The cliché one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter may well have been written for Yasser Arafat, for during his lifetime and the years beyond his death he has drawn considerable attention from both those who revere him as a symbol of resistance and those who despise him for taking up arms.
Upon hearing of his death in 2004 former Israeli President Shimon Peres said: “The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace.” Whilst the Cuban President Fidel Castro said: “Eternal honour and glory to the unforgettable and heroic combatant Yasser Arafat. Nothing can erase your name from the history of those great fighters who have struggled for the freedom of the peoples.”
Either way, it is hard to deny that Arafat is responsible for bringing the Palestinian issue to the world’s attention and remains the icon of the Palestinian struggle; his image appears on stamps, t-shirts, posters and badges across the world.
Muhammed Arafat was born in 1929, but from a young age his nickname Yasser – which means easy going – stuck. Many accounts say he was born in Cairo but the leader himself claimed Jerusalem as his birthplace. He was one of seven; his father was from Gaza and his mother from the Abu Saud family in Jerusalem who, according to Alan Hart’s biography Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker, claim to be direct decedents of the prophet Muhammed.
Arafat was a revolutionary from a young age, inspired by the injustice of European imperialism and Zionist settlement he witnessed as he was growing up. As a teenager he protested against the Egyptian government’s refusal to provide Palestinians with arms and began a successful operation to smuggle them across the border himself. In 1948 he put aside his degree in civil engineering at the University of Cairo and left for Palestine to join Arab forces fighting against Israeli soldiers who were driving thousands of Palestinians out of their homes to make way for the creation of Israel.
He would later draw together Palestinians who had been affected by this tragedy under the secular political party Fatah, which donned the following slogan: “revolution until victory.” In Arafat’s case, victory was the right of return to their homeland for these Palestinians, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Arafat went on to become Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an umbrella organisation of different factions (of which Fatah was the strongest) whose purpose was to “liberate Palestine”.
Fatah and the PLO openly supported armed struggle, both as a response to the Israeli violence that had pushed so many Palestinians out of their land, and as necessary means to get it back. Arafat launched this armed campaign from neighbouring countries and the PLO was based in Jordan until King Hussein ordered their forcible expulsion in 1970. They regrouped in Lebanon but were eventually forced out by a full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982, which killed over 17,500 mostly civilians along the way. Arafat left along with other members of the PLO to Tunis.
In 1974 Arafat received a standing ovation at the UN after delivering this statement: “I come to you bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” The proposition to pursue peaceful negotiations in exchange for a Palestinian homeland was a turning point for the leader. But not everybody agreed to lay down their arms and Arafat’s entrance onto the diplomatic stage split the PLO.
Later Arafat would go on to take part in a number of peaceful negotiations, most notably the Oslo Accords of 1993, from which the new governing body the Palestinian Authority (PA) emerged. He was elected President in 1996, but at the same time Fatah’s attempt to revive themselves as a political party is said to mark the beginning of his party’s decline. Arafat was accused of corruption and nepotism. Through the accords Arafat failed to secure the right of return for Palestinian refugees and settlements were mushrooming, which went against the very heart of his struggle.
It is said that Arafat took no time off, proclaimed to be married to the cause and adopted at least 28 sons and daughters of martyrs. But at 61 he changed his mind and wedded 27 year-old Suha Daoud al-Tawil, his economic advisor and the daughter of a prominent PLO activist. Suha now lives with their only child, Zahwa, in France on a PA pension of £8,450 a month.
Arafat has been described as a courteous, courageous and kind leader albeit one with a bad temper who enjoyed watching cartoons and drinking tea with honey. He was a non-smoker though would sometimes take up the habit as part of his disguise.
In interviews Arafat wore his olive green military uniform and always donned his famous kaffiyeh, the Palestinian headdress. He would frequently respond to questions he didn’t like with: “you have to be very accurate when you speak with Arafat;” an indication he was sick of the western media and their coverage of the Palestinian issue, or someone who simply did not like criticism.
Arafat spent his last days virtually under house arrest by Israeli troops. In this interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, March 2009, Arafat is speaking from his compound in Ramallah, which is surrounded by and being fired upon by Israeli troops. He becomes agitated at a series of questions he believes cover up the “terrorist activities of the Israeli occupation” and hangs up the phone. Later that same year Israeli bulldozers would destroy these same headquarters whilst the leader and 200 of his comrades were hiding in one of the wings.
Following a meal in October 2004 Arafat became ill with nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. One month later he was dead. An investigation by Al-Jazeera led to the exhumation of Arafat’s body in 2012 and a subsequent scientific investigation. Commenting on the findings forensic investigator David Barclay said: “Based on my decades of experience and the evidence before me, I have no evidential doubt that a lethal dose of Po210 was administered to or ingested by Arafat in 2004, and that it caused his death.”
Israeli authorities would not permit Arafat to be buried in Jerusalem so a state funeral was held in Egypt before his body was flown back to be buried in Ramallah. Unlike Nelson Mandela Yasser Arafat was never exonerated of the title ‘terrorist’, but when he was alive the leader himself said: “Whoever stands by a just cause cannot possibly be called a terrorist.”