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Yasser Arafat: Man Under Fire

Surrounded by Israeli tanks, Arafat refuses to give up the fight for an independent Palestine. It takes more than violence for the PLO leader to accept defeat. Peace, however, is something he’s less accustomed to.

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A peacemaker to some, a terrorist to others

Bullets fly across his presidential compound in Ramallah, Israeli tanks smash into his private office building and soldiers hold him under house arrest, preventing him from attending the Arab League Summit. Yet Yassir Arafat does not give up. He continues to fight defiantly for the cause he’s believed in all his life: freedom and independence for a Palestinian state.

Arafat is ruthless. He’ll use whatever means are necessary to achieve his goal, the goal of his people. From terrorism to diplomacy, Arafat has tried everything in his long life as Palestinian freedom fighter.

From terrorist to Nobel Peace Prize winner

In 1972 Yasser Arafat came before the United Nations General Assembly wielding a gun and an olive branch. It was a juxtaposition of peace and violence that has defined Arafat’s entire political life.

Arafat was born in 1929 to a merchant father and a religiously devout Palestinian mother. As a teenager in the 1940s, he became involved in the Palestinian cause. When he was 17, he smuggled arms to Palestine to be used against British rule, and then later during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 he led a group of Palestinians fighting the Jews in the Gaza area.

Gipfel in Beirut

Demonstrators carry Palestinian flags and a portrait of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a demonstration in the Sabra Refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 27, 2002. Arab leaders were expected to discuss a Saudi peace initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did not attend the summit

In 1956 he founded Al-Fatah, an underground terrorist organization dedicated to the armed struggle against Israel. At first Al-Fatah was ignored by Arab states such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who had formed their own group – the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO, which was endorsed by the Arab League, favored a more conciliatory policy than Fatah, but after the Arabs were defeated by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, Fatah emerged as the most powerful and best organized of the Palestinian activist groups.

In 1968 Arafat became the chairman of the PLO. At that point the group ceased acting as a puppet of the Arab states, and became an independent nationalist organization. For nearly two decades the PLO launched attacks against Israel, and Arafat gained a reputation as a terrorist. Western diplomats avoided contact with the PLO and relegated Arafat to the level of a guerilla leader without a state.

The 1987 uprising or Intifada protest movement against Israeli occupation strengthened Arafat’s position by directing world attention to the difficult plight of the Palestinians. The PLO/ terrorist leader with the signature ghutra headscarf and scruffy beard became known around the world and was elevated to the status of freedom fighter.

By 1988 Arafat had undergone a change of policy. In a speech at a special UN session in Geneva, he declared that the PLO renounced terrorism and supported "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors."

Arafat Plakat und palästinensischen Flaggen

A poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is held up as Palestinian flags are waved during a rally in Gaza City Friday, March 1, 2002. About 2,000 Palestinians from various political factions gathered to protest Israel's military action against Palestininan refugee camps in the West Bank and to show support for Arafat.

Then in 1993, the unthinkable happened. The terrorist leader met with his avowed enemies. In a series of secret peace talks in Oslo, Norway, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin came to an agreement granting limited Palestinian self rule for the occupied territories. The Intifada ended and Israeli troops withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1994 Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize.

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