Profile: President Yasir Arafat

Despite his confinement for years to a small building within his ravaged West Bank headquarters, Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat has been an instrumental player in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Arafat's saga of political survival has defied all conceivable odds
Arafat's saga of political survival has defied all conceivable odds

While the ageing leader has long served as a symbol of resistance to many Palestinians, his role in the ongoing conflict has been more than merely symbolic.

Born in Gaza in 1929 to a relatively well-to-do merchant family, he was given the birth name Muhammad, which has since been almost completely sidelined by the nickname Yasir.

His mother passed away when he was four, leaving the responsibility of raising him to his older sister.

Resistance fighter

As a teenager, Arafat was involved in assisting Palestinian fighters resisting the Israeli occupation.

It has been recorded that the young Gazan helped smuggle weapons to the fighters in the war of 1948.

Like many aspiring students from Gaza, he travelled to Egypt to finish his studies. There, he formed the Palestinian Graduate Association.

Among other tasks, the group supplied volunteers to the Egyptian front to stand against British, French and Israeli forces during the Suez crisis.

Forming Fatah

Following his graduation with an engineering degree, he sought employment in Kuwait.

But the young revolutionary was interested in much more than a secure job. In Kuwait, he formed the Fatah movement, which later came to serve as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s largest and most popular faction.

Arafat formed Fatah primarily
as a resistance movement

He worked towards attracting more attention to his movement and the plight of Palestinian refugees.

One of the earliest recorded outcomes of those efforts was the publishing of the magazine Falestinuna (Our Palestine).

To expand the scope and influence of his revolutionary ideas, he opened an office for his group in Algeria, in 1965.

By then, he was seeking a greater Arab awareness of the Palestinian issue but without allowing any Arab government to have a mandate over the Palestinian struggle with Israel.

Eventually, he achieved his goal, but at a price.


He was recognised for leading several attacks against Israel from various Arab territories. He believed that armed resistance was the only option left for a population that had lost its homeland and freedom.

He was determined that Palestinians were the best people to manage the war with Israel.

However, his insistence on maintaining the independent character of the Palestinian struggle has often been a source of conflict between him and various Arab governments.

In Jordan, that rift culminated in a war between Palestinian resistance factions and the Jordanian army.

Black September

Thousands of Palestinian civilians were slaughtered in Jordan’s crackdown in what became known as Black September.

Palestinian factions were forced out of Jordan into Lebanon, this time with Arafat elected as the chairman of the PLO’s executive committee.

Lebanon, already swamped in a civil strife between its various sects and factions, was hardly ready for another formidable force that, in addition to its political influence, altered the fractious ethnic set-up of the country.

A mother mourns victims of the
Sabra and Shatila massacres

Palestinian factions quickly found themselves involved in a deadly civil war, which compelled the forging of alliances.

PLO fighters moved to Lebanon and established fairly strong bases, from which they launched attacks against Israel.

With these attacks and Lebanon’s vulnerable political and military structure, Israel invaded Lebanon.


In 1978, Israel conducted a small-scale invasion and occupied a small part of the country. In 1982, it carried out a full-scale invasion.

Fleeing Lebanon

One of the main Israeli objectives was to drive Arafat’s fighters out of Lebanon.

Israeli forces besieged the Lebanon capital, Beirut, and Arafat’s departure was the price for lifting the siege.

The Palestinian leader and his fighters were sent to various Arab countries in an agreement forged with the help of several countries. 

According to the agreement, the US would guarantee the safety of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Shortly after the PLO’s departure, the slaughter of over 2200 refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps took place under the nose of the Israeli occupation forces.

The Tunis years

Arafat and the PLO headquarters headed for Tunisia. Other members of the leadership settled in Tunisia as well as Syria while Palestinian fighters found themselves scattered throughout the Middle East.

In November 1988, the PLO’s Palestinian National Council declared the independent state of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital.

Arafat read the declaration of independence and later publicly rejected “all forms of violence” and met US conditions for dialogue. 

Recognising Israel

In 1974, the PLO had become an observer in the United Nations and Arafat dramatically appeared at the UN bearing an olive branch and a gun. He said: “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

Israeli and Palestinian peacetalks have yielded no solution 

Israeli and Palestinian peace
talks have yielded no solution

In 1988, he again addressed the UN General Assembly, declaring the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.

That declaration was Arafat’s ticket to a kinder US perception of him and the PLO, but hardly served his image among other Palestinian faction leaders, who saw his approach as an insult to the Palestinian struggle for independence.  

In 1989, the Palestinian Central Council declared Arafat president of the Palestinian state.

Peace talks

In 1991, Palestinian negotiators began peace talks in Madrid, under the auspices of the US and Russia.

Arafat, however, was sponsoring another round of secret peace talks in Norway, which brought about the Oslo accords in 1993.

According to the Oslo accords, Israel would grant the Palestinians limited territorial sovereignty and partial control over civil affairs in the West Bank and Gaza.

It also established the Palestinian Authority (PA) with Arafat as its president. 

The Oslo and Madrid agreements were put on paper and at the White House, Arafat and then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin exchanged a historic handshake and sealed an outline for limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza.

False hope


Both Arafat and Rabin were awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts.

However, on the ground, Palestinians noticed little difference, aside from the return of Arafat to Gaza accompanied by thousands of his former fighters.

The Oslo accords were followed by other peace agreements, starting with the Cairo accords of 1994, which kickstarted Israel’s limited withdrawal scheme, beginning with “Gaza-Jericho first”. 

According to elections held in 1996 and regarded as transparent by various international observers, Arafat won 83% of the votes to be elected president of the PA.

He went on to sign the Wye River Accord in 1998.

Peace obstacles 

The whole peace process, however, hit a snag when it reached the “final status” negotiation phase, which deals with fundamental issues such as Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, illegal Jewish settlements, borders and water. 

Arafat remains a popular figure
despite the PA’s corrupt image

Arafat, then US president Bill Clinton and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak attended a conference in 2000 at Camp David to tackle these issues.

But the talks collapsed and Arafat, who was reportedly under pressure to concede sovereignty over Jerusalem, was held responsible by Clinton and Barak.

Palestinians responded angrily to the stalemate in the peace process which brought to a complete stop their efforts to achieve statehood.

Their frustration culminated in September 2000 in a full-scale uprising, sparked by a visit by current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – then opposition leader – to their holiest shrine in Jerusalem.


Arafat’s relationship with the US has deteriorated since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000.

President George Bush accused Arafat of deliberately using violence to halt the peace process and refused to meet with him, while meeting with Sharon repeatedly, referring to him as a “man of peace”.

Israel, too, declared Arafat “irrelevant” to the peace process and placed him under virtual house arrest at his West Bank headquarters in Ram Allah in March 2002.

Arafat’s compound was frequently bombed and his office was targeted by Israeli tanks on several occasions.

Since his confinement, Israel has pondered three options, to capture, deport or kill the Palestinian leader, now 75.

Still popular

Arafat, however, continues to be instrumental in the political set-up of the PA.

US and Israeli attempts to marginalise him by demanding the reform of the Palestinian political structure received little support from most Palestinians.

While his ratings dwindled significantly in his early years as PA president, Arafat once again became popular among ordinary Palestinians, who see him as a resilient fighter refusing to yield.

This perception has renewed the ageing leader’s role as a symbol even to those who strongly disagree with his political policies and approach.

Source : Al Jazeera

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