Known by the popular alias Abu Ammar, Arafat was held prisoner by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters at the Muqataa district in Ramallah throughout the last three years of his life.
After a noticeable deterioration in his health, Israel, under pressure from Arab allies, permitted a frail Arafat to be flown to a military hospital in Paris for treatment. He died 13 days later at the age of 75 due to an unknown illness amid suspicions that he had been poisoned by Israel.
The cause of his death remains a mystery in the absence of substantive evidence to support or counter various allegations. France and the French hospital refuse to release Arafat’s medical records.
Born in Cairo in 1929, Mohamed Abdel-Raouf Al-Qudwah – he later took the name Yasser Arafat – was the son of exiled Palestinian parents from Gaza and Jerusalem.
He grew up in the Egyptian capital before moving to Jerusalem as a young man. After graduating from Cairo University with a degree in civil engineering, Arafat moved to Kuwait in 1957 where he became a successful building contractor.
It was not long before he abandoned civilian garb and donned his trademark military uniform and emblematic Palestinian kufiya and founded the first Palestinian fedayeen base in Hama, Damascus in 1964. In the 1960s, he co-founded the left-wing Palestinian liberation movement Fatah in Kuwait with other Palestinians living in the Gulf.
Fatah, the reverse Arabic acronym for the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, sought the liberation of Palestine through armed resistance independent of Arab governments and was modelled on liberation movements in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam.
As the movement grew over the years with bases in several Arab countries, it gained the recognition and support of Arab governments. Fatah and other emerging Palestinian resistance factions formed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964.
With Arafat, now the icon of the Palestinian resistance and the face of the struggle across the Arab region, as chairman, the PLO began its combat operations following Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.
In 1974, Arab leaders recognised the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. In the same year, Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly and made his case for the Palestinian cause with his famous words “I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun.”
The PLO would subsequently become an official observer at the UN.
At the outset of the 1970s, Arafat, now taking Jordan as his base, re-established Fatah in Lebanon and resumed the struggle against Israel from that front until the PLO was forced to relocate to Tunisia in 1982 after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
The first Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s brought international attention to the Palestinian struggle and Israeli Occupation while pressuring or persuading Arafat to seek the path of negotiations with Israel to achieve Palestinian statehood. Following the 1991 Madrid Conference that embodied the international community’s vision for a solution to the conflict in the two-state solution, Arafat, the PLO, and the region began a new era of concessions to Israel.
For the next 13 years until his death, Arafat learned that the two-state solution process, which officially began in 1993, was in Israel’s favour even though it had been recognised by the same liberation movement that had sought three decades earlier to liberate Palestine and achieve statehood.
Now, however, the Palestinians became entangled in a process (the Oslo Process) towards a two-state solution that never materialised. Israel’s illegal settlements spread out over Palestinian territory while land grabs by Israel continued unabated, causing the frustrated Palestinians to begin the second Intifada in 2000.
Arafat, having witnessed the failure of the peace process, supported the uprising and became Israel’s number one enemy.
Israeli tanks then swept into Ramallah, destroying the Muqataa where Arafat lived and placing him under siege until he was flown to Paris three years later to die in hospital.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.