Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat Dies

Times Staff Writer

Yasser Arafat, guerrilla chieftain turned statesman who juggled armed resistance and political diplomacy, yet failed to achieve his lifelong dream of creating a Palestinian state, died today. He was 75.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top Arafat aide, confirmed to The Associated Press that Arafat died at 4:30 am Paris time. He spoke to reporters at Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Arafat, who had been a prisoner in his West Bank headquarters since 2002, died in a military hospital in a Paris suburb. He had been ill for three weeks and was flown to France a week ago when his condition deteriorated; doctors were not able to determine his illness.

In his later years, the Palestinian leader left a dual impression on the world: the iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood, and the embodiment of a revolutionary who could not make the transition to governance.

Locked to the end in a showdown with Israel, and shunned by a White House where he was once a frequent guest, Arafat struggled against internationally backed efforts to chip away at his powers. As president of the Palestinian Authority, he refused to share authority with a prime minister, nor would he name a successor, fearing that person would become a rival.

The only leader most Palestinians have ever known, Arafat came tantalizingly close to establishing the state he dedicated his life to winning, and survived myriad brushes with death along the way: wars, plane crashes and Israel’s best efforts to put him in the grave.

For signing the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his Israeli partners, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, then made a triumphant entry into the Gaza Strip to become the elected head of an area made up of the strip and a patchwork of territory in the West Bank.

By the time he died, however, Arafat and the Palestinians had lost much of what they had gained, as Israel expanded Jewish settlements and reoccupied territory. Arafat was a decrepit shadow of the leader he once was, trapped in the ruins of his Israeli-battered headquarters in the West Bank, his graft-ridden Palestinian Authority all but collapsed.

Throughout his life, he never gave up the olive-drab garb of his guerrilla days, the trademark two-day-old whiskers and the black-and-white headdress, the kaffiyeh, folded in a triangle to represent a map of Palestine. All made the point that his battle for a full-fledged country was not finished.

“Give me a state,” Arafat once said in an interview, “and I’ll wear a tux and a bow tie.”

The veteran Palestinian rais, or chief, suffered from a host of ailments, ranging from what many observers believed to be Parkinson’s disease to what aides repeatedly described — after he appeared in public frail, tottering and ghastly pale — as bouts with gallstones. He trembled noticeably and, in conversation, often seemed disoriented.

But his resilience astonished those around him. His inner circle — well accustomed to his fiery temper and much-feared autocratic ways — joked constantly that he would outlive them.

Arafat’s last, disastrous clash with Israel began in 2000, after he rejected an offer from Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, for limited Palestinian sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By October that year, a new intifada, or uprising, had erupted.

Israel, which had once accepted Arafat as a partner in peace, bitterly repudiated him as the architect behind the escalating militarization of the intifada. Ariel Sharon replaced Barak after a landslide electoral victory, and held Arafat personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in a wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Arafat’s own people, worn down by decades of struggle with Israel, began to lose faith in him. The bloody confrontation — which has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians — was driven, Palestinians said, by Israel’s refusal to relinquish the Jerusalem site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, or to promise that Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who lost their homes in the 1948 war that ended British rule and created Israel, could return.

To Palestinians, Arafat’s refusal burnished his image as an uncompromising nationalist. To Israelis, it sealed his slide from interlocutor to an enemy many of them considered to be nothing more than an unreconstructed terrorist.

As suicide bombings increased, Israel’s army under Sharon launched an all-out war on Palestinian militants, declared Arafat persona non grata, and reoccupied the West Bank. In 2002, troops flooded Arafat’s Ramallah compound, known as the Muqata, destroying most of the structures, battling Arafat’s bodyguards and cutting off all outside access.

Arafat spent most of his final two years confined to the wrecked compound, where his health continued to decline.

He showed reporters where an Israeli rocket had slammed through his bathroom. “It is good to die the death of a martyr,” said Arafat, who had vowed that Israel would never take him — or deport him — alive.

Arafat was an improbable leader.

At 5 feet 4 inches, wearing rumpled fatigues, he was a loner; a chameleon who could be charming one minute and vicious the next. In his prime, he could speak of moderation in his quest for a Palestinian state but still sanction an attack inside Israel if the timing seemed right.

Arafat’s instinct for political survival served him well through the decades. He beat the odds time and again as he shepherded his PLO through the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli conflicts and a pair of military disasters of his own making in Jordan and Lebanon. He reinvented himself as a statesman and oversaw the birth of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Arafat often said the Palestinian cause was “my woman, my family, my life.” And yet, in his 60s, the Muslim Arafat married the blond and vivacious Suha Tawil, a Palestinian Christian, more than half his age. She has been living in Paris since the current intifada, with their daughter, Zahwa, born in 1995. Over the years, he adopted 28 orphans, the children of fallen PLO combatants.

Much of Arafat’s background has been obscured by years of guerrilla myth-making.

It is generally accepted that Arafat was born in Cairo in 1929 to a Palestinian merchant father and was given the name Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel- Raouf Arafat Qudwa al-Husseini.

