Yasir Arafat

Yasir Arafat

President (from 1996) of the Palestinian Authority, chairman (from 1968) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and leader of Fatah, the largest of the constituent PLO groups. In 1993 he led the PLO in a peace agreement with the Israeli government. Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of Israel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994.
Arafat was one of seven children of a well-to-do merchant whose wife was related to the anti-Zionist grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni (d. 1974). The date and place of Arafat's birth are disputed. A birth certificate registered in Cairo, Egypt, gives Aug. 24, 1929. Some sources, however, have supported Arafat's claim to have been born in Jerusalem on Aug. 4, 1929, and still others have given Gaza, Palestine, as his birthplace. Arafat attended the University of Cairo, graduating as a civil engineer. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood and the Union of Palestinian Students, of which he was president (1952-56), and was commissioned into the Egyptian army. In 1956 he served in the Suez campaign.

After Suez, Arafat went to Kuwait, where he worked as an engineer and set up his own contracting firm. While there, he was a cofounder of Fatah, which was to become the leading military component of the PLO. After being named chairman of the PLO in 1969, he became commander in chief of the Palestinian Revolutionary Forces in 1971 and, two years later, head of the PLO's political department. Subsequently, he directed his efforts increasingly toward political persuasion rather than confrontation and terrorism against Israel. In November 1974 Arafat became the first representative of a nongovernmental organization--the PLO--to address a plenary session of the UN General Assembly.

In 1982 Arafat became the target of criticism from various Syrian-supported factions within the PLO and from the Syrians. The criticisms escalated after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon forced Arafat to abandon his Beirut headquarters at the end of August 1982 and set up a new base in Tunisia; he shifted to Baghdad, Iraq, in 1987. Arafat was subsequently able to reaffirm his leadership as the split in the PLO's ranks healed.

On April 2, 1989, Arafat was elected by the Central Council of the Palestine National Council (the governing body of the PLO) to be the president of a hypothetical Palestinian state. In 1993 Arafat, as head of the PLO, formally recognized Israel's right to exist and helped negotiate the Israel-PLO accord, which envisaged the gradual implementation of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a five-year period. Arafat began directing Palestinian self-rule in 1994, and in 1996 he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, which governed Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Arafat's life and achievements are chronicled in Alan Hart, Arafat: A Political Biography (1989); Danny Rubinstein, The Mystery of Arafat (1995); and Janet Wallach and John Wallach, Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder, rev. and updated ed. (1997).

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