Arafat, Yasir or Yasser (yäsērˈ ärˈäfät; –sər) [key], 1929–2004, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the coordinating body for Palestinian organizations, and head of Al Fatah, the largest group in the PLO. He was born in Cairo, but spent most of his youth in Jerusalem. After smuggling arms to Arab forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Arafat entered Cairo Univ., where he became chairman of the Palestine Student Federation. He served in the Egyptian army during the Suez campaign (1956) and the following year moved to Kuwait, where he trained Palestinian commandos and edited Our Palestine magazine.
Arafat helped found Al Fatah in 1959 and in 1965 returned to Egypt to head Al Assifa, the military arm of Al Fatah. He went on to become leader of Al Fatah, and when the group gained control of the PLO (1969), Arafat was named the larger body's chairman. The PLO won wide support among Palestinians and third-world nations during the 1970s and 80s, although it was weakened by internal divisions. In 1983, after an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the PLO was forced to move its headquarters to Tunisia.
In 1988 the PLO, under Arafat's leadership, in effect renounced terrorism and accepted Israel's right to coexist with an independent Palestine. A 1993 accord with Israel led to limited Palestinian self-rule in Jericho and the Gaza Strip in 1994, and Arafat became president of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin shared the 1994 Nobel peace prize for the 1993 accord. A 1995 agreement called for self-rule for all Arab cities and villages in the West Bank by 1996; Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian-controlled territory in 1996.
In 1999, Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak signed an agreement to finalize their borders and determine the status of Jerusalem by 2000. The difficulty of resolving, however, those issues stalled negotiations and led (Sept., 2000) to renewed violence. In that fighting, Israel, which accused Arafat of responsibility for Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, at times endangered Arafat's personal safety and enhanced his support among Palestinians. Disillusionment with Arafat's leadership within the Palestinian parliament, however, led it in 2003 to establish the post of prime minister in a largely unsuccessful attempt to reduce his power in the months before his death. Although Arafat brought international attention and support to the Palestinian cause, he was ultimately unable to secure an independent state, and at his death left behind a PLO that was divided within and challenged from without by other Palestinian groups (especially Hamas). In 2013 foreign experts experts who examined his remains and effects disagreed over whether there were indications of deadly polonium poisoning.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.