From the Archives: A Guerrilla and Statesman

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attends Friday prayers May 17, 2002 at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attends Friday prayers May 17, 2002 at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
(Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla chieftain who juggled armed resistance and political diplomacy, left a dual impression on the world: the iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, and the embodiment of a revolutionary who could not make the transition to governance.

Revered and reviled, Arafat forced the plight of the Palestinian people into international consciousness and made it the defining conflict of the 20th century Middle East. He convinced even his enemies that Palestinians had the right to a state of their own, then failed tragically to deliver it.

Locked to the end in a showdown with Israel, Arafat saw many of his erstwhile supporters desert him as he appeared increasingly an anachronism, apparently unable to truly forswear violence or embrace the rule of law.

The only leader most Palestinians have ever known, Arafat came tantalizingly close to establishing the state he dedicated his life to winning, surviving 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 the Palestinian Authority, ruling a territory made up of the strip and a patchwork area in the West Bank.

By the time Arafat died, however, he and the Palestinians had lost much of what they had gained, as Israel expanded Jewish settlements and re-occupied some lands amid a surge in Palestinian attacks.

Arafat was a decrepit shadow of the leader he once had been, shunned by a White House where he once had been an honored guest and 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 2-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 variety of ailments, including what many observers believed to be Parkinson’s disease and 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.

Especially as a younger, more robust man, Arafat exuded an undeniable charisma. He could charm skeptical visitors, playfully tease children, rally enormous crowds with vows to march on Jerusalem. The hatred he conjured in his enemies was easily matched by the devotion of his supporters who lionized him.


A turning point, in a life replete with them, came with the collapse of the Camp David summit convened by President Clinton in the summer of 2000. Many blamed Arafat because he rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of limited Palestinian sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat dismissed the offer as inadequate.

By that October, a new intifada, or uprising, had erupted, sparked in part by what Palestinians saw as an inflammatory visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon, then an opposition leader.

Israel, which had once accepted Arafat as a partner in peace, bitterly repudiated him as the architect of the escalating militarization of the intifada.

A backlash against Barak led to his defeat at the polls and brought Sharon to power. Under the hard-liner and his right-wing Likud Party, polarizing rhetoric and violence from both sides intensified.


Israel now held Arafat personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.

And 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 to allow the return of Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, who lost their homes in the 1948 war that ended British rule and created Israel.

To Palestinians, Arafat’s refusal to compromise on these issues 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, Sharon launched an all-out war on Palestinian militants, declared Arafat persona non grata and reoccupied the West Bank. In 2002, Israeli 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.

Married to the Cause


Arafat was an improbable leader.

A jowly 5-foot-4 loner in rumpled fatigues, Arafat was 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 in 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 parts of 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 Suha Tawil, a Palestinian Christian less than half his age. She has been living in Paris since the current intifada began, 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 with the formation of Israel in 1948.

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,” which means conquest.

Overshadowed by the larger Palestine Liberation Organization, which was formed in 1964 by Palestinian exiles in Egypt, Fatah operated in obscurity for eight years while Arafat held down his only regular job, as a civil engineer with the Kuwait Department of Public Works.

Taking Over

After the 1967 Middle East War between Israel and its neighbors, however, Arafat’s image was enhanced among Palestinians as Fatah continued to carry out commando raids into the Jewish state, which had seized the West Bank and Gaza.


By 1969, Fatah had taken control of the PLO, and Arafat had become 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, Germany. 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 whether he could not or would not.

At the same time, Arafat worked behind the scenes to pull Palestinians together under a powerful organization that neither his enemies nor allies could ignore. Here, he favored compromise rather than confrontation, acquiring 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 beloved underdog of anti-colonial movements and the recipient of weapons from the Soviet Union. Arafat, seen as a freedom fighter, was the darling of the Non-Aligned Movement.

He 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 single Arab state.

Early Setbacks

One of his worst defeats, however, came at the hands of an Arab country. Alarmed that the PLO was becoming too powerful, in 1970 King Hussein of Jordan 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 Muslims against 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.

Known by the nom de guerre Abu Amr, he 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, his first trip to the United States.

“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun,” he said, reportedly 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 pushed to Beirut.


Sharon was determined to wipe out the PLO and would have liked to kill Arafat, were it not for 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 in 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.


As Iraqi forces were chased out of Kuwait, Arafat adamantly remained on Hussein’s side.

It cost him and his cause 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.

Turning to Talks

His survival skills surfaced once again, and Arafat turned from armed struggle to diplomacy. 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 went to the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, to sign the peace accords with Rabin. He shook hands with his bitter enemy in a gesture of reconciliation that electrified the world.

Suddenly, he 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. Arab and American leaders looked around and decided -- like him or not -- there was no one 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 was rejecting 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 accord 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 cost Arafat support among his more militant followers, notably refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, who wanted the right to return. And the accords 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 secret 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 when Benjamin Netanyahu was 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 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 was himself 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.

Losing Support


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

He refused to sign laws passed by the Palestinian legislature, tried to control independent media and jailed critics, who grew in number as he failed to deliver the kind of freedom that many Palestinians envisioned. He refused to designate a successor and played his potential rivals against each other.

Democracy, he told dissidents, would come once the state was established.

In the meantime, 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, airspace 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 in the repression of the West Bank and Gaza. Also losing patience was a well-educated middle class that had become familiar with democracy.

