Arafat, Yasir (1929–2004)

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Arafat, Yasir

Yasir Arafat was for decades the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and of its largest component group, Fatah. No other figure has been as closely identified with the Palestinian national struggle, nor were any nearly as colorful and widely known.


Born Muhammad Abd al-Ra'uf al-Arafat al-Qudwa, "Yasir" became Arafat's nickname during his early guerrilla days. He also went by the nom de guerre Abu Ammar. Arafat and his family always have insisted that he was born on 4 August 1929, in his mother's family home in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, an Egyptian birth registration exists suggesting that he was born in Egypt on 24 August 1929. He is, in any event, of old Palestinian lineage. His father was a merchant trading in Gaza and Egypt; whether or not Arafat was born there, he spent many of his teenage years in Egypt and long had a detectable Egyptian accent. In 1942, his father returned to Cairo, and Arafat continued his schooling there.

During the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Arafat fought with a contingent from the Muslim Brotherhood that was attached to Egyptian army forces operating in Gaza. When Israeli forces triumphed, Israel was created on 77 percent of what had been Palestine. In the process, Palestinian Arab society was shattered, and approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees fled or were driven out of their homes by Israeli forces. After the war, Arafat's family returned to Egyptian-controlled Gaza. Arafat studied at Fu'ad I University in Cairo (now Cairo University), graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1956. He was reportedly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and also became active as a Palestinian student organizer, heading the Union of Palestinian Students.


Name: Yasir Arafat (Muhammad Abd al-Ra'uf al-Arafat al-Qudwa; also Yasser, Abu Ammar)

Birth: 1929, Cairo, Egypt

Death: 2004, Clamart, France

Family: Wife, Suha; married c. 1991; one daughter, Zahwa

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: King Fu'ad I University, Cairo, 1956, B.S. in civil engineering


  • 1948: Fights in first Arab-Israeli war
  • 1959: Helps found al-Fatah
  • 1969: Becomes chairman, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
  • 1970: Takes part in "Black September" fighting between PLO and Jordanian army; relocates to Beirut
  • 1974: Addresses UN General Assembly
  • 1982: Evacuates Beirut along with PLO fighters; relocates to Tripoli, Lebanon
  • 1983: Evacuates Tripoli; relocates to Tunis
  • 1988: Officially renounces PLO terrorism
  • 1992: Survives plane crash in Libyan desert
  • 1993: Signs Oslo Accord in Washington
  • 1994: Enters West Bank as interim head of Palestinian Authority (PA); receives Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1996: Elected president, PA
  • 2000: Attends Camp David II summit
  • 2002: Besieged in Ramallah headquarters by Israeli army
  • 2004: Dies in France; is buried in Ramallah

Arafat studied engineering further in Germany and then went to Kuwait. While working for the public works department there, he started his own contracting firm. This firm prospered, and Arafat reportedly became quite wealthy. Some accounts suggest that his personal wealth helped fund the beginnings of the group al-Fatah, which became the most important Palestinian political-military organization of the twentieth century. Arafat and certain other Palestinian expatriates, including refugees from the 1948 War like Khalil al-Wazir (known as Abu Jihad) and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), became convinced that they could not wait for the Arab world to liberate their homeland from Israeli control. Instead, they believed that Palestinians needed to take their future into their own hands and fight Israel themselves.

Head of Fatah and the PLO

A number of likeminded Palestinians came together to form Fatah by about 1959. The nucleus of Fatah consisted of Arafat, al-Wazir, Khalaf, Khalid al-Hasan, and others who would become lifelong colleagues. Other longtime Fatah associates included mahmud abbas and Faruq Qaddumi. Arafat received some training in Algeria, it is believed, and in Syria, where Fatah's armed wing, al-Asifa (The Storm), was formed. Arafat became part of the ten-person Fatah Central Committee upon its formation in early 1963, and pushed his colleagues to begin armed activities against Israel despite some of their reservations. Al-Asifa's first armed incursion into northern Israel took place in January 1965.

