Arafat: father of the struggle

Yasser Arafat's political career is almost as old as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself, making him an architect and symbol of his people's struggle for independence and statehood.

That has been his goal ever since he became fully involved with the Palestinian cause at the age of 17. At the time, he reportedly smuggled weapons to the Palestinians from Egypt, two years before the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Israeli states.

The proclamation triggered the first Arab-Israeli war, which broke out on 14 May 1948.

Today, Arafat is the Chairman of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) – a position he has held since 1996 after being the only candidate elected by an overwhelming majority.

Arafat’s July 1994 return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 27 years in exile was made possible after the Oslo peace agreements with Israel were reached in 1993.

Those agreements established limited Palestinian self-rule over those territories in return for acknowledging Israel's right to exist - far short of Arafat's and most Palestinians' dream of establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The Oslo accords were the product of secret meetings in Norway between Arafat and Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. The three men shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in 1994.

Freedom fighter to politician

Arafat is the only leader many Palestinians have ever known and over the years he has managed to transform himself from a guerrilla fighter to a politician – shifting his focus from military to diplomatic efforts.

In 1956, Arafat founded Al-Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement – which later became the biggest group within the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO.

The PLO’s Covenant altered in 1968 – a year after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – demanded the establishment of a Palestinian state on the entire territory of the Land of Israel.

And it was during that year that Arafat became leader of the PLO which, along with Fatah, advocated "armed struggle" to liberate Palestine. They took up arms against the Israeli army, hijacked airliners and carried out anti-Israel attacks.

It was not too long until Amman objected to PLO activity being launched from Jordanian soil. The 1970 Black September clashes between Palestinians and Jordanians were the final straw.

Arafat has devoted his whole life to the
Palestinian cause

The group moved to Lebanon in 1971 where it settled for just over a decade before being forced to leave when Israel invaded the country in 1982. After that, the leadership and many fighters settled in Tunisia.

But these setbacks did not prevent Arafat from receiving world recognition as the legitimate spokesman for the Palestinian people.

In 1974, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly which recognised the right of the Palestinians to independence and self-determination.

The PLO obtained observer status at the UN - marking the beginning of Arafat's bid to transform himself from fighter to statesman.

Pragmatism

The 1980s witnessed a radical shift in the course of the struggle. Arafat came to the conclusion the Palestinians would not be able to achieve statehood using military means.

At its nineteenth session, held in Algiers in November 1988, the Palestine National Council proclaimed the State of Palestine, recognised UN resolutions 181, 242 and 338 and affirmed its condemnation of terrorism.

Arafat's trademark diplomacy has
charmed some while outraging others

Arafat’s speech to the UN a month after that session confirmed the PLO’s support for the right of all parties to live in peace – Israel included. This opened a new page in relations with Washington which agreed to start a dialogue with the organisation.

While gaining credibility in the West, the Palestinian leader made enemies in Palestinian and Arab ranks for recognising Israel’s right to exist – many of them remain his opponents until this day.

But Arafat paid heavily when he supported Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, damaging the status of the Palestinians and losing vital economic assistance from the oil-rich Gulf states.

Three years later, however, the peace process made headway with the historic signing of the Oslo accords.

After Oslo

Oslo was a watershed in the history of the Palestinian struggle. It established a framework for an agreement aimed at bringing peace – albeit an unjust peace - to the region.

Subsequent peace agreements, a bumpy peace process, violence and unresolved issues like the fate of Jerusalem and the right to return for Palestinian refugees have made that peace more elusive than ever.

Arafat continues to face political opposition from factions that reject the Oslo accords – most prominently the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

From the outset, Hamas objected to recognising Israel's existence. It has taken the lead in carrying out anti-Israel attacks especially in the second Palestinian intifadah which began in September 2000.

Its "armed option" has made it more popular among Palestinians who feel short-changed by their leader's promise of independence and improved socio-economic conditions.

Hamas has become a serious challenger to Arafat's popularity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - endangering his tenous grip on the leadership.

Despite internal opposition, the ailing 73-year-old Arafat has managed to cling to power and remain at the helm of the "Palestinian Revolution".

Even though Arafat may not have been able to achieve his goal of independence for the Palestinians, the Palestinian leader will go down in history as the man who shaped their struggle.