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Yasser Arafat 1929~2004

Symbol of Palestinian identity embraced dream of a homeland

Attired in military uniform and his head wrapped in his trademark kaffiyeh, Yasser Arafat stood out as leader of the Palestinians.

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By John Roby

(CNN) -- Yasser Arafat, known throughout the world as the face of the Palestinian national movement, alternately played the roles of guerrilla, diplomat and would-be peacemaker for more than five decades.

He rose to prominence by waging war on Israel, and years later publicly called for peace with his lifelong enemy. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, he began his career by embracing violence. To Palestinians and supporters the world over, he wore the mantle of a statesman. To his enemies and detractors, his name became synonymous with the carnage of terrorism. For Arafat, it was all in the name of establishing a Palestinian state.

"The battle for peace is the most difficult battle of our lives," he said in 1993, in the hopeful aftermath of the Oslo peace accords.

In the end, Arafat did not live to reach the goal he spent a lifetime pursuing, unable either to defeat his enemy in his youth or establish a full peace in his old age.

"He actually didn't complete anything he started. This is his dilemma," Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al Quds, said in an interview with CNN. "That's why Arafat will be remembered as an indecisive man as a politician and also an indecisive man as a revolutionary."

Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, noted that though Arafat's legacy is a checkered one, he played a key role in reshaping the Middle East's political landscape toward the end of the 20th century.

His most striking impact on history, Khalidi said, came in his early career, when he elevated the Palestinian movement onto the world stage in spite of an almost universal reluctance to deal with it.

"What's good in his legacy is attached to his buildup of Palestinian nationalism," Khalidi said. "In an environment of Arab intrigue, his achievement was considerable."

"He led his people in the battle of freedom and independence and peace," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who worked closely with Arafat for many years, told CNN in the hours after his death. "We were supposed to be scattered and extinct in this century, but President Arafat and his movement and revolution managed to keep our people united and national identity preserved."

But for many Israelis, Arafat was always a terrorist whose ultimate goal was to destroy Israel.

"He's an arch-terrorist, he's a master terrorist," said former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "He's the one who brought to the world the - you know, the terrorist start-up of producing airline hijackings, of taking people hostage, of kidnapping and murdering diplomats. You name a terrorist technique -- he has either thought about it or perfected it."

Making of a revolutionary

Arafat was born August 24, 1929, in Cairo, Egypt, though he has often said he was born in Jerusalem. He was the sixth of seven children of a Palestinian merchant and his wife, a member of a prominent Arab family in Jerusalem.

As a boy, he spent a few years living with an uncle in Jerusalem, then the capital of the British mandate of Palestine.

After World War II, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Arab nations rejected the plan, and on May 15, 1948, the day after the Israeli state was declared, Arab armies invaded.

Arafat had returned to Cairo in the 1940s and became involved in the Palestinian cause, smuggling arms into Palestine before Israel's defeat of the Arab states in the 1948 war. It would be the first of three major wars against combined Arab forces that Israel would win in the 20th century.

After the war, Arafat earned a degree in civil engineering at what is now Cairo University. He worked for a time in Kuwait as a contractor.

In 1959, he and several Palestinian comrades founded a group dedicated to waging guerrilla war against Israel. They named the organization Fatah, a reverse acronym of the Arabic for "Palestine National Liberation Movement," which by itself means "conquest" or "opening." Arafat was the group's chief.

Fatah achieved fame in the Arab world less than a decade later. Arafat had set up his base for launching raids into Israel at the village of Karama, Jordan. When Israel counterattacked in March 1968, Arafat urged his forces to stand their ground.

Fatah and Jordan lost about 150 men, while about two dozen Israeli soldiers died.

In his book "The Gun and the Olive Branch," David Hirst wrote, "From Fatah's standpoint, Karama was a great triumph, a turning point in their fortunes."

Within a year of the battle, Arafat had become chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Fatah its main component. He was quoted at the time as pledging to ramp up the armed revolution and rejecting any political settlement with Israel.

The PLO's guerrilla war gained international attention -- and condemnation -- through two events in the coming years: the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, and the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, along with the deputy chief of mission and a Belgian diplomat, the following year.

The incidents helped raise the profile of the Palestinian cause and also associated it and Arafat's PLO with terrorism.

A Sunni Muslim, Arafat attended Friday prayers in November 1994.  

Negotiating success

Arafat demonstrated he could use his newfound notoriety to negotiate to his benefit.

Less than a decade after the gunfight at Karama, Arafat, wearing his trademark fatigues and an empty holster, addressed the U.N. General Assembly. He closed his remarks with the words: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

The Arab League had previously declared Arafat's PLO the only representative of the Palestinian people. After the speech, the PLO was allowed to become a permanent observer at the United Nations, and the world body accepted the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

By then, Arafat, his head wrapped in his trademark kaffiyeh, had become symbolic of the Palestinian push for statehood.

"Arafat, both in his own mind and in the mind of many Palestinians, is the personification of the Palestinian struggle," said Arthur Goldschmidt, a Penn State University professor, Middle East historian and author of "A Concise History of the Middle East."

In 1982, Israel went after Arafat and the PLO, invading war-torn Lebanon because the PLO was using it as a base for deadly attacks on Israel. Israeli troops - led by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon -- pushed through South Lebanon all the way to Beirut.

Israeli forces were able to drive Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon and Sharon, who is now the Israeli prime minister, later told CNN he ordered Arafat's assassination 13 times during the Lebanon campaign. Arafat survived but he and the PLO were forced to flee to Tunis.

