Arafat obituary: Rebel with a lifelong cause

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat fought for the Palestinian cause all his life - and his indomitable style of leadership over 35 years ensured he never lost control.

Yasser Arafat fought for the Palestinian cause all his life - and his indomitable style of leadership over 35 years ensured he never lost control.

Over the decades he advocated violence, peace, war and diplomacy to try to establish the state of Palestine.

As steps to a settlement with Israel were played out in the last days of his life, it seemed a cruel twist of fate that his health should fail.

A further irony was that his death should follow shortly after George Bush won a second term in the White House.

Although Bush refused to negotiate with Arafat, the Palestinian leader welcomed his re-election and expressed hope that he would be "more engaged" in solving the Middle East conflict.

But the sudden deterioration in Arafat's health meant he would not live to see whether this hope would be realised.

The decline began last month when it emerged that the 75-year-old was suffering from flu and gallstones.

Speculation that he might have stomach cancer was dismissed, but after he briefly passed out at his West Bank headquarters, Israel lifted a two-year travel ban to allow Arafat to fly to a French military hospital for urgent tests.

The Israeli government even broke with previous practice by guaranteeing that, if the treatment were successful, he could return to his Ramallah compound. That would never happen.

Arafat was initially described as having a bad flu, with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea, but the tests uncovered blood and digestive disorders.

His condition improved sufficiently to allow him to follow the US Presidential election, but he took a sudden turn for the worse on November 3 and was rushed into intensive care. He would not recover.

In his last days Arafat's grip on power appeared to be slipping. As the ailing leader lay in hospital, his subordinates assumed control of the major Palestinian organisations and some politicians predicted his domination was at an end.

Before flying to France, he had resided at his Ramallah headquarters for more than two-and-a-half years.

Israeli attacks had turned part of the compound into rubble, but Arafat stubbornly stayed on, fearing he would never be able to return if he left.

It was a strange existence - and end - for a man leading one side of one of the most volatile conflicts in recent history.

Palestinians already fear infighting over who might succeed Arafat - he had unrivalled popularity and authority over the security forces.

Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini was born on August 24 1929 in Cairo, Egypt.

His father was a Palestinian textile merchant with part-Egyptian ancestry while his mother came from an old Palestinian family in Jerusalem.

At the age of five, his mother died and he was sent to live with his uncle in Jerusalem, which was then under British rule - a set-up much opposed by Palestinians.

One of Arafat's earliest memories was of British soldiers breaking into his uncle's house after midnight, beating members of the family and smashing furniture.

Four years later he was taken back to Cairo by his father, but the two were not close. When his father died in 1952, he did not attend the funeral.

By 17, Arafat was smuggling arms into Palestine to fight the British and Jewish settlers, and at 19 he left his studies at King Faud University to fight in Gaza.

After the Arabs were defeated and the state of Israel was created in 1948, he returned to university in Cairo to study for a degree in engineering.

In 1958 he left Egypt for Kuwait, where he used his engineering skills, although he spent most of his time developing Fatah, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement.

Arafat and his colleagues advocated an armed struggle against Israel, and he returned to Palestine to set up Fatah on January 1, 1965.

Collective leadership was never his plan, and his contemporaries noted how he "exercised total control over the Fatah war chest, and bribed people to join him".

Around the same time, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was being set up under the Arab League in Jordan.

Arafat moved to Jordan in 1967, where two years later he was elected chairman of the executive committee of the PLO, a title he kept until his death.

The leader adopted violent means to get the world's attention, hijacking planes and carrying out terrorist acts.

In 1969, the PLO was expelled by King Hussein of Jordan, and Arafat moved to Lebanon, where he lived until 1982.

He moved on again, to Tunisia, and continued his struggle for independence, surviving assassination attempts, a plane crash and a serious stroke.

He married a Christian Palestinian woman half his age called Suha Tawil and had a daughter Zahwa.

In 1988, Arafat changed tactics and made a speech to the United Nations in Geneva renouncing terrorism and supporting "peace and security" in the region.

In September 1993, Arafat and the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accord, which pledged to place the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and eventually the rest of the West Bank, under Palestinian rule.

The following year, Arafat, Rabin and Shimon Peres were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize. Rabin was assassinated by right-wing Israeli extremists in 1995.

In 1996, Arafat was elected president of the Palestine Authority, and had secured his reputation of a more dictatorial than democratic style of rule.

When the promises of the Oslo agreement never materialised, and the violence in the area continued, his popularity waned.

He was seen to have little control over the more violent elements among the extremist Arab groups.

But - ever the survivor - Arafat's ability to counter repeated targeting by the Israelis turned the Palestinians back towards him.

Arafat considered himself a leader of significant international standing and came to Britain in October 2001 to meet Tony Blair.

His visit to Downing Street led to Mr Blair reportedly telling Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon that Arafat was making a "concerted" effort to end the violence.

In the 12 months before, more than 800 people - most of them Palestinians - had been killed.

But his role on the international diplomacy circuit was cut short more than two-and-a-half years ago when he holed up in his Ramallah headquarters.

Despite his exclusion, he kept a firm grip on his party and swatted challenges to his authority.

In May 2003, fellow PLO member Mahmoud Abbas was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, but Arafat's power was never seriously challenged.

Abbas may have been backed by the Bush administration - which considered Arafat to be "tainted by terrorism" - but he never got Arafat's support and eventually resigned in September last year.

In recent upsurges in violence, Arafat maintained a relatively low profile.

In September, he voiced support for British hostage Ken Bigley, pledging to help in "every way possible" to secure his release.

Ultimately, his efforts - if he made them - failed.

But ironically, the ultimate success story of his life came a step closer in his final weeks.

Late last month the Israeli parliament voted in favour of Sharon's plan to pull all Jewish settlers out of the occupied Gaza Strip by next September.

With Arafat suffering chronic stomach pains, it was left to Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina to welcome the news.

"We are in favour of any withdrawal from occupied land, even one centimetre," he said.

For Yasser Arafat, it was too late to see what he spent decades fighting for - at least partially - become a reality.

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