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Yasser Arafat Biography

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Introduction Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) was best known as the Palestinian leader, who was the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) between 1969 and 2004. One of the most important…

Yasser Arafat


Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) was best known as the Palestinian leader, who was the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) between 1969 and 2004. One of the most important figures in the Palestinian struggle for independence and to set up an independent state, Arafat has also been a key controversial figure in modern political history. Despite being considered a merciless terrorist by many due to his orchestration of violent attack and protests against Israel, Arafat managed to gain a momentous reputation with those sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause. Not only did he declare the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, but managed to carve out an identity for Palestine, independent of the Arab League.

The Making of Arafat

Yasser Arafat was born on 24 August 1929, in Cairo, Egypt. He was the fifth of the seven children born to Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, a successful Palestinian textile merchant with an Egyptian heritage. Zahwa Abul Saud, Arafat’s mother was from Jerusalem. Arafat was related to the al-Husseini family, members of which feature prominently in the history of Palestine. With the death of his mother in 1933, young Arafat was sent to live with his maternal uncle, Salim Abul Saud in Jerusalem. Having spent about four years in Jerusalem, Arafat was recalled to Cairo to live with Inam, his older sister. His father’s lack of involvement in Arafat’s upbringing, made their relations worse and when his father died in 1952, Arafat did not attend the ceremonial funeral.

In 1944, Arafat started to study at the University of King Fuad I, which later came to be known as the University of Cairo. The (1948-49) Arab–Israeli war not only caused a break in his studies, but also brought out the latent Arab nationalist in Arafat. In his later days, Arafat claimed to have participated in the war. He is believed to have fought alongside the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. With the war tipping in favor of the Jews and the establishment of the State of Israel, young Arafat returned to Cairo University and graduated in civil engineering in 1956. At the university, Arafat showed signs of leadership, having gained the position of president with the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS).

Rise of the Fatah

A political and military association called Fatah was founded by Arafat and a few of his associates in 1959.

He formed an underground network that pledged to take up arms against the Jewish nation. Under Arafat’s leadership, a number of revolutionary raids were carried out into Israel. The Fatah, however, remained fiercely independent, often refusing monetary and arms assistance from Arab nations to avoid becoming a satellite organization.

Leader of the PLO

In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Operation (PLO) was formed in Jerusalem by the Arab League. It brought together various groups working in the Arab nations towards a common goal – the formation of a Palestinian state. At this time the Fatah remained distinct and carried out independent operations. In the following years, however, Fatah became the resonant voice in the actions of the PLO. Three years later, in 1967, the Six-Day War broke out, once again pitting Israel against the Arab nations. The Arab states faced a humiliating defeat in the war and lost important territorial assets including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. In the wake of the colossal defeat, the PLO looked for an unyielding leader and turned towards Arafat. In 1969, he was declared the chairman of the PLO executive committee, a position he held for many decades to come. Arafat soon moved to Jordan and continued to provide the PLO an unprecedented level of development by forming the fedayeen (guerillas troops). The PLO’s continued attack on Israel caused much tension and Jordan’s King Ḥussein decided to expel the organization from the country in September 1970. In the latter half of the year the PLO migrated to set up base in Lebanon from where it operated till 1982.

Warming to Diplomacy

Prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Arafat and the PLO adopted a staunchly violent approach towards Israel. A number of their attacks are deemed ruthlessly terrorist acts by many in the international community. The brutal murder of a number of sportsmen and athletes from Israel in 1972, during the Munich Olympics caused Arafat to attract much international criticism. Following this, the Palestinian leader decided to rethink his strategy and warmed to a more diplomatic approach. His demands, too, seemed to undergo moderation with the vision of the Palestinian state (which would include East Jerusalem, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip) changing from a strictly Islamic one to a more inclusive state that would accommodate Christians and Jews as well.

This enabled the Arab League to extend Arafat and the PLO much of its support, and the organization came to be recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people by the early 1970s. In 1974, Arafat addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations with a sensational speech, pitching his cause to the international community at large, inviting support and alliances from the world over. While the US and Israel remained staunch in their opposition of the PLO, a number of Asian and European countries initiated political ties with Arafat and the PLO.

The PLO led by Arafat played a major role in the Lebanese civil war, due largely to the fact that the organization was centered in Beirut. Matters worsened by 1982 when Israel attacked Lebanon in an attempt to dislodge the PLO. Arafat set up base in Tunisia and Syria saw this as an opportunity to rid the PLO of Arafat, and adopting the organization as its satellite functionary. Contrary to expectations, Arafat managed to consolidate Palestinian support in the face of Syrian opposition and emerged as a stronger leader during this period.


