global scale.
Arafat again came under fire in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon in response to repeated PLO attacks. Israeli forces fought all the way to Beirut and put Arafat under seige for months. Eventually Arafat was able to negotiate an evacuation. PLO forces fled the country under UN flagged ships and by land. After his exit from Lebanon, Afafat moved to Tunis where he continued operations of his now weakened and fragmented PLO for the next 12 years.
In 1987, the first intifada erupted in Israel and in the following year, Arafat gave a speech to the United Nations renouncing terrorism, recognizing the existence of Israel, and declaring his willingness to work for a peaceful settlement to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This hurt Arafat's credibility in the eyes of many of his most ardent followers and cost him the support of many Arab governments.
Arafat made a second unpopular political move when he supported Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991. His allegiance was born out of the belief that Saddam Hussein was the only Arab leader that would stand up to Israel. On the day of the deadline given by the Coalition for Iraqi withdrawl from Kuwait Arafat flew from Baghdad back to Gaza. As military operations began Arafat remained steadfast in his support. His people shared this view, Palestinians celebrated as Iraq began launching Scud missiles at Israel. He would pay for this support however. Arab nations involved in the coalition discontinued financial support of the PLO and expelled thousands of Palestinians living in their territories. As the Gulf War ended Arafat appeared on the verge of marginalization.
Despite this Arafat was able to bounce back and begin negotiations with Israel. In September 1993, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, and in May 1994, they both signed the Cairo agreement. For their efforts, both Arafat and Rabin, as well as Shimon Peres received the Nobel piece prize. That same year, Arafat made a triumphant return to the Gaza Strip. As he walked across the Egyptian border he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds celebrating his arrival.
Following the terms of the peace agreements, the Palestinian Authority held a Presidential election in 1996, which Arafat won with over 80 percent of the vote. The fact that many opposition leaders did not run in this race caused some to question the legitimacy of the election however. The years following Arafat's election were characterized by continuing instability in the region and increasing frustration with Arafat's dictatorial style of leadership. In July of 2000 Arafat returned to the United States for more negotiations, this time with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The talks collapsed and in September of that year a second Palestinian intifadah began.
By 2002, both the US and Israel were putting pressure on the Palestinian National Authority to find a new leader, but Arafat remained unwilling to relinquish his hold on power. After the reoccupation of the West Bank in the year 2002 and the virtual destruction of Palestinian Authority institutions, there was a lot of violence and disorder. Arafat's powers shrank. The Israeli army put him under house arrest in his office in Ramallah. As anarchy reigned around him Arafat remained defiant, stating at one point in 2003, "No one can kick me out."
In October 2004, Arafat began experiencing health problems and reportedly lost consciousness on October 27. Surrounded by Israeli forces, Arafat had been unable to leave his Ramallah compound for two years until the Israeli government allowed Arafat to be flown to France for medical treatment. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted at the possibility of assasinating Arafat over the last year, but the Israeli government agreed to allow Arafat back into the country following his medical treatment. Yasser Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. Paris time, on November 11, 2004 at the age of 75. He passed away at the French Percy military hospital to which he had been transported on October 29, 2004, for medical treatment.
Yasar Arafat will likely be best remembered for two things. He lead Palestinians towards the acceptance of Israel and he kindled the idea of a two-state solution between Israel and a future Palestinian state. However he was a flawed leader in many respects. He made some very, very serious blunders. But he was not the reason behind the conflict. The reason for the continued conflict was the continued occupation. Arafat was unable to lead the Palestinians in the midst of this conflict. He showed little vision or imagination. And the Palestinians were quite upset with Arafat's rule. However, the breakdown of the peace process was not Arafat's fault alone. He contributed to it. The Israelis contributed to it. Indeed, the Americans contributed to it, too. His departure from the scene gives an opportunity for a renewed political process.
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