Arafat, Yasser°

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ARAFAT, YASSER ° (1929–2004), chairman of the *Palestine Liberation Organization (plo), 1969–2004, a founding father of the Fatah organization (1959), and first chairman of the *Palestinian Authority from its establishment (1994). A distant relative of the prominent Husseini family, Arafat was educated in Egypt and graduated from Cairo University as an engineer. He then established the Palestinian Students Union, centered in Gaza, and was its first chairman. He later became politically active in Kuwait while working there as an engineer 1957–60 (reportedly after briefly serving in the Egyptian Army in 1957).

In the late 1950s, Arafat was a co-founder of the Fatah, as a clandestine Palestinian national liberation movement, which soon had branches among Palestinians residing in Arab states and among students in Europe. In January 1965, shortly after the establishment of the PLO under Egyptian-Jordanian patronage, Fatah embarked on guerrilla activity, launched from Arab territories against Israel.

From the outset Arafat emerged as Fatah's leader although until the early 1990s his status was of primus inter pares, sharing a collective leadership with his two main co-founders, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad). When in mid-1968 the PLO turned into an umbrella-organization of various guerilla groups, popular associations, and voluntary groups, with Fatah gaining effective control of the organization, Arafat was elected spokesman of the plo. In February 1969 he became chairman of its Executive Committee and the plo's leader and commander-in-chief. Henceforth, Arafat became the symbol-figure of the Palestinian people, its national cause, and claim for statehood.

As Fatah's leader, Arafat was responsible for the planning and execution of continuous sabotage and terrorist operations committed by this organization in Israel. Shortly after the 1967 war, Arafat failed in his attempt to organize a network of Fatah cells in the West Bank that would implement classical guerrilla warfare against Israel: Arafat himself fled to east Jordan and the newly established guerrilla infrastructure was exposed and eliminated by Israel. As a result, Fatah and other guerrilla organizations that had mushroomed after the 1967 war established themselves in the Jordanian territory from which they fired mortars and rockets against Israel, infiltrated into the West Bank for military purposes, and continued to mobilize people and establish active cells in this area. The growing armed presence of Palestinian armed groups gradually led to the creation of a "state within a state" – which soon began to threaten the Jordanian regime and authority, culminating in the Jordanian monarch's decision to eliminate the armed Palestinian presence on his land, beginning in September 1970. During this period of repeated Palestinian-Jordanian tension, armed clashes and serious violations of Jordanian sovereignty by militant Palestinian groups, Arafat became known for his diplomatic juggling on the inter-Arab level, indecisiveness, poor credibility, and lack of control of the numerous Palestinian factions. Above all, Arafat's main concern was to maintain as wide as possible a consensus with regard to his position as the ultimate Palestinian national leader.

In the wake of the 1967 defeat sustained by the Jordanian army and the loss of its Jordanian territorial base, Fatah expanded its guerrilla operations from 1971 to the Arab and international arena under the name "Black September" (attacks on Jordanian, Israeli, and Western targets, including aviation).

Arafat's early leadership of Fatah was marked by extremely militant and intransigent ideology and action toward Israel – as reflected in the Palestinian National Charter of 1968. He refused to accept any kind of compromise or coexistence with a Jewish state in historic Palestine. His personal inclination was patently conservative, with a measure of Islamist tendencies. However, with the beginning of a peace process in the Middle East following the 1973 war, Arafat emerged increasingly as a pragmatic politician, keen on exploiting opportunities, without losing support of both the right and left wings within his own Fatah organization or the plo as a whole.

In 1974, amid American mediation efforts aimed at partial Israeli-Arab settlement, Arafat and his mainstream faction ceased to commit hijacking and international terrorism, believing that such operations could harm the plo's international interest in being included in the diplomatic process over the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Henceforth, Arafat led the plo to a gradual accommodation to the new circumstances of growing international recognition of the acute problem of Palestinian national rights due to the Arab employment of oil as a political weapon in the conflict with Israel.

Arafat was the main force behind the plo's historic decision at the twelfth session of the Palestinian National Council (June 1974), which decided, inter alia, that the plo would establish a fighting Palestinian national authority in any liberated part of Palestine. This indicated the first shift from a vision of retrieving the whole territory of Palestine to a pragmatic policy acquiescing in the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and *Gaza Strip. This was followed by the decision of the Arab summit held in Rabat in October 1974 to recognize the plo as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Another indication of the plo's rising international prestige was Arafat's speech at the UN General Assembly in November of that year in which he combined a message of continued armed struggle with an "olive branch."