Several years later, as Palestinians in Israeli occupied territories staged a violent uprising independent of the PLO, Arafat finally indicated that the PLO might be willing to compromise. At a special assembly of the UN in Geneva in 1988, Arafat renounced terrorism, acknowledged Israel's right to exist and declared an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

As a spokesman for the plight of his people, Arafat played a critical role in gaining international diplomatic support for his cause.

"[Arafat] has on his side this absolutely amazing ability to get sympathy," Barry Rubin, director of the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center and author of "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography," said in an interview. "The phrase coined by American intelligence people in the 1970s, that Arafat was the 'Teflon terrorist,' has really borne out amazingly."

1993 marked the high point for Arafat the diplomat when he shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House to seal the Oslo accords, granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Six months later, he made a triumphant return to Gaza after a 27-year exile. Shortly after, in 1994, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. But not everyone accepted Arafat as a peacemaker.

"I think it was one of the low points of the Nobel Prize," Netanyahu said.

The early 1990s were also a high point in Arafat's private life. He married his wife, Suha, more than 30 years his junior, in secret in November 1991. Their daughter, Zahwa, was born in 1995.

Yet despite his public and private accomplishments, violence in the Middle East never came to a complete halt. Attacks and counterattacks by both sides continued.

Peace deal elusive

The Oslo accords turned out to be the zenith of Palestinian diplomacy under Arafat. A 2000 meeting at Camp David between Arafat, who had been elected president of the new Palestinian Authority in 1996, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, ended without a peace deal.

Accounts at the time said negotiations snagged over the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, which both Palestinians and Israelis claim as their capital.

"The popular statement is that Arafat was offered almost everything he wanted at Camp David in July 2000 and he rejected this because he didn't have the courage to accept these terms that Barak offered to him at that time," said Goldschmidt, the Penn State professor.

By then, Arafat was no longer the sole spokesman of the Palestinian people. Other groups had gained prominence, most notably Hamas, the organization that has claimed responsibility for dozens of terror attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets. The group's prominence rose during the intifada of the 1980s, a popular uprising that grew outside of Arafat's control.

"Certainly Hamas would not have supported him," if he had accepted the Camp David proposal, Goldschmidt said. "But even a lot of Palestinians who were not backers of Hamas were very anxious that he should not accept those terms."

Rubin disputed the notion that Hamas had any serious sway over Arafat and noted that the Oslo agreement, signed seven years before, allowed ample time to prepare for concessions.

Thousands have died "because this man refused to make peace in the year 2000," he said. "He could've done it. He didn't do it. The cost has been horrendous."

Ken Stein, professor of Middle East history and political science at Emory University, said Arafat was never willing or able to separate himself from the Palestinian nationalist movement.

"He is probably typical of Arab leaders of a certain age cohort that came out of the post-colonial period," Stein said. "He saw his struggle as a very parochial one, and he didn't put it in the broader context of what was going on in the rest of the world."

In that sense, Arafat's style of rule was ill-suited to negotiation, Stein said. "In the negotiations, he sort of let everyone go their own way but never gave anyone all the information they needed to create a deal."

Ending in isolation

After Camp David, Arafat was increasingly isolated from the peace process. Under pressure from the United States, he ceded some power over the Palestinian Authority's day-to-day workings and allowed a prime minister to be appointed.

Twice in 2002, Israel besieged his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah in response to an escalation in Palestinian terrorist attacks.

Israeli forces raze the area around Arafat's compound in Ramallah in 2002.  

"Arafat has established a coalition of terrorism against Israel," Sharon said in March 2002, shortly after an all-night Cabinet meeting. "He is an enemy and at this stage he will be isolated."

Arafat responded defiantly, saying said no one in the Arab world would "surrender or bow" to Israel.

"They either want to kill me, or capture me, or expel me," Arafat said, speaking March 29, 2002, by telephone to Al-Jazeera television from his headquarters in Ramallah. "I hope I will be a martyr in the Holy Land. I have chosen this path and if I fall, one day a Palestinian child will raise the Palestinian flag above our mosques and churches."

One more attempt at brokering peace came during this time, when the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations created what diplomats described as a "road map" for peace. The plan called for Arafat's dream of a Palestinian state by 2005. But the plan stalled within months, in the face of ongoing Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and Israeli incursions.

In the year of his death, Arafat's world had shrunk to the size of his compound in Ramallah. The Palestinian leader feared exile by Israel if he were to leave.

Meanwhile, Israel announced unilateral plans to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank, and rejected Palestinian demands for the right for refugees to return to former lands inside Israel.

Even before Arafat's death, there were symbolic signs of change, like Arafat's empty chair at the executive meeting of the PLO. The two men who are now running the government - former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the current Prime Minster Ahmed Qorei, have reputations as moderates. Activists outside the Palestinian leadership were looking at Arafat's death as an opportunity to push for reforms -- open and accountable government, elections, and reforming of the Palestinian security services - that Arafat fought against for years

"If this is the only opportunity offered to us as Palestinian reformers and as democrats, then we have to grasp that opportunity and build on it," said Riad El-Malki, a Palestinian political activist.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi acknowledged that a post-Arafat government would have to change, saying Palestinians viewed Arafat differently from any other leader and accepted from him things they would not accept from others.

"The decision making will be shared and there will be closer accountability because of all the things that people accepted from Arafat, or even gave Arafat because of his stature, his historical standing, his revolutionary image, his national identification, they will not forgive anyone else."

In one of his last addresses to the Palestinian people, Arafat echoed themes that harkened back over five decades. Israel cannot gain security, he warned, until there is an independent Palestinian homeland "free from occupation, free from settlements, free from the Israeli siege."

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