After the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War, Fatah's prominence increased greatly. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), originally created under Egyptian auspices in January 1964, was overshadowed by Fatah and other guerrilla groups that sprouted up at that time, groups that vowed to keep the Arab cause alive by continuing the fight again Israel. As they mounted more attacks against Israeli targets, these groups increasingly won control of the PLO's Palestine National Council (PNC). In March 1968 fighters (known as fida'iyyin, "those who sacrifice themselves") from Fatah battled an Israeli attack on their base in al-Karama, Jordan. The guerrillas, supported by units of the Jordanian army, inflicted a disproportionately heavy toll on the Israeli attackers despite their own massive casualties. Fatah's prestige soared in an Arab world starved for victory and desperate to regain its soiled honor.

In February 1969, Fatah and its allies won enough seats in the PNC to elect Arafat the new chairman of the PLO's executive committee. Arafat set up his headquarters in Amman, Jordan. As chairman of both Fatah and the PLO, his deft leadership skills allowed him to forge a basic semblance of unity within a PLO made up of various individuals and factions that possessed widely varying ideologies and opinions about strategy. One of Fatah's own early principles had been non-interference in the affairs of the Arab regimes. But the presence of between 30,000 and 50,000 armed Palestinians in Jordan by 1970 constituted an inherent challenge to the rule of Jordan's king, hussein bin talal. Having just lost the West Bank in the 1967 war, Hussein was fearful that fida'iyyin actions could lead to further Israeli military actions that would compromise his kingdom. Compounding his fear was the fact that some PLO groups began openly calling for the overthrow of what they called his "reactionary" regime. In September 1970, the PLO and the Jordanian army were drawn into open and bloody conflict when one of the PLO's member organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), hijacked several aircraft, flew them to Jordan, and blew them up (after evacuating the passengers) under the full glare of the international media. In the ensuing ten days of vicious fighting, dubbed "Black September" by Palestinians, the PLO was driven out of Amman, and eventually routed from Jordan completely in 1971. It was Arafat's first major defeat.

Arafat managed to escape from Amman, and set up his new base in Beirut. The PLO began attacking Israel from southern Lebanon, while certain factions like the PFLP and Black September (generally believed to have emerged from Fatah) also conducted terrorist activities against Israeli and Western targets in Europe. Rebounding from its defeat in Jordan, Arafat and the PLO soon won two major diplomatic victories. The Arab League summit meeting in Rabat, Morocco, recognized the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" in October 1974. On 14 November 1974, Arafat addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). Wearing his trademark black-and-white checkered kuffiyya headdress, he stated that he came holding both "an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun." The PLO subsequently was granted observer status in the General Assembly. The UN speech, coming on the heels of the PLO's diplomatic victory at Rabat, marked a high point for Arafat. However, his career took another turn downward with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975. The PLO found itself fighting not only right-wing Maronite Christian forces but eventually Syrian forces that intervened to halt the war.

Other problems were to come. The November 1977 visit of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and the March 1978 peace between Israel and Egypt were further blows. With the Arab world's largest military power now out of the conflict, Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive out the PLO. Israel not only occupied all of Lebanon up to Beirut but also (unsuccessfully) targeted Arafat personally. Arafat and 10,000 fida'iyyin were evicted from Beirut in August. An attempt to form a new base in Tripoli, Lebanon, failed due to Syrian opposition and an intra-Fatah mutiny, and Arafat and the PLO moved to Tunis.

Shift Toward Diplomacy

The experiences of the 1970s and 1980s prompted a major shift in the strategic thinking of Arafat and other Palestinians: the move away from "total liberation" and "revolution until victory" toward a diplomatic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would feature a truncated Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. In 1984, Arafat entered into negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan to seek a common ground for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating position with Israel—the so-called Jordanian Option. The effort failed, with Jordan blaming Arafat for the failure. In December 1987, the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, broke out in the occupied territories. This focused attention on the territories as the logical place to establish a Palestinian state. Although Arafat's Fatah was a major player in the Unified National Leadership of the Intifada, it was local cadres, not the Tunis leadership, who were in charge of the actual uprising. This led many analysts to predict once again that Arafat's days were numbered and that the central PLO leadership had lost its relevance. Arafat was convinced that he needed to gamble on a moderate, pro-negotiation position despite the fact that this meant the more hardline factions now considered him a curse.

