The Eternal Agitator

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Even as President, Arafat kept his military medals on display

Yasser Arafat loved the cartoon Tom and Jerry. Learning on the eve of his triumphant 1994 return to the Gaza Strip that the show didn't air there, he joked that in that case, he wasn't going. He adored the program, he said, because the mouse, not the cat, always won. All his life, Arafat was the little guy of the Middle East, scampering feverishly to avoid one lethal trap or another. While he never quite prevailed over any of the region's heavies, he did have the indestructible quality of an animated figure. Or so it seemed until last week, when Arafat, 75, died of an undisclosed cause at a hospital outside of Paris.

His death, though well anticipated, was nevertheless difficult for many Palestinians to absorb, not least because he had cultivated an aura of immortality by rejecting earthly comforts. He didn't have real friends, didn't particularly care for food, slept fitfully, never took vacations. When he wed, in old age, the marriage seemed like a sideshow, fatherhood an even stranger subplot. "No personal questions," he used to tell reporters, as if any creaturely detail would detract from the power of his cause. Even those closest to Arafat experienced him as a mystery, which was how he liked it. He was a mythomaniac, concealing, inflating and contradicting reality as he saw fit.

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Who was Arafat then? A terrorist? Certainly in the early years and arguably again toward the end. A freedom fighter? Undoubtedly. He lofted the cause of a small, disenfranchised and basically powerless people to the top of the world's agenda. A peacemaker? Many Israelis say that was just an act, but if it was, it was a convincing one, at least for a time. In the end, though, Arafat, for all his calculated obfuscations, proved all too human. It was vanity, selfishness and a failure of courage that ultimately prevented him from realizing his ambition of a state for his people.

The sad spectacle of Arafat's last days offered a glimpse of the man he had been reduced to. One of the last images he left to the world — the brief video clip showing the Palestinian leader, shriveled and frail, wearing blue pajamas and a knit cap before he left the West Bank for medical treatment in France — did not reflect the stylings of Yasser Arafat the revolutionary. The stubble-faced Arafat owned civilian clothes, but he donned his few suits and ties only to move around incognito. When he appeared as Arafat, he always wore crisply pressed military khakis, a black-and-white kaffiyeh and an ascot to match.

Aides say that in his last months, the ascot, left unwashed, was filthy. For the last two years of his life, he confined himself to a few rooms within his bombed-out headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli forces periodically besieged the place as punishment for his refusal to rein in suicide bombers who were terrorizing Israel. In the last months of his life, the Israeli government said he could leave the compound, but only to go abroad and with no guarantee he would be allowed back. Having leveled the installations of Arafat's security forces and parked soldiers at the gates of Palestinian cities, the Israelis had greatly compromised Arafat's ability to govern. Both the Israeli and U.S. governments refused to deal with him, and by the end, even European diplomats, Arafat's last champions, had stopped calling on his sorry, dilapidated compound. For the first time since he emerged as the uncontested leader of the Palestinians in 1969, there was talk of others making a bid to replace Arafat, who had once ensured that none of his deputies were powerful or secure enough to mount a challenge.

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