Profile: Yasser Arafat

The life and times of one of the Middle East’s most iconic personalities, whose cause of death had l

While the veteran leader long served as a symbol of resistance to many, his role in the Palestinian struggle 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 eclipsed by his nickname Yasser.

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

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

Life of struggle

In his teens, Arafat was already involved in helping Palestinian fighters resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, where it has been recorded that he helped smuggle weapons to the fighters in the 1948 war.

Like many aspiring Palestinian students, he eventually travelled to Egypt to finish his studies.

While studying at the King Fuad I University in Cairo, the young Arafat formed the Palestinian Graduate Association, a group that supplied volunteers to the Egyptian front to stand against British, French and Israeli forces during the Suez crisis.

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.

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 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.

Armed resistance
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 several Arab governments.

Yasser Arafat posing in Beirut with other military PLO figures in the 1970s [EPA]

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

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 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 Lebanese capital, Beirut, and Arafat’s departure in 1982 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 nations. 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 2,200 refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut 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 a new 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.”

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.

It was during this time of hope and limited prosperity that Arafat married then 27-year-old Suha Daoud al-Tawil, who was Christian but converted to Islam. The wedding took place in July 1990 and was largely kept out of the public domain. Their only child, Zahwa, was born in 1995 in France and was named after Arafat’s mother.

A year after Arafat’s wedding Palestinian negotiators began peace talks in Madrid, brokered by the US and Russia. Arafat, however, was sponsoring another round of secret peace talks in Norway, which brought about the Oslo Accords in 1993.

They agreed that Israel would grant the Palestinians limited territorial sovereignty and partial control over civil affairs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993 upon the signing of the oslo accords [AFP]

The Oslo and Madrid agreements were put on paper and at the US 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 the Gaza Strip.

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 the Gaza Strip accompanied by thousands of his former fighters.

The Oslo accords were followed by other peace agreements, starting with the Cairo accords of 1994, which prompted 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 per cent 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, 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, dubbed the al-Aqsa intifada, which was sparked by a provocative visit by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – then opposition leader – to the Haram al-Sharif, home of the al-Aqsa mosque, in Jerusalem.

Arafat’s relationship with the US deteriorated steadily since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. President George W. 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”.

Falling ill, under siege

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

The Israeli army laid siege on the Muqata (the name for the Palestinian administrative offices complex) for two years, during which the compound was frequently bombed and Israeli tanks targeted Arafat’s office on several occasions, ever tightening the grip on the Palestinian leader and his entourage.

Yasser Arafat greeted supporters at the Muqata in September 2003 in a show of support against the Israeli cabinet announcement that Arafat should be “removed” [EPA]

During his confinement, Israel pondered three options: to capture, deport or kill Arafat. The Palestinian leader, however, continued to be a key player in the political set-up of the PA.

On October 25, 2004, Arafat suddenly fell ill with what was initially diagnosed as flu.

Spokesmen among the Palestinian leadership holed up among the crumbling ruins of the Muqata said Arafat had vomited during a meeting. As the days passed his condition deteriorated while medical teams from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia tried to determine the cause of his illness.

When all medicine failed it was decided to shuttle the ailing leader to France where he was admitted to Percy Military Hospital in Paris. French doctors conducted a barrage of medical tests but found no obvious traces of poison in Arafat’s system.

On November 3 he lapsed into a coma from which he would never wake up.

Yasser Arafat was pronounced dead on November 11 at the age of 75.

The official cause of death, as stated by medical officials at Percy hospital, was a massive haemorrhagic stroke, but no autopsy was carried out and senior Palestinian leaders withheld his medical records.

Arafat wanted to be buried in Jerusalem but Israel wouldn’t allow that. After an official ceremony in Cairo, Arafat was buried in a specially built mausoleum adjacent to the Muqata in Ramallah.

Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.

A 108-page report by the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne, which was obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera, found unnaturally high levels of polonium in Arafat’s ribs and pelvis, and in soil stained with his decaying organs.

Source: Al Jazeera