In late 1988, the PLO leadership agreed to recognize Israel, follow the principle of negotiating with Israel on peace in exchange for territorial withdrawal, and officially renounce terrorism. Arafat publicly renounced terrorism twice, on 13 and 14 December 1988. After some adjustment, the formula finally met the United States' preconditions for a direct dialogue with the PLO, something it had avoided since 1975 because it considered the PLO a terrorist organization. But the dialogue bore no direct fruit, and Arafat's public embrace of Iraq's saddam hussein shortly after the latter's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait drew American ire. When the United States co-hosted the Madrid Conference for Arab-Israeli peace talks in October 1991, Israel still adamantly refused to deal with the PLO, which it considered a terrorist organization. Therefore, the Palestinians were awkwardly represented in Madrid by a panel of moderate Palestinians who were part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, all of whom were acceptable to the PLO but none of whom had been formally members of it. Bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks continued in Washington throughout 1992 and 1993, but went nowhere.

Meanwhile, in April 1992, as Arafat was flying to Sudan in a private aircraft, his plane crashed in the Libyan desert, killing the pilots and several passengers. Arafat survived, but was badly injured and required surgery. His friends later indicated that his survival, when so many others had died, convinced him that he had been providentially spared for a reason. The lifelong bachelor who once said, "my bride is Palestine," also married around this time, further putting his guerrilla days behind him. In 1991 or early 1992, he privately married Suha Tawil (1963–), the daughter of a PLO activist and a lawyer. Tawil, who had served as Arafat's secretary, was a Christian more than thirty years his junior. A daughter, Zahwa, was born to the couple in 1994. These factors may have helped prepare him for the decision that he soon would have to make.

Frustrated with the difficulties of the public negotiations with Israel in Washington, Arafat authorized secret back-channel negotiations with the Israelis via Norwegian intermediaries. Ultimately, the result was the dramatic Oslo Accord, signed by the two former enemies, Israel and the PLO, on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993. The accord called for an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories, and establishment of an autonomous Palestinian government there. For the first time, Arafat—once denounced as a terrorist by American presidents and forbidden entrance into the United States after his 1974 UN speech—came to the White House to be greeted by a U.S. president, Bill Clinton. Arafat's dramatic handshake with Israeli Prime Minister yitzhak rabin on the White House lawn underscored the fact that Arafat had survived his enemies within the PLO as well as in Israel and the United States.


Salah Khalaf (1933–1991) was born in Jaffa and was made a refugee by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He helped found al-Fatah in Kuwait in the late 1950s, and became one of Yasir Arafat's most loyal and powerful comrades in the Palestinian national movement. Khalaf, known as Abu Iyad, played a number of important roles within Fatah, including being responsible for its security apparatus. He was accused of forming the Black September terrorist group that carried out a number of assassinations and other acts between 1971 and 1974, including the infamous seizure and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in September 1972, although neither he nor other Fatah leaders ever admitted a link between Fatah and Black September.

Khalaf criticized the PLO's embrace of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1990–1991 Gulf Crisis. He was assassinated in January 1991, reportedly by the pro-Iraqi dissident Palestinian group Fatah-Revolutionary Council, headed by the notorious Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal).

Head of the Palestinian Authority

The Oslo Accord led to the establishment of a fragile Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which took over the government of Jericho and Gaza in the summer of 1994, and eventually more of the West Bank as well. Arafat's entry into Jericho as provisional head of the PA in June 1994—the first time he had set foot in any part of historic Palestine since his guerrilla days in 1967—marked a personal vindication for Arafat. Arafat was elected PA president in January 1996. At that point, he simultaneously held the posts of chairman of Fatah, chairman of the PLO, and president of the PA. He oversaw the growth of a PA bureaucracy and a number of security and intelligence agencies.

