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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Known as the father of Palestinian nationalism, Yasser Arafat was the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Autonomous Region in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho. An enigmatic figure who was a political and military tactician of unrivaled skill, he led Palestine in war—through defeat and victory—and in peace. Ultimately, for better or worse, Arafat's legacy has to include bringing the attention of the world to the Palestinian cause.

Early Life

Born Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raout Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini on August 24, 1929, concrete knowledge of Arafat's childhood remains a mystery. He was said to have grown up in a wealthy Sunni Muslim Palestinian family living in Cairo, although he spent parts of his early years with relatives in Jerusalem and Gaza. Arafat returned to Egypt in the early 1950s to study engineering and was believed to have served in the Egyptian Army during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. Arafat also became active in the Muslim Brotherhood, a zealous religious and political organization in Egypt.

Arafat was part of a generation of Palestinians who came of age in exile but had strong memories of Palestine. After Jewish forces conquered most of Palestine during 1948–1949 and declared the nation of Israel, some 800,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced, most of whom came to live as refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and neighboring Arab states. At first it seemed that the Arab governments would assist them in attempting to reconquer the land claimed by Israel. When that did not happen, men like Arafat began to take other measures.

Founding Guerrilla Organizations

In 1957, Arafat and seven confederates in Kuwait founded the guerrilla organization Fatah, which was committed to direct confrontation with Israel. Under Arafat's direction, Fatah's guerrilla fighters (known as fedayeen) engaged in commando-style raids into Israel, causing many casualties and serious property damage, particularly in the mid-1960s. Israeli retaliation against their bases in Jordan led to Fatah's eviction by the Jordanian government during 1969–1970. It was also during the 1960s that Arafat developed what became known as "television terrorism," where he would commandeer radio or television frequencies to espouse his propaganda or a call to arms. A direct result of his campaign for the airwaves was the Munich Olympic murders in 1972.

In 1964, the Arab League (an alliance of Arab states) had created the PLO so that Palestinians would have an agency to organize their politics and relations with Israel. Arafat assumed the leadership of the PLO in 1969, pledging to uphold the main principles set out in the Palestine National Covenant: that the Palestinian Arabs had the only true claim to their homelands in Palestine, that the Zionist Jews were interlopers, and that the Palestinians must fight for the return of their homeland. Those principles implied the eradication of the Israeli state.

After the PLO was ejected from Jordan, Arafat led his fighters into Lebanon, a country already on the brink of political disorder. From 1970 until 1982, Arafat and his allies struck at Israel from Lebanon, inviting Israeli retaliation on that state and plunging the country into civil war. In October 1973, however, the Yom Kippur War brought great opportunities to Arafat, as the Arab oil-producing nations declared an embargo of their petroleum products to the West. Foreign powers became more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in an attempt to improve their ties with the Arabs, which heightened support for peace in the Middle East. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly invited Arafat to address it in 1974, in hopes that he would renounce terrorism. The Arab states recognized the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people on any liberated Palestinian territory."

Negotiating Peace

Those events improved the possibilities for a negotiated settlement of Arab-Israeli conflicts, but the government of U.S. president Jimmy Carter ignored the Palestinians in its efforts to promote the peace between Egypt and Israel initiated by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Arafat joined with other Arab leaders in condemning Sadat as a traitor, and the Israelis continued to refuse to negotiate with Arafat. In 1982, after the complete destruction of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, Arafat and his fighters were again forced to move on, this time to Tunis, more than 1,000 miles away from Israel.

Though Arafat had no direct known role in initiating the intifada (the uprising of Palestinian youth in the occupied territory of the Gaza Strip in December 1987), he sought to benefit from those events to strengthen his negotiating position in ongoing Middle East peace talks. The Israelis rejected the notion that Arafat and the PLO could be a negotiating partner. Yet as the militant Muslim organization Hamas came into being to organize the violent acts in Gaza, the PLO began to appear more moderate and more likely to be able to administer any territory that the Israelis returned to the Palestinian residents.

In a surprise move, Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin revealed on September 9, 1993, that secret negotiations had been successfully completed in Oslo, Norway, which resulted in the mutual recognition of the PLO and Israel. On September 13, 1993, the two men met in Washington, D.C., to sign the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, an historic peace treaty granting transitional autonomy to (and the end of the Israeli armed occupation of) Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho. The Palestinian Authority (PA) assumed power in May 1994. The PLO struck the clause from its covenant that called for the destruction of Israel. In recognition of their efforts to bring peace to their countries, Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

Palestinians had mixed feelings about Arafat's achievement. Many accused him of treason and surrender in their disappointment that he had recognized Israel and thereby made certain that many of them would never return to their homelands. Others were impressed with his tactical and diplomatic skills that had finally resulted in some concrete political gains for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Intensified violence was organized in Gaza by Hamas, which rejected the peace treaties and challenged Arafat's leadership of the fledgling PA government.

The assassination of Rabin by a Jewish radical on November 4, 1995, also placed the peace process in a precarious situation, though Arafat declared that his commitment to peace with Israel would not waver in the face of growing opposition. Though he won an overwhelming victory in the January 1996 elections against a female left-wing contender, Arafat has been condemned by his critics for the harsh suppression of his opponents and having paid too high a price for his political ascendance. In 2000, Arafat rejected a land-for-peace proposal from Israel, which resulted in the call for an intifada that has continued into the 21st century.

Waning Influence

After the eruption of the new intifada in September 2000, a public perception emerged that Arafat's influence over the Palestinians had decreased. Other PLO faction leaders, including senior Fatah commander Marwan Barghouti, began to criticize him openly. At the height of resumed fighting in December 2001, the Israeli government held Arafat "directly responsible" for yet another round of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens and grounded him in the West Bank town of Ramallah for failing to crack down on the extremists.

In early 2003, with a cycle of violence that showed no signs of abatement, a besieged Arafat was finally convinced of the need to appoint a prime minister. On April 29, 2003, PLO secretary-general Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen—was confirmed as the first prime minister of the PA. The next day, the U.S. ambassador to Israel delivered a U.S.-backed "road map" to peace in the Middle East to Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. president George W. Bush had decided to sidestep Arafat and deal directly with Abbas on the new peace plan, a development that was viewed by many to be another sign of Arafat's marginalization in the region. Conversely, Abbas's resignation on September 6, 2003, was viewed by some as an indication of Arafat's unwillingness to concede power to a prime minister.

That resulted in Arafat effectively being sidelined during the subsequent peace talks outlined by the "road map" for peace, which was backed by the United States, the European Union, the UN, and Russia. Kept a virtual prisoner in his West Bank compound by Israeli forces and with his health quickly deteriorating, in October 2004, Arafat was flown to Paris, France, for medical treatment for an undisclosed blood disorder. He slipped into a coma and died on November 11, 2004, at the age of 75. He was buried at his compound in Ramallah.

"television terrorism," "sole territory." "directly responsible" "road map" "road map"

Further Reading

Aburish, Saïd K. Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. London: Bloomsbury, 1998; Goldschmidt, Arthur, and Lawrence Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East. 8th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2006; Gowers, Andrew. Behind the Myth: Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Revolution. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1992; Hourani, Albert Habib. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

MLA Citation

"Yasser Arafat." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/316739. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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