Yasser Arafat, 1929-2004: Father of the Palestinian Nation

Even to his many friends and acquaintances Yasser Arafat remained largely an enigma. There is no doubt that he was one of the world's best-known leaders: During his decades of political activity he was seen regularly on the newscasts of television stations around the world, and hardly a week went by without an Arafat interview in a major newspaper.

The reports and descriptions about him were always contradictory. Everything possible was said: he was unreliable and a liar, an incorrigible terrorist who could not be trusted in the least - and, at the same time, the "father of the Palestinian nation," the historic leader who led his people from nowhere to the center of the Middle Eastern political stage and into negotiations with Israel on the partition of the country.

Did he bring his people successes, or did he inflict disasters on them? Short, tending to plumpness, with fleshy lips; his mannerisms theatrical to the point of being ludicrous, his language meager. Could no better leader be found among the upper echelons of the Palestinian people?

Arafat's enigma begins with his birthplace. According to his official biography (as published by the Palestinian information departments), he was born in the Old City of Jerusalem. He himself said as much on many occasions, but sometimes also said he was born in Gaza. In other interviews he was evasive, saying his father was from Gaza and his mother from Jerusalem.

The truth is that Yasser Arafat was born in Cairo, Egypt. At least one of his biographers found his Egyptian birth certificate. So why lie about the trivial question of his birthplace? When the Egyptian birth certificate was shown to him, he said it was a forgery. He was brought up in Cairo, by parents who emigrated from Palestine, but he insisted that he was born in Jerusalem and that his father forged his birth certificate so that Yasser Arafat could attend Egyptian schools for free.

He was born in August 1929, two years after his father moved to Cairo in the hope of obtaining by inheritance a plot of land that in the past had belonged to one of the women in the family who was from the city.

Arafat's effort to move his place of birth to Jerusalem was apparently prompted by his notion that a national leader who purported to be "Mister Palestine" could not conceivably have been born outside the Palestinian homeland. It was far more fitting for the father of the Palestinian nation to have been born in Jerusalem, near Al-Aqsa and the Western Wall, where his mother's family (Abu Saud) lived and where the three-year-old Arafat was sent after his mother, Zahawa, died in Cairo of a kidney ailment. He lived for a time with his mother's family and in the house of his father's family, al-Kidwa, in Gaza. He returned to Cairo after his father remarried. In any event, Arafat attended elementary and high school in Cairo - as is very evident from the Egyptian accent that he never managed to get rid of to his dying day.

Young Palestinians who joined Fatah during the period of the 1967 Six-Day War and first met Arafat were in fact taken by surprise: How was it that the leader of the Palestinian revolution talks like an Egyptian?

The formative experience of Arafat's adolescent years in Cairo was his meetings with the group of Palestinian exiles who lived in the Egyptian capital at the end of the Second World War. They were headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who spent the war years in Berlin, and Sheikh Hassan Abu-Saud, a relative of Arafat's (on his mother's side).

Arafat, then 17, formed especially close ties with Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, one of the leading Palestinian organizers of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 against the Jewish community and the British Mandate government in Palestine. Arafat spent a lot of time playing and reading verses of the Koran with Faisal Husseini, the son of Abd al-Kader, who would later become the PLO leader of Orient House in Jerusalem.

Arafat began engineering studies in the University of Cairo (then Fuad University) in the winter of 1948. The great shock of his first year as a student was the report, which reached him in mid-April, about the death of Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, who was killed in the battle for the Kastel outside Jerusalem.

Together with other Palestinian students Arafat decided to leave the university and join the Egyptian volunteers who were mobilizing for the war in Palestine. Arafat took part in the battle for Kfar Darom, in Gaza, but two weeks later the Egyptian army invaded Israel and ordered all the irregular forces to stop fighting so as not to disrupt the army's operations. Arafat later described how his rifle, his personal weapon, was taken from him by the Egyptians.

Other young Palestinians who underwent similar experiences at the time afterward related how the Arab armies that entered the country disarmed them and prevented them from fighting. Arafat and his friends were witnesses to competition and quarreling among the Arab statesmen and commanding officers, and to the defeat they suffered in the war, which ended with the signing of the armistice agreements in 1949.

From the point of view of many Palestinians, including Arafat, the Arab rulers not only failed in the war, but compounded the affront by not allowing the Palestinians to see action. For years afterward, whenever he was asked what caused the Palestinian tragedy, Arafat replied: The Arabs betrayed us.

It was against this background that Arafat (like many other Palestinians of his generation) formulated a worldview after 1948 that the Arab regimes could not be relied upon and that their entire purpose was to exploit the Palestinian problem for their own profit.

