Yasser Arafat

Palestinian leader who symbolised a people's struggle for freedom and statehood
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The Independent Online

Mohammad Abdel-Raouf Arafat Lal-Qudwa al-Husseini (Yasser Arafat), politician: born Cairo 24 August 1929; President, League of Palestinian Students 1952-56; President, Executive Committee, Palestine National Liberation Movement (Fatah) 1968-2004, Chairman, Executive Committee, Palestine Liberation Organisation 1968-2004; Nobel Peace Prize 1994; President, Palestinian National Authority 1996-2004; married 1991 Suha Tawil (one daughter); died Clamart, France 11 November 2004.

After all the long years of fighting the Israelis for a national homeland for the Palestinian people, or with Arab governments unwilling to accept a rival to their own authority, Yasser Arafat ended his life battling only for his own position.

Branded "irrelevant" by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister whose life was often a mirror image of Arafat's, and by the Americans, he refused to bow out, or even to share what little power the Palestinian Authority had. Under siege and confined to Ramallah, where the Israelis kept him from 2002 until his final illness, he squandered his prestige by sidelining the Palestinian prime ministers to hold on to his own meagre powers.

Refusing to accept illness or old age as a reason to pass the torch to a new type of leadership, he privately rejoiced when in April that year Marwan Barghouti, his main rival, was imprisoned in Israel, and he actively obstructed all efforts to form a Palestinian government that would have been able to negotiate with Israel or America.

In his final days he did an amount of damage almost enough to balance the huge achievements of his early years, when single-handedly he forced Palestine on to the world's consciousness, inspired a people to a struggle without apparent end, and prevailed upon Arabs everywhere to back his cause, often against the wishes of their own leaders.

Arafat lived in hope and died disappointed, his dream of a Palestinian state still not realised. His tragedy was that, for most of his long and complicated life, he had kept his eye on the ultimate objective: an independent state for his people. But he then allowed his hunger for his own place in history to become more important.

He wanted the presidency of a new country for himself, a working relationship with Palestine's neighbours, and international acceptance. He wanted to be seen as an equal by international leaders. To his credit, the one step too far which he would not take was to risk a Palestinian civil war on top of everything else. He would not do what Israel wanted, even if he could. He would not act against the men of Islamic Jihad or Hamas who were running the campaign of suicide bombings which so terrified Israel. He knew that, if he did that, he would turn brother against brother, and father against son. It was, for all its horror, the most successful campaign ever by Palestinians against Israelis.

In the end, with his old, ruthless enemy Ariel Sharon in charge in Israel, Arafat had little more than a walk-on part, wheeled out for the cameras, for visits to friendly or would-be friendly countries, and to placate his own critics. Given time by President George W. Bush's war against terrorism and invasion of Iraq, Arafat was not sufficiently politically adroit to turn what might have been a promising situation to advantage. With much of the world urging America to deal with what was at last recognised as the core problem of the Middle East, Arafat felt he could not even give the appearance of opposing Hamas and the bombers if he hoped to maintain his own place.

Arafat played many roles in his long life on the world stage, some admirable, some not, but for almost all the time he remained the symbol of a people's struggle for freedom and statehood, the epitome of the Palestinian determination to have a homeland and an identity. Finally he gained the territory without the title, then lost it again. He came close to destroying what he had gained as he failed to make the transition from revolutionary to ruler and statesman. Although personally incorruptible, he allowed corruption to flourish, and, accustomed to running his raggle-taggle army by diktat in the long struggle with a stronger enemy, he opted for dictatorship rather than democracy when the time came for change.

The last years of Arafat's life, when he should have been reaping the rewards of the years of total commitment, instead tarnished the image of the most successful guerrilla leader of modern days. And the absence of room to manoeuvre, allied to his continued determination to go down in history as the man who founded the new state of Palestine, forced him into compromises he would once never have contemplated.

Soon after Arafat finally made it back to the small area of Palestine allowed to him by the 1993 Oslo agreement, he realised his bargaining power was gone. Interest had turned to other parts of the world than Palestine, and only President Bill Clinton remained engaged, but, while Clinton's force of personality could bring leaders together, it could not make them fulfil agreements. Even Sharon's crass action in giving the excuse for the second intifada only resulted in a heavier hand from the Israelis, and more extremism from the Palestinians, who had many more casualties but looked to the militants of Hamas and Hizbollah to redress the balance, not the perceived timidity of Arafat.

The Arab nations, divided as usual, had neither the will nor the strength to apply pressure on Israel to extract concessions, while the United States, despite Clinton's own search for a place in history, lost interest after what seemed the best deal possible was rejected at a conference in Taba hosted by the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in January 2001.

When George Bush took over the US presidency later that month, it was almost official policy to disengage from the Middle East, and only the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September that year revived any interest. Even then, it was to keep the Islamic elements of the world coalition in line that American diplomacy strove, and for all the efforts made, both Israel and Palestine soon became irrelevancies. It was only after the invasion of Iraq that Palestine once again moved up the agenda - and then only at the prompting of countries like France and Germany discredited in Washington.

