From an early age, Muhammad Abdul Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, the sixth child of a Palestinian spice, incense and grocery merchant, sensed that a high destiny awaited him. It did -- but Yasser Arafat, who has died at age 75, assuredly earned it by his own endeavors too.
By the standard of lifelong, indefatigable, courageous dedication to a cause, he deserved the title of Mr. Palestine that he held for a whole generation of his people's struggle. But by the standards of ultimate achievement, he didn't; rarely can a "liberator" have strayed further from the original ideals of "liberation."
Arafat was born on Aug. 4, 1929, in Cairo, Egypt, where his father had settled for business reasons, but after the death of his mother, the four-year-old was packed off to Jerusalem to live with his uncle in a house by the Wailing Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Zionists' passionate struggle to wrest exclusive control of the traditionally Muslim-administered Wall made these holy places an emotionally charged arena for the wider struggle for Palestine unfolding under British mandatory rule. Arafat witnessed anguished family debates about the country's future, and saw something of the "great rebellion," the armed uprising of a desperate and dispossessed peasantry that served as an inspiration for the later, equally unavailing "armed struggle" of his own making.
In 1937, on his father's second marriage, he returned to Cairo, where middle-class comforts were more than offset by the emotional troubles that an unloved stepmother spread about her. When his father married yet again, his elder sister Inam was assigned the task of bringing up her siblings.
The dominating role of women in Arafat's early life probably contributed to a compulsive desire to dominate and lead himself. Inam soon concluded that he was "not like other children in playing or in his feelings ... He gathered the Arab kids of the district, formed them into groups and made them march and drill. He carried a stick and he used to beat those who did not obey his commands."
Outside Palestine during "the catastrophe" -- the 1948 imposing of Israel upon some 78 percent of the country -- he didn't directly suffer the terrors and humiliation of mass flight and exile. But long before that he was steeping himself in political and military affairs. By 1946, the 17-year-old Cairo schoolboy realized that, with the Zionists pressing their armed violence against an enfeebled Britain, the Palestinians would have to fight. He became a key, intrepid figure in smuggling arms from Egypt into Palestine.
But his adolescent exploits were wasted. As Arab armies entered Palestine, "an Egyptian officer came to my group and demanded that we hand over our weapons ... we protested ... but it was no good ... in that moment I knew we had been betrayed by these regimes."
He plunged into preparation for the coming struggle -- convinced that if Palestinians relied on others to decide for them, they would never recover their homeland. They had no decision-making institutions, so he set about creating them. He took over the stagnant Cairo-based League of Palestinian Students.
Tireless, wily, domineering, he exhibited another vital trait that helped shape his career and, through it, the history of the Middle East. At a congress in Prague, he suddenly donned the kaffiyeh, or traditional checkered headdress, which, as well as hiding his entirely bald pate, became his emblem. The gesture sprang from his delight in surprise, showmanship and the theatrical gesture. Style is often the man, and there was surely an intrinsic affinity between this and a remarkable ability to adapt himself and his movement, suddenly, spectacularly, to new goals and policies in a changing strategic and political environment.
In Prague, the 26-year-old student was already advertising his sense of destiny, referring to himself, only half-jokingly perhaps, as "Mr. Palestine." And yet, like many contemporaries, he might well have eschewed politics altogether, and become a self-made man of a more conventional kind. Armed with a Cairo University engineering degree, he went to Kuwait in 1958, one of those stateless Palestinians searching for work in the remote, uncomfortable, undeveloped, but newly oil-rich British-protected emirate. He began as a Public Works Department junior site engineer. Then he set up his own company, subsequently claiming that he had been "well on the way to becoming a millionaire."
An exaggeration, perhaps, but his brief business foray later consolidated a carefully cultivated, if genuine, aspect of his personality. As the leader of his people, he disposed of billions and made canny use of them as an instrument of policy and patronage, but led the most spartan of private lives. Similarly, for all his reputed liaisons with women, he could claim that, at great cost in contentment, his only marriage was to his revolution.
Helped by the funds that his dalliance with material things procured him, he took the first, clandestine steps that led to his emergence as one of the household names of the age: the incarnation, however flawed, of all their aspirations to most Palestinians; of evil and the would-be destruction of their state to most Israelis; of their most sacred, exasperating and unavoidable obligations to most Arab regimes; of a gradual conversion from "terrorist" to politician, even statesman, in the eyes of an outside world.
In Kuwait, in 1959, with his close friend Abu Jihad, he began publishing a crudely edited magazine, Our Palestine, which, with impetuous and uncouth vigor, lamented the Palestinian refugees' plight and the inaction of Arab regimes, and trumpeted the ideal of the "Return," with a full-scale "population liberation war" as the only means of achieving it. Together they formed the Fatah guerrilla organization's first, five-man underground cell. On Jan. 1, 1965, ill-trained, pitifully short of both weapons and funds, the Feyadeen (those who sacrifice themselves) mounted their first trans-frontier raid into the "Zionist gangster-state."