During the Lebanese civil war, which erupted in April 1975, Arafat made an effort to remain out of the internal Lebanese conflict, but to no avail. As in the case of Jordan, leftist Palestinian factions dragged Arafat's Fatah into the fray. By early 1976 Arafat became deeply involved in the Lebanese civil war in close alignment with Kamal Junblaṭ, the leading figure of the Lebanese leftist camp. In this capacity, Arafat became increasingly alienated from Damascus and seen as an obstacle to its efforts to put an end to the crisis. Syria's invasion of Lebanon in June, which developed into a full-scale military confrontation with the Palestinian-Lebanese coalition, secured Syrian domination of the Lebanese arena and rendered Arafat anathema to the Syrian ruling elite. The deep mistrust between the two parties was to motivate future Syrian efforts to replace Arafat by a more tractable Palestinian figure.

Toward the late 1970s, Arafat sanctioned a growing dialogue between the plo and "progressive" (namely, non-Zionist and later, leftist) Israelis. Such contacts were based, explicitly, on the acceptance of the Jews of Israel as individuals rather than a political community that deserved to be defined in national terms and, implicitly, on the assumption that some settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs was feasible (contrary to the plo Charter). He refused, however, to commit himself to the recognition of Israel; to renounce terrorism; or to accept Resolution 242, as long as the plo remained anathema to Israel and the United States.

Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was followed by a nine-week siege and bombardment of the Palestinians entrenched in West Beirut. Arafat demonstrated persistent leadership and skillful diplomacy under fire and in the face of growing Arab pressures to accept Israel's demand for full evacuation of the plo headquarters and military personnel from Lebanon. Eventually, Arafat succeeded in securing a Palestinian exodus under international auspices, thus reaping maximum political benefits from his military defeat. Syria, however, attempted to remove Arafat by encouraging a mutiny within Fatah against their leader. In view of this development and the Reagan Plan for a settlement of the Palestinian problem in which Jordan, not the plo, was to represent the Palestinians, in October 1983 Arafat and some of his fellow-loyalists returned to Tripoli, Lebanon, and established themselves in an enclave, which included two refugee camps. Arafat's main motive for returning to Lebanon was to retrieve his bargaining position in the regional Arab arena, which he hoped to accomplish by regaining an autonomous territorial base in Lebanon. Arafat's return to Tripoli, however, provoked a strong Syrian military response, which Damascus tried to portray as Palestinian opposition to Arafat. After a few weeks of fighting Arafat was once again expelled from Lebanon, this time by a Syrian-Palestinian military force.

Arafat's sense of political survival was best demonstrated in the wake of the second exodus from Lebanon, when Arafat opted to turn to Egypt, temporarily identifying himself with the American-based peace camp. This step was in line with Arafat's willingness to open a political dialogue with King *Hussein, which led to the Amman Accord of February 1985 by which the two parties were to coalesce toward participating in an international peace conference. A year later, however, King Hussein abrogated the agreement, blaming Arafat for being untrustworthy and unfaithful to the agreement.

The eruption of violence in the West Bank and Gaza in December 1987 confronted Arafat with a new challenge stemming from a young militant local leadership, which by taking the initiative constituted a threat to marginalize the plo leadership abroad. However, Arafat managed to coopt the uprising and take control of it, primarily due to his control of funds and loyalists in the occupied territories. The Palestinian uprising (Intifāḍa) scored significant regional and international achievements for the plo, which culminated in King Hussein's announcement of disengagement from the West Bank, paving the road to the declaration of an independent Palestinian state by the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in November 1988. A few months later Arafat announced his renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of Resolution 242 in return for U.S. willingness to open a diplomatic dialogue with the plo. The U.S.-plo dialogue, however, remained futile mainly because of Arafat's insistence that the plo should independently represent the Palestinian issue in any future international peace conference. The result was another political shift of plo policy, this time toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Under the circumstances resulting from the 1991 Gulf crisis – the cessation of financial aid by the oil-rich Arab monarchies to the plo and the Palestinians and the threatening rise of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a moral and political alternative to the plo – Arafat was willing to accept Israel's conditions for Palestinian participation in the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) and later on, to sign the Oslo Declaration of Principles (dop) with Israel, which accounted for mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the plo. Arafat was the driving force behind the scenes for concluding the agreement and effectively the decisive authority on the Palestinian side. In 1994 Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Yitzhak *Rabin and Shimon *Peres.

By the early 1990s, following the killing of Khalil al-Wazir by Israel (1988) and Salah Khalaf by a Palestinian opponent (1991), Arafat came to assume unprecedented authority as the sole decision-maker in the plo. The solitary and centralized nature of Arafat's leadership became particularly evident with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (pa) in June 1994 in Gaza and Jericho.

