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Yasser Arafat: Homeland a dream for Palestinian Authority Chief


In this story:

A student of Jewish life
King Hussein sends PLO packing
Shakes hands with Rabin

Creating a Palestinian state has been a dream of Yasser Arafat's since he was a Palestinian nationalist in Egypt smuggling guns from Egypt into Palestine.

That dream sustained him during his years as a guerrilla fighter with a pistol on his hip, and it has guided him through his leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He has been so adamant about it, in fact, that in the months leading up to the agreement signed in October 1998 at the Wye River Conference Center in Maryland, Arafat swore that Palestinians would create their own state even if they never reached a peace agreement with Israel.

Arafat was born Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat al Qudwa al-Hussein in Cairo, Egypt, on August 24, 1929, the son of a successful merchant. His mother died when he was 4 and he went to live with an uncle in Jerusalem, a city that was ruled by the British under a League of Nations mandate (installed after World War I).

It was during those years that Arafat was exposed to the clash between Arabs and Jews, particularly Jews who immigrated to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

A student of Jewish life

While attending the University of Cairo, from which he graduated as a civil engineer, Arafat undertook a study of Jewish life, associating with Jews and reading the works of Zionists such as Theodor Herzl. But by 1946 he had become a Palestinian nationalist and was procuring weapons in Egypt to be smuggled into Palestine in the Arab cause.

When the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948, reports say that Arafat slipped into Palestine to fight the Israelis.

He later claimed, however, that he and his compatriots were disarmed and turned back by other Arabs who did not want the help of Palestinian irregulars. After Israel won the war, Palestinians suffered a significant humiliation when the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were left without a state of their own, despite a provision in the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine that created one.

In the 1950s, Arafat was commissioned into the Egyptian army and fought in the 1956 Suez Crisis.

After leaving the army, Arafat worked as an engineer in Kuwait. During this time he and several Palestinian Arab associates formed a movement that became known as Al Fatah, an organization dedicated to reclaiming Palestine for the Palestinians. This and other groups eventually operated under the PLO, an umbrella organization formed in 1964.

Running Al Fatah became Arafat's full-time occupation, and by 1965 the organization was launching guerrilla raids and terrorist attacks into Israel.

But in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel emerged victorious and captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and Gaza and most of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

King Hussein sends PLO packing

Arafat and Al Fatah received international publicity in 1968 when they inflicted a significant defeat on Israeli troops who entered Jordan.

The PLO's activities troubled Jordan's King Hussein, however, and after a civil war in 1971, Hussein forced the Palestinians to leave Jordan. In an interesting twist, two visits from an ailing King Hussein to the Wye River negotiations were what encouraged Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach a peace agreement.

After leaving Jordan, the PLO set up bases in Lebanon and continued to carry out raids against Israel. Arafat, however, came to be regarded as a villain for his suspected involvement in the murder of Israeli athletes by the Black September Arab terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

But in 1974 he was allowed to address the United Nations, and that organization voted to grant observer status to the PLO.

In June 1982, Israel retaliated for a series of PLO terrorist raids by launching an all-out counterattack that destroyed PLO headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon.

Arafat re-established new headquarters in Tunisia and gave his organization's support to Palestinians in the West Bank and other occupied territories who began to riot against Israel.

Shakes hands with Rabin

In 1988, Arafat proclaimed an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and told the United Nations that the PLO renounced terrorism. He said the PLO supported the right of all parties to live in peace -- Israel included.

By the year's end, 70 countries had recognized the PLO, but its credibility was undermined in 1990 by its support of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

In the same year, however, the PLO officially recognized Israel, and in 1993 Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords that established a framework for an agreement aimed at bringing peace to the region.

The accords called for the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the West Bank, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority as the Palestinian governing body in the occupied territories.

Rabin and Arafat were rewarded for their efforts by being named co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

In January 1996, Arafat won a landslide victory as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July 2000 in an effort to reach a peace agreement. The two leaders failed to reach an agreement. Both leaders wanted their countries to have sovereignty over Jerusalem and its holy sites.

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