For virtually his entire adult life, Yasser Arafat had one dream, and he pursued it with such energy and zeal -- some would say fanaticism -- that he came to personify the dream itself.
The dream was of self-determination and statehood for the Palestinian people, and in the end he did not live to see it.
Such was his devotion to the cause that Arafat, who died early today at age 75 in a military hospital outside Paris, was willing to tolerate and embrace bloody acts of terror that made him an international pariah, and also to sign a peace agreement with Israel that inspired the wrath of some of his closest advisers, who considered it a sellout.
By dint of ruthless violence often directed at civilians, artful manipulation and the sheer theatrical force of his personality, he managed almost single-handedly to elevate the grievances of a few million disenfranchised Palestinians to a prominent place on the world's political agenda.
He was reviled by many Israelis, who saw in him a modern-day Hitler, revered by many Arabs, who loved him for restoring their shattered sense of honor, and lionized by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded him the Peace Prize in 1994. To the Palestinians, for whom he forged an identity as a distinct people striving for national liberation, he was larger than life -- though hardly universally adored.
"Ironically, his major shortcoming has also been his strength -- the belief that he alone is capable of realizing Palestinian ambitions," wrote Said K. Aburish, one of his biographers.
Until Israeli troops confined him to the ruins of his compound for nearly the last three years of his life, no statesman or leader in the modern era traveled as much, year after year. He once touched down in 45 countries in the space of a month, and it was common for him to alight in 10 countries in a week.
As one of the world's most recognized personalities for more than three decades, Arafat was the subject of at least a half-dozen biographies in English, plus others in French, German, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. Few public figures granted so many interviews or delivered so many speeches -- and few managed so consistently to be evasive in their public comments. His trademark black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh headdress, folded and draped meticulously to describe the shape of Palestine, became a sartorial symbol not only for the Palestinian cause but for Third World revolutions in the Cold War era. The fascination with his persona was so great that dozens of Western interlocutors felt compelled to ask him why he kept his scruffy salt-and-pepper beard (he liked it) and why he didn't marry (he finally did, at 61).
Yet for all Arafat's public exposure, a sense of mystery remained about his essential nature and some of the basic facts of his life, thanks partly to his own efforts at obscuring them.
He could be charming, courtly and good-humored in private, pouring tea for his visitors and regaling them with amusing (if inflated) accounts of his battlefield exploits, narrow escapes and political travails. Yet he was an unimposing character, 5 feet 4, bald, thick-waisted, bug-eyed, temperamental, ineloquent and modestly educated. People delved into his speeches in search of an ideology, only to come up empty-handed. To this day, there is confusion about his place of birth, controversy about his battlefield exploits and debate about any number of episodes in his spectacularly eventful life.
Still, few doubted his knack for survival, the product of astonishing talent, luck or intuition. Many or most of his closest aides and confidants were murdered in the course of their long guerrilla struggle. But Arafat emerged intact from 40 assassination attempts (by his own, probably exaggerated tally), plus wars and rebellions, car accidents, a plane crash that killed both the pilot and co-pilot, and a stroke. And he managed to keep himself and his Palestine Liberation Organization whole and relevant despite devastating political setbacks and military defeats.
In his late sixties, Arafat attempted to transform himself from an archetypal revolutionary figure into a statesman and chief executive of the first self-ruled Palestinian territories. His handshake on the White House South Lawn with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Sept. 13, 1993, was one of the indelible images of the late 20th century, and the peace agreement they signed -- and for which they won the Nobel Prize -- seemed to hold the promise of a new future for the Middle East.
But his transformation was ultimately incomplete, and in U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David and in the Middle East in 2000 he was unwilling or unable to close a deal with Israel to put an end to the two sides' century-long conflict. Many concluded that Arafat had never truly reconciled himself to Israel's existence or the permanent exile of Palestinian refugees expelled from their ancestral homes by Israel. Under his rule, the Palestinian Authority was said by many to be riddled with corruption. When a bloody new Palestinian insurrection erupted in September 2000 -- if not led by Arafat then with his acquiescence -- he became a pariah to Israel and the United States.
By the time of his death, his leadership and legacy were the subjects of harsh debate among his own people.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The uprising caught Arafat and the PLO in Tunis by surprise, but gradually they were able to harness it somewhat and use it to reassert their leadership. As the street battles raged, the Israelis, convinced the uprising was organized by the PLO, sent a commando team to Tunis to assassinate Arafat's military commander and closest aide, Khalil Wazir, known as Abu Jihad.
In December 1988, a year after the uprising began, Arafat reversed PLO policy of almost 25 years and, in a speech to a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva, recognized Israel's right to exist. In so doing, he bowed to the interests of those in the West Bank and Gaza who were pressing for the PLO's recognition of Israel as a way toward peace talks. At the same time, he said the PLO "totally and absolutely" renounces "all forms of terrorism." The shift opened the way for the first official dialogue between the United States and the PLO. Israel, however, was less impressed, and many Israelis doubted Arafat had really changed. Their doubts were confirmed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Arafat openly sided with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein even as Iraq fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv.
The United States seized on its victory in the Gulf War to launch a diplomatic push for peace in the Middle East. At Israel's insistence, Arafat and the PLO were excluded from a major peace conference convened at U.S. initiative in Madrid in October 1991. But Arafat pulled the strings from behind the scenes, instructing the Palestinian delegation and using the talks to ingratiate himself with the Americans, whom he regarded as a lever to move Israel.
On April 7, 1992, Arafat had his closest of many brushes with death. His small plane ran into a sandstorm over the Libyan desert, lost its way and was forced to crash-land. Arafat, alerted by the pilot, had time to change from a jogging suit into his customary military garb, and to don his signature checkered headdress. His bodyguards wrapped him in blankets and pillows and strapped him in. The crash killed those in the cockpit, but Arafat survived with minor injuries.