His leadership came under mounting criticism by Palestinians both inside and outside the PA, however, both for his autocratic style and the diplomatic compromises he was willing to make. The most intractable opponents were the Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which vowed to continue violent retaliation against Israelis in response to Israeli killings of Palestinians. These groups had support within the Palestinian community, and Arafat had to balance the support extended by the Palestinian street with his needs both to placate his Israeli and U.S. peace partners and to maintain his tight grip on power in the PA. Although he signed further peace agreements with Israel in the 1990s, continued Israeli settlement building and occupation in violation of international law, along with Palestinian resistance, sabotaged the Oslo peace process.

When the Camp David II summit hosted by Clinton in July 2000 failed to bring about a final status agreement between Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Arafat took a public relations beating in the West. Even though Barak refused to compromise on certain key issues as well, it was Arafat who received the blame for the outcome by the Americans and Israelis. The subsequent Israeli-Palestinian violence during the second, or al-Aqsa, Intifada that started in October 2000 led to Israel's reoccupation of large parts of the PA, the destruction of its infrastructure, and the lengthy 2002–2004 siege of Arafat's compound, the Muqata'a, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. U.S. President George W. Bush declared Arafat "irrelevant," and further peace talks stalled. Arafat's dream of presiding over establishment of an independent Palestinian state once again seemed distant.

Illness and Death

While besieged in the Muqata'a, Arafat came down with an unknown illness in October 2004. His doctors could not diagnose the problem, and he was flown to the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart, France, outside of Paris, on 29 October 2004. The circumstances behind his final illness and death were both confusing and dramatic. Arafat's wife, Suha, who had lived much of their married life apart from him in France, arrived at the hospital and vigorously guarded access to the dying leader. Senior Palestinian leaders flew to Paris to be with Arafat only to be turned away by her. One of the only persons she allowed to see him was his nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa, the PLO's ambassador to the UN. Arafat's condition deteriorated and he died on 11 November. Egypt hosted a military funeral for him the following day, after which his body was flown to Ramallah. Because he long had wished to be buried in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, he was buried in Ramallah in a "temporary" grave. Lifelong Fatah colleague Abbas became the new chairman of the PLO and, two months later, PA president.

Rumors flew that Arafat died of AIDS, or was the victim of foul play. Another controversy broke out over who could have access to the 558-page medical dossier on Arafat that was amassed by French doctors. French law dictated that the records of a deceased person could be released only to family members, and Suha Arafat insisted that only she should have access to them. But Palestinian leaders were anxious to see the file, too, given the importance of determining whether or not Arafat had been poisoned. They reached a compromise with French authorities by which al-Kidwa, as a relative of the dead leader, could obtain copies of the file. He flew to France and obtained the file on 22 November, which he handed over to interim PA President Rawhi Fattuh in the West Bank on 11 December 2004. The file never was released publicly. Reports from knowledgeable insiders that appeared in the French, American, and Israeli press spoke of various possible diseases that could have led to Arafat's death, including cirrhosis of the liver (but not caused by alcohol abuse, given that Arafat was a non-drinker).


While not technically a refugee from the 1948 War, Arafat was deeply influenced by the destruction and dispersal of Palestinian society in that year, and the Palestinians' subsequent lack of political independence. He was deeply and firmly committed to leading his people toward international recognition and statehood. Arafat's conservative Islamic middle class background also left its imprint on him. Despite his frequent use of the term "revolution," he never was committed to a Palestinian social revolution as some of the Marxist PLO groups were. And while PLO politics were at heart secular, Arafat, who remained a sincere Muslim, never shied away from invoking Qur'anic verses and references in his speeches.

