|Biographical detail : ||Palestinian leader of great height.
Yasser Arafat remained on the Middle East scene for so long that it is hard to imagine what the region would look like without him. His historic achievement, recognised by friends and even foe, was to hold together a disparate coalition of armed group under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), of which he was the chairman, abd forged a sense of legitimacy.
Yasser Arafat, who personified Palestinian desire for statehood, challenged Arab regimes and an Israeli state, which long refused to recognise the national existence, let alone the rights, of its existential enemy. His crowning moment came in 1974 when he mounted the podium at the United Nations general assembly to make his famous gun and olive branch speech.
Yasser Arafat became a hero and symbol of Palestinian struggle when his forces bloodied the Israeli army in a defensive action at the battle of Karameh, in Jordan in 1968. Within three years, his forces were brutally evicted from that country by the late King Hussein, who feared the PLO leader threatened his throne.
A decade later Yasser Arafat was forced to quit his headquarters in Beirut after Israel besieged the Lebanese capital to destroy the Palestinian “state within a state”. Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, ordered a sniper to hold Arafat in his sights as he departed under a US brokered agreement. Sharon has said he regretted not having him killed when he had the chance.
When Arafat reached Tunis, at the opposite end of the Arab world, many wrote him off as a spent force. Within a year he was back in Lebanon in an attempt to re-establish a headquarters in the northern city of Tripoli. Palestinian rivals, spurred on by Syria, forced him out. Once again, he survived, while some of his Tripoli challengers now labour anonymously in the middle ranks of the Palestinian bureaucracy.
Yasser Arafat’s arrival in Gaza, in July 1994, greeted with the joyful scenes was to have marked the first step towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
When the 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip brought the bulk of his people under Israeli rule, Yasser Arafat began the path that led, through exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, back to Gaza and Ramallah, his head-quarters-cum-prison, and his transformation from guerrilla leader into visionary statesman and recipient, with Yitzhak Rabin, of the Nobel peace prize.
The breakthrough at Oslo in 1993 and the later talks at Camp David ended in a dangerous impasse that exploded into the second intifada, an expression of Palestinian rage and frustration.
Yasser Arafat survived many decades of exile and banishment, bombardments, an air accident that left him with permanent health problems, missile attacks, the searing pain of incomprehension and, at times, isolation. In the last few years, his life was darkened by confinement within his Mukata headquarters, reduced almost to rubble, but, nevertheless, he continued fighting to defend his people, inspiring negotiations and seeking alternative routes towards peace.
Yasser Arafat lost his hold on life, ending a two-week vigil at a military hospital in Paris marked by conflicting reports about his illness. As Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip mourned their leader, Yasser Arafat’s body was flown to Cairo for a funeral attended by the world dignatories – but no Western heads of state. Amid chaotic scenes, he was buried at Ramallah, scene of his virtual interment by Israel for the past two years.
Yasser Arafat was born Abdel Raouf at Cairo. He became a political activist in Gaza, worked in Kuwait as an engineer, helped found Fatah guerrilla organisation in 1958 and became its spokesman and leader.
Yasser Arafat, known also by his other name Abu Amar, will be remembered for his smiling expression and constant good humour despite the hard times he had to live through. With his traditional keffiyeh – as chequered as the geography of Palestine – and his olive-green military uniform, he became established in the public eye and imagination as an indefatigable warrior who dedicated himself body and soul to his cause. The fervour he aroused in his people is an enduring testament to his legitimacy of his cause.