What is the biography of Yassir Arafat?
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It’s ironic that the man who personified the Palestinian movement was neither born in the region it claims, nor conforms to his own organization’s definition of Palestinian identity. Yassir Arafat, whose real name is Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, was born in August 1929 in Cairo, son of an Egyptian textile merchant. He was sent to Jerusalem as a small child after his mother died, then returned to Egypt via Gaza.
Throughout his career, Arafat’s Egyptian background was a political impediment and source of personal embarrassment. One biographer notes that upon first meeting him in 1967, ‘West Bankers did not like his Egyptian accent and ways and found them alien,’ and to the very end Arafat employed an aide to translate his Egyptian dialect into Palestinian Arabic for conversing with his West Bank and Gaza subjects.
As a young man, Arafat took no part in the formative experience of the Palestinian movement ? the 1948 Arab-Israeli war ? but he would nonetheless claim refugee status throughout his life: ‘I am a refugee,’ he cried out in a 1969 interview, ‘Do you know what it means to be a refugee? I am a poor and helpless man. I have nothing, for I was expelled and dispossessed of my homeland.’
Fatah and the PLO
In the mid-1950s, Arafat joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, then rose to the head of the Palestine Student Union at the University of Cairo. In the late 1950s Arafat moved to Kuwait, where he co-founded Fatah (‘Palestine National Liberation Movement’, an acronym meaning ‘conquest’), the faction that would later gain control over the entire Palestinian movement. Fatah’s motley ranks of Islamists, communists and pan-Arabists expanded via brute violence. ‘People aren’t attracted to speeches, but rather to bullets,’ Arafat quipped at this stage.
Fatah began military-style training in Syria and Algeria in 1964, and the following year tried unsuccessfully to blow up a major Israeli water pump. Fatah’s stated goal was the obliteration of the State of Israel, and well before the 1967 war would supply a pretext, Arafat’s organization repeatedly attacked Israeli buses, homes, villages and rail lines.
This violence against Israeli civilians was a pillar of the Palestinian National Covenant (the foundational charter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization – PLO), which states that ‘the liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence’ and that ‘armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine and is therefore a strategy and not a tactic.’ (Despite repeated Palestinian commitments in the late 1990s to annul these sections of the covenant, it was never officially changed.)
Arafat’s public profile got a boost in 1968, when the IDF raided a Fatah stronghold in the Jordanian village of al-Karameh. The uniformed, keffiyah-clad Arafat took this opportunity to project himself as a fearless Arab leader who, despite the post-Six Day War gloom, dared to confront the Israelis. The image stuck, and Fatah’s numbers swelled with new recruits.
Arafat and Fatah consolidated power through bribery, extortion and murder, and at the Palestinian National Congress in Cairo in February 1969, Arafat was appointed head of the PLO, a position he would never relinquish.
Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia
By the late 1960s, heavily-armed, Arafat-led Palestinians had formed a ‘state within a state’ in Jordan, not only attacking Israeli civilian targets, but also seizing control of Jordanian infrastructure.
The tension reached a height during late 1970, when Jordan’s King Hussein cracked down on the Palestinian factions. During this bloody conflict, known as ‘Black September’, Palestinians hijacked four Western airliners and blew one up on a Cairo runway, to both embarrass the Egyptians and Jordanians and, in their words, ‘teach the Americans a lesson for their long-standing support of Israel.’ With the broad publicity this generated, Arafat had hit the world stage.
When King Hussein drove Arafat’s faction out of his Jordanian kingdom (causing thousands of civilian deaths), they relocated in Lebanon. As in Jordan, Arafat soon triggered a bloody civil war in his previously stable host country. Simultaneously, the PLO launched intermittent attacks on Israeli towns from southern Lebanese positions.
Yassir Arafat then brought the high-profile terrorist act to western soil. In Sept. 1972, Fatah-backed terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games. And in 1973, Arafat ordered his operatives in the Khartoum, Sudan office of Fatah to abduct and murder US Ambassador Cleo Noel and two other diplomats. (In 2004, the FBI finally opened an official investigation against Arafat for the Khartoum murders.)