Yet, even as the unelected, unofficial head of an unrecognised, fragmented Palestinian state, Arafat had made a huge journey from his political origin as a sympathiser of the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and a suspected dissident once Gamal Abdel Nasser took over from the decrepit monarchy.

This was a period which saw his first involvement in Palestinian affairs, with a leading role in the student expatriate movement, and the arrest or deportation of many of his friends. With all the contradictions of an Egypt trying to make a new beginning, it led to his first disillusion, inducing him to try to emigrate to the United States, then to Saudi Arabia, and finally setting himself up in business in Kuwait. And it was there that the movement to which he was to devote his life was formed.

It was as "the chairman", the leader of Al Fatah, the strongest of the guerrilla movements, that Arafat first became known, and as "the chairman" that he will be best remembered by many. It was a title that epitomised his strength - the patience to sit through hours of discussion, of semantic wrangles and abstruse arguments, and finally to come down on the side that would gain acceptance, to decide where the advantage lay not only for his people, but for his own particular form of leadership. He was the sort of politician who would have been a tremendous success in Whitehall, where being a good committee man remains a prerequisite for preferment.

Portly, bald and apparently ill-shaven in his later years, Arafat seemed to have none of the charisma needed to hold a revolution together, to inspire generations. Yet he managed to do so. It was, perhaps, because he was a man with a vision, a man who dedicated his whole life to his cause. It was only in 1991, at the age of 62, that he permitted himself to get married; before that his public stance was that the revolution was his wife, but, with the Palestine national movement apparently firmly on the world agenda, he decided he could allow himself some indulgence. Even so, his choice of partner helped - Suha Tawil was a Christian Palestinian from a family which has contributed much to the cause.

Arafat's mistakes were usually less apparent to the outside world than to the Palestinians; yet one of the worst was thrown into relief when he was in an unexplained plane crash in the Libyan desert in 1992 and there were fears that he had been killed. Arafat had steadfastly refused to groom a successor, or to give his support to anyone who would have liked to take over from him.

The result was that for years the movement was ossified, with Arafat increasingly isolated as the founding fathers were killed by Israeli murder squads, and those next in line became disillusioned, while the young lions who might have provided a dynamic new leadership were killed in battles, or looked elsewhere for inspiration.

The decision which brought Arafat most criticism in the West was his support of Saddam Hussein following the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, yet it was a qualified support, and he had little room for manoeuvre. Conscious of the situation of Palestinians, he naturally criticised the takeover of a small and defenceless country by a more powerful neighbour, but equally aware of the feelings of his people, he could not condemn the Iraqi leader. As usual, his fault lay in a lack of moderation. As one Palestinian put it: "A small kiss on the cheek would have done, not all those warm embraces."

His other major error was in 1982, when he failed to capitalise on the heroic defence of West Beirut put up by his fighters, and allowed the kudos earned to be dissipated. If he had set up his government in exile then - with President Ronald Reagan in the White House and Menachem Begin retiring from politics in Israel - and proclaimed the state of Palestine then as he did in 1988, some diplomatic gains might have been made.

Yasser Arafat - Mohammad Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, also known as Abu Ammar and "al ikhtiar" ("the old man") - was born in Cairo in 1929, though at times he claimed to have been born in Jerusalem, where he spent much of his childhood following the death of his mother. He was a student activist at Cairo University and, if not a member of the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood, a dedicated supporter of what was then the most effective campus group.

Arafat claimed to have taken part in guerrilla activity against the British in the Canal Zone, though there is no evidence of this. He became chairman of the Palestine Students League and, with Salah Khalaf and Khalil al Wazir, was involved in anti-Israeli actions launched from the Gaza Strip, but, under Nasser, Egypt wanted pan-Arabism, not Palestinian nationalism. Arafat and his friends were quietly ordered to leave, and chose Kuwait as a place to make money as well as to organise. It was there that Arafat, al Wazir and Khalaf, plus Khaled Hassan and a few others, founded the Fatah movement, which was always Arafat's power base, in 1958.

Then came seven years of organising, of winning recruits, before "the armed struggle" to which Fatah was dedicated began in 1965 with minor attacks on installations in Israeli occupied territory. But it gathered momentum, and the first phase culminated in the set-piece battle of Karameh in 1968, a turning point for the movement. The Israeli attack on the Jordanian town was intended as a punitive raid by Israel, but, helped by artillery fire from the Jordan army, the Palestinians put up a strong defence, inflicting heavy Israeli casualties. This relatively minor engagement was quickly turned into legend, leading to a huge influx of recruits for Arafat's organisation.

That in turn contributed to the downfall of the Palestinians in Jordan. Over-confident in a country where they made up 70 per cent of the population, the Palestinians became "a state within the state", carrying their quarrels into bloody engagements on the streets of Amman, extorting money and openly challenging the authority of King Hussein.

It was the far-left Marxist group led by George Habash which provoked the final confrontation through his mass airline hijackings, but it was Arafat's Fatah which then bore the brunt of the fighting. The king's Bedouin troops won, to begin the long process of harrying the Palestinians away from the borders of their homeland. Even the 1973 war did nothing to retrieve the position, after President Anwar Sadat accepted the Camp David accords which gave Sinai back to Egypt, but failed to follow through the provisions for Palestinian autonomy.

