ARAFAT, Yasser

Mohammed Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Raouf Arafat, Palestinian political leader born in Cairo on August 24, 1929 into a prominent Jerusalem family, the Husseinis. Also known under his nom de guerre Abu Ammar.

He took part in Palestinian struggles in 1948 later taking refuge in Gaza and then returned to Cairo where he studied civil engineering. He was president of the Palestinian Student Union from 1952 to 1956, and served in the Egyptian army in 1956 as a second-lieutenant. Following several arrests for political activism in Egypt he moved to Kuwait where with others – notably Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Faruq Qaddumi (Abu Lutof) – he founded Fatah in 1959. Because of the number of affluent Palestinians living in the Emirate and the freedom of press they enjoyed, Fatah rapidly became the first Palestinian political organization.

After the Arab defeat in 1967 and the integration into the PLO of scattered Fedayn movements, Arafat became president of the Executive Committee appointed by the Palestine National Council (PNC) in February 1969 and, thus, chairman of the Organization. He then changed the direction of the PLO from being pan-Arabist to focussing on the Palestinian national cause. In 1973, he was appointed Commander-in-chief of the all-Palestinian/Arab guerilla forces.

He has advocated a pacifist approach since the PLO adopted in June 1974 the principle of the creation of a Palestinian state on any part of liberated Palestinian land. He addressed the UN General Assembly in New-York in November 1974 calling for a peaceful solution for Palestine, admitting thereby implicitly the existence of Israel.

In 1983, in the turmoil of the Lebanese civil war, he was forced to flee from Beirut to Tunis where the headquarters of the PLO were then established. In November 1988, he proclaimed the independent Palestinian State, had a political clause adopted which recognised all UN resolutions and asked for direct negociations with Israel to be opened. He was elected by the PNC as the first President of the State of Palestine in April 1989. He lost considerable credibility on the international scene when, despite his officially neutral stance, he refused to distance himself from Saddam Hussein’s Irak during the Gulf crisis in 1990.

Although the peace process inaugurated in Madrid (see Conference for peace in the Middle East) gave no tangible results, he had secret negotiations with Israel from 1992 which led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles between PLO and Israel in September 1993 (see Oslo peace process). Since then he has been negotiating with Israel on Palestinian self-rule. Received by the European Parliament in December 1993 (he already was in the Parliament in October 1988 but was not then officially received by the Parliament itself), he insisted Europe be part of the peace process. In December 1994, he received together with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres the Nobel Peace Prize.

In July 1994, as a consequence of the Oslo agreements, he returned to Gaza where he set up and headed the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Criticized for his autocratic tendencies, he was nonetheless elected with 87,1% of the votes as President of the Palestinian Authority following the first general elections in the Palestinian territories in January 1996.

The question of his succession is solved in principle: his post should be assumed by Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), presently Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Some are of opinion that a coup may bring to power either Jibril Rajub or Muhammad Dahlan, the West Bank and Gaza Preventive Security Force chiefs. As far as the PLO is concerned, his most likely successor should be Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), PLO Secretary General.

The failure of negotiations in Camp David, in July 2000, about the « definite status » has besmirched Yasser Arafat’ image, accused of not responding positively to Israeli proposals, presented by at the time Prime Minister Ehoud Barak and his Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben Ami. Although these, envisaged the retrocession of 80% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip, the origin and resolution of the refugees issue, the status of Jerusalem and the colonies remained the object of a deep disagreement. (See Special file: What did really happen in Camp David?).

Some months later, in Taba, in December 2001, it seemed like a more balanced agreement was achieved, specially on the sensitive issues like refugees. Palestinian delegation did not signed the agreement since Prime Minister Ehoud Barak was not backed by a majority in the Knesset since the month of September (he had 40 deputies from the total of 120) and the election polls foresaw a clear victory of Ariel Sharon, the candidate of the Likud party.

Since the Intifada Al-Aqsa erupted, the future of Yasser Arafat is uncertain. Strongly criticised by the troops, that he seems unable to canalise, his power is threatened by an Israeli strategy mostly focused on the destruction or neutralisation of Palestinian security infrastructures and some Palestinian leaders. Since December 2001, he has been confined in his headquarters in Ramallah, subject to numerous sieges and destruction by the Israeli army. In December 2001, Sharon declared him irrelevant and refused to deal with him in the future, also attempting to convince the international community to boycott him. In June 2002, US President, George Bush, urged the Palestinian to chose a new leader. This appeal was rejected both by Arab and European leaders. In February 2003, under intense international pressure, notably from the US and the EU, the Palestinian leader was forced to create the post of Prime Minister and to share his power. The Palestinian Legislative Council approved the creation of this new post with a crushing majority, reflecting its members’ desire to reform the Palestinian Authority. The arrangement enables Arafat to retain control of security and external policy, while the Prime MInister is in charge of Interior Affairs and the creation of the government.

The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas for this post was supported by the “Quartet” (US, Russia, EU, and UN), who believed he was capable of reforming the PNA by reducing Arafat’s powers, and of bringing back the PNA to the negotiating table. Following his nomination on the 29th of April 2003, the US published the Road Map, written by the Quartet, and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed. However, Mahmoud Abbas announced his resignation on the 7th of September 2003, following a power struggle with Yasser Arafat over the control of security forces. Arafat’s refusal to hand him over crucial powers, and his maintain of control over several security services limited Abbas’s ability to act, as well as undermining his authority. He was replaced by Ahmad Qurei, who finally conceded to Arafat’s will to appoint Hakam Balawi to the post of Ministry of Interior, after weeks of disagreement.

Following the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, Israel threatened to expel Arafat, resulting in an international outcry and massive demonstrations across the Occupied Territories. More recently, Arafat received threats to his life, threats Israel has already carried out against Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and his successor Abdel Aziz ar-Rantissi. Ironically, Arafat has won back a great deal of support from his people thanks to Israeli efforts to sideline him.

The question of his succession is solved in principle: his post should be assumed by Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), the current Prime Minister and former speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

October 29, 2004, after several days of uneasiness as to his health, Yasser Arafat arrives at a military hospital in Percy, France, to undergo tests. Numerous rumors are postulated on the subject of his illness. The succession of the Palestinian leader is evoked even before the announcement of his death. Following several days of suspense and contradictory information, the death of Yasser Arafat is announced on November 11, 2004. The next day, in the presence of numerous Heads of State, a military ceremony takes place in Egypt. Leading Israelis having refused that he be buried in Jerusalem, Arafat is buried in the Mukataa, the headquarters in Ramallah where he lived confined for the last three years. As stipulated in the Palestinian Constitution, the Speaker of Parliament, Rawhi Fattouh, becomes acting President of the Palestinian Authority. January 9, 2005, Mahmoud Abbas is elected President of the Palestinian Authority.