Biography

Yasir Arafat

Political Leaders

Yasir Arafat

24 August 1929, Cairo, Egypt
11 November 2004, Clamart, France

He was born Muhammad Abd al-Ra’uf al-Qudwa al-Husseini but was known popularly as Yasir Arafat and Abu Ammar. His mother was Zahwa Khalil Abu al-Su‘ud. His brothers are Jamal, Mustafa, and Fathi, and his sisters are In‘am, Yusra, and Khadija; through his father, he also had a half-brother, Muhsin, and two half-sisters, Mirvet and Madiha. His wife is Suha al-Tawil, and his only child is his daughter, Zahwa.

Mystery surrounds his exact date and place of birth though it is probable that he was born in Cairo on 24 August 1929, to a father from Gaza who worked in commerce in Egypt and a mother from Jerusalem. He was four years old when his mother died, so his father sent him to live with his uncle Salim Abu al-Su‘ud in Jerusalem; four years later, he returned to Cairo.

In 1946, while still a student at the Faruq I secondary school in Cairo, he met the Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, head of the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine. Following the UN Partition Resolution on 29 November 1947 and the outbreak of violence between Arabs and Jews, Arafat joined a group that worked under the direction of the Arab Higher Committee, collecting weapons and mines left behind in the western desert by the warring armies in World War II. They bought them to equip the Army of Holy War led by Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini.

When he finished his secondary school education in 1948, he enrolled in the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Fuad I University. During his freshman year he volunteered to fight for a few months with the Army of Holy War in Gaza.

In 1949 he returned to the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo and in 1951 took part in establishing the Palestinian Students League, whose members included Salim al-Za‘nun (Abu al-Adib) and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), later to become prominent leaders in Fatah.

At the beginning of the 1952 academic year he was elected president of the Palestinian Students League, a position he retained until he graduated as a civil engineer in 1956. During a visit to Gaza in 1954 he met Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), who led small groups of guerrillas in the Gaza Strip.

At the end of October 1956, and following the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt, he joined the Egyptian army as a reserve officer in the engineering unit stationed in Port Said.

In 1957, he worked for a short period as an engineer in the Egyptian Cement Company in the town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra before travelling to Kuwait, where he worked first as an engineer in the Ministry of Public Works and then partnered with an Egyptian businessman to found a contracting company. 

In the autumn of 1957 he founded (with Khalil al-Wazir, who had joined him in Kuwait) the nucleus of the first Palestinian guerrilla movement. On 10 November 1959 he took part in a meeting held in a Kuwait apartment and attended by a number of young Palestinian men who had come from several Arab countries, in founding the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine (which became known by its reverse acronym, Fatah). The movement adopted as its mission the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle and a war of popular liberation that was to begin from bases inside Arab countries adjacent to Israel and from other bases inside Israel itself; it would not rely on governmental action and regular Arab armies. The entire Palestinian people had become thoroughly disillusioned that any justice could be expected from the West, the UN, or the Arab countries themselves.

Arafat was among the Fatah leaders who had reservations about the establishment, under Arab auspices, of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 and who considered that this “superstructure” endangered the prospect of a Palestinian-centered popular mobilization and undermined the idea of starting the armed struggle. They consequently decided, with Arafat’s insistence, to launch guerrilla action as soon as possible, without waiting for the completion of preparations and training. On the night of 31 December 1964, the military wing of Fatah (the Asifa Forces) carried out the first symbolic guerrilla operation in occupied Palestine in a watercourse known as the  Aylabun tunnel, where an Israeli water network was exploded and two Israeli soldiers were injured. One of the guerrillas who took part in that operation, Ahmad Musa Salameh, was killed. Since then Palestinians have come to regard 1 January 1965 as the date that marks the start of their modern revolution.