Arafat's guerrillas were always a much greater challenge to the Arab regimes than they were to the Israelis. In theory, the regimes too were preparing to liberate Palestine -- but by conventional military means in their own good time. The first "martyr" fell victim, characteristically, to the Jordanian army. Upon his return from a raid, Arafat himself had a spell in a Syrian jail, amid rumors that the new Syrian defense minister, one Hafez al-Assad, wanted to hang him and all his comrades.
These early Arafat exploits, though mere pinpricks, helped furnish Israel with the pretext for seizing the remaining 22 percent of Palestine -- East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza -- which had eluded it in its "war of independence." Even after the shattering Arab defeat in the 1967 war, his guerrillas never put down roots in the newly occupied territories, let alone original Israel proper. Arafat is said to have made his getaway across the Jordan River disguised as a mother carrying a baby, a story that reinforced his growing reputation for the narrow escape and an uncanny sense of survival.
After the battle of Karameh, a small Jordanian town in which, on March 21, 1968, an ill-armed band of guerrillas inflicted heavy casualties on a vastly superior force of Israeli invaders, the Fedayeen became the Arab world's darlings. Volunteers flocked to join it and Fatah became a state within the Jordanian state, with Arafat as its "spokesman." Soon he became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, that assembly of generally docile notables that Egypt's President Nasser had established in 1964 as a way of keeping in check just such ardent young men as himself.
Too many fledgling "freedom fighters" took to swaggering around the Jordanian capital of Amman, advertising their ambition to replace the Hashemite Kingdom with their own revolutionary order -- and Arafat fell victim to his sudden, meteoric success. His movement suffered from organic defects typical of too-rapid growth -- together with those of his individualistic, haphazard leadership style. In "Black September" 1970, King Hussein unleashed his Bedouin soldiers against him -- an Arab army dealing Arafat the first of his great reverses.
In a new Lebanese exile, exploiting that country's divisions, he built himself a stronger power base. Yet he was now further from his natural Palestinian environment and his goal of "complete liberation" through "armed struggle." After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the partial Arab military comeback that engendered a serious bout of American peacemaking, he began edging away from "revolution till victory" toward a "doctrine of stages." He sought what immediate gains he could from a political settlement without renouncing the historical right to all of Palestine. It was the beginning of a moderation that was to take him further than he could have imagined.
For a while his diplomatic successes overshadowed his military ones. In 1974, King Hussein, his historic Arab rival, recognized the PLO as "the sole legitimate spokesman of the Palestinian people." Two weeks later, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly at its first full-dress debate on the "Palestine question" since 1952, becoming the first leader of a "national liberation movement" to be so honored.
That triumph was followed by a dreary period of diplomatic stagnation -- and more military-strategic reverses, inflicted first by Arabs, then Israelis, then Arabs again. He took sides in the Lebanese civil war. When his proteges, the Muslim leftists, were getting the upper hand, Syria's President Assad switched sides, sending in his army to help the right-wing Christian Phalangists. The civil war's first phase ended in 1976 with the atrocious siege and fall of the Palestinian refugee camp of Tal al-Zaatar. At an emergency summit, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait rescued Arafat from Syrian onslaughts.
In 1982 it was the Israelis who invaded Lebanon. In the three-month siege of Beirut, they hunted the PLO leader in person, using F-15s as flying assassination squads while their quarry slept on the beach and in parks to evade them. Two hundred people died when, with a laser-guided vacuum bomb, they flattened an apartment block he had left moments before.
With the loss of his last Lebanese politico-military power base, Tunis became his headquarters. Though the Israeli-encouraged, Phalangist pogrom of defenseless refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila followed his exile, these were not his personally bleakest moments. They came 15 months later after he had slipped back into the Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon, where Assad had helped foment a rebellion against him in the ranks of what was left of the Fatah guerrillas.
Arafat's bold stroke failed: Bombarded by Israel from the sea, besieged by Syria, he sailed from Tripoli under a European-arranged safe passage. "Such," prematurely declared the New York Times, "is the bizarre ending of a movement that, for all its daring, never found a political vision."
Three years of seemingly growing irrelevance did indeed lie ahead. And in 1985 Israeli F-15s killed 73 people at his seafront Tunis headquarters. His nose for danger had supposedly saved him yet again: He had been out "jogging" at the time. But his political fortunes were sinking to their lowest ebb -- at Arab hands. At a 1987 summit, to his fury, Arab leaders for the first time put something other than Palestine -- the Iraq-Iran war -- at the top of their agenda.
But within weeks the great survivor was savoring a sweet recovery. With the spontaneous, nonarmed intifada as his new asset, he found himself in a stronger position than the long, costly "armed struggle" ever conferred on him; the stones that youngsters hurled at Israeli soldiers were more potent than Kalashnikovs. In 1988, he solemnly proclaimed his adherence to the "two-state" solution, involving the Palestinians' renunciation of 78 percent of their original homeland. He recognized Israel's right to exist. There began a long dreamed of U.S.-PLO dialogue; he called it the Palestinians' "passport to the world."
His historic offer was a delusion, a failed gamble, such was the continuing weakness of Palestinians -- and Arabs. For Israel, he was the unregenerate terrorist; and Washington would not gainsay its imperious protege.
