YASSER ARAFAT Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


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Yasser Arafat (Arabic: ???? ????? Yasir Arafat) (August 4 or August 24, 1929 - November 11, 2004), born Muhammad Abd al-Rahman ar-Rauf al-Qudwah al-Husayni or Mohammed Abdel-Rawf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Hussaini and also known as Abu Ammar, was co-founder and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) (since 1969) and President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) (since 1993); and a co-winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. As a guerrilla and a Fatah leader, he was regarded as a freedom fighter by supporters, but a terrorist or collaborator by opponents.




Early life Arafat was the fifth of seven children. His father was a Palestinian textile merchant and his mother came from a prominent Palestinian family. Arafat’s claim to have been born in Jerusalem on August 4, 1929 is supported by his death certificate. However, a birth certificate, registered in Cairo, Egypt, gives August 24, 1929 as his date of birth, as confirmed by Arafat’s biographer Alan Hart and Palestinian biographer, Said K. Aburish. Arafat maintained his father forged the birth certificate for him in Egypt so he could attend school for free. Other sources have given Gaza, Palestine, as his birthplace. [1] [2]


When Arafat was four his mother died, and he and his father moved to Jerusalem. He lived in a house close to the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a holy site to Jews, Christians and Muslims. At the age of eight his father married again and they moved back to Cairo. The marriage did not work and his father married again shortly thereafter. When this happened Arafat’s sister Inam was left in charge of the upbringing of her siblings. She once noted that Arafat was “not like other children in playing or in his feelings… He gathered the Arab kids of the district, formed them into groups and made them march and drill. He carried a stick and he used to beat those who did not obey his commands."[3]


Arafat attended the University of King Fuad I (later renamed Cairo University). He sought to better understand Judaism and Zionism by engaging in discussions with Jews and reading publications by Theodor Herzl and other Zionists. But by 1946 he had become a Palestinian nationalist and was procuring weapons in Egypt to be smuggled into Palestine in the Arab cause. [4]. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Arafat left the university and, along with other Palestinians, sought to enter Palestine to fight for Palestinian independence. He was disarmed and turned back by Egyptian military forces that refused to allow the poorly trained partisans to enter the war zone. Arafat felt that he had been “betrayed by these [Arab] regimes". After returning to the university, Arafat joined the Muslim Brotherhood and served as president of the Union of Palestinian Students from 1952 to 1956. By 1956, Arafat graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and served as a second lieutenant in the Egyptian Army during the Suez Crisis. [5]. Later in 1956 at a conference in Prague he donned the keffiyeh, the traditional chequered head-dress which was to become his emblem.


Fatah and the PLO


After Suez, Arafat moved to Kuwait, where he found work as a civil engineer and eventually set up his own contracting firm. Arafat had decided that the best way for Palestinians to gain control of Palestine was for them to fight and not rely on support from Arab governments.


In Kuwait in 1959, with the help of friends Yahia Ghavani and Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) [6], together with a group of refugees from Gaza, Arafat founded a local section of al-Fatah. The name means “victory” and is also an acrostic taken from the initials, read backwards, of Harahkat al-Tahrir al Filistini (FTH), meaning the Palestine Liberation Movement (Black September Green March by John K. Cooley, London 1973, p. 90) The PLO dedicated itself to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the destruction of the state of Israel.


Arafat worked hard in Kuwait to establish the groundwork for Fatah’s future financial support by enlisting contributions from the many Palestinians working there, who gave generously from their high salaries in the oil industry (ibid., p.91).


Fatah’s first operation was an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an Israeli water pump station in 1965.


After the Six-Day War, Israel started an offensive against what it viewed as Palestinian terrorist organizations. Arafat is said to have escaped the Israeli attacks by crossing the River Jordan dressed as a woman carrying a baby, a story that enhanced his image as a man who could always manage a narrow escape.