Following Israel’s sudden attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai in June 1967, Arafat pushed Fatah to start armed resistance in the West Bank at the end of August, and he infiltrated Israeli lines in order to organize secret cells in the occupied territories. As the number of guerrilla operations originating from Transjordan and Israeli retaliation attacks grew, Palestinian guerrillas, led by Arafat and supported by the Jordanian army, managed on 21 March 1968 to repel an Israeli attack on the town of al-Karama in the Jordan Valley and to inflict severe losses on the Israeli army. This battle turned the armed Palestinian resistance into a mass movement bringing in tens of thousands of guerrilla fighters and supporters, both Palestinians and non-Palestinians. Although the Israelis succeeded in their goal of destroying the fedayeen base at al-Karama, the Palestinian and Jordanian military performance represented an Arab victory, especially considering the humiliating collapse the previous year of several Arab armies combined in a matter of days, if not hours.

With the ascent of the Palestinian resistance organizations and their success in having their representatives control the Palestine National Council (PNC), the fifth session of the PNC, held in Cairo in February 1969, elected Arafat chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. He succeeded Yahya Hammouda, who had replaced Ahmad al-Shuqairi as an interim chairman in December 1967. Arafat remained in this post until his death in 2004.

As the Palestinian military and political presence ended in Jordan following the violent clashes that erupted between the guerrillas and the Jordanian army in September 1970, an inevitable consequence of the conflict between “raison d’état” and popular war of liberation. Arafat moved to Lebanon, which became the base of his political and military leadership. Palestinian resistance organizations had already gained ground there.

By late October 1974, the PLO had gained official Arab recognition as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.  On 13 November 1974, Arafat delivered a historic speech before the UN General Assembly in New York, in which he announced that, in the name of the Palestinians, he carried a gun in one hand and an olive branch in the other, indicating his readiness to accept a just political settlement. On 22 November, the General Assembly recognized the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and national independence and granted the PLO observer status at the UN.

In Lebanon, supporters and opponents of the Palestinian guerilla presence were more and more deeply divided. Palestinian organizations had gained control of the refugee camps in Lebanon and Palestinian-Israeli operations had escalated in the South. The Beirut government tried to reconcile the Lebanese political forces among themselves and with the Palestinian leadership. It signed with Arafat what was known as the Cairo Agreement in early November 1969, to regulate Palestinian civilian and political presence in the country and guerrilla activity across the border with Israel. Complicating matters was a constant change in Syrian calculations and policies toward Lebanese-Palestinian relations. Israel exploited the situation to the full, launching continuous and horrific strikes against Lebanese towns and villages in the South, alleging retaliation for guerrilla attacks originating in Lebanon. Following all these developments, civil war broke out in Lebanon in April 1975, with Arafat leading the Joint Forces, which included PLO fighters and their allies in the Lebanese National Movement.

In the meantime, the PLO under Arafat leadership became a state within the Lebanese state, with its own institutions, administration, offices, and external relations. When Israel decided to liquidate the Palestinian military, administrative, and political presence in Lebanon, its army invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut in summer 1982. Arafat led Palestinian and Lebanese forces to resist the invasion, together with units of the Syrian army. On 30 August 1982, and following an agreement brokered by US envoy Philip Habib, Arafat left Beirut with his comrades and supporters aboard a ship raising the Greek flag and protected by French and US warships. He moved to Tunis, making it his new headquarters.

Building on the launch of the intifada in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in December 1987, which raised the banner of freedom and independence, the PNC adopted the Declaration of Independence at its 15 November 1988 meeting in Algiers and elected Arafat President of the State of Palestine. The Declaration reads in part:

“By virtue of natural, historical and legal rights, and the sacrifices of successive generations who gave of themselves in defense of the freedom and independence of their homeland;

In pursuance of Resolutions adopted by Arab summit conferences and relying on the authority bestowed by international legitimacy as embodied in the resolutions of the United Nations Organization since 1947;

[…] The Palestine National Council, in the name of God, and in the name of the Palestinian Arab people, hereby proclaims the establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian territory with its capital Jerusalem (Al-Quds Ash-Sharif).”

