(1929 - 2004)
Yasser Arafat was founder and leader of the Fatah political party and later the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian National Authority. Arafat spent the majority of his life dedicated to fighting Israel though he was also involved in skirmishes between Palestinians and Jordanian and Lebanese forces at different times.
Together with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Shimon Peres, Arafat was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in World Peace for his efforts in signing the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. Arafat's legacy has left him highly scorned and villified for leading the Palestinians into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a war with Israel that lasted nearly five years from 2000 to 2005 and claimed thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict.
- Early Life
- Taking Over the PLO
- Challenging King Hussein
- Aftermath of the 1973 War
- Life in Lebanon
- Exiled in Tunisia
- The Peace Process Begins
- Explaining Arafat’s Reversal
- Oslo’s Demise
- Revolving Door
- Reshuffling the Palestinian Deck
- Source of Power
- Final Days
- Legacy of Terrorism
- Was Arafat Poisoned?
Arafat, circa 1940
Mohammed Yasser Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa Al-Husseini, more
commonly known as Yasser
Arafat was the fifth of seven children born to a Palestinian textile
merchant on August 24, 1929. According to Arafat and other sources, he was born in Jerusalem;
however, French biographers, Christophe Boltanski and Jihan El-Tahri
revealed in their 1997 book, Les sept vies de Yasser Arafat,
that he was actually born in Cairo, Egypt,
and that is where his birth certificate was registered. The Palestinian
Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs also lists Arafat’s
birthplace as Cairo. Ian Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence official, disclosed that the KGB
had invented a background for Arafat with a birthplace in Jerusalem.
Claims that Arafat was related to the Jerusalem Husseini
clan through his mother have been disputed by the Palestinian historian
Said Aburish. In an unauthorized biography, Aburish claims that “The
young Arafat sought
to establish his Palestinian credentials and promote his eventual claim
to leadership... [and] could not afford to admit any facts which might
reduce his Palestinian identity. ...Arafat insistently perpetuated the
legend that he had been born in Jerusalem and was related to the important Husseini clan of that city.”
Arafat’s childhood was divided between Cairo
and Jerusalem, where he lived
for four years with an uncle following the death of his mother when
he was five. Arafat entered the University of King Faud I (later renamed Cairo University)
in 1947 and studied engineering. It was during his college years that Arafat adopted the name
Yasser, which means “easygoing” in Arabic.
During the 1948
Arab-Israeli war, Arafat left the university and, along with other Palestinians, sought to enter
Palestine to fight for Palestinian independence. He was disarmed and
turned back by Egyptian military forces that refused to allow the poorly
trained partisans to enter the war zone. After returning to the university, Arafat joined the Muslim
Brotherhood and served as president of the Union of Palestinian Students
from 1952 to 1956. By 1956, Arafat graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and served
as a second lieutenant in the Egyptian Army during the Suez
Over the PLO
After the Suez
War, Arafat moved
to Kuwait, where he found
work as an engineer and eventually set up his own contracting firm.
In Kuwait, he also helped
found Fatah in 1957,
an organization dedicated to the establishment of an independent Palestinian
state in place of Israel and Jordan (i.e., historic Palestine).
Backed by Syria, Fatah began carrying
out terrorist raids against Israeli targets, starting with an unsuccessful
attempt to blow up an Israeli water pump in December 1964. From that
point on, Fatah launched
dozens of raids against civilian Israeli targets from Jordan, Lebanon and Egyptian-occupied Gaza to avoid provoking reprisals
against their Syrian patrons.
When the a coup occurred in Syria in 1966, a new leader was appointed to head Fatah,
but he was murdered. Arafat,
who took the nom de guerre Abu Ammar, was then arrested by the
Syrians, but was subsequently released and fled to Beirut with his inner
In 1964, the Arab
League created the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO) as a tool in the war against Israel.
which initially viewed the organization as a political opponent, gradually
became the organization’s dominant faction. Following the humiliating
defeat of the Arab forces in the 1967
War; the PLO decided
that it could not rely on the Arab
states to achieve its objective of destroying Israel.