In 1968 Fatah was the target of an Israeli Defense Force operation on the Jordanian village of Al-Karameh ("honor” in Arabic language), in which 150 Palestinians and 29 Israeli soldiers were killed. Despite the high Palestinian death toll, the battle was considered a victory for Fatah because the Israeli army ultimately withdrew. Amid the post-war environment, the profiles of Arafat and Fatah were raised by this important turning point, as he came to be regarded as a national hero who dared confront Israel, and many young Palestinians joined the ranks of Fatah. By the late 1960s, Fatah had come to dominate the PLO, and at the Palestinian National Congress in Cairo on February 3, 1969 Arafat was appointed Palestinian Liberation Organization leader, replacing Ahmad Shukeiri. Arafat became commander-in-chief of the Palestinian Revolutionary Forces two years later and, in 1973, the head of the PLO’s political department.




In the 1960s tensions between Palestinians and the Jordanian government had greatly increased; heavily armed Palestinian resistance elements (fedayeen) had created a virtual “state within a state” in Jordan, eventually controlling several strategic positions in Jordan, including the oil refinery near Az Zarq. Jordan considered this a growing threat to its sovereignty and security and attempted to disarm the Palestinian militias. Open fighting erupted in June of 1970.


Other Arab governments attempted to negotiate a peaceful resolution, but continuing fedayeen actions in Jordan (such as the destruction by the PFLP, on September 12, of three international airliners hijacked and held in Dawson’s Field in Zarqa) prompted the Jordanian government to take action to regain control over its territory.


On September 16, King Hussein declared martial law. On that same day, Arafat became supreme commander of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), the regular military force of the PLO. In the ensuing civil war, the PLO had the active support of Syria, which sent a force of around 200 tanks into Jordan to aid them. The fighting was mainly between the Jordanian army and the PLA; the US Navy dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean and it is rumored that Israel deployed troops to aid Hussein, if necessary. By September 24, the Jordanian army achieved dominance and the PLA agreed to a series of ceasefires [7]. See also History of Jordan and Black September.




Following the expulsion from Jordan, Arafat relocated the PLO to Lebanon. Because of Lebanon’s weak central government, the PLO was able to operate virtually as an independent state. Palestinian fighters mounted intermittent cross-border attacks against civilian and military targets in Israel from there; Israel responded with military offensives into Lebanon.


In September 1972, Black September kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes, held them hostage at the Munich Olympic Games and eventually killed them all. The killings were internationally condemned and Arafat publicly disassociated himself and the PLO from such attacks.


However, according to a 1972 article in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Dustur, Mohammed Daoud, who said he was the commander of the Munich operation, told Jordanian police: “There is no such organization as Black September. Fatah announces its own operations under this name so that Fatah will not appear as the direct executor of the operation.” In 1999, Abu Daoud launched his French-language autobiography Palestine: From Jerusalem to Munich (later published in English as Memoirs of a Palestinian Terrorist) [8], in which he wrote that Arafat was briefed about Munich before it happened, and that Arafat saw Daoud off on the mission with the words “Allah protect you.”


Fatah needed Black September, according to Benny Morris, Professor of History at Ben-Gurion University. He writes that there was a “problem of internal PLO or Fatah cohesion, with extremists constantly demanding greater militancy. The moderates apparently acquiesced in the creation of Black September in order to survive,” (Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, Vintage Books edition (2001), p 379). Morris says that, as a result of the pressure from militants, a Fatah congress in Damascus in August-September 1971 agreed to establish Black September. The new organization was based, writes Morris, on Fatah’s existing special intelligence and security apparatus, and on the PLO offices and representatives in various European capitals; and from very early on, there was cooperation between Black September and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).


However, according to Morris, the PLO closed Black September down in the fall of 1973, prompted, he says, by the “political calculation that no more good would come of terrorism abroad,” (ibid, p 383). In 1974 Arafat ordered the PLO to withdraw from acts of violence outside Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Fatah movement continued to launch attacks against Israeli civilians and the security forces within the occupied territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; moreover, in the late 1970s numerous leftist Palestinian organizations appeared which carried out attacks against civilian targets both within Israel and outside of it. Israel claimed that Arafat was in ultimate control over these organizations and hence had not abandoned terrorism. Arafat denied responsibility for terrorist acts committed by these groups. In the same year, Arafat became the first representative of a nongovernmental organization to address a plenary session of the UN General Assembly, and Arab heads of state recognised the PLO as “the sole legitimate spokesman of the Palestinian people". In his UN address, Arafat condemned Zionism, but said, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” His speech increased international support of the Palestinian cause. The PLO was admitted to full membership in the Arab League in 1976.


