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Yasser Arafat

(1929—2004) Palestinian statesman, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization 1968–2004 and Palestinian President 1996–2004

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(b. 24 Aug. 1929, d. 10 Nov. 2004).

Palestinian leader 1969–2004

Early career

Born in Jerusalem (according to other sources born on 21 March 1929 in Cairo), he participated in the war against Israeli independence (1948–9). As a student of electrical engineering in Cairo from 1951 he founded the General Union of Palestinian Students. He fought in the Suez Crisis in the Egyptian army, and then went to work as an engineer in Kuwait, 1957–65. There, he co-founded and led the al-Fatah movement, which from 1969 became the leading movement within the PLO. In February 1969 he became president of the PLO's executive council.

PLO leader (from 1969)

Arafat's subsequent career was marked by a series of political and military miscalculations, as impressive personal comebacks oscillated with repeated failures to seize the right moment and consolidate his gains. Under his leadership, the PLO was expelled from Jordan (1970–1), Beirut (1982), Damascus and Tripoli (1983), and south Lebanon (1988). These expulsions contributed to splits in the movement, divisions which deepened as Arafat became more pragmatic in his search for a negotiated peace settlement with Israel. In 1990 he became isolated in his support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, while his support for the August coup in the USSR was peculiarly out of touch.

Arafat's survival as Palestinian leader is, therefore, a testament to his unrivalled sensitivity towards Palestinian opinion at the grass roots—about what it would, at the end of the day, accept. A dreadful public speaker, he was always helped by his opponents' underestimation. Ultimately, his dogged pursuit of international recognition, and his renunciation of violence in 1988, finally convinced Israel that he was the country's best hope of achieving a peace with the Palestinians. He negotiated the Oslo Accords and the Gaza–Jericho Agreement, and subsequently struggled to maintain his authority given the strong opposition from more radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Leader of the PNA (1996–2004)

In 1996, Arafat scored an important victory when he was elected President of the newly created Palestinian National Authority (PNA) with a high voter turnout, despite the campaign by his rivals to abstain. While he governed an extremely poor and disparate territory, he did little to create structures that would offer hope to a war-torn and impoverished population.

Arafat found it difficult to lead a population impatient for Palestinian independence and ready for more violence, while also dealing with an Israeli government which since Rabin's assassination had lost its assuredness in dealings with the PLO. He agreed to the Wye accords in 1998, but these were never implemented in full. Arafat refused a peace deal brokered in the dying days of the Clinton administration and the Barak government, because it did not involve complete Palestinian control over East Jerusalem. This helped bring down Barak, who was replaced by Arafat's archenemy, Sharon. Sharon put Arafat under house arrest in March 2002, in an attempt to clamp down on the Intifadah. Given the heterogeneity of the Palestinian movement, Arafat remained an important point of approach for the US and the EU. Sharon was forced to give up the siege of Arafat's headquarters. In April 2003 Arafat was forced to concede powers to a Cabinet, but he remained the ultimate source of political authority inside Palestine until his death.


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