RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hunted as a terrorist, hailed as a peacemaker, Yasser Arafat (search) succeeded in forcing the Palestinian tragedy upon the world's conscience but failed to deliver the independent state his people yearned for.
A man of mystery and paradox, his four decades on the international stage were a saga of extraordinary reincarnations.
There was Arafat on the run from both Israeli and Arab armies; Arafat, reviled as godfather of the terrorism that blew up jetliners and killed Israeli Olympic athletes; Arafat addressing the United Nations, offering the gun or olive branch; Arafat in a bunker in bomb-torn Beirut, and in Oslo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (search); Arafat welcomed by President Clinton, then shunned by President Bush (search).
There was Arafat the virtual president of Palestine, and finally, in a sense, Arafat back at square one — besieged in his devastated West Bank headquarters by Israeli tanks and threatened once more with exile.
Arafat's last days were surrounded by confusion and high drama: rumors swirled about his condition as his 41-year-old wife, Suha, zealously guarded access to his bedside and publicly accused the Palestinian leadership of trying to usurp his powers. He had groomed no successor, nor was he known to have left any accounting for the vast sums of money he controlled.
His passing also closed a chapter of history: He was among the last of a breed of Arab leaders who came to prominence preaching revolution and secular socialism, only to see them overshadowed by the rise of radical Islam.
The danger is that with no clear-cut political heir to rally them, Palestinians may now fragment under local leaders scattered across the Mideast map.
Rarely seen without his keffiyeh, flowing down his shoulder to resemble a map of Palestine, Arafat became one of the world's most familiar figures after addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, wearing a holster and carrying a sprig. "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," he said. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
To many Israelis the paunchy 5-foot 2-inch Palestinian was a demon bent on their annihilation. They saw him as the architect behind a string of attacks on airliners and airports, schools and buses that took hundreds of lives. The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced him as "that despicable guy with hair on his face."
Yet a decade later that same man, his stubble gone white but still wearing olive-green uniform and keffiyeh, would stand on the White House lawn with Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and shake hands on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel's right to exist.
The agreement also granted the West Bank and Gaza Strip limited self-rule under a Palestinian Authority, and allowed Arafat to set foot on Palestinian land for the first time in at least 27 years. He shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and in 1996, in the Palestinians' first election, he was chosen to head the authority.
Many suspected Arafat of duplicity — disavowing terrorism while orchestrating attacks behind front- groups; talking peace while allowing Palestinian media to spread hate propaganda; issuing murky statements phrased to accommodate the West without angering Arab hard-liners.
The peace process quickly became mired in mutual accusations of bad faith and treaty violations, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, Islamic bombers blew up buses in Israeli cities, and more Jewish settlements went up on Palestinian land. The peace effort fell apart in 2000 and a new round of violence broke out that has killed some 4,000 lives, three-quarters of them Palestinian.
Israel and the United States placed much of the blame on Arafat, claiming he had missed his best chance of winning Palestinian statehood, and in his final years, even many of his own people privately whispered that Arafat had brought them little hope of a better life.
International pressure forced Arafat to share power with a prime minister in April 2003, but he fell out first with one, then another when he resisted giving up any real prerogatives.
Banking on his stature as a symbol of anti-Israel defiance, Arafat sidestepped street protests and riots this summer set off by disenchantment over corruption, lawlessness and a moribund economy. He made a rare acknowledgment of wrongdoing and promised change, but offered no specifics. And, although weakened, he held on to ultimate authority.
Meanwhile, he had been living for nearly three years in his battered, sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, hemmed in by Israeli armor while Israeli officials talked openly of exiling or even killing him.
Alongside such displays of fortitude, a streak of vanity was evident. He liked to be called "Mr. President," even when he had no country to preside over. He surrounded himself with trappings of statehood — marching bands and motorcades — long before he tackled Gaza City's garbage problem. A protruding lower lip made him look petulant when angry.
And there was mystery, not least about his birthplace: Cairo, Egypt, most sources agreed, yet the Palestinian Authority's Web site said Jerusalem and other sources said Gaza.
Yasser Arafat was born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat Al-Qudwa on Aug. 4, 1929, the fifth of seven children of a prosperous Palestinian merchant killed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. A teenager during that war, he ran arms to his father and elder brother on the battlefield. He took the name Yasser, apparently in honor of a slain Palestinian rebel, but to many he would become known as Abu Ammar, his nom de guerre, or al-Khityar, the wise old man.
An Egyptian-educated engineer, he served in the Egyptian army, was a student activist, and later ran his own contracting firm in Kuwait. There he also founded Fatah, which would become the core group of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The movement had already carried out sporadic attacks in Israel, but after the Arabs' humiliating six-day defeat in the 1967 war, Arafat saw a need for more spectacular action. "As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than refugees standing in line for U.N. rations, it was not likely to respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles the situation has changed," he explained.
In the 1970s, PLO factions hijacked planes, shot up airports and seized Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Arafat escaped several assassination attempts by Israel as well as Palestinian rivals and survived a 1992 plane crash in the Libyan desert during a sandstorm.