The PLO played an important part in the Lebanese Civil War; some Lebanese Christians allege that Arafat and the PLO were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens.


During the Civil War, Arafat allied the PLO with Lebanese Muslim groups, however, fearing a loss of power Syria’s President Assad switched sides, and sent in his army to help the right-wing Christian Phalangists. The Civil War’s first phase ended for Arafat with the siege and fall of the Palestinian refugee camp of Tal al-Zaatar. Arafat himself narrowly escaped with assistance from the Saudis and Kuwaitis.


Israel, allying itself with the Lebanese Christians conducted two major offensives into Lebanon. In the first (Operation Litani in 1978), the Israel Defense Forces and South Lebanon Army occupied a narrow strip of land, described as “the Security Zone". In the second, (Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982), Israel expanded its occupation to most of South Lebanon, but eventually retreated back to the Security Zone in 1985. It was during this Israeli invasion that Ariel Sharon began his personal war with Arafat. Sharon later said he had Arafat in his sights in Beiruit but chose not to kill him. Arafat himself narrowly escaped death on another occasion when, with a laser-guided vacuum bomb, the Israelis flattened an apartment block he had left moments before.


The Sabra and Shatila Massacre occurred during the second Israeli offensive into Lebanon. Between 460 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees were killed by Lebanese Maronite Christian Phalangist militias (which were allowed into the refugee camps by Israeli forces following the assassination of Lebanon’s Christian president Bachir Gemayel). The Israeli offensive into Lebanon and the Phalangist massacre of Palestinian civilians amplified the deep bitterness and mistrust between Palestinians and the then-Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon.


During the Israeli siege of Beirut, the U.S. and European powers brokered a deal guaranteeing safe passage for Arafat and the PLO to exile in Tunis.




In September 1982, during the Israeli offensive into Lebanon, the Americans and Europeans brokered a cease-fire deal in which Arafat and the PLO were allowed to leave Lebanon; Arafat and his leadership eventually arrived in Tunisia, which remained his center of operations up until 1993.


Arafat again narrowly survived an Israeli attack in 1985, as IDF F-15s bombed his headquarters in Tunis leaving 73 people dead; Arafat had gone out jogging that morning.


During the 1980s, Arafat received assistance from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which allowed him to reconstruct the badly-battered PLO. This was particularly useful during the First Intifada in December, 1987. Although the Intifada was a spontaneous uprising against Israeli occupation, within weeks Arafat was attempting to direct the revolt, and Israelis believe that it was mainly because of Fatah forces in the West Bank that the civil unrest was able to continue for the duration.


On November 15, 1988, the PLO proclaimed the independent State of Palestine, a government-in-exile for the Palestinians which laid claim to the whole of Palestine as defined by the British Mandate of Palestine, rejecting the idea of partition. In a December 13, 1988 address, Arafat accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242, promised future recognition of Israel, and renounced “terrorism in all its forms, including state terrorism” [9]. Arafat’s December 13 statement was encouraged by the U.S. administration, which insisted on the recognition of Israel as a necessary starting point in the Camp David peace negotiations. Arafat’s statement indicated a shift from one of the PLO’s primary aims ‘ the destruction of Israel (as in the Palestinian National Covenant) ‘ towards the establishment of two separate entities, an Israeli state within the 1949 armistice lines and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, on April 2, 1989, Arafat was elected by the Central Council of the Palestine National Council (the governing body of the PLO) to be the president of the proclaimed State of Palestine, an entity which laid claim to the whole of Palestine as defined by the British Mandate of Palestine, rejecting the idea of partition.


In 1990 Arafat married Suha Tawil, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian working for the PLO in Tunis, who converted to Islam before marrying him.


During the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel conducted open negotiations with the PLO for the first time. Prior to the Gulf War of 1991, Arafat opposed the U.N. attack on Iraq, alienating many of the Arab states, and leading to the U.S. disregarding his claims of being a partner for peace.


