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Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat Dies in Paris


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is being flown to Cairo today, where a funeral will be held tomorrow. Arafat died early this morning, Paris time, at a French hospital. He was 75 years old. For four decades, Arafat symbolized the Palestinian struggle, first as guerrilla fighter, then peacemaker, and eventually as a leader who failed to create Palestinian state. He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Many Palestinians revered Arafat as the embodiment of their national aspirations. At the same time, his rule over the Palestinian territories was authoritarian and corrupt, and many Israelis never stopped considering him a terrorist. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this look at his life.


Arafat liked to tell people he was born in Jerusalem, the city without which, he never tired of saying, there would be no Palestinian state. Yet, it was in Cairo as a college man where he found his niche, rallying for a cause. Arafat headed the Palestinian Students' Association. When war erupted with the newly declared state of Israel in 1948, he spent a few weeks fighting. His biographer, Danny Rubinstein, says Arafat then, fittingly, became a tireless advocate for a people who'd lost their homeland.

Mr. DANNY RUBINSTEIN (Arafat Biographer): After '48 when the first refugees came to Cairo, he became a spokesman for those refugees because he had the experience of being a foreigner in an Arabic country.

LUDDEN: After graduating, Arafat moved to Kuwait, and it looked as if he might settle into a normal life as a civil engineer. Another biographer, the late John Wallach, said he lived a good life.

Mr. JOHN WALLACH (Arafat Biographer): He was once a millionaire. I mean, that's one of the things that people forget about. I mean, he earned his first $1 million as an engineer laying out roads in Kuwait. He loved to drive a red Thunderbird convertible.

LUDDEN: Arafat also continued to dabble in Palestinian politics from afar and began organizing his own guerrilla group. He called it Fatah. After Israel trampled Arab armies in the 1967 war, Arafat infiltrated the newly occupied West Bank to round up support. He circulated under the nose of Israeli soldiers, often in disguise, once dressed as a woman.

His daring impressed the defeated population. By the late '60s he was leading the Palestine Liberation Organization, originally created by Egypt. Arafat based his PLO in Jordan, but his increasingly arrogant soldiers clashed with authorities there. In 1970 he was forced to flee to Lebanon.

Mr. YASSER ARAFAT (Palestinian Leader): (Arabic spoken)

LUDDEN: `We'll go on fighting till we win to draw a map,' he told his fighters. `Revolution, revolution till victory.'

Arafat gave the disenfranchised Palestinians an identity and a voice that the world could no longer ignore. And he became an indispensable symbol, each detail of his persona laden with meaning: the constant stubble, the olive-drab army uniform, the checkered kaffiyeh scarf carefully folded over his right shoulder in the shape of mandatory Palestine. Danny Rubinstein says the cause consumed Arafat's life.

Mr. RUBINSTEIN: He started to put this kaffiyeh on, to put the uniform and to neglect or ignore every other aspect of life. I would say that he never went to movies or theater, to the beach, the picnics, or traveled to museums, nothing.

LUDDEN: Arafat insisted only Palestinians could put forth their own demands. He refused to court allies among the feuding countries with pan-Arab claims who wanted to define the Palestinian agenda themselves, an admirable attitude to supporters. Yet political analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi says Arafat lacked vision.

Mr. MAHDI ABDUL HADI (Political Analyst): He succeeded in surviving all the odds and the threats. He was the man who can manipulate, maneuver and have it his way.

LUDDEN: As Arafat's PLO amassed power, elements within it used terrorism to attract attention. Black September, a group within Arafat's Fatah faction, staged one of the most shocking attacks, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.


Unidentified Reporter: Early this morning, a group of Palestinian terrorists fought their way into the Olympic Village and to the accommodation of the Israeli team.

LUDDEN: In all, 11 Israeli athletes died. Arafat denied involvement in the attack and the PLO said it did not endorse terrorism. Yet, for many, Arafat did not do enough to distance himself from such acts and his international standing suffered.

In 1974 he tried a new tactic, a first sign that he might be willing to make peace with Israel. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly carrying an olive branch and wearing an empty holster. Security guards had forced him to leave his gun outside.

Mr. ARAFAT: (Through Translator) Today, Mr. President, I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.

LUDDEN: Back in Lebanon, Arafat's PLO became embroiled in that country's civil war. Israel invaded and by 1982 succeeded in routing what had became the Palestinians' state within a state. Arafat fled with 14,000 of his Fatah fighters and eventually settled into quieter exile in Tunisia. Then when the Palestinian uprising or intifada erupted in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1987, Arafat maneuvered again. He sent money to support the resistance and co-opt its case. A year later, Arafat's Palestine National Council declared its intention to create a state that would exist side by side with Israel. By 1991 Arafat officially shifted from guerrilla to peacemaker. He began the negotiations that led to the 1993 Declaration of Principles with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a handshake on the White House lawn.


Mr. ARAFAT: (Through Translator) Now, as we stand on the threshold of this new historic era, let me address the people of Israel and their leaders, with whom we are meeting today for the first time. And let me assure them that the difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage.

LUDDEN: Arafat's courage had been to make major concessions in exchange for limited self-rule. And over time, the new arrangements proved extremely unpopular. For every step toward autonomy, Palestinians endured new restrictions by a security-obsessed Israel. Frustration mounted and Arafat clamped down. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The following text was erroneously cut out of the piece before it aired: "The security services of his Palestinian Authority suppressed dissent, beat up members of parliament, and routinely ignored decisions of the Authority's parliament and supreme court. In addition, Arafat's long tolerance for corruption continued."] Political analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi.

Mr. HADI: He comes across as a freedom fighter, he comes across as a nationalist, he comes across as founder and establisher of so many things. But by the end of the day, you come to see him as the sheik, the tribal leader, the old man, as he's called, and centralizing everything in himself.

LUDDEN: Even as Israelis accused Arafat of being intransigent, Palestinians considered him a sellout, conceding more and more for little in return. At a Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, Israelis were shocked when Arafat rejected their best offer so far, but Palestinians lauded him a hero.


LUDDEN: Two months later, when Israeli Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon staged a provocative visit to Jerusalem's holiest site, revered by both Jews and Muslims, violence erupted. Palestinians mounted another intifada, which soon degenerated into guerrilla war against occupation, the bloodiest confrontation with Israelis since the creation of the Jewish state. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The following text was erroneously cut out of the piece before it aired: "As the conflict dragged on, scores of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings again cost Arafat international standing."] Israeli tanks and troops besieged the Palestinian leader and his West Bank compound, as now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared him irrelevant and an enemy once again. An automatic pistol at his side, Arafat declared his willingness to die as a martyr.

Israel's leaders painted Arafat as an unreformed terrorist carefully orchestrating gunmen and suicide bombers. Others maintained he was simply ineffectual, unable to control militants. Either way, Yasser Arafat failed to achieve the independent state to which he dedicated his life.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 27, 2005 at 5:08 AM HST
Two omissions from the piece that originally aired are noted in an attached transcript.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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