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leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization
Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini was born in Cairo, Egypt, on August 29, 1929. He was called Yasir (or Yasser) by his family from a young age, and had "shortened" his name to Yasser Arafat by adulthood. His mother died when he was five years old, and he was sent to live with a maternal uncle in Jerusalem, then the capital of the British Mandate of Palestine. After four years in Jerusalem, his father brought him back to Cairo, where he was raised by an older sister and other siblings. Little else is known about his childhood.
At the age of seventeen, Arafat was smuggling arms to Palestine to be used against the British and the Jews. At nineteen, during the war between the Jews and the Arab states, he left his studies at the University of Faud I (now Cairo University) to fight against the Jews in the Gaza area. He returned to Faud University after the war to major in engineering. Despite spending more of his time as leader of the Union of Palestinian Students than he did in studies, he received his bachelor's degree in 1956. After graduating, he worked briefly in Egypt then settled in Kuwait, where he was first employed in the Department of Public Works and then became the owner of a successful contracting firm. He spent all his spare time in political activities, to which he contributed most of his firm's profits.
In 1958, Arafat and several friends founded Al-Fatah, an underground network of secret cells which, in 1959, began to publish a magazine advocating armed struggle against Israel. He left Kuwait at the end of 1964 to become a full-time revolutionary. Al-Fatah subsequently established its base of operations in the Jordanian city of Karameh. Also in 1964, Al-Fatah became one of the groups within the newly-formed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). After the defeat of the Arab states in the 1967 Six-Day War, Al-Fatah emerged as the most powerful and best organized of the groups making up the PLO. Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO executive committee in 1969. Under Arafat's leadership the PLO became a state within the state of Jordan, complete with its own military forces. In 1970, following open hostilities between the PLO and the Jordanian Army, King Hussein of Jordan expelled the PLO from his country. Arafat rebuilt the PLO in Lebanon.
On November 13, 1974, Arafat appeared before the United Nations and declared "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." That same year, Arab leaders recognized the PLO as "the sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. In June 1982, Israel mounted a full-scale assault on the PLO that escalated into the Lebanon War. In September, the United States brokered a cease-fire deal in which Arafat and his leadership were sent to Tunis, Tunisia, which became his base of operations for the next decade. On December 13, 1988, in a speech at a special United Nations session held in Geneva, Switzerland, Arafat declared that the PLO renounced terrorism and supported "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbours." On April 2, 1989, Arafat was elected by the Central Council of the Palestine National Council (the governing body of the PLO) to be the President of the proclaimed State of Palestine.
In 1991, Arafat married Suha Tawil, with whom he had one daughter, Zahwa, in 1995. Also in 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker convinced Israel and her neighbors, including the PLO, to attend a peace conference in Madrid, Spain. It would be the first time in history that Israel would conduct open negotiations with the PLO. Although no agreements came out of Madrid, the ground had been laid for future talks. Israeli and PLO officials began secretly negotiating in Oslo, Norway, and, on September 13, 1993, the Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accords) was signed in Washington, D.C. This agreement included provisions for the Palestinian elections which took place in early 1996, in which Arafat was elected President of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, along with Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their work on the Oslo Accords.
At a summit at Camp David, Maryland, in July, 2000, Israel agreed to withdraw from 97% of the West Bank, 100% of the Gaza Strip, and create an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, Arafat was asked to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the parts of the Western Wall religiously significant to Jews, and to allow three early warning stations to be established in the Jordan Valley. Arafat refused the offer. Three months later, intense fighting broke out between Palestinians and the Israeli army. In retaliation for increased terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian targets, Israel confined Arafat to his West Bank compound in Ramallah in December 2001. On March 28, 2002, Israeli tanks rolled into the major cities of the West Bank, and Arafat's reputation among his fellow Palestinians was seriously damaged by the fact that he was unable to get any Arab nation to come to the Palestinians' aid. In 2003, under pressure from the United States and members of his own Cabinet, Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas to the new position of Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas resigned less than six months later, however, saying he didn't have enough support to do the job. Arafat subsequently named Ahmed Qorei to the post.
On October 29, 2004, Arafat was admitted to a Paris hospital with a blood ailment and digestive problems. He slipped into a coma on November 3, and died on November 11. He had always wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, but the Israeli government refused his family's request. He was instead interred near his headquarters in Ramallah. Arafat was replaced as PLO chairman by Mahmoud Abbas, and as president of the Palestinian Authority by Rawhi Fattuh, speaker of the Palestinian Parliament.
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This page was last updated on November 11, 2017.