Profile: President Yasir Arafat

Despite his confinement for years within his ravaged West Bank headquarters, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat remained an influential player in the Arab-Israeli conflict until his last days.

The Palestinian leader's long saga of survival defied all odds
The Palestinian leader's long saga of survival defied all odds

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

Arafat was born in 1929 to a relatively well-to-do merchant family and was given the name Muhammad, which has since been almost completely eclipsed by the nickname Yasir.

He always said he was born in Jerusalem but several investigators cast doubt on the claim, saying he was born in either Gaza or Cairo. 

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

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

After 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 the 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.

Arafat 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.

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

In Jordan, that rift culminated in a war between Palestinian 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 engulfed in civil strife between its various sects and factions, was hardly ready for another force that altered the fragile ethnic and political balance of the country.

Israel’s battle with the PLO led to
the 1982 massacres in Lebanon

Palestinian factions quickly found themselves involved in a deadly civil war.

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

Taking advantage of 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 hammered out with the help of several countries. 

Sharon (R) kicked Arafat out of
Lebanon in 1982

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

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

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

The move represented a significant departure for the man who in 1974 appeared at the United Nations saying he bore “an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun”, famously saying: “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

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

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

Rabin (L) and Arafat were jointly
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

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.


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 dealt with fundamental issues such as Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, illegal Jewish settlements, borders and water. 

Arafat remained 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 deteriorated steadily 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 him, while meeting 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.

Ordinary Palestinians saw him as
a fighter who refused to cave in

Since his confinement, Israel had pondered three options: to capture, deport or kill the Palestinian leader.

Arafat, however, continued to be a key player 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 more became popular among ordinary Palestinians who saw him as a resilient fighter, refusing to yield to international pressure.

This perception renewed the battle-hardened leader’s appeal as a symbol, even to those who strongly disagreed with his political policies and approach.

Source : Al Jazeera

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