A Life in Retrospect: Yasser Arafat

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LEADER: Arafat in June of last year

Here's one thing we know for sure: Yasser Arafat was a grand obfuscator—right down to the small details of his life. He sometimes said he was born in Jerusalem, sometimes in the Gaza Strip. But those were fictions meant to deflect challenges to his authenticity as a Palestinian. In fact, he was born, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat Al Qudua Al Husseini, on Aug. 24, 1929 in Cairo, where his father, a textile merchant from Gaza, had moved the family two years before. In his early years, Arafat claimed to be a member of the prominent al-Husseini clan of Jerusalem, the family of Hajj Amin Al Husseini, then the Mufti of Palestine, but that was also a fantasy. When Arafat's mother died of kidney failure, Arafat, then four, and his brother Fathi, as the two youngest of her seven children, were sent to live with a maternal uncle in the Old City of Jerusalem for four years. It is this part of his childhood that Arafat liked to recall, though he grew up mainly in Cairo, a fact that accounted for his Egyptian accent and his proclivity to slip into Egyptian slang.

In his youth, Arafat acquired the nickname Yasser, meaning "easy," though he was anything but. He was forever hyperactive, impulsive, manipulative and easily piqued. Politics was an early passion. He was an ardent student activist at King Fuad I University (now Cairo University), where he studied civil engineering. When the first Arab-Israeli war erupted in 1948, Arafat, then 18, fought with forces of the Muslim Brotherhood, the original Egyptian fundamentalist group, in the area around the Gaza Strip. Though apparently never a member of the Brotherhood, Arafat in those days was a fellow traveller and remained an observant Muslim throughout his life.

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After graduating in 1956, he took a job as a civil engineer with the government of Kuwait. He was skilled at his craft. Years later, he would design his own bomb shelter outside his residence in Lebanon and would boast that despite Israeli bombings, it held up while the one beside it, built by a big commercial firm, collapsed. In Kuwait, Arafat grew prosperous as an engineer, eventually owning two and three cars at a time, his favorite a Ford Thunderbird. But he couldn't resist the call of politics. Together with a group of Palestinian comrades, notably Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad), he formed Fatah, an organization committed to the eradication of Israel through armed struggle. Arafat took on the nom de guerre Abu Amar, borrowing the name of an ancient Muslim warrior and companion to the Prophet Muhammad.

Among Fatah's founders, Arafat was the most impetuous; he was the leader of the so-called "mad ones," urging the group on to armed action while the "sane ones" preferred to build up the infant organization first. Fatah's 1965 debut attack on Israel fizzled when locals discovered the unexploded dynamite the infiltrators had placed in a water canal. Arafat himself moved in and out of the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in various disguises: a peasant, a priest, a woman carrying a baby, a certain Dr. Mohammed. Once, Israeli troops nearly caught him in Ramallah, arriving to find his bed still warm. Fatah was never much of a fighting force, but Arafat proved a dexterous recruiter and fundraiser, convincing Palestinian boys to sign up as soldiers and Arab leaders to bankroll the group.

Arafat's struggle for an independent Palestinian movement gained force after the 1967 war, in which the Israeli military defeated the Arab armies in six days, seizing the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. By the end of the year, Fatah had joined and become the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a heretofore impotent creation of the Arab states. Fatah's popularity soared in March, 1968, when its forces—ultimately with the support of the Jordanian army—amazingly repelled an Israeli onslaught on a Fatah encampment in Karameh, a Jordanian border village. In February, 1969, Arafat was named chairman of the P.L.O. Under his leadership, the Palestinian Liberation Army would grow to 15,000 men, while P.L.O. assetsfrom taxes levied on Palestinians in the diaspora, donations by Arab countries, and investments would rise into the billions of dollars.

From 1969, the P.L.O. made Jordan its home, creating a state-within-a-state, much to the alarm of Jordan's King Hussein. In 1970, the king unleashed his army on Arafat's men in the bloody civil war known as Black September. Ultimately, the P.L.O. was driven out, regrouping in Lebanon. Hussein and Arafat never forgave one another; until Hussein died in 1999, the two kept a wary watch on each other.

With victory impossible in a head-to-head clash with Israel, the P.L.O. in the early 1970s embarked on a bloodthirsty campaign of terrorism, including hijackings, hostage-takings and massacres of Israeli civilians. Two of the more gruesome acts were a raid on an Israeli school in Maalot in which 21 children were killed, and the infamous attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left eleven dead. While the mayhem served to spotlight the cause of the Palestinians, a people who otherwise would have received far less press, in the eyes of Israelis, it marked Arafat as a genuine demon, delaying the date when Israel would finally sit down to negotiate peace with him.

Despite the stain of the terrorist atrocities, the P.L.O. under Arafat gained enormous international stature. In 1974, the Arab leaders, at a summit in Rabat, recognized the group as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. That same year, Arafat addressed the U.N. General Assembly, saying he'd come "bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter's gun." (In fact, his holster was empty.) Subsequently his organization became an official U.N. observer. Eventually, the P.L.O. would be granted full diplomatic status by some 90 countries.

In Lebanon, as in Jordan, the P.L.O. created its own fiefdom, generating tensions that contributed to the Lebanese civil war. Sick of P.L.O. incursions from Lebanon and the Beirut government's inability to stop them, Israel invaded its northern neighbor in 1982. After Israel's three-month seige of Beirut, the U.S. negotiated the safe exit from the city of the P.L.O. leadership. Enroute to the last boat out, Arafat emerged from his headquarters, flashing the victory sign and a huge smile to photographers as if the rout—ultimately to Tunis, 1500 miles from the front—was some kind of triumph. All the while, an Israeli sniper had the defeated chairman literally in the crosshairs. "I can kill him now," the shooter told his superiors.

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