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A Dreamer Who Forced His Cause Onto World Stage

Instead, Arafat was soon engaged in a full-fledged power struggle in Jordan, instigated largely by the PLO's lawless attempts to overthrow King Hussein. Mindful that Palestinians were a majority of Jordan's population, Arafat reasoned that the king would never attack him.

It was a miscalculation. Arafat's showdown with the king came after months of skirmishes, intrigue and, in September 1970, a series of airplane hijackings by Palestinians who forced the planes to land in Jordan and then blew them up. His authority thus challenged directly, Hussein ordered his Bedouin army to attack Arafat's forces. The ensuing civil war stunned Arafat and dealt him a crushing defeat. His life in danger, he fled Jordan with an Arab peace delegation, disguised in long robes as a Kuwaiti official.

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)

Following its expulsion from Jordan, the PLO embarked on a campaign of terror. After attacks on Jordanian officials in Cairo and London, a Palestinian front group calling itself Black September -- for the humiliation in Jordan -- infiltrated the Munich Olympics on Sept. 5, 1972, and massacred 11 Israeli athletes in a horrifying day-long ordeal. The following March, Palestinian gunmen murdered two senior U.S. diplomats in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum; some American officials believed Arafat ordered the killings, although the evidence was inconclusive.

When Arafat was invited to address the United Nations in 1974, he appeared wearing his gun belt and holster, only reluctantly agreeing to remove his pistol before taking the rostrum.

There is debate about the extent to which Arafat was involved in the violence carried out by Black September. Within the PLO, factions more radical than Fatah were generally identified as responsible for some of the worst carnage; his entourage insisted he had not been involved in Black September's activities. Certainly, though, he did little to stop it, and Israel said Arafat personally gave the green light to at least some of the terrorist strikes, while leaving it to others to handle the details.

The Palestinian violence, which played out not only in the Middle East but on the world stage, cemented Arafat's reputation in much of the West as the world's number one terrorist. The violence had the effect of further raising the profile of the PLO and of Palestinian grievances -- the plight of refugees and the subjugation of residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In that sense, many in Arafat's entourage regarded terror as effective and the murderous attack on the Israeli compound in Munich as a triumph.

Exile and Decline

For most of the 1970s, Arafat and his burgeoning army of PLO fighters, bureaucrats and hangers-on based themselves in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Arafat, running what amounted to a powerful mini-state inside Lebanon, became the unofficial mayor of West Beirut and ruled some southern parts of the country. Gradually, he and the PLO became involved in the Lebanese civil war.

Corrupt, cosmopolitan and swanky, Beirut made a pleasant base of operations for a time. The PLO conducted cross-border raids into northern Israel, sometimes taking civilian lives, and engaged in artillery duels and battles with Israeli forces. But Arafat made little progress toward his stated objective of national liberation. He seemed caught between the expectations of his radicalized refugee supporters, who could countenance no deal with Israel, and the reality of Israel's military superiority, which precluded any serious PLO challenge.

Meanwhile, Egypt, the most powerful Arab country, stunned Arafat and the Palestinians by making a separate peace with Israel in 1979. The deal, brokered at Camp David by President Jimmy Carter, left the Palestinians out while offering assurances that their grievances with Israel would be addressed subsequently. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, expressions of Palestinian nationalism -- flags, images of Arafat -- were prohibited by Israeli troops. And Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, begun as scattered and often remote outposts, grew steadily into villages, towns and eventually cities.

The Beirut idyll came to an end in June 1982 when Israeli forces, directed by Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, sweeping north and subjecting Beirut to a three-month siege. The aim, said Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was to rid Lebanon once and for all of the "malevolent criminal terrorists," as he referred to the PLO. In the course of the fighting, Arafat was a priority target of Israeli warplanes and artillery, which narrowly missed him on several occasions. The Arab states did little to help the PLO, confirming Arafat's long-held suspicions of their perfidy.

In the end, Arafat was forced "from one exile to another," as he put it, this time to Tunis, the Tunisian capital, in a deal brokered by the United States. Embittered, his fighting force decimated, Arafat sailed away from Beirut under protection of French troops. In 1983, the Fatah fighters he had left in Lebanon split into factions loyal to Arafat and renegades instigated by President Hafez Assad of Syria, a longtime rival. Arafat slipped back into Lebanon but could not stop the fighting, which took many lives. His leadership and future in doubt, he returned to Tunis.

His profile declined along with that of the PLO, and in Tunis, Arafat maneuvered to maintain his primacy as leader and spokesman of the Palestinian cause. "We are in the last quarter-hour of our struggle," he liked to say. But his guerrilla army was scattered throughout seven Arab countries, and he feuded constantly with Hussein and Assad. In his remote North African outpost, farther removed from the mass of his people than ever before, Arafat found himself increasingly irrelevant.

For a leader famed for his political agility and hyperactivity on the world stage, it was curious that his fortunes were revived by an event that took place hundreds of miles away -- neither led, inspired nor foreseen by Arafat but conducted by thousands of Palestinian children and teenagers who scarcely knew him.

Uprising and Negotiation

The first Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, began in December 1987, triggered by a road accident in which an Israeli truck driver killed four Palestinians. Suddenly, the world's TV screens were alive with young Palestinians pelting Israeli troops with stones and the Israelis responding with bullets.

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