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Yasser Arafat: A Profile

FRIDAY 5th July 2002
In 1953, Yasser Arafat sent a letter to an Egyptian leader. It was three words long and said to have been written in the Palestinian's own blood. It said simply, "Don't forget Palestine." Reversing "the catastrophe"

In the half century since, it has been impossible to ignore either the letter's writer or its contents. While the Middle East conflict continues to rage, for his supporters and critics alike, Yasser Arafat has come to embody his people's struggle for self-determination.

Arafat was born and educated in Egypt, but he has always been wedded to his adopted country's cause. He took the name Yasser, believed to honour an Arab victim of the British mandate in Palestine. After the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, he became committed to the idea of armed struggle to reverse what Palestinians call the Nabka ("the catastrophe").

Militant resistance

To this end, Arafat secretly founded Fatah, the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine. He claimed to have fought for Egypt during the Suez crisis and the following Arab-Israeli war. Certainly, his expertise in explosives and demolition held him in good stead as Fatah's operations grew increasingly military.

By 1967, Israel had crushed many of its Arab enemies and captured the West Bank and Gaza. Fatah remained its only credible force of opposition and, two years later, Arafat became the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

With higher profile came higher personal risk. Initially based in Jordan, Arafat and his fighters were expelled in 1970 and redeployed first into Lebanon, and later Tunisia. While his troops launched an uprising, or intifada, on the West Bank in 1987, Arafat remained in exile for 27 years.

Jeopardised peace effort

He made the mistake of supporting Saddam Hussein during the Kuwait crisis of 1990 and paid the price of political isolation in the Gulf. During this period of weakness, Arafat could only start to make peace with Israel.

Both he and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, but their White House lawn handshake in 1993 angered groups on both sides. Arafat returned to Gaza the following year, but such fundamental issues as the fate of Palestinian refugees had been left undecided, and the peace process was fraught with difficulty.

Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and, as president of the Palestinian National Authority, Arafat struggled to define his role and keep Israelis and his own countrymen committed to what he termed "the peace of the brave".

Under siege

For him since then, it has been anything but peaceful. By 2000, any conciliation had seemingly foundered and a fresh intifada, this timed armed and with Arafat at its heart, was launched in the West Bank. In April of this year, his old adversary Ariel Sharon accused him of instigating terror on Israeli streets, and his troops battered Arafat's Ramallah compound. Meanwhile, his Palestinian critics accuse him of running a corrupt administration, making too many concessions and placing undue trust in the United States.

At this point, his words at the United Nations General Assembly of 1974 may ring in his ears. Making his debut on the international stage in New York, Arafat told delegates that he had come, "bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun". He asked them, "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."