Yasser Arafat is a complex, pivotal historical figure in Middle Eastern politics. Although he was politically marginalized towards the end of his life he was the driving force behind Palestinian nationalism from the 1950s into this century. A wide range of labels can be applied to this controversial figure. These include diplomat, terrorist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was also an adaptable, powerful politician with a flair for the dramatic. This paper will summarize the basic chronology of his political life prior to a more in depth analysis of selected events, political stances, and political characteristics.
Born in Cairo in 1929 Mohammed Abdul-Rawf Arafat al-Qudua al-Hussaini was sent to live with an uncle in Jerusalem following the death of his mother. Drawn to the Palestinian cause Arafat ran guns to Palestinian groups during the 1948 war, which occurred after the creation of the Israeli state. He studied at the University of Cairo after the war where he led the Palestinian nationalist Palestinian Student League. After serving in the Egyptian army during the 1956 Suez campaign he was cofounder of Al Fatah, a militant group responsible for assorted terrorist attacks in Israel during the 1960s. The group was philosophically dedicated to the liberation of Palestine. During this decade, the group served as, “The primary representative of the Palestinian people." (Stewart 164). After the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War Arafat and Al Fatah were brought into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1969 Yasser Arafat became chairman of the PLO and subsequently became the commander of the Palestine Liberation Army, the armed branch of the PLO. He would serve as chairman of the PLO until his death in 2004.
According to Tucker," Israel's inability to deliver a decisive blow against Palestinian militant forces following the Six Day War gave militant leaders, particularly Arafat, the feeling that irregular tactics might be the road to success." (259). It is worth noting that the PLO charter advocated armed struggle for liberation of Palestine (Smith 334). Terrorist attacks directed against Israel occurred during the 1970s. There were also prominent international targets. This international terrorism will be discussed in the subsequent section of this paper.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath were pivotal events for PLO politics. With the Egyptians willing to negotiate directly with Israel (Tucker 269) Arafat became convinced that a United States brokered negotiated settlement was the only hope for the creation of a Palestinian state (Ensalaco 3). A 1974 Ten Point PLO program," Offered an official Palestinian formula for compromise with the Israelis" (Tucker 269). 1974 saw the United Nations grant observer status to the PLO and Arafat addressing the United Nations. The most memorable quotation from the UN speech is," Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighters gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand" (pbs.org).
1982 saw Israel invade Lebanon where the PLO had become involved in the Lebanese Civil War as well as utilizing the country is staging area for terrorism directed towards Israel. The PLO was pushed out of the country. PLO headquarters were moved to Tunisia.
The first intifada occurred in 1987. Meaning “Shaking off" or "Uprising" in Arabic (Tucker 316), the intifada was “The first widespread uprising of Palestinians against Israeli rule” (pbs.org). Tucker sees this event as spurring the PLO," To try to win back the spotlight it was perceived to have lost after its recent debacle in Lebanon," (316). In conjunction with the 1988 PLO Declaration of Independence calling for peace negotiations came an implicit recognition of Israel via a call for negotiations (Tucker 315). Arafat openly recognized a two state solution in a December speech to the United Nations. Additionally, violence as a political means was renounced by Arafat. This set the path resulting in 1993 Oslo Accords.
1993 Oslo Accords, the product of secret negotiations, provided local autonomy for Palestinians in a significant portion of Israeli-occupied territory. Mutual recognition between the Israelis and the PLO accompanied the Declaration of Principles intended to generate a final peace agreement. In 1994 Yasser Arafat returned to Palestinian land after a 27 year exile. In 1994 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres. In January 1996 he was elected the first president of the Palestinian Authority in charge of the West Bank and Gaza.
The second intifada began in September 2000. In contrast to the first intifada," The uprising was directed at Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as much as Israel" (Smith, 513). It began in protest of constricted Palestinian living conditions and freedom of movement. Once it began Arafat misread the political situation, believing that the violent disruptions would bring down the Sharon Israeli government (Smith 514). The net result so for Arafat was being confined to his West Bank headquarters. In 2004 Arafat suddenly became ill. He was taken in Paris, where he died from a blood condition. The exact causational factor of blood disorder has remained controversial. In November 2012 his body was examined and tested for poisoning.
As I evaluated material for this paper, which stood out for me was Arafat's ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Tucker points out that the Oslo Accord process occurred in an environment in which to PLO had not only lost gulf Arab states support but also no longer had the Soviet Union as a backer (329).
For example, in early Al Fatah, with Arafat as a leader," The group philosophy of action change according to circumstances" (Smith, 277). Arafat's political stances and actions occurred in a political situation ripe with Palestinian factionalism. Smith sees Arafat as attracted to the idea of negotiated settlement as early as 1973. However he had to take into account various political factions while maintaining control of the PLO (335). Political credibility was a paramount issue for Arafat.
In the realm of terrorism Arafat's political stances and actions covered the wide ranging spectrum from PLA terrorist activity to his 1988 condemnation of terrorism. In the case of a prominent international terrorist action at the 1972 Munich Olympics Ensalaco holds that Arafat certainly knew about the action, but left the details to others (38). In the aftermath of an Al Fatah faction’s Black September hijackings Arafat excused himself from a PLO 1971 leadership meeting vote endorsing international terrorism. “It was an act of moral ambiguity that did not absolve the future president of the PNA of complicity in terrorism” (Ensalaco 28).
In conclusion, this paper will briefly present three contrasting images of Yasser Arafat. As the Israelis struck Kavamea after the Six-Day War as a terrorism counterstrike Arafat and Al Fatah did not flee as was the case with other militants. Tucker states that he spoke of the need to project to the world that not all Arabs would flee in the face of Israeli aggression (258) .The second image is Arafat visiting Rabin’s widow after his assassination, an unimaginable scenario literally for decades. Finally finances need to be mentioned. Apparently Arafat became a wealthy man during the course of his life. This certainly is a contradiction in relation to his public persona. His political career included significant contradictory political activity. The unifying theme was his dedication to the cause of Palestinian nationalism.
Ensalaco, Mark. Middle East Terrorism
Smith, Charles D...Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Stewart, Donna J... The Middle East Today
Tucker, Ernest. The Middle East In Modern World History