For the next ten years, this goal was the primary focus of the massive terrorist campaign by
which the PLO’s reputation was formed.
Battle of Karameh
(Click for Larger Resolution)
Meanwhile, Fatah established a base in the Jordanian
city of Karameh. This was the target of an Israeli assault planned in
reprisal for a terrorist attack against a school bus full of children
that killed two and wounded 28 on March 18, 1968. Three days later,
the Israelis dropped leaflets on Karameh warning of an impending attack
and advising civilians to leave. When the Israeli forces arrived, they
met unexpected resistance from forces of the regular Jordanian army.
In the ensuing battle, from which Arafat fled after distributing weapons,
the Israelis said they suffered 28 dead and 90 wounded, whereas the
Jordanians had 100 dead and 90 wounded, and 170 terrorists had been
killed and 200 captured. The Jordanian account virtually reversed these
figures, claiming 200 Israeli dead compared to only 20 of their soldiers.
The Palestinian version presented an entirely different picture, claiming
their heroic resistance had caused 500 Israeli casualties.
Although its account was dubious, the Arab media glorified
the Palestinian stand against the Israelis at Karameh (much to the chagrin
of the Jordanians who did most of the fighting), and the effect was
to stimulate a wave of volunteers seeking to join the PLO.
The Palestinian terrorists escalated their attacks throughout the year, with the casualty toll
in 1968 alone reaching 177 Israeli dead and 700 wounded, and 681 Palestinians
were killed and wounded in attacks and reprisals.
The “victory” at Karameh allowed Arafat to gain the prestige he needed to exert greater influence over the PLO.
The Palestinian National Council met in 1968 and revised the Charter,
adopting Fatah's commitment to liberate Palestine by armed struggle
alone. A year later, when the Council met again, Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO,
a position he has held ever since. Over the next year, Arafat consolidated his power by bringing most of the militant Palestinian
factions under the umbrella of the PLO.
In the late 1960s, tensions between Palestinians and
the Jordanian government intensified; heavily armed Palestinian resistance
elements (fedayeen) had created a virtual “state within
a state” in Jordan, eventually
controlling several strategic positions, including the oil refinery
near Az Zarq. Jordan considered
this a growing threat to its sovereignty and security and attempted
to disarm the Palestinian militias. Open fighting erupted in June of
The final straw for King
Hussein occurred when Palestinian terrorists flew three hijacked
planes to Jordan and blew them
up on September 12, 1970. Four days later, Hussein declared martial law. That same day, Arafat became commander of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), the regular
military force of the PLO.
In the ensuing civil war, the PLO had the active support of Syria,
which invaded Jordan with a
force of around 200 tanks. The fighting was mainly between the Jordanian
army and the PLA; the U.S. Navy dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the eastern
Mediterranean and Israel deployed
troops to aid Hussein,
if necessary. By September 24, the Jordanian army had defeated the Palestinian
forces. Most of the Palestinian leadership, including Arafat (who disguised himself as a Kuwaiti official), fled to Syria,
and later Lebanon, where they
soon set about undermining the central government of that country.
The change in location did not effect Arafat’s
commitment to terror. In September 1972, a terrorist arm of Fatah,
named Black September for the debacle in Jordan,
murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich
Olympic Games. This attracted international attention for the Palestinian
cause, but also condemnation for the tactics of the PLO.
On March 2, 1973, members
of the PLO murdered
U.S. Ambassador to the Sudan Cleo Noel and
George Moore. The killers were captured
by Sudan and admitted they had received orders directly
from the PLO.
U.S. intelligence officials were believed
to also have evidence directly tying Arafat
to the killings, but for unknown reasons
suppressed it. All the terrorists were released
the 1973 Yom Kippur War
After Arab armies were defeated yet again on the battlefield
in the October 1973 War, Arafat decided it was
necessary to alter his strategy. The PLO remained committed to the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle,
but decided to shift from strictly terrorist activities to waging a
diplomatic war against Israel.