Despite Arafat's election as the Palestine Authority's chairman in January 1996, he preserved his position as chairman of the plo. In this capacity, Arafat convened the Palestinian National Council (pnc) in Gaza City in May 1996. The pnc was convened to ratify the Palestine Authority's peace policy, and Arafat's official commitment to Rabin to abolish those articles in the Palestinian National Charter calling for the destruction of the State of Israel or contradicting the Rabin-Arafat exchange of letters prior to the signing of the Declaration of Principles. The results of the session were considered successful for Arafat, but in Israel the vague decision made by the pnc regarding the Charter remained very controversial.

Arafat's image as a master of political maneuvers and arch-survivor surfaced following the foundation of the Palestinian Authority, underscoring his paternalistic and indecisive style of state- and nation-building. This was evident in his handling of the political opposition, especially Hamas, and the latter's continued violence against Israel, which contradicted the language and spirit of the Oslo Accords. All through the Oslo years, Arafat persistently refrained from sending a clear message to the Palestinians in general, and to his Fatah fellows in particular, that the armed revolution was over. In fact, Arafat harbored a continued debate within Fatah, by which a resumption of violence against Israel had remained optional. As to the opposition groups, Arafat preferred containment and cooption rather than confrontation, inclusion rather than exclusion, though not at the expense of his own political authority. It was only under extreme circumstances threatening his political authority that he resorted to violent repression, as in the case of the bloody clash with Islamist opponents on November 18, 1994 at the Palestine Mosque in Gaza.

During Prime Minister Ehud *Barak's term, Arafat maintained full control of the negotiations on the Palestinian side, often overlooking his aides' positions and preferences. With the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000, Arafat was charged with the brunt of responsibility for this failure, which might explain Arafat's effort to canvass wide Arab and Islamic support. With the eruption of the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000, Arafat gave it his blessing and made an effort to escalate violence to enlist Arab and international support for his position. The increase and prolongation of violence by various Palestinian factions, including the Islamic opposition, led to the erosion of Arafat's authority and brought about increasing military strikes by Israel on the PA's installations. However, it was only after the terrorist attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, that Arafat's personal position began to deteriorate, with the U.S. president giving increasing backing to Israel's pressure on the pa to cease violence against Israel. In December, following the assassination of Israeli minister *Ze'evi by members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Israeli government confined Arafat to his compound of offices in Ramallah, until he arrested the perpetrators. In early 2002, during the al-Aqsa Intifada, while being confined by Israeli troops to his government compound in Ramallah, Arafat expressed his wish to be a "martyr" (shahid).

The Israeli government continued its pressure on Arafat, declaring him "irrelevant" and clearly expressing its wish to replace him by another, more pragmatic leader. Arafat's credibility regarding his efforts to stop the violence sustained a serious blow with the seizure in January 2002 by Israel of a Palestinian-owned ship loaded with Iranian weapons earmarked for the pa on its way to the Mediterranean. Arafat's contradictory statements regarding his connection to the ship left a very negative impression on the U.S. administration as well as on European and Arab leaders. The result was a growing American backing for Israel's pressure on Arafat. Yet, despite the destruction of the pa's symbols of power, first and foremost of Arafat's own position, the Israeli pressure resulted in an increasing tendency among Palestinians to rally around his leadership, causing Palestinians, including opposition leaders, to express their allegiance to Arafat.

The Israeli invasion of the pa-controlled areas and siege of Arafat's office, in late March 2002, won him unprecedented worldwide support, particularly in the Arab-Muslim world and the European Union. These responses effectively reconfirmed both his personal status as the paramount legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, as well as serious discontent at the Israeli actions. In November 2004 Arafat died in Paris after his health had rapidly deteriorated, bringing his rule to an end amid rumors and confusion surrounding the diagnosis of his illness and the cause of death. Arafat was buried in Ramallah at a funeral which underscored his historic role as the intiator of organized Palestinian nationalism and the symbol of Palestinian identity.

See also *Arab World; *Palestine Liberation Organization; *Palestinian Authority.


A. Gowers, Arafat: The Biography (1994); A. Hart, Arafat: A Political Biography (1994); S.K., Aburish, Arafat: From Defender to Dictator (1998); E. Karsh, Arafat´s War: The Man and his Battle for Israeli Conquest (2003); A. Kapeliouk, Arafat l'irreductible (2004).

[Avraham Sela (2nd ed.)]