He seemed destined for the middle class and a career as a civil engineer until, at Cairo University, he fell in with other Palestinians determined to return to the homeland they had fled in 1948 with the formation of the state of Israel.

With the encouragement and training of the Egyptian government, Arafat formed the first Union of Palestinian Students, which carried out sporadic raids on Israeli settlements. In 1956, he served as a demolitions expert with the Egyptian army during the Suez War against Israel, Britain and France. In 1959, along with friends who were still with him more than 20 years later, Arafat formed a secret organization called the Palestine Liberation Movement. It was known by its Arabic initials, reversed to spell “fatah,” Arabic for conquest.

Overshadowed by the larger PLO, which was formed by Palestinian exiles in Egypt in 1964, Fatah survived in obscurity for eight years as Arafat held down his only regular job, as a civil engineer with the Kuwait Department of Public Works. After the 1967 Middle East War between Israel and its neighbors, however, the image of Arafat the revolutionary was enhanced as Fatah continued to carry out commando raids into the Jewish state.

Fatah took control of the PLO, and in 1969 Arafat became chairman of the organization’s executive committee.

Under his leadership, the PLO carried out scores of terrorist attacks, including the hijacking of three commercial airplanes to Jordan in 1970 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the 1972 slayings of 11 Israelis at the Olympic Games in Munich. The Black September militia linked to Fatah was responsible for the Munich operation, which earned the Palestinians enduring enmity and for many years made Arafat a pariah in the West.

Arafat often claimed that he did not control these radical groups that operated under the PLO umbrella, but it was never clear if he could not or would not.

At the same time, Arafat worked behind the scenes to pull the fractious Palestinians together into a powerful organization that neither his enemies nor allies could ignore. He favored compromise rather than confrontation and acquired a reputation as a skilled arbiter and, where necessary, manipulator.

Under Arafat, the PLO became the political representative of the Palestinians, who numbered more than 5 million — and the world’s richest guerrilla movement. Its attacks grabbed international attention, and its defiance of Western powers made it the Robin Hood of anti-colonial movements and the recipient of Soviet weapons.

Arafat lived by his wits. With a few disastrous exceptions, he danced nimbly through the labyrinth of Arab politics. While filling his coffers with Arab money primarily from Gulf oil states, he deftly avoided coming under the thumb of any Middle East regime. His vision was to give life and identity to the Palestinian cause, separate from the auspices of any Arab state.

One of his worst defeats, however, came at the hands of an Arab country. Alarmed that the PLO was becoming too powerful, King Hussein of Jordan in 1970 sent his troops against the guerrillas, who were using the country as a base to launch attacks on Israel. In a bloody war that Palestinians later called Black September, Hussein’s army drove Arafat and his men from Jordan.

The PLO next set up its headquarters in Beirut and fought with the Muslims against the Christians at the start of Lebanon’s civil war. Arafat established a state within a state, wielding more power and controlling more territory than the Lebanese president.

Arafat enjoyed a status and aura of authenticity, bestowed on him and the PLO by other Arab countries, affording him a rare and dramatic appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974.

“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he said, wearing a pistol on his hip. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

The olive branch fell, most notably in the summer of 1982, when the Israeli military under the leadership of Sharon, then defense minister, invaded Lebanon and drove all the way to Beirut.

Sharon was determined to wipe out the PLO and would have liked to have killed Arafat, were it not for the restraints imposed by the international community. The hawkish former general, much later, claimed that he had his implacable enemy in the sights of an Israeli gun but chose not to shoot.

Arafat regarded Sharon with equal loathing. The guerrilla leader and his men held out against Israeli bombardments for months as they negotiated terms of their evacuation.

After they departed by land and sea from Beirut, hundreds of Palestinians left behind in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were slaughtered by Israel’s allies, Lebanese Christian militiamen. An Israeli inquiry found that Sharon was indirectly responsible for the massacre.

The events devastated Arafat. His PLO was shattered and virtually powerless, his guerrillas scattered to eight countries. He became a man without a strategic base of operations, circling the globe on borrowed planes trying to raise money and support.

He continued to run his crippled organization from Tunisia. But a burgeoning Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip grew frustrated with the PLO’s distant leadership and took matters into its own hands, launching, in 1987, the first intifada against Israeli occupation.

The next year, Arafat, under heavy Western pressure, was forced to acknowledge at a summit in Algiers the fateful truth: Israel existed as a state. Arafat lost stature among many of his radical followers and a number of Arab governments who, to this day, consider it treason to recognize Israel.

Arafat incurred further political disaster when he aligned himself with Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Palestinian leader saw Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the only Arab leader with the capability and will to militarily confront Israel.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Arafat refused to condemn Hussein or join Arab governments in supporting the U.S.-led coalition that eventually drove Iraqi forces out of the Gulf emirate. Palestinians danced in the streets of Ramallah when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israeli cities.

It cost Arafat dearly. Gulf states cut off his financial lifeline and expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians from their territories. Arafat found himself internationally isolated and in danger of becoming politically irrelevant.