The wanton violence fueled Arafat’s political goals, as his presence on the world stage grew: In 1974, he became the first representative of a nongovernmental organization to address a plenary session of the UN General Assembly (pictured at left) In the speech, with a gun holster strapped to his hip, Arafat compared himself to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Arab heads of states declared the PLO the sole legitimate representative of all Palestinians, the PLO was granted full membership in the Arab League in 1976, and by 1980 was fully recognized by European nations.
In 1978-82, the IDF invaded Lebanon to root out PLO groups that had continually terrorized the northern Israeli populace. The U.S. brokered a cease-fire deal in which Arafat and the PLO were allowed to leave Lebanon; Arafat and the PLO leadership eventually settled in Tunisia, which remained his center of operations until 1993.
During the 1980s, Arafat received financial assistance from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which allowed him to rebuild the battered PLO. This was particularly useful during the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, Arafat took control of the violence from afar, and it was mainly due to Fatah forces in the West Bank that the anti-Israel terror and civil unrest could be maintained. Arafat would then become nearly the only world leader to support Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. (Saddam would later repay this loyalty by sending $25,000 checks to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.)
The Palestinian Authority
In the early 1990s, the U.S. led Israel and the PLO to negotiations that spawned the 1993 Oslo Accords, an agreement that called for the implementation of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a five-year period. The following year Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
In 1994, Arafat moved his headquarters to the West Bank and Gaza to run the Palestinian Authority, an entity created by the Oslo Accords. Arafat brought with him from Tunisia an aging PLO leadership that would bolster his ongoing monopoly over all Palestinian funds, power and authority. Elections in 1996 extended Arafat’s control over the PA, but under the Oslo agreement, the term of that candidacy ended in 1999. Arafat never allowed new elections to take place.
While Israel went about implementing its side of the Oslo agreements, removing troops from nearly all Palestinian areas, recognizing the PA, and educating for peace, the PA utterly failed to live up to its commitment to renounce and uproot anti-Israel terrorism. Instead, unprecedented incitement from Arafat’s official PA media and school textbooks, and active and passive PA support for terrorist groups led to a string of suicide bombings in the mid-1990s that killed scores of Israeli civilians. In October, 1996, at the height of the Oslo years, Arafat cried out to a Bethlehem crowd, ‘We know only one word – jihad! Jihad, jihad, jihad! Whoever does not like it can drink from the Dead Sea or from the Sea of Gaza.’
In July 2000, U.S. president Bill Clinton attempted to keep the Oslo Accords viable by convening a summit at Camp David between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. There, Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state in Gaza and 92% of the West Bank, and a capital in East Jerusalem, the most generous offer ever from an Israeli government. Yassir Arafat rejected the offer and ended negotiations without a counteroffer. As American envoy Dennis Ross concluded, ‘Arafat could not accept Camp David… because when the conflict ends, the cause that defines Arafat also ends.’
Immediately following this breakdown, the PA media machine under Arafat’s control ramped up the war rhetoric, and preparations were made for riots that were unleashed following Ariel Sharon‘s visit to the Temple Mount. The Arafat-supported ‘al Aqsa intifada’ would continue for four years. This unprecedented wave of anti-Israel terrorism, which would result in over 1,000 Israeli deaths, was marked by over 120 Palestinian suicide bombers and the growth of an Islamic martyrdom cult.
This stage of violence revealed that Arafat and the PA had never abandoned their longstanding plans to liquidate the Jewish state. Arafat had told an Arab audience in Stockholm in 1996, ‘We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion… We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.’ Arafat’s colleague Faisal al-Husseini was even more explicit, describing the Oslo process as a ‘Trojan Horse’ designed to promote the strategic goal of ‘Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea’, that is, a Palestine in place of Israel.