Encouraged by the new, moderate Israeli government of Prime Minister Rabin, Arafat authorized a secret negotiating channel with the Israelis. Under Norwegian auspices, the secret talks intensified in 1993 in and around Oslo and culminated in a peace deal and a dramatic signing ceremony in September at the White House, with President Bill Clinton presiding and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Carter and much of the world as witnesses.
"My people are hoping that this agreement which we are signing today marks the beginning of the end of a chapter of pain and suffering that has lasted throughout this century," Arafat said. The Declaration of Principles, as the agreement was known, cleared the way for the return of Arafat and the PLO to the occupied territories, the creation of a Palestinian police force and the election of the first self-ruled Palestinian government.
Israel pulled some troops back from the Gaza Strip and the sleepy West Bank town of Jericho, turning over power there to the newly created Palestinian Authority.
When Arafat set foot in Gaza on July 1, 1994 -- his first return in 27 years to what had been Israeli-occupied territory -- he knelt and kissed the ground. Hundreds of thousands of delirious Palestinians wept and danced in the streets, greeting him as a conquering hero.
His relations with the United States warmed for a time, and some Israelis began to view him as a pragmatist. In 1994, the man once regarded in the West as a master terrorist -- widely photographed in the early 1970s with his thick mustache, dark glasses, AK-47 assault rifle and pearl-handled pistol -- shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Still, some Palestinians, including some of Arafat's oldest comrades-in-arms, viewed the accord as a sellout that did nothing to recover what had been Palestinian homes, villages and towns before Israel's founding in 1948. Others, hopeful at first, soured over time as the promise of the peace agreement was only partly fulfilled.
Israeli troops did pull back from additional, disconnected chunks of the West Bank, including large Palestinian population centers. But in many ways the Jewish state continued to control the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, whose travel, work and movements were still subject to Israeli permission. The fate of a couple of million Palestinian refugees, and the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem, which both sides claimed as their rightful capital, remained uncertain.
In the Palestinian-controlled territories, an ascendant group called the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, denounced the peace deal and carried out terror attacks and suicide bombings against Israelis. In Israel, a right-wing Israeli fanatic opposed to the peace accord assassinated Rabin. And the election of a new, hard-line Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ushered in a period of stagnation in the peace process.
'Yes-Men and Mediocrities'
Arafat, by now not only PLO chairman but also president of the self-governing Palestinian Authority, began to lose some of his appeal. Within a couple of years of his return to Gaza, it was apparent that his gifts as a revolutionary and political magician were not matched by a talent for administration. His government, beset by cronyism, corruption and mismanagement, was widely disdained by its own people. Its shadowy, ever-multiplying security services acted brutally toward Palestinians and were despised. Disorganized, erratic and heavy-handed, Arafat surrounded himself with aides described by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said as "sycophants, yes-men and mediocrities." Even his wife, Suha -- a tall, blond, aristocratic, French-educated Palestinian Christian 34 years his junior, whom Arafat had married quietly in 1990 -- became the subject of derisive jokes.
Pressed by Clinton, Arafat agreed to meet his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's successor, in a U.S.-brokered summit at Camp David in July 2000, an event that represented not only the climax of the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts begun in 1993 but also the denouement of Arafat's own national aspirations. In talks that began there and ended months later in the Egyptian resort at Taba, the Israelis dangled before Arafat what seemed like a stunning deal: the return of all of Gaza and about 95 percent of the West Bank; control of Arab sectors of East Jerusalem; and sovereignty at the most contested spot of all -- the elevated plaza in Jerusalem's Old City, holy to Israelis and Palestinians alike, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. As for Palestinian refugees, they would be allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza, but not to Israel itself.
It was a moment of truth, and Arafat, who deeply distrusted Barak and the Israeli negotiators, appeared to balk. Arafat and his lieutenants said later that the Israelis had never placed a firm written offer on the table, that the summit had been poorly prepared and forced prematurely by Clinton, that the deal itself was fatally flawed and that the broader Arab world would not support it. He even told Clinton that to agree to the Israeli ideas would be to invite his own assassination, just as Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, had done by making peace with Israel a generation earlier at Camp David.
But whatever Arafat's protestations, he never presented a clear counterproposal. To Israel and the United States, he had proved himself incapable of making a historic compromise for peace, of redefining himself from militant to statesman. Arafat, said Clinton at Camp David, has "been here 14 days and said no to everything."
Even as the negotiations sputtered on after Camp David, in September 2000 a bloody new Palestinian insurrection erupted at the very site that had been central to the talks -- the Temple Mount -- following a visit there by Arafat's longtime nemesis, Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader. The new intifada spread, with Arafat's blessing or consent, and in the process it destroyed his dreams of self-determination in the near term for his people.
Provoked by Palestinian suicide bombers and other attacks, Israel reoccupied large swaths of the West Bank, inflicted thousands of casualties, destroyed much of the Palestinian economy and started building a security barrier intended to deter the suicide bombers from entering the country -- even as it separated thousands of Palestinians from their own land.
Declared officially "irrelevant" by Sharon, who had by then become prime minister, Arafat was shunned by the Bush administration and confined by Israeli troops to the bomb-blasted rubble of his once-grandiose presidential compound in Ramallah, the West Bank's main city. His globe-trotting days finished, his health in decline, his aspirations shattered, Arafat had become a prisoner in his own land.
Risking an Israeli assassination attempt or forced exile if he left the compound, he passed his days in isolation, receiving foreign diplomats and issuing pronouncements that seemed increasingly divorced from events. His influence waning and his profile at home and abroad in decline, he lived on more as a symbol than an actor in Palestinian affairs. And his lifelong dream -- self-determination for the Palestinian people -- remained elusive.