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Middle East: Palestinian Leader Arafat Dead At 75

Prague, 11 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority and a symbol of Palestinian resistance, has died at the age of 75.

The death of the former guerrilla leader and Palestinian Authority president was first announced in the West Bank by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. A short time later, French hospital officials confirmed that Arafat had passed away at 3:30 a.m. Paris time today at the military hospital near Paris where he had been flown on 29 October for medical treatment. No cause of death was announced.

Palestinian leaders have announced a 40-day mourning period for Arafat across the Palestinian territories. Arafat's body is expected to be flown to Cairo, Egypt, for a funeral ceremony before burial at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leaves a complex legacy. He created the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which Israel eventually had to accept and negotiate with. But he failed in his ultimate aim to create an independent Palestinian state in his lifetime.

In 2003, Arafat declared how he sees himself: "I am a Palestinian soldier. I will use my gun to defend not only myself, but also to defend every Palestinian child, man, and woman, and to defend the Palestinian existence."

Muhammad Abd al-Rauf Arafat Asqudwa al-Hussaeini was born in 1929. Where he was born is disputed. Most biographers say in Egypt, others say Jerusalem or Gaza. Since childhood, Arafat has been known by his nickname, Yasser, meaning "easy."

In Cairo, before he was 17, he began smuggling guns into Palestine for use against the British and the Jews. He continued as a gunrunner through his university years in the 1950s. He received an engineering degree and, during his college years, ran guns from Egypt into Israel.

In 1958, he was among the founders of Fatah, a network of secret cells. By the mid-1960s, he was a full-time militant, organizing raids from Jordan into Israel. Also in the mid-1960s, Arab states and the Arab League established the PLO to be an umbrella group for a number of underground groups, including Fatah.

After Israel defeated the Arab states in the 1967 Six-Day War, Arafat's Fatah emerged as the strongest Palestinian organization -- and Arafat later became chairman of the PLO Executive Committee.

The PLO under Arafat sought to be more aggressive than its national host, Jordan, was comfortable with. Jordan expelled the group in 1971. Arafat's fighters then moved to Lebanon, from where they were eventually driven out by Israel in 1982 and dispatched to Tunis.

In 1987, the Palestinians began the first "intifada," or uprising, against Israeli rule in the occupied territories. This struggle directed the world's attention to the Palestinian plight. And it put Arafat at the head of the movement toward statehood for Palestine.

In 1988, at a special UN session in Geneva, in a move to win international acceptance, Arafat renounced terrorism and explicitly recognized Israel's existence, saying: "We want peace.... We are committed to peace, and we want to live in our Palestinian state and let others live."

That statement was echoed in a speech Arafat made to the Palestinian parliament in 2003. "We recognized the state of Israel, and we will not withdraw our recognition," he said. "It is the right of the Israeli people to live in security and peace and stability, side by side with the Palestinian people that are also living in their own independent state -- in their own Palestinian state -- in lasting and just peace in our region."

The first half of the 1990s was a period of rapprochement, the Oslo peace process and the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, which Arafat shared with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

In 1996, Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, with an overwhelming 87 percent of the vote. Many say the elections were not truly democratic because most opposition leaders did not participate.

In 2000, Israel's Ariel Sharon, then the opposition leader, visited Jerusalem's sensitive Temple Mount and a second Palestinian intifada was ignited. It continues to this day.

Arafat once more lowered the olive branch and spoke out in terms of Palestinian national struggle.

Increasingly, as the fighting continued on both sides, Israel and the United States bypassed Arafat as irrelevant.

In June 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush openly challenged the Palestinians to find new leaders. "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," Bush said. "I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts."

Arafat was placed under virtual house arrest by the Israeli military at his compound in the West Bank. Surrounded by Israeli soldiers and tanks in 2003, Arafat boasted to the world that he would not be moved. "This is terra sancta," he said. "No one can kick me out."

In his lifetime, Arafat talked both peace and war with hardly a breath in between.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, dead at the age of 75.

(RFE/RL's Don Hill and Valentinas Mite contributed to this story.)

[Also see:

Middle East: With Arafat Gone, What Next For The Palestinian Leadership?


Analysis: Arafat's Legacy In The Palestinian Authority]