And, especially in the impoverished Gaza Strip, the void was increasingly being filled by radical Islamic organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Many Palestinians found they had to turn to Hamas’ social programs for the food and medical aid Arafat’s Palestinian Authority could not provide. Hamas’s political clout grew, and it emerged as the main Palestinian opposition group and a serious threat to Arafat’s standing.

The Israeli-Palestinian relationship took a turn for the worse when Sharon -- Arafat’s longtime nemesis -- took office 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 prime minister -- longtime associate Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen -- and politically crippled a second, Ahmed Korei, known as Abu Alaa.

Most tragically for the Palestinian cause, Arafat never seemed to grasp how the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, so fundamentally changed the world.

After the attacks, Sharon made the case that Israel and the United States, both victims of terrorism, shared a common cause. Whether or not Sharon’s argument struck a chord with the Bush administration, there would be declining tolerance, especially in Washington, for a Palestinian independence struggle that relied so heavily on violence.

At the same time, as the intifada continued and Arafat was blamed for it, it was unclear whether he could rein in the militant groups that increasingly challenged his authority and periodically sent suicide bombers into Israel.


Arafat appeared increasingly irrelevant, though, as Sharon launched a historic initiative in late 2003 to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip 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 George W. Bush took his cue from Sharon and similarly refused to deal with Arafat.

As Israel’s military offensives against Palestinian militants claimed more and more lives, including of children and civilians, and destroyed more and more Palestinian infrastructure, the Bush administration remained silent.


At the end, Arafat was powerless to stop the Israeli strikes or even to muster the international condemnation that was once automatic.

As one Israeli commentator put it, Arafat was the leader who had succeeded in putting his people on the map -- and who had ultimately succeeded in wiping them off it.

His final decline came within the sandbagged, crumbling walls of the Muqata, which once was the center of Arafat’s power. The diplomats and dignitaries no longer visited. His health faded mysteriously and he was reported to have briefly lost consciousness. His senior aides were quickly assembled.

Arafat finally agreed to leave the West Bank for urgent medical care, but only after Sharon reversed himself and promised to allow Arafat to return once he had recovered. Some say Sharon did so knowing Arafat would not be returning, at least not alive.


At dawn on Oct. 29, a smiling but frail Arafat was led to the parking lot of the Muqata and hoisted into a Jordanian military helicopter. It carried him away into leaden skies as a small group of supporters waved and wept. From Jordan, he was taken to a hospital near Paris.

With his death, Arafat leaves his people in the midst of economic, political and security crises, bereft of a leader who once captured the world stage, and longing for their shared dream of independence.

Source: Associated Press and Times staff reports



(Begin Text of Infobox)

Key dates in Yasser Arafat’s life



Aug. 24, 1929: Born in Cairo, Egypt, fifth child of Palestinian merchant.

1933: Mother dies. Arafat sent to Jerusalem to live with uncle.

1949: Moves back to Cairo; forms Union of Palestinian Students.


August 1956: Attends international student congress in Czechoslovakia; secures membership for Palestine.

1959: Forms Fatah guerrilla movement.

1964: Palestine Liberation Organization is formed.

March 21, 1968: Israeli attack on PLO base in Jordan inflicts heavy losses; thousands soon join PLO.


Feb. 4, 1969: Arafat takes over PLO chairmanship; groups under PLO umbrella carry out attacks, including slaying of 11 Israelis at 1972 Olympics in Germany.

Nov. 13, 1974: Arafat addresses United Nations General Assembly.

June 6, 1982: Israel invades Lebanon to crush PLO; Arafat and loyalists flee Beirut.

Oct. 1, 1985: Arafat narrowly escapes death in Israeli air raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia.


Aug. 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait; Arafat supports Saddam Hussein, resulting in PLO’s isolation.

1991: Arafat marries 28-year-old Suha Tawil in Tunis.

Sept. 13, 1993: Israel and PLO sign peace accord on Palestinian autonomy in the U.S., giving Arafat control of most of Gaza Strip and 27% of West Bank.

July 1, 1994: A triumphant Arafat sets foot on Palestinian-controlled soil.


Dec. 10, 1994: Arafat wins Nobel Peace Prize, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Jan. 20, 1996: Arafat elected Palestinian Authority president in first elections.

Jan. 15, 1997: Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign accord on Israeli pullout from 80% of Hebron.

Oct. 23, 1998: Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree on interim land-for-peace deal on West Bank.


July 11, 2000: Seeking final peace deal, President Clinton sequesters Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat for nine days for “Camp David II.” Afterward, White House declares summit failure.

Dec. 3, 2001: After three suicide bombings, Israel destroys Arafat’s helicopters in Gaza City, effectively confining him to Ramallah in West Bank.

Jan. 18, 2002: Two Israeli tanks park outside Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, pinning him down, after Palestinian gunman kills six Israelis at banquet.

March 29, 2002: Israeli Cabinet declares Arafat an “enemy” two days after Palestinian suicide attack kills 29 people.


April 2, 2002: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatens exile; Arafat says he would rather die than leave West Bank.

June 24, 2002: President Bush calls on Palestinians to replace Arafat as leader.

April 29, 2003: Mahmoud Abbas becomes first Palestinian prime minister.

Sept. 6, 2003: After power struggle with Arafat, Abbas resigns and is replaced by parliament speaker Ahmed Korei.


Oct. 27, 2004: Arafat collapses and passes out briefly, aides say.

Oct. 29: Arafat is flown to French hospital, where he slips into a coma.

Early today: Arafat dies.