Arafat deftly manipulated the organization from one perceived by the (Western)
public as barbaric into one slowly being considered a movement with
legitimate claims. This new tack was aided by the all-important recognition
of the PLO by the United
Nations, which gave the organization a foothold into the international
body’s deliberations. On November 13, 1974, Arafat made an unprecedented
appearance before the UN, wearing
his military uniform with an empty holster [he was forced to remove
his pistol before entering the chamber] around his waist,. and declared,
“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's
gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Jordan’s claims to represent the Palestinians
were then permanently undercut by the Arab League’s declaration
at the Rabat Conference that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This
also enhanced the PLO's standing as a political movement.
Life in Lebanon
While Arafat adopted an increasingly high profile diplomatic
pose, the PLO continued to employ terror against Israel, primarily from
its new base in southern Lebanon. Because of Lebanon’s weak central
government, the PLO was able to operate virtually as an independent
state (called “Fatahland” by Israel). The PLO helped destabilize Lebanon and contributed to the civil war, during which Arafat and the PLO were responsible for the persecution and murder of thousands of
Arafat in Lebanon, circa 1974
Palestinian fighters also mounted intermittent cross-border
attacks against Israel, which provoked
repeated Israeli counterattacks in an effort to prevent the Palestinians
from threatening Israelis in the north. Finally, in June 1982, Israel mounted a full-scale assault that escalated into the Lebanon
War. In September, the United States brokered a cease-fire deal
in which Arafat and
his leadership were sent to Tunisia,
which became his base of operations for the next decade.
Although a tiny minority at the time advocated negotiations
with the PLO, the vast
majority of Israelis believed that they could not negotiate with terrorists
committed to their destruction. Israeli officials held out hope that
a group of moderate Palestinian leaders would emerge in the West
Bank and Gaza who would
be willing to reach an agreement. The problem was that no such leadership
could emerge because of the influence of the PLO.
Anyone who cooperated with the Israelis was considered a collaborator
and in constant danger of being killed by Arafat’s supporters.
Even though the PLO itself remained fractured, Arafat was considered (by virtually everyone but the Israelis and Americans)
to be the spokesmen for the Palestinians inside and outside the territories.
Most countries understood this and were willing to work with Arafat,
and the Europeans, especially, pressured Israel to accept him as a negotiating
For his part, Arafat refused to express any willingness
to abandon the goal of destroying Israel or using terror to accomplish
his objective. This made it impossible for any mainstream Israeli politician
to advocate talks with Arafat (though many leftists met with him and
other PLO officials).
Exiled in Tunisia
During the 1980s, Arafat became a globe-trotter, jet-setting from capital to capital to build
diplomatic support for the Palestinian cause. Arafat received assistance from Iraq,
which allowed him to reconstruct the badly-battered PLO.
This was particularly useful during the first
uprising when, after first being surprised by the outbreak and persistence
of the violence, Arafat’s Fatah took control of the revolt in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arafat also continued to orchestrate international terror activities. One of
the most heinous was the hijacking of the Achille
Lauro cruise ship on October 7, 1985, during which Palestinian
terrorists shot a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer
and dumped his body overboard.
As he had in 1974, however, Arafat shifted tactics again, this time in response to prodding from the United
States. In a December 13,
1988, address, Arafat accepted UN Security Council Resolution
242, promised future recognition of Israel,
and renounced “terrorism in all its forms, including state terrorism.”
This statement satisfied the conditions for opening
a dialogue between the PLO and the United States. Up to this point,
the United. States. had gone along with Israeli opposition to any formal
contacts between American and PLO officials (though many informal discussions
had taken place over the years).
Arafat’s statement was supposed to reflect a
shift from one of the PLO’s primary aims — the destruction
of Israel (as in the Palestinian
National Covenant) — toward the establishment of two separate
entities, an Israeli state within the 1949
armistice lines and a Palestinian state in the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip.
However, 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 the proclaimed State of Palestine, an entity
which laid claim to the whole of Palestine as defined by the British
The PLO squandered the opportunity the United States offered by continuing terrorist
attacks. In May 1990, the Palestine Liberation Front attacked the beaches
near Tel Aviv,
aiming to raid hotels and the U.S. Embassy. This was the final straw
for the Bush Administration, which suspended its dialogue with the PLO and refocused its attention on efforts to persuade Palestinians in the
territories to talk directly with the Israelis.
The Peace Process
U.S. policymakers recognized that agreement on Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations wasn’t likely until the Arab states took steps toward
peace with Israel. It was toward
this end that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker shuttled to the Middle
East in 1991 and won agreement from Israel and her neighbors to attend a regional peace conference.
Arafat and Rabin sign the Oslo Accords with President Bill Clinton (1993)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak
Shamir had labored to keep the PLO out of the negotiations, but he ultimately bowed to the reality that
the Palestinians in the territories were not strong enough to make decisions
and that they were forced to take directions from Tunis. During the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel conducted open negotiations with the PLO for the first time.
No agreements came out of the Madrid talks and elections
brought new leaders to power in Israel and the United States. Shortly thereafter, Israelis and PLO officials began secretly negotiating in Oslo and ultimately reached
an agreement to give the
Palestinians self-rule in Gaza and
Jericho to be followed by autonomy in other parts of the territories.
Under the Oslo agreement, Israel and the PLO recognized
each other in an exchange of letters between Arafat and Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
On September 13, 1993, the Declaration
of Principles between the Israelis and Palestinians was signed in
The following year, Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
The price of Israeli recognition of the PLO amounted to Arafat’s seemingly total capitulation to Israeli demands:
recognition of Israel, renunciation
of terrorism, and a promise to revoke the provisions of its covenant that call for the destruction of the Jewish State. Israel’s concession
was that it legitimized the PLO on the basis of its words without first testing to see that its deeds
were consistent with them.
One important reason for Arafat’s shift was the
collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War eliminated a major
source of financial and political support for the Palestinian cause.
The PLO’s financial problems did not reach crisis proportions,
however, until the Gulf War,
when Arafat’s decision to support Iraq alienated its benefactors in the Gulf, notably Saudi
Arabia and Kuwait. The
lack of money put constraints on the PLO’s activities, in particular
its ability to provide benefits to Palestinians whose loyalty to the
organization was largely a result of these payoffs. In addition, Arafat came under increasing criticism for mismanagement and corruption.
While the PLO’s resources were declining, Islamic
fundamentalists were growing in power, particularly in the Gaza
Strip. “Moderate Palestinian” leaders in the territories,
such as Faisel Husseini,
also were becoming increasingly influential at Arafat’s expense.
The intifada also had proved a failure. The insurrection had generated tremendous
publicity and tarnished Israel’s image in 1988-89, but the Gulf
crisis erased the memories of the clashes between rock-throwing youths
and Israeli soldiers. By 1992, the fiery intifada was little more than an ember that no longer attracted media attention
or concerned Israeli decision- makers.
The most important factor in determining the timing
of Arafat’s decision was probably the change in American administrations,
which forced Arafat to give up hope that the United States would impose his conditions on Israel. While George Bush was seen
as the most sympathetic president the Palestinians had ever dealt with, Bill Clinton was viewed
as clearly pro-Israel. This meant that the Palestinians would have to
wait at least four years and hope another Bush would come along, but
they realized this was unlikely. Thus, the American electoral cycle,
combined with his own age and waning influence, convinced Arafat that his only chance of retaining power was to demonstrate that he could
deliver an agreement that would finally end his people’s suffering.
On July 1, 1994, Arafat arrived in Gaza and assumed control over the Palestinian
Authority (PA) — the provisional entity created by the Oslo
Accords. On January 20, 1996, Arafat was elected president of the PA (he is also known by the Arabic word ra’is or “head”),
with an overwhelming 83% majority (the only other candidate was Samiha
Khalil). Though he was to serve for only three years, no other presidential
elections have ever been held.
Despite Arafat’s pledges, violence continued
throughout the end of the decade, with more than 100 Israelis being
killed and 1,000 injured in terrorist attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak then decided
that rather than further draw out the negotiating process with the Palestinians,
he would go directly to the end game and try to achieve a peace agreement.
President Clinton agreed
with this idea and called for a summit meeting with Arafat and Barak at Camp
David on July 11-14, 2000, with the goal of hammering out the end
to the conflict.
Clinton hoped to recreate the magic of Jimmy
Carter’s successful summit that helped bring about peace between Israel and Egypt.
In that case, however, Carter had two willing partners. Anwar
Sadat had already demonstrated to Israel that he was prepared to make peace and, when he accepted the compromises
offered at Camp David, Menachem
Begin agreed to give up the Sinai. Clinton found a different situation; Arafat had done little
in the seven years since Oslo to convince Israelis he had given up his
dream of destroying Israel. Nevertheless,
Barak came prepared to offer the Palestinians independence and offered
a series of formulations to resolve the major issues. Arafat not only rejected all of the American and Israeli ideas, he refused
to offer any of his own. As a result, Clinton blamed the summit’s
failure on Arafat.
Israel agreed to withdraw from 97% of the West
Bank, 100% of the Gaza Strip,
dismantle most of the settlements,
and create a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The
only concessions Arafat had to make were to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the parts of
the Western Wall religiously
significant to Jews (that is, not the entire Temple
Mount), and to agree to three early warning stations in the Jordan
Valley, which Israel would withdraw
from after six years.
The Palestinian negotiators wanted to accept the deal,
but Arafat rejected it. According to the principal U.S. peace negotiator,
Dennis Ross, the critical issue was the clause in the agreement that
said the conflict would now be over. Arafat, whose life has been governed
by that conflict, Ross said, simply could not end it.
A series of horrific terror attacks were carried out
over the next several weeks — including two gunmen opening fire
on a bus stop, which killed two and wounded injured dozens more; suicide
bombings in a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem and two others in Haifa;
and a bomb and gunfire attack on a bus. After Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze'evi was assassinated,
and more than 30 other Israelis were murdered and several hundred were
wounded, Israel’s new Prime Minister, Ariel
Sharon, declared Arafat “irrelevant” and, on December 22, 2001, sent troops into
his headquarters in Ramallah to confine him to his office. Sharon said that Arafat would
remain isolated until the killers of Ze'evi were arrested and extradited to Israel. Arafat refused and appealed
to the international community to pressure Israel to end its siege.
The level of violence continued to escalate while Arafat ignored repeated warnings from the Bush
Administration to take steps to prevent attacks against Israelis.
By mid-2002, President Bush was convinced that Arafat was deeply involved in directing terror, and concluded that the only
hope for achieving progress in the peace
process was for the Palestinians to find a new leader.
Not only the Americans had soured on Arafat.
Palestinian youths became increasingly disillusioned by what they perceived
as the plodding dictatorial and corrupt nature of the PLO,
and Arafat's failure
to deliver on his promise to liberate Palestine. Many of these Palestinians
turned to the Muslim fundamentalist organizations, Islamic
Jihad and Hamas,
which never accepted the Oslo
accords, and remained committed to the use of terror to drive the
Israelis out of all of “Palestine.”
Under pressure from the United States, Arafat did periodically take steps against the violence, condemning attacks
and arresting low-level terrorists. The problem was that his condemnations
were typically in English and couched in equivocations that accused Israel of terrorism as well. In Arabic,
he would call for a jihad against Israel and a million martyrs
to liberate Jerusalem. The
men he arrested were also released after a few weeks or months, and
many subsequently committed acts of terror. Israel’s view was
that Arafat either could
stop the violence and chose not to, or had no control over militant
Palestinians. In either case, they said it made no sense to negotiate
with him since the result was the same — violence.
Sharon’s view that Arafat directed the terror was given greater credence in early January 2002,
when Israeli forces stopped a ship, the Karine-A,
bound for the Palestinian Authority carrying 50 tons of weapons from Iran that were paid for by
one of Arafat's top aides. The shipment also marked a turning point
in Arafat’s relations with President Bush, who demanded an explanation
for the arms shipment. U.S. intelligence confirmed Israel’s information
that Arafat was behind
the smuggling operation, so when Arafat denied any involvement, the President knew he was being lied to, and
subsequently would not trust Arafat.
Following a new wave of terror, Israeli tanks rolled
into the major cities of the West
Bank on March 28, 2002, surrounding them and imposing curfews in
what was called “Operation Defensive Shield.” Sharon also went beyond his earlier castigation of Arafat as irrelevant and labeled him an enemy of Israel and surrounded his compound with tanks.
The fact that no Arab state came to the Palestinians’
rescue, as Arafat had
expected, showed how thin the support for the Palestinians really was
in Arab capitals. Although he once again emerged as a survivor, avoiding
deportation, which Sharon favored, and assassination, which the Palestinians feared, Arafat’s
prestige was also severely damaged.
Israel kept Arafat isolated in his Ramallah headquarters for the next two years. During
that time, Arafat continued to rule the PA, and to receive a steady
stream of foreign visitors, but he lost his position on the world stage
and was rarely seen or heard from.
the Palestinian Deck
The decline in Arafat’s popularity was reinforced
by Israel’s refusal to negotiate with him and the United States’
insistence that the Palestinian
Authority institute reforms. In response, Arafat reshuffled his cabinet and promised to hold new elections. Arafat’s
actions were still being viewed both by Palestinians and others as suspect
because the cabinet changes did not reflect any meaningful shift in
On June 24, 2002, Bush laid out a plan that called on the Palestinians to replace Arafat as their leader, reform the governmental institutions of the Palestinian
Authority, end terrorism,
and adopt democratic and free-market principles. The President agreed
with the Israeli view that Arafat had to be replaced, and that terrorism had to end, before they were
required to act.
The Palestinians were angry and felt betrayed. They
did not believe the United States had the right to tell them who their
leader should be, and continued to insist that Israel had to withdraw
from all the territories before they would end their violent struggle.
Despite the Palestinians’ response, the Bush
plan stimulated changes in the Palestinian
Authority. Desperate to hold onto power, Arafat offered a reform plan and a timetable for new elections. Palestinians
who had been cowed into silence by Arafat’s unquestioned authority
for the first time began to speak out about the Palestinian Authority’s
corruption and the need for changes.
Under international pressure, Arafat subsequently appointed Mahmud
Abbas (Abu Mazen) to be the Prime Minister of the Palestinian
Authority. The United States had hoped Abbas would become the authority of the PA and Arafat would be reduced to a figurehead. Arafat saw things just the reverse and maintained authority over all the main
levers of power, in particular the security services. In frustration, Abbas resigned and was replaced
by Ahmed Korei (Abu Alaa),
who had no more success than Abbas in wresting control of the PA from Arafat.
Source of Power
In addition to being a symbol of the Palestinian national
movement, Arafat also
derived much of his influence by controlling a vast financial empire
first established by the PLO through its criminal activities and later augmented by hundreds of millions
of dollars siphoned from donations by the international community to
the Palestinian Authority. Rather
than use these resources to live the kind of luxurious lifestyle typified
by other Arab despots, Arafat has used his money primarily to buy loyalty.
In 2003, a team of American accountants hired by the PA finance ministry began examining
Arafat’s finances. The team determined that part of the Palestinian
leader’s wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion
— with investments in companies like a Coca-Cola bottling plant
in Ramallah, a Tunisian cell phone company and venture capital funds
in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands. The head of the investigation stated
that “although the money for the portfolio came from public funds
like Palestinian taxes, virtually none of it was used for the Palestinian
people; it was all controlled by Arafat.
And none of these dealings were made public.”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) conducted an audit of the Palestinian
Authority and discovered that Arafat diverted $900 million in public funds to a special bank account controlled
by Arafat and the PA
Chief Economic Financial Advisor. It was, therefore, not surprising
when Forbes ranked Arafat sixth on its 2003 list of “Kings, Queens and Despots,” estimating
his personal wealth at a minimum of $300 million.
Arafat’s wife Suha reportedly receives a stipend of $100,000 each month from the PA budget. In October 2003, the French government opened a money-laundering
probe of Suha after prosecutors learned about regular transfers of nearly
$1.27 million from Switzerland to Mrs. Arafat’s accounts in Paris.
In 1990, Arafat,
a Sunni Muslim, married Suha
Tawil, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christian who converted to Islam before marrying him. At the time, Arafat was 62 and Suha 28. Suha's mother, a Palestinian activist and writer,
introduced Arafat to
her daughter, who was then studying at the Sorbonne. Arafat subsequently hired Suha to work on his personal staff in Tunis. In July
1995, the couple had a daughter Zawha, named after Arafat’s deceased
mother. After the start of the second
uprising, Suha moved to live with her mother and daughter in Paris.
Arafat survived several assassination attempts over the years, as well as a
plane crash in a sandstorm in the Libyan desert on April 7, 1992. For
the last several years of his life he was in failing health and rumored
to have Parkinson's Disease. His conditioned worsened in October 2004. Israel agreed to allow him to be
transferred to a hospital in Paris on October 29 where his wife stayed
by his side. He died November 11, 2004, at age 75.
The cause of death was never announced, and remains
a mystery. Conspiratorial suggestions that Israel was somehow involved were quickly rejected by Palestinian authorities.
Rumors have circulated for decades that Arafat was gay, and much of
the speculation about his death, and the associated secrecy of the circumstances,
have led to suggestions that he may have died of AIDS.
After his death, Arafat’s body was flown from
Paris to Cairo, where a ceremony was held in his honor attended by numerous
foreign dignitaries. Arafat’s remains were then flown to Ramallah
where he was interred in a grave near his headquarters. The Palestinians
had wanted to bury Arafat in Jerusalem, but the Israelis
objected. In the short-run, the Palestinians plan to make Arafat’s
grave a shrine, but they have expressed the intention of moving his
body to Jerusalem after achieving
independence and establishing a capital in some part of the holy city.
For nearly half a century Arafat was the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Though he was not a military
man, he was rarely seen out of his uniform in an effort to project strength
and his commitment to armed struggle. He wore his kaffiyeh in a unique
fashion, draped over his shoulder in the shape of Palestine, that is,
all of historic Palestine, including Israel. The high-profile terrorist
attacks he directed helped gain international attention and sympathy
for the Palestinian cause, but, ultimately, his unwillingness to make
the psychological leap from terrorist mastermind to statesman prevented
him from achieving independence for the Palestinian people, and brought
them decades of suffering that could have been avoided had he abandoned
his revolutionary zeal for liberating Palestine and agreed to live in
peace with Israel.
Arafat's Legacy of Terrorism
More than six years after his death in 2004, Arafat's legacy of leading the Palestinians down the path of terrorism - and not peace - remains etched in the Israeli conscience. Though many around the world still wish to believe that Arafat was a leader devoted to peace and brush away his responsibility for the Palestinian intifada and terror campaigns launched against Israel starting in 2000, even the Palestinians now are admitting that Arafat had long planned the Al-Aqsa Intifada even before any so-called incitements were made by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
As reported by watchdog Palestinian Media Watch in 2011, both Arafat's widow Suha as well as senior Palestinian Authority leader and Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath separately explained that Arafat had pre-planned the intifada and had hopes of winning international support through his use of violence.
In an interview on PA TV, Suha Arafat explained that Arafat ordered her to leave the PA areas "because he had already decided to carry out an Intifada." In a different program about Arafat on PA TV, Shaath explained that "[Arafat] saw that repeating the first Intifada in new forms, would bring the necessary popular, international, and Arab pressure upon Israel."
These testimonials to Arafat's thought process and true desires about peace with Israel are not the only glimpses into Arafat's legacy given out by the Palestinians.
In 2010, Muhammad Dahlan, then a senior Palestinian Authority official and Fatah party member, told an interviewer on Palestinian television: "In the Intifada, when Arafat wanted something, he asked his security services, 40% of which were either killed, Shahids (Martyrs) or prisoners ... Arafat brought about the Intifada because he wanted to cover up the secret agreement that had been drawn up at Camp David ... We [the PLO and PA security services] are the ones who started it."
Similarly, in 2005, Mamdouh Nawfal, Arafat's Advisor on Internal Affairs and member of the Palestinian Supreme National Security Council, told the London based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat: "As to the second Intifada, one could say with complete objectivity that Arafat exploited Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount and the people's hatred of the occupation to bring about the outburst... Arafat made no attempt to evade responsibility when he was blamed for its eruption..."
Even before Arafat's death, the Deputy Director of the PA's Political and National Education Authority, Mazen Izz A-Din, confirmed that Arafat was solely and singularly behind the violence of the intifada: "The Al-Aqsa Intifada - if we want to be truthful and open, history will reveal one day - that it [the Intifada] and all its directives belong to the President and Supreme Commander Yasser Arafat."
Was Arafat Poisoned to Death?
In the years since Arafat's death, there have been numerous accounts regarding the cause of death - everything from the AIDS disease to cirrhosis and a platelet disorder.
However, the most prominent theory to stick was that Arafat was poisoned, likely by Israeli agents, using the toxin polonium. Arafat's personal doctor Ashraf al-Kurdi first raised this possibility in September 2005, nearly a year after Arafat's death, when he told a Jordanian news site that Arafat's blood did indeed contain the deadly HIV virus but that he had surely been killed by poison.
Arafat's widow, Suha, lodged a complaint at a court in Nanterre, France, in 2012, claiming that her husband was assassinated, sparking an inquiry.
In July 2012, Al-Jazeera reported that tests carried out by the Institute of Radiation Physics at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, as part of a nine-month investigation, found traces of polonium in quantities much higher than could occur naturally on Arafat's personal belongings. Al-Jazeera concluded that the Palestinian leader had been poisoned, stopping short of saying by whom, but a spokesman for the radiation institute stressed that the "symptoms described in Arafat's medical reports were not consistent with polonium-210 and that conclusions could not be drawn as to whether the Palestinian leader was poisoned or not."
On July 9, 2012, in the wake of Al-Jazeera's report, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbasapproved Suha Arafat's request to exhume her husband's body to test it for abnormal amounts of polonium. In November 2012, Arafat's body was officially exhumed and samples of it were given to French, Swiss and Russian forensic experts for a pollonium investigation.
On October 15, 2013, Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's Federal Medical-Biological Agency, said that forensic tests found no indications of polonium poisoning in Arafat's body. "He could not have died of polonium poisoning – the Russian experts found no traces of this substance," Uiba said.
Despite the Russian findings, the Swiss forensics team concluded in November 2013 that tests showed "unexpected high activity" of polonium which "moderately" supported the poisoning theory. Yigal Palmor of Israel's foreign ministry told the BBC that "this is more soap opera than science" while Arafat's widow, Suha, said the Swiss results revealed "a real crime, a political assassination".
In December 2013, the French foresnics team reached the same conclusion as the Russians, stating in a report that "analysis cannot lead us to affirm that Arafat died of polonium 210 poisoning."
In May 2015, French experts reexamined the evidence and reaffirmed the previsous conclusion that Arafat's death was not the result of poisoning or any foul play. The French also dismissed the presence of polonium in his corpse, asserting that the samples examined by the Swiss were “of an environmental nature,” which disproved “the hypothesis of an acute ingestion of polonium-210 in the days preceeding the appearance of symptoms.” Months later, in September 2015, French authorities officially dropped their investigation into Arafat's death.
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The
Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 3rd
Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2005; Said Aburish, Arafat: From Defender to Dictator, Bloomsbury Publishing,
1998, p. 8; Encarta; Britannica.com; Encyclopedia.com; IRIS; Wikpedia; The Terrorism Research Center; “Arafat's
Billions,” 60 Minutes; Forbes.com; PASSIA; Washington
Post, (November 9 & 11, 2004); PASSIA photo; Arafat in Lebanon photo: Hans Weingartz/ Randi Crott: Auf nach Palästina!; Palestinian Media Watch, (November 28, 2011); Haaretz, (October 15, 2013); BBC, (November 6, 2013); Al-Jazeera, (December 3, 2013); I24 News, (May 5, 2015); Haaretz (September 2, 2015)