Arafat's significance to Middle Eastern history generally, and Palestinian history in particular, is great. Under his leadership, the Palestinians jumped within a decade from being relatively anonymous "Arab refugees" to a nation-in-exile fighting for independence that had garnered the support of much of the world. No other Palestinian—or indeed few other world statesmen in the twentieth century—has been so personally identified with his people's cause. On the other hand, Arafat failed his people in many ways. Despite a robust culture of free speech and criticism from opponents, he ran Fatah, the PLO, and later the PA, as his own autocratic fiefdoms. The PA held elections that were freer than almost anywhere else in the Arab world, yet its nascent democratic experiment was tainted by Arafat's reliance upon his secret police and intelligence agencies to stifle dissent. While he personally led a simple, even spartan lifestyle—he neither smoked nor drank alcohol, and always dressed in plain, military style clothing along with his trademark kuffiyya—he also tolerated a climate of corruption among his cronies and supporters that infected Palestinian government.


To the end of his life, Arafat remained a polarizing figure. To most Palestinians, he remained al-Khityar (the old man), the almost mythical symbol of their drive for independence and dignity, who pulled together a dispersed and downtrodden people, turned them into a movement, and led them to the doorway of independence. To other Palestinians, he was a sell-out who bargained away cherished national rights in return for the illusion of independence. To many Arab leaders he was a nuisance at best and an enemy at worst, someone who symbolized the instability generated by the presence of millions of Palestinian refugees in their countries anxious for their own independent state.

Globally, Arafat generally was seen as a statesman from the developing world who, like so many others, started out as a fighter in the struggle for independence only to turn in the end to diplomacy. In 1994, he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister shimon peres as a result of their actions in bringing about the Oslo Accord. However, many Western countries in particular viewed him with considerable suspicion. Particularly in the United States and Israel, Arafat was vilified as the leader of an organization that first brought terrorist acts such as airplane hijackings to the Middle East. Israelis in particular vehemently demonized him as a deceitful terrorist, both before and after the Oslo peace process of the mid-1990s when they briefly had considered him a "partner for peace."


The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called terrorist…. I appeal to you, further, to aid our people's return to its homeland from an involuntary exile imposed upon it by force of arms, by tyranny, by oppression, so that we may regain our property, our land, and thereafter live in our national homeland, free and sovereign, enjoying all the privileges of nationhood…. Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.

Peace is in our interest: As only in an atmosphere of just peace shall the Palestinian people achieve its legitimate ambition for independence and sovereignty, and be able to develop its national and cultural identity, as well as enjoy sound neighborly relations, mutual respect and cooperation with the Israeli people…. Just as war is a great adventure, peace is a challenge and wager. If we fail to endow peace with the wherewithal to withstand the tempest amid the storm, if we fail to nurture peace so that it may gain in strength, if we fail to give it scope to grow and gain in strength, the wager could be wasted and lost. So, from this rostrum I call upon my partners in peace to speed up the peace process, to bring about an early withdrawal [from further Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank], to allow elections to be held and to move on rapidly to the next stage, so that peace may become entrenched and grow, become an established reality.



History ultimately is likely to judge Arafat as a man who more than any other elevated the Palestinian cause and brought them toward an independent state after the violent destruction of Palestinian society in 1948. Even he, however, ultimately was unable to deal with the myriad pressures on him from his people, Middle Eastern countries, the United States, and the world at large. And while there is plenty of blame to go around, Arafat also will be criticized for how he handled both the peace process with Israel, and for the fractious political culture that has emerged among Palestinians.


Abu Iyad, with Eric Rouleau. My Home My Land, translated by Linda Butler Koseoglu. New York: Times Books, 1981.

Aburish, Said K. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. New York: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Gowers, Andrew, and Tony Walker. Arafat: The Biography, revised edition. London: Virgin Books, 2005.

Hart, Alan. Arafat: A Political Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Kiernan, Thomas. Arafat: The Man and the Myth. New York: Norton, 1976.

Rubinstein, Danny. The Mystery of Arafat. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1995.

Wallach, Janet, and John Wallach. Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1990.

                                              Michael Dunn
                              updated by Michael R. Fischbach