Arafat narrowly escaped death again in 1992 as his aircraft crash-landed in the Libyan desert during a sandstorm. The pilot and several passengers were killed and Arafat received several broken bones and other injuries.


Palestinian authority


In the early 1990s Arafat engaged the Israelis in a series of secret talks and negotiations which would enevitably lead to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which called for the implementation of Palestinian self rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a five year period. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Arafat returned back to Palestine a hero to some but a traitor and collaborator to others.


In 1994, Arafat moved to the Palestinian Authority (PA) ‘ the provisional entity created by the Oslo Accords. In July 1995 he had a daughter, Zahwa, named after his deceased mother.


On January 20, 1996, Arafat was elected president of the PA, with an overwhelming 88.2 percent majority (the only other candidate was Samiha Khalil) [11]. Independent international observers reported the elections to have been free and fair. However, some critics allege that because most of the opposition movements chose not to participate in the elections the elections were not truly democratic. Further elections were announced for January 2002, but were later postponed, purportedly because of inability to campaign due to Israel Defense Force incursions and restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


After 1996, Arafat’s title as Palestinian Authority leader was “head” (Arabic ra’is). Israel translates the title as “chairman” and the U.S. uses this term, while Palestinians translate it as “president” and the U.N uses this term.


In mid-1996, following multiple suicide bus bombings, in which scores of Israeli civilians were killed, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel. Palestinian-Israeli relations grew even more hostile as a consequence of continued incidents. Netanyahu tried to obstruct the transition to Palestinian statehood outlined in the Israel-PLO accord. In 1998 U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened, arranging meetings with the two leaders. The resulting Wye River Memorandum of 23 October 1998 detailed the steps to be taken by the Israeli government and PA to complete the peace process.


Arafat continued negotiations with Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, at the Camp David 2000 Summit. Due partly to his own politics (Barak was from the leftist Labor Party, whereas Netanyahu was from the rightist Likud Party) and partly due to immense pressure placed by American President Bill Clinton, Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip with an outlying suburb of East Jerusalem as its capital. The final proposal proffered by Barak would have meant Israeli annexation of 10% of the West Bank (largely encompassing current settlement blocs) in exchange for a much smaller swath of land in the Negev desert. Many Palestinians claim that accepting the offer would have the effect of reducing the Palestinian state to what they characterized as “Bantustans:” scattered pieces of territory separated by highways for Israelis, security checkpoints and Israeli settlements. In addition, under the Israeli proposal, Israel would control the Palestinian state’s water resources, borders, customs, and defense and a further 10% of the West Bank under nominal Palestinian sovereignty (chiefly along the Jordanian border). Also included in the offer was a return of a limited number of refugees and a compensation for the rest. In a move widely criticized abroad and even by a member of his negotiating team and Cabinet, Nabil Amr, Arafat rejected Barak’s offer and refused to make a counter-offer. When the Al-Aqsa Intifada, or Second Palestinian Intifada, was launched (2000-present) the day after a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, the peace process completely collapsed. After the start of the Second Intifada, Arafat’s wife moved to live with her mother and daughter in Paris.


Recent news and commentary


Arafat’s long personal and political survival was taken by most Western commentators as a sign of his mastery of asymmetric warfare and his skill as a tactician, given the extremely dangerous nature of politics of the Middle East and the frequency of assassinations. Some commentators believe his personal survival was largely due to Israel’s fear that he could become a martyr for the Palestinian cause if he were to be assassinated or even arrested by Israel. Others believe that Israel kept Arafat alive because they feared Arafat less than Hamas and the other Islamist movements gaining support over Arafat’s secular organization.


Arafat’s ability to adapt to new tactical and political situations was perhaps exemplified by the rise of the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organizations, Islamist groups espousing rejectionist opposition to Israel, employing new tactics such as “martyrdom operations", known as suicide bombings. In the 1990s, these groups seemed to threaten Arafat’s capacity to hold together a unified secular nationalist organization with a goal of statehood. They appeared to be out of Arafat’s influence and control, and were actively fighting with Arafat’s Fatah group. Some allege that activities of these groups were tolerated by Arafat as a means of applying pressure on Israel (see PLO and Hamas.) Some Israeli government officials opined in 2002 that the Fatah’s faction Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades began attacks on Israel to compete with Hamas. Some sources claim that frequent Israeli military strikes against the Palestinian Authority have made it difficult for Arafat’s security infrastructure to effectively counter the increasing influence of groups like Hamas. Spokesmen for Hamas and Islamic Jihad have at times publicly supported Arafat, suggesting that the common goals supersede infighting between these factions.


