Yasser Arafat was born in 1929 in Cairo, Egypt, as Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, the sixth of seven children.
He studied at Cairo University from 1952 to 1956, receiving an engineering degree in 1956. During his college years, he ran guns from Egypt into Israel, his first known action against the State of Israel; soon after graduation, he began recruiting and training Palestinians for military operations against Israel.
In 1959, he co-founded the Fatah — a group that would later gain control of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was named Fatah's leader in 1968, although he had actually served in that role since 1964.
Throughout the 1970s, as part of its professed intention to eliminate the State of Israel, Fatah — by then the PLO's foremost faction — allegedly sponsored or launched scores of terrorists attacks against targets in Israel and outside it, among them the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany in 1972.
By the 1980s, Arafat had established a virtual PLO mini-state in Lebanon, the official government of which was unable to maintain its sovereignty over its territory. But it was not long before factional fighting within the PLO cut into Arafat's control over the organization. Taking advantage of Arafat's weakness, Israel — as a byproduct of its invasion of Lebanon — forced Arafat to flee to Tunis, Tunisia in 1983, where he relocated the PLO.
In Arafat's absence, Palestinians on the street took matters into their own hands, launching the so-called "intifada," the uprising by West Bank- and Gaza-Palestinians to wrest control of these territories from Israel, which had taken over these lands as a consequence of a number of failed multi-front wars launched against the Jewish state by Arab nations including Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Unlike the terrorist tactics that had left much of the international community unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the intifada, which frequently sent up images of Israeli soldiers attacking apparently outmatched Palestinian rock-throwers, drew considerable world sympathy; and pressure was put on the Israel government, from both within and outside the country, to seek some sort of peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians.
In this changed environment, Arafat was permitted to return from Tunisia to the territories, despite having broken with much of the Arab world in having supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Gulf War. And he led the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, talks that culminated in the Oslo Accords, which created a framework for continued peace talks, which are still ongoing.
As a result of peace talks, Israel granted the Palestinians limited autonomy, with Arafat heading the government that administers the result, the so-called "Palestinian Authority."
But now, squeezed from all sides — by the Israelis calling for him to ratchet up security measures against violent Palestinian militants; by violent Palestinian militants such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and extremist Arab states seeking to scuttle the peace process with Israel; and by the Palestinian in the street, increasingly dissatisifed with the socio-economic situation in the Palestinian Authority and alleged corruption and lawlesslessness there — Arafat must now wonder whether achieving this goal has been a blessing or a curse.