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last updated Jan. 5, 2010 1:21 PM (EST+7)
Yasser Arafat
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Palestinian politics Fateh PLO Palestinian Authority
Arafat was born in Cairo in on August 24, 1929. His full name is Abdel Rahman Abdel Raauf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini. He was mostly brought up in Cairo but also lived in Jerusalem for a brief period. During the 1948 war Arafat fought alongside the Mufti’s defense forces of Palestine. His father, a Palestinian merchant, died during the 1948 war.

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He graduated from King Faud University in Cairo with a degree in engineering in 1956. During his time as a student, from 1952 to 1957, he founded and was president of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in Cairo. In 1956, he founded and was chairman of the Union of Palestinian Graduates. Arafat is thought to have adopted the name ‘Yasser’, and its epithet ‘Abu Ammar’, while studying at university in Egypt to honor an Arab victim of the British mandate in Palestine. He volunteered in the Egyptian army during the Suez crisis, and then left for Kuwait in late 1956.

From the beginning, Arafat was a grassroots activist. Initially, he was drawn to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood but soon became wedded to the idea of armed struggle to reverse the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe). When in Kuwait, in 1957, Arafat and Abu Jihad co-founded the first Fateh-cell. Arafat became the Fateh leader in 1958, having founded the party in late 1950s and became its spokesperson in 1968.

In February 1969 Arafat was elected chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee, when Fateh took over the PLO. He changed the direction of the PLO from being a pan-Arab organization to focusing on the Palestinian national cause. In September 1970 he was appointed commander-in-chief of all Palestinian and Arab guerilla forces.

At the Palestinian National Council (PNC) conference of 1974, Arafat agreed to ‘liberate Palestine by stages’. On November 13, 1974 he made the famous speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Arafat rejected Egyptian President Sadat’s peace talks with Israel between 1977 and 1978 because it became clear that the version of Palestinian autonomy being offered fell far short of statehood and gave no role to the PLO. In 1985, Arafat signed the framework for peace with his former enemy, King Hussein of Jordan. The framework encompassed plans for a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. However, it was suspended by King Hussein in 1986 when Arafat failed to condemn the Achille Lauro affair.

In March 1986 Arafat offered to accept UN Resolutions 242 and 338, thus accepting Israel, on the condition that the permanent UN Security Council members guarantee Palestinians the right to self-determination. On November 15, 1988, he recognized Israel, renounced terrorism and proclaimed the independence of Palestine. Subsequently he was elected as the president of the state of Palestine by the PLO central council on April 2, 1989.

Arafat offered his ‘good offices’ to negotiate an Arab solution to the 1990 to 1991 Gulf crisis following Saddam Hussein’s ‘call to arms’ on behalf of Palestine.

From 1992, Arafat supervised secret negotiations with Israel in Oslo, Norway. These led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) by the PLO and Israel on 13 September 1993. Following the signing of the DOP he negotiated with Israel on the arrangements for Palestinian self-rule. He returned to the occupied territories on July 1, 1994 and set up the Palestinian Authority (PA), of which he was appointed president and minister of interior.

In 1994 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

In the January 1996 presidential elections, Arafat was elected president, obtaining 87.3% of the vote. Having become president he appointed a committee to draw up a Palestinian constitution, met President Bill Clinton during his first official visit to the United States in May 1996 and then announced a new 25 member cabinet on May 9, 1996.

Between 1997 and 1998 Arafat was faced with a number of resignations from members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and his cabinet, including Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdel Shafi. The members claimed that the reason for these resignations was his failure to implement reforms and combat corruption.

Arafat received the “Golden Pegasus” prize in Florence in June 1998. In October 1998 he signed the Wye River Agreement with Israel, calling for further Israeli withdrawals and a Palestinian crackdown on militants. In 1999, he threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, at the end of the interim period. Israel had failed to meet its commitments. However, he was persuaded against this and signed the Sharm al-Sheikh Agreement in September 1999 which called for a 7% transfer of ‘Area C’ to ‘Area B’.

In July 2000, Arafat headed the negotiations in Camp David with President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He took a firm stance on the final status issues and was held responsible for the failure to reach agreement.

Following the election of right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February 2001, he was increasingly marginalized by the Israeli government. He was banned from traveling and confined to his compound, the Muqataa, in Ramallah by the Israeli army for a major part of the al-Aqsa Intifada.

Under international pressure, Arafat agreed to appoint a prime minister to the PA in February 2003. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was sworn in as the first prime minister on April 30, 2003. After Abbas resigned in September 2003, Arafat announced a PA emergency government in early October 2003. On November 12, 2003 he swore in the subsequent government with Ahmed Qurei as the new prime minister.

On September 11, 2003 the Israeli security cabinet approved the removal of Arafat, “in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing”, and decided to take measures to eliminate Palestinian resistance. On April 2, 2004, Sharon asserted that there is no guarantee for the life of Arafat, and that did not rule out liquidating him. Sharon also asserted that Arafat would not be allowed to return to the occupied Palestinian territories if he left.

In October 2004, Arafat became seriously ill and was flown from Ramallah to Paris, via Amman, to receive further medical treatment. This was the first time he went abroad since 2001. He underwent medical checks and treatment at the Percy Military Teaching Hospital in Clamart, outside Paris, from October 29, 2004, but did not recover. He was pronounced dead on November 11, 2004. On November 12, 2004 he was buried at the presidential headquarters, the Muqataa, in Ramallah.
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