On May 6, 2002, the Israeli government released a report, based in part on documents allegedly captured during the Israeli occupation of Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, with copies of papers apparently signed by Arafat authorizing funding for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ activities. These documents, however, drew skepticism from various quarters because the Israeli military had forcefully prevented any independent observers or reporters from observing the operation. [12]


Others point to the constraints of the political situation, and argue that Arafat could neither condemn nor constrain the tactics employed; and that any attempt to do so would endanger his rule or his life, and possibly initiate a disastrous civil war. Furthermore, ending violent resistance activities would amount to a de facto surrender to Israel, which has access to weapons that Palestinians lack. The use of suicide bombers appears to be a permanent feature of this conflict. The number and intensity of attacks rose sharply in the first months of 2002.


In March 2002, the Arab League made an offer to recognize Israel in exchange for Israeli retreat from all territories captured in the Six-Day War and statehood for Palestine and Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Supporters of this declaration saw this offer, which included recognition of Israel by the Arab states, as a historic opportunity for comprehensive peace in the region, while critics of this offer say that it would constitute a heavy blow to Israel’s security, while not even guaranteeing Israel the cessation of suicide bombing attacks. Israel ignored what it deemed a facetious offer.


This was followed by attacks carried out by Palestinian militants which killed more than 135 Israelis. Ariel Sharon, who previously demanded that Arafat speak strongly in Arabic against suicide bombings, then declared that Arafat “assisted the terrorists and made himself an enemy of Israel and irrelevant to any peace negotiations". This was followed by a major Israeli offensive into the West Bank, during which Israel razed entire city blocks (see “Operation Defensive Shield".)


Persistent attempts by the Israeli government to identify another Palestinian leader to represent the Palestinian people failed; and Arafat was enjoying the support of groups that, given his own history, would normally have been quite wary of dealing with him or of supporting him. Marwan Barghouti emerged as a leader during the Al-Aqsa intifada but Israel had him arrested and sentenced to 4 life terms. Arafat was finally allowed to leave his compound on May 3, 2002 after intensive negotiations led to a settlement[13]; six militants wanted by Israel, which considers them terrorists, who had been holed up with Arafat in his compound, would not be turned over to Israel, but neither would they be held in custody by the Palestinian Authority. Rather, a combination of British and American security personnel would ensure that the wanted men remained imprisoned in Jericho. With that, and a promise that he would issue a call in Arabic to the Palestinians to halt attacks on Israelis, Arafat was released. He issued such a call on May 8, 2002, but, as was the case before, his public call to halt attacks was ignored.


On July 18 2004, U.S. President George W Bush stated regarding Yasser Arafat: “The real problem is that there is no leadership that is able to say ‘help us establish a state and we will fight terror and answer the needs of the Palestinians’". (Le Figaro).


Illness and death


First reports of Arafat’s treatment by his doctors, for what his spokesman said was ‘flu’ came on October 25, 2004. His condition deteriorated in the following days and he became unconscious for a short period. Following visits by other doctors, and agreement by Israel not to block his return, Arafat was taken on October 29 to the Percy training hospital of the Armies near Paris. On November 3 he lapsed into a gradually deepening coma. Arafat was pronounced dead at 02:30 UTC on November 11 at age 75. The cause of his illness has been listed as Cirrhosis of the liver. [14]


Israel refused Arafat’s wish to be buried in or near East Jerusalem. Following a state funeral in Cairo, attended by many Arab leaders, Arafat was laid to rest on November 12 within his former headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank.


On November 11, Arafat’s official functions were transferred. Pending elections, Speaker Rawhi Fattuh succeeded Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority. Former PM Mahmoud Abbas became leader of the PLO and Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi became head of Fatah. Ahmed Qurei remained as Prime Minster and took additional security responsibilities.