Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat (born 1929) was elected chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969. Though originally an advocate of all-out guerrilla war, from 1974 on he and the PLO sometimes seemed to be seeking a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian problem. He was awarded the Joliot-Curie Gold Medal by the World Peace Council in 1975.

Yasser Arafat was born Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini on October 24, 1929 to a Palestinian family living in Cairo, Egypt. He was related, through his mother, to the Husseini family, who were prominent members of the Sunni Muslim community in Jerusalem. His youth was spent in Cairo and Jerusalem. At that time, the area of historic Palestine was ruled by the British, under a mandate (license) from the League of Nations. Palestine was also a magnet for Jewish immigrants from Europe, who sought to build a Jewish homeland there. Jewish immigration was opposed by most of the country's existing population, who for the most part were ethnic Arabs of both the Muslim and Christian faiths.


Youthful Politics

While still in his teens Arafat became involved with a Palestinian Arab nationalist group led by cousins from the Husseini family. When the British moved out of Palestine in 1948, fierce fighting broke out between the Jewish and Arab communities. The Jews were easily able to beat the Palestinians. As a result, around a million Palestinians were forced to flee their ancestral homeland and sought refuge in neighboring Arab nations. Two-thirds of prewar Palestine then became the Jewish state of Israel. The rest came under the control of two Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.

After the Palestinians' 1948 defeat, Arafat went to Cairo, where he studied engineering. He founded a Palestinian student union, which expanded rapidly over the following years. At the end of the 1950s it was one of the main constituent groups in the new Palestinian nationalist movement "Fateh". (The name is a reverse acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastinivva—the Palestinian Liberation Movement.)

Arafat was one of Fateh's most prominent founders and sat on the movement's central committee. Fateh rejected the many complex ideologies which were fought over in the Arab world in the late 1950s and rejected reliance on any of the existing Arab regimes. Its members argued that Palestinians should seek to regain their own country by their own efforts, which should include guerrilla warfare against Israel. This armed struggle was launched in 1965. The attacks did not seriously scar the Jewish military, but did increase Palestinian morale and Arafat's credibility.


Birth of the PLO

Meanwhile, in 1964, the Arab countries had created their own Palestinian confederation, which they called the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). At that stage the PLO did not take on the Israelis directly.

In 1967, the Israelis defeated the Arabs in the full scale Six-Day War. Israel managed to occupy the rest of historic Palestine, along with chunks of Egyptian and Syrian territory. The Arab states were discredited by their defeat in the Six-Day War and the Fateh guerrillas who had long criticized them seemed vindicated. In 1969, Fateh and its allies were able to take over the PLO apparatus, and Arafat was elected chairman of the executive committee.

Many guerrilla camps were set up in Jordan along the border with Israel. In September 1970 Jordan's King Hussein sent his army against these growing camps, killing many Palestinians in what was known as Black September. Lebanon then became the guerrillas' main base of military operations. After this, the PLO engaged in terrorist acts, including the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.


The Peace Process

In October 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War, trying to regain the lands Israel had occupied six years earlier. They did not succeed in regaining the lands by force, but their action stimulated American efforts to seek a negotiated settlement in the region. In 1974 the PLO's ruling body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), voted to seek inclusion in such a settlement, calling for the creation of a Palestinian national authority in those two areas of historic Palestine which the Israelis had occupied in 1967. (These were the West Bank—known by the Israelis as Judea and Samaria—and the Gaza Strip.)

In November 1974 the support of the Arab states enabled Arafat to participate in a debate on the Middle East at the United Nations General Assembly. His famous words there were: "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." But he failed to use his appearance to spell out the PLO's call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, so the Israelis still refused to have any dealings with the PLO. In 1975, the United States government vowed to do likewise, at least until the PLO should openly recognize U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 and Israel's right to exist. Under pressure from Palestinian hardliners, Arafat and the PLO refused to satisfy this condition.

When Egypt's President Anwar Sadat launched his peace process with Israel in 1977-1979, the PLO opposed it. The Camp David accords signed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States in 1978 called for the institution of a Palestinian autonomy plan in the West Bank and Gaza, but this plan never went into effect. Most Palestinian residents of these occupied areas feared that 'autonomy' meant the continuation of Israeli rule, and they supported the PLO's call for an independent Palestinian state there.

In 1982 the Israeli government decided to try to smash the PLO's military capability in Lebanon. The Israeli army knocked out PLO positions in south Lebanon and encircled Arafat and his remaining forces in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. American diplomacy finally resulted in the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut.

In February 1983 the PNC voted to pursue a reconciliation with Jordan and Egypt, with a view to suing for peace with Israel. This angered the Syrians, who set about forming an internal PLO rebellion against Arafat's leadership. Then, in November 1984, Arafat convened a meeting of the PNC in the Jordanian capital. This provoked a final break with his pro-Syrian critics, and afterwards he felt freer to pursue his moves toward the Jordanians.

In February 1985, Arafat and King Hussein healed the rift which had divided them since 1970 and agreed on a joint strategy toward Israel. Their announced aim was the creation of a confederation between Jordan and a Palestinian entity which would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. They sought the help of the United States in pressing the Israelis to agree to this. One obstacle to be overcome was the Americans' ten-year-old ban on talking to the PLO. In midsummer 1985, plans were made for a series of diplomatic moves which would include Arafat's open acceptance of resolution 242. But by early 1986 King Hussein broke off negotiations with Arafat, citing PLO refusal to compromise.

The Oslo Accord was signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the fall of 1993. The accord placed the city of Jericho, the Israeli occupied Gaza Strip, and eventually the remainder of the West Bank under Palestinian self-rule. Arafat was elected president in January 1996.

Late in 1996, Rabin's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, signed the Hebron agreement with Arafat which removed Israeli occupiers from the last occupied city in the West Bank. In return, Arafat promised to amend the portion of the Palestinian National Charter which calls for the destruction of Israel.


Return to the Status Quo

The decision by Israel to build homes in Jerusalem started up the terrorism campaign in the Middle East. The resulting hostility between the Israelis and the Palestinians placed the peace process on very shaky ground. Jewish settlement in Jerusalem remains a controversial issue.

Further Reading on Yasser Arafat

The major biography of Arafat is Alan Hart, Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker (1984). An earlier and more critical biography, which contains many errors, is Thomas Kiernan, Arafat: The Man and the Myth (1976). The politics of the PLO are detailed in Quandt, Jabber, and Lesch, The Politics of Palestinian Nationalism (1973), and Helena Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics (1984). One interesting biographical account by a close Arafat colleague is Abu Iyad with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land: A Narrative of the Palestinian Struggle (1981). Additional Arafat articles include "Don't Insult Me With an Offer Like That," Time (June 23, 1997), and "Hope and Fear," Scholastic Update (September 20, 1996).