Terrorist to the End
The final phase in Arafat’s life-long commitment to organized terror was channeled through the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a Fatah group that was responsible for many of the most deadly attacks against Israeli civilians between 2000-2004. In addition, Arafat granted free rein to the radical Islamic terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to perpetrate dozens of horrific acts of civilian murder between 2000-2004. (At left: Arafat with Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, 2003)
In January 2002, the Israeli Navy seized a Gaza-bound, PA-owned freighter — the Karine A — that was loaded with more than fifty tons of Iranian ammunition and weapons, including dozens of surface-to-surface Katyusha rockets.
In June 2002, upon recognizing Arafat’s ongoing financing and abetting of terrorism, U.S. President Bush called for Arafat’s removal from power. Progress toward peace required, according to Bush, ‘a new and different Palestinian leadership…not compromised by terror.’ Release of a U.S.-backed ‘road map’ for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was therefore delayed until such a new Palestinian leader emerged. On its part, the Israeli government chose to isolate Arafat in his Ramallah compound, the ‘Muqata’, where he would remain from early 2002 until his final days, and where his burial is expected to occur.
In April 2003, hours after Mahmoud Abbas assumed the role of Palestinian prime minister, the official road map was released and diplomatic progress began. But Arafat consistently undercut the authority of Abbas, leading to Abbas’ resignation and the halting of the road map peace process.
Corruption, Autocracy, Jihad
Over the course of his revolutionary career, Arafat siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid money intended to reach the Palestinian people.
Estimates of the degree of Arafat’s wealth differ, but are all staggering: In 2003, Forbes magazine listed Arafat in its annual list of the wealthiest ‘Kings, Queens and Despots,’ with a fortune of ‘at least $300 million.’ Israeli and US officials estimate Arafat’s personal holdings between $1-3 billion.
And while the average Palestinian barely subsisted, Arafat’s wife Suha in Paris received $100,000 each month from PA sources as reported on CBS’ 60 Minutes. That CBS report also noted that Arafat maintained secret investments in a Ramallah-based Coca Cola plant, a Tunisian cellphone company, and venture capital funds in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands.
Arafat also used foreign aid funds to pay off cronies who bolstered his autocracy: An International Monetary Fund report indicated that upwards of 8% ($135 million) of the PA’s annual budget was handed out by Arafat ‘at his sole discretion.’ And Arafat’s select PA policemen, far from keeping the peace, were repeatedly among the suicide bombers and snipers.
Money was just one method of strengthening Arafat’s power apparatus. Critics of his PA government were routinely imprisoned, tortured or beaten. One example: In 1999, Muawiya Al-Masri, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, described Arafat’s corruption to a Jordanian newspaper. For this, he was attacked by a gang of masked men and shot three times. Al-Masri survived the ordeal and described Arafat’s grip on PA power: ‘There is no institutional process. There is only one institution ? the Presidency, which has no law and order and is based on bribing top officials.’
From 2000-2004, Arafat permitted Muslim imams to incite unprecedented anti-Israel and anti-American violence from their mosques and through official PA media. Arafat’s Religious Affairs Ministry employed preachers who regularly called for children to ‘martyr themselves’, and PA television glamorized the act of suicide bombing.
Under Arafat, the Palestinian Authority school textbooks denied Israel’s very existence, and jihad was presented to Palestinian children as an admirable course of action. The Jewish people, meanwhile, was represented to schoolchildren as a tricky, greedy and barbarous nation.
Freedom of the press was virtually non-existent during Arafat’s reign in Gaza, Jericho and Ramallah ? if it didn’t speak favorably of Arafat, it didn’t get printed in the PA-controlled media. Moreover, the PA enacted a systematic policy of intimidation of foreign journalists. One case among many: When an AP cameraman captured footage of Palestinian street celebrations following the 9/11 attacks, he was kidnapped, brought to a PA security office, and Arafat’s cabinet secretary threatened that the PA ‘cannot guarantee [his] life’ if the footage was broadcast.
Yet beyond the terrorism, extortion, embezzlement and intimidation lies Arafat’s most unfortunate ongoing impact: The inculcation of murderous values in an entire generation of Palestinians, who have been educated — under Arafat’s direction — to continue the fight of jihad against Israel, rather than compromise to end the decades-long conflict.