[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 04:13 GMT
Obituary: Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat: Craved martyrdom
For decades Yasser Arafat was the embodiment of the Palestinian cause.

To his supporters he was the only man capable of keeping Palestinian hopes alive and at the forefront of global consciousness.

To critics he was an inveterate terrorist who failed his people.

He was in equal measures national treasure and national liability for many Palestinians. While raising their hopes of independence he was also seen by some as one of the impediments to Palestinian democracy and civil society.

Early radicalism

Yasser Arafat was born Muhammad Abdul Rahman Abdul Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini on 24 August 1929 in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. His father, a Palestinian merchant living in Egypt, died during the first Arab-Israeli war 20 years later.

Arafat's youth is surrounded by uncertainty.

A young Yasser Arafat
Little was known of Arafat's upbringing
He claimed to have been born in Jerusalem but his Egyptian accent always revealed his Cairo upbringing.

The young Arafat is thought to have adopted the name Yasser - and its epithet "Abu Ammar" - while studying at university in Egypt, to honour an Arab victim of the British mandate in Palestine.

From the beginning, Arafat was a powerful grassroots activist.

Initially, he was drawn towards Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, but soon became wedded to the idea of armed struggle to reverse what the Palestinians call the 1948 Catastrophe.

That was when the state of Israel was established on more than 70% of Palestine, exluding what is now Jordan, which had been under British rule.

Salvaged rifles

At some point after 1948, Arafat secretly founded Fatah, the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine, with a few like-minded diaspora Palestinians, to achieve that reversal.

Arafat later spoke proudly of these days, when he salvaged World War II rifles from the Egyptian desert to arm his organisation.

Yasser Arafat in the seventies
Arafat's military reputation helped him gain the PLO leadership
Arafat's style was often theatrical. In 1953 he sent Egypt's first post-revolution leader, General Muhammad Neguib, a three word petition: "Don't forget Palestine."

The words were said to have been written in Arafat's own blood.

Arafat's CV said that in 1956 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Egyptian army and he served during the Suez crisis and the Arab-Israeli war which followed.

The expertise which Arafat gained in explosives and demolition prepared him for his role as the head of Fatah's military wing, al-Asifa - the Storm - which started operations in 1965.

Al-Asifa's job was to launch guerrilla attacks against Israel, mainly from Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza which was then under Egyptian control.

They want me either as a prisoner, a fugitive, or dead. I tell them: Martyr
Yasser Arafat - 29 March 2002

After Israel's 1967 crushing defeat of the Arab armies and its capture of the West Bank and Gaza, Fatah was the only credible force left fighting Israel. Arafat's reputation was enhanced in 1968 with his courageous defence of the Jordanian town of Karameh against superior Israeli forces.

Karameh - which means "dignity" in Arabic - caused a surge of optimism among Palestinians and raised the banner of Palestinian national liberation in contrast to the failure of the Arab regimes to challenge Israel.

Elected PLO chairman

In 1969, Arafat was voted chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which had been formed four years earlier by the Arab League.

Yasser Arafat at the United Nations in 1974
A dramatic appearance before the United Nations in 1974
Initially based in Jordan, PLO fighters were driven out by King Hussein in September 1970 - later dubbed Black September. Arafat led them to the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

In subsequent years, guerrillas from various Palestinian factions hit the headlines with hijackings, bombings and assassinations, most notably the kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Arafat refused to discuss such attacks, though he has always denounced terrorism as a tactic. Whether or not he was personally involved remains a matter of conjecture.

Years of isolation

In 1974 Arafat made a dramatic entrance on the international diplomatic stage. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he told delegates that he had come "bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun - do not let the olive branch fall from my hand".

A Palestinian bomb attack on an Israeli bus
Arafat denounced terrorism, but Palestinian attacks continued
In the 1970s, the Palestinians were establishing a "state-within-a-state" in Lebanon, which destabilised the country as they used it as a launch pad for attacks on Israel.

In 1982, Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon launched his controversial invasion of Lebanon to drive out the PLO.

This resulted in the expulsion of Arafat - this time far from Israel's borders to the North African state of Tunisia.

This was the start of years of isolation which, in 1987, became more acute with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But one of Arafat's great skills over the decades was his ability to harness the Palestinian revolution, and he managed to identify the unarmed, stone-throwing challenge to the occupation with his own leadership - though its origins had little to do with him.

Peace and war

Supposedly wedded exclusively to the Palestinian cause, Arafat - a Sunni Muslim - surprised the world in 1991 when he married Suha Tawil, from a prominent Christian Palestinian family, with whom he had a daughter, Zahwa.

But the nuptials came at a low point in Arafat's revolutionary career.

Having ridden the intifada for four years, he had made a critical mistake in 1990 by supporting Saddam Hussein during his invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Support in the Gulf States dried up, the Palestinian cause was never so marginalised and Arafat had no choice but to make peace with Israel from a position of weakness.

Arafat with Rabin and Clinton at the White House
A historic meeting at the White House in 1993
On 13 September 1993, Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, appeared on the White House lawn after secret talks facilitated by Norwegian diplomats.

The two sides signed the Declaration of Principles, an agreement allowing Palestinians self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho in return for the PLO's recognition of the Jewish state.

But such fundamental issues as Jewish settlements on occupied land, the future of Palestinians who were made refugees in 1948 and the future of Jerusalem were left undecided.

Though Arafat returned in triumph to Gaza the following year, the peace process was fraught with difficulties.

Craving for martyrdom

Yasser Arafat
For many, Arafat embodied the Palestinian cause
Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 and, as President of the Palestinian National Authority, Arafat struggled to define his role and keep Israelis and Palestinians committed to what he termed the "peace of the brave".

By 2000, the Oslo peace process had come to a dead end.

Arafat was blamed by Israel and the US for the failure in July that year of the peace talks at Camp David. He insisted though that the deal he was offered was far less generous than it has since been portrayed, and, as he put it, "the Arab leader has not been born who would give up Jerusalem".

A new intifada - now armed, with Arafat at its heart - was launched in the West Bank and Gaza.

Matters came to a head in December 2001 when, following a wave of suicide attacks, the Israeli government - led by Arafat's old adversary Ariel Sharon - blockaded him in his West Bank headquarters, accusing him of instigating the terror on Israel's streets.

Meanwhile, the explosion of pent-up anger of Palestinians who had lost faith in the peace process, and in Arafat's leadership, fed the ongoing violence.

Suicide bombings brought severe Israeli retribution, which trapped and isolated Arafat in the ruins of his bombed-out headquarters in Ramallah.

A look back at Yasser Arafat's life


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific