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Palestinian Leader Yassir Arafat is Dead at 75

Palestinians have now begun searching for a new leader after President Yassir Arafat's death in France This obitutary has been compiled by Deutsche Welle's Peter Phillip.

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Arafat's death has left a vacuum at the top of the Palestinian movement.

Born in Cairo in 1929, Yassir Arafat preferred to claim Jerusalem as his birthplace. He became politically active as a 19-year-old engineering student in Egypt in 1948, when the Arab countries that declared war on the fledgling state of Israel were defeated and thousands of Palestinians forced to flee their homes as a result.

Arafat and a small group of supporters founded the Fatah movement in Kuwait in 1959. Five years later, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or PLO, was established by Arab governments claiming to represent Palestinian interests.

Shortly after this came a turning point in Palestinian history. Tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbours culminated in 1967 in the Six Day War, by the end of which Israeli forces had occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank – which until then had been administered by Jordan - as well as the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

Fatah joined the PLO, and Arafat became president of the organisation in 1969, a position he held for the rest of his life. He became a hero to many Palestinians by personally rallying resistance in the West Bank and organising
attacks against Israelis. The PLO was forced to shift its base from Jordan to Lebanon in 1970, and in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, it set up headquarters in Tunis.

During the 1970s and ‘80s the PLO and other affiliated groups attracted international attention with a series of terrorist acts and violent hijackings. These included the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in
1972, the hijacking of a French airliner in Entebbe in 1976, and of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.

But exiled in Tunisia, Arafat began to lose his grip on the Palestinian territories. Militant Islamist groups like Hamas appeared to fill the void. In 1987, the Palestinians themselves started a civil uprising or ‘intifada’ against the Israeli occupation, for which Arafat managed to take much of the
credit. In 1988 the PLO unilaterally declared an independent Palestinian state with Arafat as its president, but real progress towards this goal only began a few years later, when Arafat, under international pressure, finally
acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and declared that the PLO would distance itself from terrorism.

The PLO was then invited to observe the Middle East peace talks in Madrid in 1991, and secret negotiations led to the triumphant signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. Arafat and the PLO were allowed to return to the occupied
territories and set up an autonomous administration. In 1994, Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

But the peace process ground to a halt when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered the following year, and his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, stalled the implementation of the Oslo agreement. In 2000, new Israeli premier Ehud Barak
met Arafat at the ill-fated Camp David summit to negotiate the boundaries of a Palestinian state. Many believe that Arafat’s decision to reject Barak’s offer outright without making a counter-proposal was his biggest political mistake;
but his refusal to compromise meant he returned home to a hero’s welcome, albeit empty-handed.

Shortly afterwards, in September 2000, the second intifada broke out. Although Arafat officially condemned acts of terrorism, including Palestinian suicide bombings and attacks against civilians, the Israeli government under hardliner Ariel Sharon held him responsible, and isolated him within his compound in Ramallah for nearly two and a half years. Arafat continued to defy not only Israel but also Parkinson’s disease, power struggles within the PLO and
repeated accusations of corruption. He remained the undisputed leader of the Palestinian people, a symbolic figure who maintained an iron grip on power, thus ensuring that his is an act it will be difficult, if not impossible, to follow.


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  • Author Peter Phillip
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5oYu