Since it was founded, the PLO had been shunned by the United States, which labeled it a “terrorist” organization in deference to Israel. To commence a dialogue with the PLO, the US imposed as a precondition the PLO’s acceptance of Resolution 242 (1967), which included an implicit recognition of Israel although the resolution itself makes no mention of Palestine and the Palestinians. Under immense US pressure, Arafat was finally forced at the end of 1988 to submit and to accept that resolution.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Arafat attempted to adopt an intermediary position between the two sides, but the Gulf countries considered this to be a pro-Iraqi stand and thereafter imposed on Arafat and the PLO a severe political and financial boycott. The US administration concluded from its military victory in Kuwait and the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was now in a position to convene Arab-Israeli peace talks (with Moscow’s symbolic co-sponsorship). Arafat (also in view of Israel’s refusal to negotiate with him) had to agree at the end of October1991, that a Palestinian delegation separate from the PLO and consisting of prominent national figures from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip attend the international peace conference in Madrid as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Immediately after the Madrid Conference, negotiations were pursued in Washington, the Israeli delegation getting its instructions from a rightist Israeli government under Yitzhak Shamir, and the Palestinian delegation directly from Arafat. As the Washington talks were leading nowhere and with the electoral victory of the Israeli Labor Party under Yitzhak Rabin in Summer 1992, secret negotiations were launched in January 1993 in Oslo between the PLO and an Israeli delegation, with also the full knowledge and guidance of Arafat. The Oslo track led to an agreement signed in Washington on 13 September 1993. It provided for a five-year transitional period and the creation of a Palestinian Authority (with a number of severe constraints and restrictions that many Palestinians and non-Palestinian Arabs greatly decried), and it stipulated that final status talks would be concluded within five years. The agreement allowed Arafat to return to the Gaza Strip on 1 July 1994. In December 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

In January 1996, Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority; the only other contender was Samiha Khalil, founder of the In‘ash al-Usra Society.

Following the failure of the Camp David meetings in July 2000, which brought Arafat together with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and was hosted by US President Bill Clinton, a failure mainly caused by Israeli designs on the Noble Sanctuary [al-Haram al-Sharif], Arafat was the target of a concentrated US-Israeli campaign, which held him responsible for the failure to arrive at a final settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The second intifada began in late September 2000, and with it the Israeli campaign targeting Arafat grew in intensity. On 3 December 2001, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Ehud Barak, ordered his troops, with the full approval of US President George W. Bush, to lay siege to Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Bush began openly to call for Arafat’s removal from the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.

Arafat had since his youth devoted all his time and energy to the cause of Palestine. When he became chairman of the PLO, he lived a simple and ascetic life that was intertwined with the history of the Palestinian national movement. Under his leadership, the PLO changed course: from calling for the liberation of the entire soil of Palestine to acceptance (in 1974) to liberate only part of the soil of Palestine; from the call for a democratic Palestinian state where Arabs and Jews live together, to acceptance in March 1977 of an independent Palestinian state on lands vacated by Israeli occupation forces; from armed struggle as the sole path to liberation to acceptance, in November 1988, of negotiations as a way to arrive at a political settlement leading to the rise of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Since 1967, Arafat was the target of many assassination attempts, the most dangerous being that which took place during the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 and the other on 1 October 1985, when Israeli warplanes bombed his headquarters in Tunis.

With tension in relations between Arafat on the one hand and the Gulf countries and Syria on the other, and the absolute support given to Sharon by US President George W. Bush during the second intifada, Israel openly described Arafat as an obstacle to be removed when Israel chose to do so. Beginning in early October 2004, while under the Israeli siege, Arafat began to display symptoms of a disease that could not easily be diagnosed. The symptoms grew worse with time and those close to him decided to send him to France for treatment. On 29 October 2004, Arafat was admitted to the Percy Military Hospital in Clamart near Paris; he soon fell into a coma. On 11 November 2004, the hospital administration announced his death.

An official funerary ceremony was conducted at a French military airbase attended by French premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin. His body was then flown to Cairo where another official ceremony was held with several foreign political representatives before being finally flown to Ramallah, where 100,000 Palestinian men and women were waiting to receive the body. Arafat was laid to rest at his headquarters in Ramallah, known as the muqata‘a.

In 2012 his body was disinterred to test for Polonium poisoning. Swiss experts considered poisoning to be probable, but Russian and French experts attributed his death to old age.  

 

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