Now chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation as well as leader of Fatah, Arafat was carving out his place in Arab politics, and was reluctantly drawn into the Lebanese civil war on the side of the Druze/Muslim/ left-wing coalition opposed by the Christian Phalangists.

For years that internecine strife took most of the energies of the Palestinians, with Israel still being targeted only by small, extreme splinter groups, though it took its revenge on the great mass of Palestinians now in the refugee camps of Lebanon. Then came the invasion of Lebanon, the trauma of the new dispersal of Palestinian forces, the vain attempt to return to northern Lebanon in 1983, and a final expulsion not at the hands of the Israelis, but as a result of Syrian action.

With his forces dispersed, his headquarters moved to Tunis, far from the scene of conflict, and a right-wing government in Israel dedicated to building settlements in the occupied territories, this was the nadir of Arafat's career. It seemed to be made worse by the outbreak, in December 1987, of the first intifada, the unarmed uprising by Palestinians against heavy-handed Israeli rule. For all the initial claims, it was obvious the PLO had nothing to do with what was going on in the occupied territories, and that those who came to guide the movement paid little attention to what was said in Tunis.

Yet, as so often before, Arafat bounced back. He realised that only by turning to political advantage the international sympathy generated by boys with stones fighting soldiers with guns could he exert his authority. He realised, too, that even to gain political acceptance he had to change the movement. So, against the opposition of many, and with great difficulty, he managed to move the PLO towards recognition and acceptance of Israel, to agreeing to direct talks, and to continued negotiations, despite what often seemed to be Israeli efforts to make the Palestinians walk out.

Where so many had failed in the past, it looked as if James Baker, President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State from 1989 to 1992, might succeed. Less beholden to the Jewish lobby in the US, the White House at last began to put pressure on the Israelis, refusing a much-needed loan guarantee and insisting on a halt to settlement-building. At the same time, the influx of Jewish immigrants from the old Soviet Union slowed down as a result of the parlous economic situation in Israel, leaving that country with neither practical nor ideological arguments for its policies in the occupied territories.

It was not enough. The Americans did not seem to have the patience for the long haul which the Palestinians were prepared to face and, though half the Israeli electorate was willing to compromise, what they had in mind was limited autonomy, not the independence to which Arafat was dedicated. Those final years in which Arafat had the honours and the little-known leaders inside the occupied territories had the real power were a time of anticlimax.

For all his life, Arafat had been at the centre of things. Now his role was to be front man for others. Though his energy was undiminished, those close to him detected a weariness of spirit. The long years had taken their toll, and the continued necessity for the security measures which had so often saved his life in the past had become a burden.

Salah Khalaf and Khalil al Wazir, Kamal Adwan, Youssef al Najjar, Ali Hassan Salameh, all these and many more had been killed by Israel in the underground war which raged between the two sides. Arafat himself was clearly a target: in 1982 Menachem Begin sent Israeli planes to bomb a crowded Beirut apartment block in which it was thought Arafat was attending a meeting. More than 100 people were killed, but Arafat had left just before the attack. Nor was it only the Israelis who tried to kill him: Syrian special forces tried to ambush Arafat's motorcade after the government in Damascus had expelled him in 1983, while Abu Nidal and other Palestinian dissidents several times made attempts on his life.

By keeping constantly on the move, rarely sleeping in the same bed on two consecutive nights, never announcing his travel plans in advance, and as a result of the vigilance and at times the self-sacrifice of those around him, Arafat escaped the assassin's bullet. It was a high price to pay, inducing constant suspicion, loneliness in spite of the steady round of meetings, and an inability to take anything at face value. In his youth in Kuwait, Arafat liked driving fast cars, now he could never go out alone. He appreciated music, but never went to a concert; he liked cheerful company and easy talk, but always had to weigh his words and look for hidden meanings in the utterances of others.

For all his political and diplomatic skills, Arafat could never have survived so long at the head of what was often a fractured and disputatious movement without some practical leverage. That he ensured by keeping a firm personal grip on the two things which Palestinians most needed - money and medical care. His brother, Dr Fathi Arafat, was head of the Palestine Red Crescent, and thus was the man who decided who should have hospital care, who should be sent to rehabilitation clinics, and those to be given pensions.

Arafat himself was involved in all the activities of the Palestine National Fund, the exchequer of the movement, and maintained control of donations to Fatah. He knew where all the investments were, when even the chairman of the fund might not have total knowledge. And he always kept available his own slush fund, not for personal use, but to reward supporters, win over waverers, and buy off opponents if that seemed possible.

Throughout his life, Arafat was rarely the subject of scandal or suspicion. He was often manipulative, sometimes ruthless and cynical, frequently mistaken, but never corrupt. In the Arab world, that alone made him unusual. His unswerving dedication to his one cause, his total immersion in his movement, his lifelong devotion to the land of Palestine and the idea of Palestine, made him unique.

John Bulloch

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