He often managed to turn military defeat into political victory. Driven out of Jordan in 1970, he set up a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Twelve years later Israeli troops ousted him from his base in Beirut. He regrouped his fighters in northern Lebanon, only to be chased out again — this time by Syrian-backed PLO rebels. When he finally settled in distant Tunisia, he remained the unrivaled leader of the Palestinian cause.
The first signs of a shift from violence to diplomacy came in November 1988 when Arafat accepted U.N. resolution 242, implicitly recognizing Israel. A month later, in a speech at the United Nations in Geneva, he renounced terrorism. That persuaded the United States to end a 13-year ban on talking to the PLO and put pressure on Israel to negotiate.
The Americans cut off the dialogue 18 months later when Arafat failed to punish a PLO leader, Mohammed Abbas, for an abortive seaborne raid on Israel in 1990.
Even as he tried his hand at statesmanship, Arafat could not break with old doctrines.
He recognized Israel, but for years refused to strike wording from the PLO's 1964 founding charter calling for its destruction. He shrugged off the contradiction with an obscure French word "caduc," meaning the offending clauses had been "outmoded" or superseded.
Even when the clauses were finally amended, Israel insisted a close reading of the Arabic showed they had only been frozen, not revoked.
Dignitaries gathered for an historic ceremony in 1994 were aghast when Arafat stalked off the stage after refusing to sign six maps in a 450-page agreement marking the transfer of power from Israelis to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.
Israelis and PLO officials haggled and gesticulated before their embarrassed sponsors — until Arafat was finally persuaded to sign.
Through most of Arafat's reign, terror attacks continued, and Israel accused him of abetting them even as he officially denounced them.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Arafat lost a staunch advocate and arms-supplier, and in 1990 he committed one of his worst blunders: He supported Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, losing Western and Arab backing. But the survivor survived again. Weakened by his isolation, he entered peace talks with Israel's Labor Party government in 1993, accepting an autonomy deal despite opposition from Palestinian hard-liners.
On July 1, 1994, Arafat returned from exile.
Meanwhile, the longtime bachelor had surprised his followers in 1991 by getting married, at age 62, to his secretary, Suha Tawil, then 28. A daughter, named Zahwa after Arafat's mother, was born in July 1995.
Arafat showed little affection for his family in public — it was weeks before he was seen cradling Zahwa for the first time, and Suha Arafat frequently complained she was cut off from him by his aides. She and her daughter moved to France after the second Palestinian uprising erupted in the fall of 2000.
His new governance of the West Bank and Gaza was plagued by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism. His complete control of finances rankled his subordinates. Asked at a June 1995 meeting for a detailed budget, Arafat produced a sheet of paper with a few scribbled sums for spending over the previous two years.
In 2003, Forbes magazine estimated he controlled $300 million, putting him among the richest in its category of "Kings, Queens and Despots."
But he was caught in a vise. Israel insisted he do more to curb Palestinian violence, and gave him the guns to do it. But he feared being seen by his supporters as Israel's policeman. Many Israelis questioned his commitment to a peaceful settlement, pointing to his habit of condemning certain suicide attacks but extolling "holy war" and "martyrdom."
He talked peace, they complained, but did little to prepare his people for it by weaning them off old dreams of "the right of return" to the homes they lost when Israel became a state in 1948.
Still, when Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, Arafat asked to pay his respects to the Israeli leader's widow, Leah. He was smuggled into Tel Aviv by Israeli agents, his first visit to Israel.
Five months after Rabin's death, Arafat summoned the Palestine parliament and managed to win a vote revoking the sections of the PLO charter that called for Israel's destruction. In response, Israel dropped its opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and Clinton invited Arafat for formal talks at the White House, with all the trappings of a state visit.
Things soured, however, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected in 1996. He accused the Palestinians of reneging on their commitments, including drafting a new PLO charter, and delayed promised withdrawals from more West Bank land.
Then a moderate, Ehud Barak, replaced Netanyahu and Clinton brought him and Arafat to Camp David in the summer of 2000. Barak offered Arafat a state in Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank, with a share of Jerusalem. But the Palestinians held out for the right of return.
The violence that followed, characterized by dozens of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military offensives in the West Bank and Gaza, were largely responsible for the election of hawkish Ariel Sharon and left Arafat largely banished from the world stage.
In the wake of a spree of suicide bombings in March 2002 that killed 80 people, Israel's Cabinet declared Arafat an "enemy" and destroyed much of his headquarters compound.
His addresses to legislators and reporters became rambling, sometimes incomprehensible. He continued to insist he could negotiate a deal with Israel, but Sharon wanted nothing to do with him, and many of his Israeli friends, who once would have been pressing their own government to talk to Arafat, gave up on him.
And yet, given his proven ability to survive against the odds, no one was willing to write him off, even as he was left huddled in a tiny office without electricity, his face illuminated only by the glow of a flashlight. Shortly before being flown to Paris for emergency medical treatment on Oct. 29, he appeared briefly for cameras, sitting down and grinning broadly, keffiyeh replaced by a woolen cap.
Regardless of headgear, in the minds of most Palestinians he remained not only the leader but the man who personified their national aspirations.