Arafat determined to be loyal to the Palestinian people, and to them alone. During his political career, which began in 1950 as chairman of the Palestinian Students Organization at the University of Cairo and continued with the establishment of the Fatah organization in Kuwait in 1959, Arafat was embroiled in dozens of disputes and quarrels with almost every Arab leader.

He was imprisoned in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and pursued relentlessly in Jordan - always as a result of his suspiciousness and mistrust of the Arab rulers, who in his view were ready to sell out the Palestinians and sacrifice their interests at the drop of a hat in order to benefit themselves. Arafat even found himself in a serious crisis of relations with the authorities in Egypt, the Arab country in which he was born and which he felt closest to, after President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. There were even some who said, with a little exaggeration, that Arafat's loyalty to the Palestinian cause had turned him anti-Arab.

The Fatah organization founded by Arafat and his colleagues carried out its first operation against an Israeli target - a section of the National Water Carrier in Galilee - on January 1, 1965.

Some two and a half years later, following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-Day War, the Palestinian organizations expanded their attacks on Israel, and the name of Yasser Arafat, head of Fatah, became known to the public at large in the spring of 1968.

Arafat gained fame at the time primarily because he had an amazing penchant for publicity and public relations. He succeeded, with the help of tricks, exaggerations and lies, in making the headlines of the world's media.

A typical example was his description of the battle of Karameh, in the eastern Jordan Rift Valley, then in Jordan, in which Arafat took part in March 1968. The battle raged a few hours, after which the Israeli troops were forced to retreat, leaving several tanks and military equipment in Jordanian territory.

Arafat described the outcome of the battle as a tremendous military triumph that was as great as the Soviet victory over the Germans at Stalingrad. He appeared as the commander of a mysterious guerrilla force and disseminated tales of heroic exploits, while his forces held parades to show off the equipment left behind by the Israelis.

Such stories had a massive impact, thanks to the yearning of the Arab masses for a bit of comfort after the humiliating defeat of 1967. Arab and Palestinian public opinion almost begged for stories of heroism - and Arafat supplied them in abundance.

In the years that followed, Arafat did not balk at spreading rumors and groundless stories as part of the Palestinian propaganda campaign. For example, he claimed that some of the suicide bombings that took place during the peace process, and afterward during the intifada that began in 2000, were perpetrated under the aegis of Israeli intelligence. He also accused the Israel Defense Forces of using enriched uranium in its ammunition.

As the years passed, Arafat managed to survive in a way that sometimes beggared belief. He survived assassination attempts and turned out to be a leader whom no political foe could subdue.

He was saved in the fighting during the civil war in Jordan, on "Black September" in 1970, and emerged unscathed from the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut in the Lebanon War. He later overcame, albeit with difficulty, rebels in his Fatah movement who tried to liquidate him in 1983 with the aid of the Syrian regime.

In retrospect, Arafat's greatest success lay in leading his nation to recognize Israel at the meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algeria, in 1988 and into a peace process that eventuated in the establishment of national Palestinian rule in part of the homeland.

In 1994, Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in order to found the autonomous regime enshrined in the Oslo accord of September 1993. He was also elected president of the Palestinian Authority in free and democratic elections in 1996.

It was in creating the institutions of Palestinian government in the homeland that Arafat apparently made the greatest mistakes of his life. The governmental departments were inefficient, wasteful and corrupt. Arafat continued his behavior from the underground period, by completely neglecting the handling of law and order. He introduced bribery in the system and cultivated thugs and corrupt individuals as confidants. Within a short time the Palestinian public was fed up with the national rule it had waited for so long.

True, in his ascetic way of life Arafat succeeded in preserving the image of a leader who has no private life and whose whole world is the Palestinian national vision. But the resentment and hostility of the masses to all the bureaucratic apparatuses around him grew apace.

Arafat's methods of rule, his juggling of promises, bribes and appointments - with the help of which he was able to survive for so long - turned out to be a terrible obstacle when the need arrived to create an orderly system of government. All the maneuvers that helped Arafat transform an underground terrorist movement into a recognized political body worked against him when he continued to invoke them after becoming the head of a near-sovereign political entity.

He did not genuinely pursue the opponents of the agreement with Israel and did not restrain their terrorist activity. He made empty promises to the foreign statesmen he met with, to the point where many of them, especially the Israelis, despaired of him.

The person who succeeded in bringing his nation out of nowhere to the center of the Middle East arena also inflicted on them the huge disaster of the blood-drenched confrontations from which there now seem to be no way out.