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Biography - Yasser Arafat

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Biography of Yasser Arafat

Details of Yasser Arafat's early life are obscure and disputed. His real name was Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, and he was probably born on August 4, or August 24 1929 in Cairo or the Gaza strip. Other sources give his birthplace as Jerusalem, but that claim is believed to be a fabrication. Arafat's father was a merchant of the Hussaini family. Arafat's father was Abdul al Qudwa (or Kidwa). His mother was Hamida Khalifa Al-Husseini, one of the many cousins of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini. Arafat's mother died when he was five years old, and he supposedly spent the next four years of his life with his uncle in Jerusalem. The family subsequently moved to Jerusalem. They later moved to Gaza, where Abdul Al-Qudwa eventually became active in Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) politics and was involved with the Mufti's group as well. Al-Qudwa acted as liaison for German submarines who dropped arms for the Palestinians in Gaza.

Arafat was apparently greatly influenced by one of his teachers, Majid Halaby, who gave him the nickname Yasir, because of his supposed resemblance to Yasir al Birah, a Palestinian leader killed by the British in the Arab revolt.

Halaby, as "abu Khalid"  was eventually killed (apparently by Abdel Khader El Husseini) and Arafat formed a Society of abu Khlalid the Martyr in his school, and likewise seems to have joined his father's Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) group and attempted to bring it in line with the politics of the Husseini clan.

According to most biographers, Arafat fought against the Jews in the Mufti's al Futtuwah organization in 1948. This has been denied by some, and Thomas Kiernan and other biographers have amassed evidence that Arafat took little part in actual fighting, but he probably was a member of al Futtuwah. He is rumored to have shot himself in the leg. Arafat claimed to have been in Jerusalem in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared, but it is probable that he returned to Gaza before that time, and participated in planning a raid on Nizzanim in March. He had learned that Halaby was in fact murdered by Abdel Khader el Husseini and became an enemy of Abdel-Khader.  After the war, Arafat participated in terrorist activities in Gaza, aimed not against Jews, but against supporters of the Nashashibi clan, rivals of the al-Husseinis. It was at this time that Arafat killed someone for the first time, a man he wrongly suspected of betraying his group to the Nashashibis. However, Arafat refused to integrate his militia group into the new group formed under orders of the Mufti, and his father exiled him to Cairo.

Arafat studied in King Fuad Cairo University Faculty of Engineering. He was founder and president of the Palestinian Students Union.  In August of 1955 Arafat's brother Badir was killed in an Israeli raid on Khan Yunis. Arafat then volunteered for the Egyptian army, and was eventually recruited during training by the Egyptian intelligence service. In December of 1955 he returned to Cairo and the university as a Lieutenant, He then founded the General Union of Palestinian Students, under the guidance of Egyptian intelligence. The GUPS under Arafat popularized Nasserism and allegiance to Egypt. He was challenged on this score by a rival, who was soon found dead. 

Arafat  graduated from King Fuad Cairo University, Faculty of Engineering, in 1956. He served in the Egyptian army during the Suez Canal crisis, according to most accounts. He saw no action, but was assigned to a demolition squad near Suez city. Arafat's debut on the international scene came when as head of the GUPS, he was invited to an international students convention organized in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Thereafter, he moved to Kuwait. In 1957 he  co-founded the first Fateh-cell in 1957 with Abu-Jihad (Khalil al Wazir), a friend from Gaza, and founded the Fateh party in January 1959, though it was not officially founded until January 1, 1965. Khalil al Wazir and his friend Khalid al Hassan are said to have made two key contributions to the success of Fatah. They were greatly influenced by the FLN and the experience of the Algerians. They argued Arafat out of his Nasserism, insisting that Palestinians had to rely on themselves, and they also pointed out the importance of winning over the population as opposed to engaging only in guerilla and terrorist warfare.

Arafat lived in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1967, when he fled to Jordan during or following the 6 day war. His prestige and that of the Fatah movement was greatly enhanced by the victory of Fatah forces led by him over the IDF at Karameh in the West Bank. He was elected chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO in February 1969, replacing Ahmed Shuqhairy, when Fateh took over the PLO. Arafat's leadership responded to the debacle of the 1967 6-day war by divorcing the PLO from from pan-Arabist aims to emphasis on national liberation of the Palestinian people. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the all-Palestinian/Arab guerilla forces in September 1970. At this time the PLO was driven out of Jordan after Palestinian factions attempted to overthrow the government of King Hussein. Arafat and the PLO eventually found their way to Beirut, which remained the center of PLO operations against Israel until 1982.In the 70s, the PLO came to be widely recognized as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and Arafat was recognized as the leader of the Palestinians. Under Arafat's leadership, the PLO often distanced itself from terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and in particular airplane hijackings. Arafat offered to mediate the release of hostages in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976. The role of Arafat and those close to him in operations such as the murder of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics and the 1973 Black September attack on the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan is suspected but has not been proven.

Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly in New York for the first time on November 13, 1974, wearing a barely disguised pistol and carrying an olive branch and dressed in a military uniform. This appearance raised world awareness of the Palestinian cause. Under Arafat's guidance, in 1974, the Palestine National Council adopted a policy of gradual liberation of Palestine, declaring that they would set up a Palestinian state on any part of Palestine that had been liberated.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Arafat and the PLO were forced to leave Beirut and settled in Tunis. On November 15, 1988, Arafat proclaimed the independent Palestinian State, though the PLO did not control any Palestinian territory. This was an attempt to coopt the homegrown revolt against Israel, the Intifadah, that had arisen spontaneously in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under increasing urging from Palestinian moderates in Gaza strip and the West Bank, as well as from moderate figures abroad such as Edward Said, Arafat responded to American pressure and announced that the PLO accepts UN resolution 242, which recognizes the existence of Israel.   Arafat was elected by the Central Council of the PLO as the first President of the State of Palestine on April 2, 1989. During the 1980s Arafat was supported by Saddam Hussein. Arafat and the PLO supported Saddam Hussein during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and subsequent operations against Iraq, putting Arafat and the PLO in the bad graces of the United States. However, after the war, Arafat was quickly able to rehabilitate himself and the Palestinian cause.

In 1990, Arafat married a Christian Palestinian, Suha Taweel, who gave birth to a daughter, Zahwa. Suha currently lives in Paris, and is said to have been estranged from Arafat for several years prior to his death, but receives generous support from the Palestinian Authority.

Beginning in 1992, Arafat and the PLO held secret negotiations with Israel. These led to the signing of the Oslo Declaration of  Principles (peace accord) between PLO and Israel on September 13, 1993; since then negotiating with Israel on Palestinian self-rule. Under the agreement, Arafat was allowed to enter Palestinian ruled territory on July 1, 1994. Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their role in the Oslo peace process.

Arafat set up the Palestinian Authority and was elected President in 1995.  Since then, Arafat ruled in an arbitrary manner. The Palestine Legislative Council met infrequently and was a rubber stamp. Under Arafat's rule, the PNA failed to develop democratic institutions or to lay a solid basis for the Palestinian economy and society. The PNA and Arafat fulfilled their treatment obligations to maintain order and refrain from terror and incitement in an erratic and desultory matter until 2000, denouncing terror primarily in English, but allowing continued activity of terrorist groups, and sponsoring parades in which refugees demanded to return to towns in Israel.

In September, 2000, Palestinians initiated a period of violent uprising following Ariel Sharon's walk on the temple mount (haram al-sharif) compound. Though Arafat condemned acts of violence, documents seized by the IDF in Operation Defensive Wall in April 2002 indicate that Arafat personally approved salary disbursements for terrorists. Since April 2002, Arafat was been confined by Israeli forces to his Muqata headquarters in Ramalah, where Israelis claimed he was hiding several wanted terrorists. Israel sought to isolate Arafat and render him irrelevant.  Israeli targeting of Arafat helped restore his popularity among Palestinians despite dissatisfaction with his dictatorial ways. He was increasingly regarded as the "father of his country" and European and American pressure did not allow Israel to harm Arafat personally. However, Europeans and Americans became disenchanted with Arafat because of his support of terror and reputed corruption, and sought to evade his practical leadership while maintaining him as nominal head of the Palestinian people.

Arafat is widely believed to have amassed a huge personal fortune from funds intended for the PLO or PNA. An International Monetary Fund audit of  stated that Arafat put  $900 million in public funds in a personal bank account. Other estimates put his personal fortune as high as   $3 Billion. Suha Arafat was thought to receive $100,000 each month while Yasser Arafat was alive.

On April 29, 2003, responding to pressure from the United States and European Union, Arafat appointed Abu-Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) as Prime Minister. Abu Mazen was supposed to take over security responsibilities from Arafat and oversee reform of the Palestinian administration. However, Abbas did not get cooperation either from the Israelis or from Fatah members loyal to Yasser Arafat and resigned on September 6. Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei) took his place. 

In October 2004 Arafat fell seriously ill with an unidentified illness, and was hospitalized in Paris, leaving the Muqata for the first time since 2002. By October 28, there were rumors that he was dying. He suffered from nervous tremor, low platelet count  and other ailments, variously attributed to poisoning or AIDS. His wife Suha zealously guarded his privacy from the world, excluding even members of the Palestinian government, who she insisted were plotting to supplant Arafat

Yasser Arafat died November 11, 2004 and was subsequently buried in the Muqata in Ramallah

Ami Isseroff

Other biographies:

Biography - Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen)
Biography - Marwan Barghouti
Biography - Shimon Peres
Biography - Ahmed Qurei (Abu-Ala)
Biography - Yitzhak Rabin
Biography - Ariel Sharon


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