His survival skills surfaced once again, and Arafat turned from armed struggle to diplomacy. Even as many began writing his political obituary, the Palestinian leader saved himself by secretly negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

In a historic moment, Arafat came to the White House lawn in September 1993 to sign the accords with Rabin. He shook hands with his bitter enemy in a gesture of reconciliation that electrified the world.

Suddenly, Arafat was back on top, giving up the gun on his hip and returning from exile to rule in the territories with official U.S. recognition. Whether or not they liked him, Arab and American leaders looked around and decided there was no one else to deal with but Arafat.

This was the heyday of Arafat’s international stature. For the Oslo peace accords, he shared the Nobel with Rabin and Peres. The choice of Arafat was controversial. But the Palestinian leader reveled in the recognition and said he rejected violence as a political option and was dedicated to building a Palestinian state that would live in peace alongside Israel.

“We are betting everything on the future,” Arafat said at the Oslo signing ceremony. “Therefore, we must condemn and forswear violence totally, not only because the use of violence is morally reprehensible, but because it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realization of peace.”

In May 1994, Arafat and Rabin signed a second agreement to expand the territory under Palestinian control.

In the peace process outlined in the Oslo accords, Palestinians recognized Israel. In turn, Israel dropped its designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization and recognized it as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

However, the accords lost Arafat support from his more militant followers, notably refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

And they cost Rabin his life at the hands of a Jewish extremist on Nov. 4, 1995. Arafat was clearly shaken by the assassination of the man he had come to trust, though he stayed away from the funeral so as not to agitate Jewish ire. One of the few times that Arafat was photographed without the checkered kaffiyeh on his head was during a visit with Rabin’s widow, Leah, in her Tel Aviv home after the assassination. The condolence call was Arafat’s first trip to Israel.

After the momentous steps taken with Rabin, progress toward a final settlement slowed dramatically during the ensuing years with Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister. Arafat fought to add pieces of the occupied territories to the land under his jurisdiction and never ceased in his demand that East Jerusalem be the Palestinian capital.

At the same time, he used the stalemate with Netanyahu to build international support.

The high point for Arafat came in December 1998, when President Bill Clinton paid what amounted to a state visit to Gaza City. Standing on stage with the American leader before Palestinian and international dignitaries and presiding over a ceremony broadcast live to the world, Arafat was positively ecstatic.

“Mr. President,” Arafat said, “I welcome you on your historic visit to the land of Palestine.”

Internally, however, “Palestine” was troubled. Arafat continued to rule like an autocrat, making all significant decisions himself and stamping out, or co-opting, opponents. He surrounded himself with loyal but lackluster cronies whose main talent was enriching themselves. Senior aides built luxurious mansions while most Palestinians languished in permanent refugee camps.

Few believed Arafat himself was corrupt — he maintained a relatively spartan lifestyle, sleeping but a few hours, eating little, working until dawn — but he clearly was unable or unwilling to root out the graft that infected his government. Many Palestinians grew angry, many more apathetic, frustrated as their leader failed to achieve the lofty goals of sovereignty or accomplish the mundane tasks of clean and efficient administration.

As he globetrotted and hobnobbed with world leaders throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, Arafat showed neither interest nor inclination for building the sort of democratic state that Palestinian intellectuals and fighters had dreamed of during the decades of struggle with Israel. Instead, Arafat held tightly to the reins of power.

He refused to sign laws passed by the Palestinian legislature and jailed critics, who grew in number year after year. Democracy, he told dissidents, would come once the state was established.

The trappings of a state were being added to Arafat’s domain. Palestinians had a legislature, a telephone area code, an airport. Ramallah, in the West Bank, became a bustling city with brisk commerce; even in parts of Gaza City, the sand gave way to construction projects and shopping centers.

But Palestinian borders and economy remained under Israeli control, and the evolution was taking too long. Arafat’s popularity sagged. In ascendancy were more militant men from Fatah who had grown up not in exile but under the repression of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Islamic fundamentalists led by radical organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Israeli-Palestinian relationship took a turn for the worse when Sharon — Arafat’s longtime nemesis — took power in March 2001. Sharon quickly set about trying to isolate Arafat diplomatically and politically.

Arafat fought back, maintaining a steady grip on the levers of Palestinian power. He engineered the fall of the Palestinians’ first-ever prime minister — longtime associate Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen — and politically crippled a second, Ahmed Korei, known as Abu Alaa.

Arafat appeared increasingly irrelevant, though, as Sharon launched a historic initiative in late 2003 to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers — without negotiating terms with the Palestinians. As Arafat’s final illness took hold, Sharon denounced him as a man who had chosen the path of bloodshed — one that amounted to an abdication of any claim to leadership.

The Israeli prime minister refused to meet Arafat. President Bush took his cue from Sharon and similarly refused to deal with Arafat. As Israel’s military offensives against Palestinian militants claimed more lives, including children and civilians, the Bush administration remained silent.

At the end, Arafat was powerless to stop the attacks or even to muster the international condemnation of the attacks that was once automatic. With his death, Arafat leaves his people in the midst of economic, political and security crises, bereft of a leader and of their shared dream for an independent state.

Jerusalem bureau chief Laura King and former Israel correspondent Marjorie Miller contributed to this report.