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A Dreamer Who Forced His Cause Onto World Stage

Politics and Fatah

Mohammed Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini was born Aug. 4, 1929, the sixth of seven children of a moderately successful merchant from Gaza and his wife, a descendant of a prominent Jerusalem family. He adopted the name Yasser -- Arabic for "easygoing" -- as a college student.

According to his college record, and most of his biographers, Arafat was born in Cairo, two years after his parents had moved there from Jerusalem. Arafat generally insisted he was born in Jerusalem's Old City, though occasionally he said he was born in Gaza -- assertions that underscored his solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

In 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat clasp hands after signing a land-for-security agreemen. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright offered applause. (Ruth Fremson - AP)

His mother died when he was 4 or 5 years old, and his father, overwhelmed, sent him to live with his married maternal uncle in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the Old City's Western Wall and al-Aqsa mosque. Arafat lived in Jerusalem for a few years, but probably spent most of his youth in Cairo, where he acquired an Egyptian accent. He entered King Fuad I University, later named Cairo University, in 1947 and studied engineering.

He was a born activist, obsessed with Arab politics and the fate of Palestine by the time he was a teenager, and he was endowed with a knack for ingratiating himself with his peers and leading them. While a college student, he plunged further into the cause, and before he was 19, he was helping to buy and ship arms to Arabs in Palestine in the twilight of the British Mandate.

When Britain withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared independence in 1948, Arafat rushed to join the combined Arab forces attacking the Jewish state. His involvement in the fighting was probably limited, but Arafat made the most of it in the retelling. Significantly, the Arab defeat convinced him that the Palestinians would have been better off left to their own devices, without what he considered the corrupt, poorly led armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. That conviction was reinforced in later years, and his response was to make the PLO the first truly independent, unified Palestinian national movement.

He returned to college and student politics, graduated in 1956, toyed with the idea of graduate studies in the United States and eventually worked for the government of Kuwait, where he started a contracting company. With a handful of friends who became his top lieutenants, he also started Fatah -- Arabic for "victory" or "conquest" -- a national liberation movement dedicated to Israel's obliteration. "Violence is the only solution," Arafat declared. The liberation of Palestine, he said, could be accomplished only "through the barrel of a gun." Arafat dominated Fatah his whole life, and Fatah, in later years, came to dominate not only the PLO but also the Palestinian Authority.

Gradually, Arafat marshaled a small, amateurish group of Palestinian guerrillas, most of them exiles who had lost their homes in Israel's war of independence in 1948. He seemed an odd choice to lead them; his family lived in Cairo, and unlike the men he commanded, he had not been driven from his home by Zionists. Yet none was as dedicated as Arafat. He neither smoked nor drank, cared little for restaurants or European travel, had no family and made little time for women. The Palestinian cause was his life.

In the mid-1960s, he led and organized sabotage raids into Israel, alarming the Israelis and annoying the Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese, from whose territory he operated. Ignoring Arafat and his small band of armed men, Arab countries created the PLO in 1964 as an umbrella group for a hodgepodge of Palestinian factions bent on Israel's destruction. The Arab states' idea was to keep the Palestinians on a short leash; few thought them capable of recovering Palestine on their own.

Arafat had other ideas. Following Israel's stunning triumph over combined Arab armies in the Middle East war of 1967, he put them into practice.

Heroism and Terrorism

The speed and dimensions of Israel's victory left the Arab world reeling and demoralized. Instead of recapturing Palestine, the Arabs had lost what was left of it in the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. The heads of the Arab regimes, who had insisted on representing Palestinian interests, were discredited. The road was open for a new leader.

Into this opening stepped Arafat. Just weeks after the Israelis took the West Bank and East Jerusalem, destroying his uncle's house in the Old City in the process, Arafat slipped into the newly occupied territory, donning a variety of disguises -- a country doctor, a shepherd, a woman with a baby -- to elude detection. His efforts to organize secret cells of Palestinian armed resistance amounted to little. But his weeks in the West Bank gave birth to his nickname -- "al-Khityar," or "the old man" -- and helped nurture his reputation for daring.

His fame grew. Operating from refugee camps just across the Jordan River from Israel, Arafat's men launched a number of raids, some aimed at civilians and children. Enraged, Israel struck back at the guerrilla encampment in a barren place called Karameh, just over the Jordan River, on March 21, 1968. In a major battle, Arafat, backed by a Jordanian armored battalion, held his ground against a vastly superior force of Israeli tanks, warplanes, paratroops and artillery. Palestinian casualties were heavy, but at the end of the day the Israelis withdrew.

Overnight, Karameh made Arafat the hero of a victory-starved Arab world, thanks largely to the Fatah propaganda machine. Thousands of young men volunteered to be Fatah fighters. Financial contributions from Arab states poured in. By the end of the year, Arafat had appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In early 1969, he took over the PLO and became the unquestioned Palestinian leader. Vowing to reject any attempt at political settlement, he pledged a "full-fledged war of liberation" against Israel.

"Peace for us means Israel's destruction, and nothing else," he told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1970.

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