The period between 1987 and 1993 was marked by the Intifada, a large-scale Palestinian uprising against Israel. The civil war that raged through the West Bank was marked by violent riots. Arafat is believed to have orchestrated the Intifadah, and strengthened his leadership in the Palestinian Territories. In 1988, Arafat once again addressed the United Nations embracing pacific means. He soon announced the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State, though he avoided defining its territorial boundaries. The state gained recognition from many nations of the world. The prospect of peace seemed bright now. This paved the way for the Oslo Accords of 1993.

Winning the Nobel Prize

In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was given away jointly to Yasser Arafat, and Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin (Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister respectively) “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” Their efforts towards architecting the Oslo Accords of 1993 was claimed to have been the foundation of “opportunities for a new development toward fraternity in the Middle East.” The award, however, remained mired in controversy as critics rose up to call Arafat an unrelenting terrorist ‘with a long legacy of promoting violence’ in the region. The Oslo Accords made way for the Palestinian elections of 1996 and Arafat was chosen to head the Palestinian Authority as the president. Critics claim that the elections were a failure since Arafat maintained a dictatorial style of governance. It must, however, be conceded that he secured over 88% of the votes with an 80% turnout at the elections.

Second Intifidah

Despite much of these peaceful overtures, peace evaded the region. In 1996, the smooth ongoing peace process was derailed by an unexpected development. Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated and Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu’s leadership brought fresh conflict since he had been one of the original critics of the Oslo Accords. Through this time the continuous settlement of Israelis in the West Bank and in Jerusalem fanned Palestinian sentiments into a frenzy. Critics of Arafat’s pacific approach renewed attacks on the Oslo Accords. The Hamas, a Palestinian organization that had found its roots in the first Intifidah became PLO’s prime rival. Arafat once more launched the Intifidah in 2000 leading the Israeli administration to restrict his movement to Ramallah.

Personal Life

In 1990 in Tunisia, at the age of 61, Arafat secretly wed, Suha Tawil who was 27 at the time. Suha had previously worked with Arafat in Tunisia and had converted from Christianity to Islam to facilitate the marriage. The marriage was rumored to have been an unhappy one. After Arafat’s death Suha claimed that she had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to leave the marriage. Suha and Arafat’s only child, a daughter, was born in July 1995 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. The child was named Zahwa after Arafat’s mother. As of 2013, it was believed that Suha and Zahwa live in Malta and receive a regular pension from the Palestinian Authorities.

Death and Controversy

Arafat died in 2004 from an illness that started in October that year. The Palestinian leader started to complain of abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. His condition worsened, despite the treatment of doctors from Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. Arafat was then flown to the Hôpital d’instruction des armées Percy in Clamart near Paris where he lapsed into a coma followed by a renal failure. In accordance with French healthcare laws all news of Arafat’s health came filtered through his wife, Suha. On 11 November 2004, at about 3.30 am UTC, 75 year-old Arafat was pronounced dead. Suha declined an autopsy at the time. News reports suggested that Arafat suffered from “an unusual blood disease and a liver problem” and that the infection still remained unknown. For almost eight years controversies raged regarding the cause of Arafat’s death.

In 2012, Suha handed a number of personal articles belonging to Arafat to the scientists at the Institute of Radiation Physics in Lausanne. The scientists concluded that the tests indicated Polonium-210 poisoning. Arafat’s body was later exhumed from its burial chamber in Ramallah for further testing. Swiss scientists concluded that the body showed signs of containing Polonium-210 about 18 times more than normal. While Swiss scientists supported the poisoning theory, French authorities confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical, but did not support the poisoning theory. Russians denied any poisoning and stated that Arafat died of natural causes.

Quotable Quotes

“The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers, and the colonialists cannot possibly be called terrorist, otherwise the American people in their struggle for liberation from the British colonialists would have been terrorists; the European resistance against the Nazis would be terrorism; the struggle of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples would also be terrorism; and many of you who are in this Assembly Hall would be considered terrorists.” – UN General Assembly Address (1974)


Full Name Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini
Born August 24, 1929 (Cairo, Egypt)
Founded Fatah 1959
Became Chairman of the PLO 1969
First UN Address 1974
Declared Independent State of Palestine 11/15/88
Received Nobel Peace Prize 1994
Elected President of the Palestine Authority 01/20/96
First president of the Palestinian National Authority July 5, 1994 to November 11, 2004
Died November 11, 2004 (Clamart, Hauts-de-Seine, France)
Education Civil Engineering (University of Cairo)
Wife Suha Arafat (wed 1990)
Child Zahwa Arafat (born 1995)


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