Yasser Arafat may have been reviled in Israel and some parts of the international community as the architect of countless gruesome acts of violence, and viewed with disdain in Western (and even some Arab) capitals for alleged diplomatic duplicity, but among his own people he has been lionized as nothing less than the father of the Palestinian national movement. Before his decline into terminal illness with his Ramallah headquarters surrounded by Israeli tanks in 2004, Arafat personified the Palestinians’ emergence – through a combination of armed struggle and diplomacy – on the international stage as an independent force.
Born in 1929 – his birthplace, like so much else about Arafat’s life, remains disputed, with some claiming it was Cairo or Gaza, while the Palestinian leader himself always insisted he was born in Jerusalem – he founded the Fatah movement in the late 1950s, with a view to rallying the Palestinians driven out of Israel in 1948 to take up arms. His organization mounted several attacks from various Arab territories, but it was after the war of June 1967, in which Israel vanquished the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a matter of days, that Fatah’s central role was cemented. Its message that Palestinians should take control of their own struggle and not mandate any Arab government to deal with Israel on their behalf resonated with a Palestinian population absorbing the shock of the Arab defeat, which left Israel occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights.
In 1969 Arafat and Fatah took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – the organization had been created by the Arab League five years earlier – and effectively declared Palestinian independence from the region’s power players. In the years that followed, the various armed factions of the PLO restored the term “Palestinian” into the international media lexicon through a series of high-profile acts of violence in many cases targeting Israeli civilians, including bombings, cross-border raids, airplane hijackings and the 1972 Munich Olympic hostage massacre.
The world took notice. In 1974, the United Nations recognized the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and Arafat, in military uniform that included a holster that may or may not have contained a weapon, became the first representative of a non-governmental entity to address the General Assembly. "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
His diplomatic gains, however, were accompanied by strategic setbacks: Palestinian fighters clashed with Jordanian security forces in the “Black September” of 1970, resulting in thousands of deaths and the expulsion of Palestinian factions, who reestablished themselves in Lebanon. But their arrival disrupted Lebanon’s already fragile sectarian balance, and the Palestinian armed groups found themselves drawn into the deadly civil war that began there in 1976.
They did, however, continue to mount small-scale raids inside Israel, and the Israeli military launched a full-blown invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which led to the notorious massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. But for Arafat and the PLO, it meant another expulsion, this time to Tunisia.
Although the Palestinian national movement had been formed around the goal of restoring Palestinian control of all of historic Palestine – i.e. including all of what became Israel in 1948 – in November 1988 Arafat set the stage for Palestinian entry into negotiations over a two-state solution to the conflict by convincing the PLO’s leadership to fight for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, but alongside Israel: In December of that year, Arafat – in a speech welcomed by the United States – declared his acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which proclaims Israel’s right “to exist in peace and security" (whereas the PLO Charter had insisted on its dismantling) and repudiated “terrorism in all its forms, including state terrorism.”
Arafat’s pivot to accepting the principle of Palestinian statehood alongside Israel unlocked the diplomatic doors in Washington, even if it drew opposition among other Palestinian factions, and set the stage for the U.S.-sponsored Madrid talks in which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for the first time. But it was the secret talks between Arafat’s representatives and Israeli interlocutors in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, that brought about the breakthrough 1993 Oslo Accords that gave the Palestinians limited territorial sovereignty and partial control over civil affairs in the West Bank and Gaza. Those accords, sealed by the historic White House handshake between Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin won both men (and Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who had been instrumental in the secret talks) the Nobel Peace Prize. They were meant to set the stage for negotiation of a “final-status” agreement that would set the parameters of two-state solution by setting up the administrative and security infrastructure of statehood through the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Arafat was elected by an 83 percent landslide as President of the PA, and became a fixture on the international diplomatic circuit, although Palestinians on the ground complained that Israeli settlements were continuing to expand. But mistrust between Arafat and the Israelis intensified, with the Palestinian side claiming that Israel was not fulfilling its territorial commitments, while the Israelis complained that the PA was not doing enough to restrain a Hamas campaign of bomb attacks on civilian buses inside Israel. The assassination of Rabin by an Israel hard-liner and the victory by Benjamin Netanyahu – a staunch opponent of Oslo – in the resulting election further chilled relations between the two sides.
By the time “final status” talks began at Camp David in 2000, mutual mistrust ran deep, and the two sides were unable to bridge vast differences on such core issues as Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees. Arafat was blamed for the failure by President Bill Clinton and the Israelis, although even his ostensibly more moderate, U.S.-backed successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, has declined to accept the peace terms offered thus far by the Israelis.
The stalemate at Camp David saw an outpouring of Palestinian rage, in the form of a full-scale uprising that began in the West Bank and Gaza in September 2000, which Israel claimed was proof that Arafat had been duplicitous. As the conflict became increasingly violent with thousands of Palestinians killed in shootings and air strikes and hundreds of Israelis killed in suicide-bombing attacks inside Israel – and particularly after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. prompted the Bush Administration to declare its “Global War on Terror” – Arafat found himself marginalized by the U.S. and the Israelis, who placed him under virtual house arrest at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah in March 2002.
If Arafat’s domestic political popularity had taken a dip over the first decade of Oslo as he was feted on the diplomatic circuit – while little changed for many Palestinians on the ground and corruption was rife in the PA – his plight under siege in Ramallah restored his standing in the eyes of many of his own people, who praised his “steadfastness” in the face of Israeli and international pressure to yield.
Under pressure from the U.S., which now refused to deal directly with him, Arafat appointed his old Fatah comrade Mahmoud Abbas as Prime Minister. But Abbas resigned after only four months, complaining that Arafat had refused to hand him control of Palestinian security forces. After Arafat succumbed, suddenly, to the illness that killed him in October of 2004, he was succeeded as PLO Chairman and PA President by Abbas. Yet Abbas is careful to stake his own claim to leadership on the basis of being Arafat’s heir, rarely addressing his own people without a large portrait of his predecessor as part of the backdrop. Even nine years after his death, Yasser Arafat retains an enduring symbolic power as a source of political legitimacy in the Palestinian national movement.