To enhance his bargaining power he looked more to a militarily powerful, increasingly militant Iraq. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he backed him, a fatuous miscalculation. In American eyes he forfeited much of the moral and diplomatic respectability he had slowly garnered. If he had taken the other side, he would have been better placed to secure Palestine's place in the "new world order" the U.S. sought to bring into being.
Still, it was a measure of his personal ascendancy that he persuaded the Palestinians to go to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the first time Israel and its Arab neighbors had talked to each other across a table. But they did so at the price of historic concessions. The Israelis chose which Palestinians they talked to; there was no place for PLO members, let alone Arafat, in the Palestinian delegation. They also largely set the agenda; the Americans backed their refusal to discuss anything suggesting the Palestinians might benefit from such a fundamental 20th century right as "self-determination."
Madrid got nowhere. It became tempting to speculate that Arafat was tiring of his devotion to the revolution, when, at 62, and to the often disapproving surprise of his people, he took a 28-year-old Palestinian Christian wife, Suha Tawil. Tempting, but wrong. He kept up his endlessly airborne routine. In 1992, his aircraft crash-landed during a Libyan sandstorm. The crew sacrificed themselves to save him -- testimony to the loyalty he inspired.
One Jerusalem newspaper called his escape a "heavenly referendum"; for many Palestinians, the relief and joy were genuine enough. Yet before long it was the Israelis who, though they could never love him, recast him as an enemy who gave them much more than they had dared to hope.
He began the secret talks that astonished the world as the Oslo agreement. Some of his officials whispered that the crash -- the shock it caused to faculties already going awry -- had pushed him into this last extremity of "moderation." Weaknesses in Arafat the man now impinged, as never before, on the cause he embodied. Individualism, vanity, deviousness, authoritarianism, a mystical belief in his infallibility had long been apparent. But now it became clear just how primary a concern to Mr. Palestine was the destiny of -- Mr. Palestine. What he wanted, and was ready to pay almost any price to secure, was to come back into the game from which the terms of the Madrid conference, the rise of the "insider" leadership and the appeal of Hamas fundamentalists, threatened to exclude him.
In one stroke, he did come back. On Sept. 13, 1993, he won his accolade as a world statesman. In the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, the 64-year-old former "terrorist" chieftain shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of the Jewish state that he had once made it his mission to remove from the earth.
The price was immense. He claimed that, with Oslo, he had set in train a momentum inexorably leading to Israel's withdrawal from all the occupied territories; the Palestinians were on the road to statehood; he saw the beckoning spires and minarets of its capital, East Jerusalem.
Nine months later he did at least achieve a strictly physical proximity to them. He returned "home." But the self-governing areas he returned to were the merest fragments, in Jericho and Gaza, not merely of original 1948 Palestine, but of the post-1967 22 percent of it on which he was to build his state. And he came as collaborator as much as liberator.
Oslo provided for a series of "interim" agreements leading to "final-status" talks. An Israeli commentator said of the first of them: "When one looks through all the lofty phraseology, all the deliberate disinformation, the hundreds of pettifogging sections, sub-sections, appendices and protocols, one clearly recognizes that the Israeli victory was absolute and Palestine defeat abject."
It went on like this for six years, long after it had become obvious that his "momentum" was working against, not for, him. It had been bound to do so, because, in this dispensation that outlawed violence, spurned U.N. jurisprudence on the conflict and consecrated a congenitally pro-Israeli U.S. as sole arbiter of the peace process, the balance of power was more overwhelmingly in Israel's favor than ever. The "interim" agreements that should have advanced his conception of "final status" only advanced the Israelis' conception.
Meanwhile he was grievously wanting in that other great, complementary task -- the building of his state in the making. His vaunted Palestinian "democracy" was no different from the Arab regimes he had so excoriated for the abuse of his own people and their own. More people were then dying, under torture and maltreatment, in Palestinian jails than in Israeli ones. His unofficial economic "advisors" threw up a ramshackle, nepotistic edifice of monopoly, racketeering and naked extortion that enriched them as it further impoverished society at large, and -- being so inefficient -- reduced the economic base for all. In 1999, unprecedentedly, 20 leading citizens denounced not just high officials and their business cronies, but the "president," who had "opened the doors to the opportunists to spread their rottenness through the Palestinian street."
With his fortunes again at such a dangerous low ebb, he was approaching another critical point: Persist in policies and methods that were slowly undoing him, or revert, to some form of a strategy of militancy and confrontation -- and rely anew on the support of his people, rather than the favor of the U.S., to carry it off. But it was less he, than Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who imposed this choice.
Barak conceived the fantastically overweening notion of telescoping everything -- the "interim" stages that had fallen hopelessly behind schedule as well as the "final status" ones that had been left to the end precisely because they were so intractable -- into one climactic conclave. This would "end the 100-year conflict" at a stroke. In July 2000, at President Clinton's Camp David retreat, he laid before Arafat his take-it-or-leave-it historic compromise. In return for his solemnly abjuring all further claims on Israel, Israel would acquiesce in the emergence of a Palestine state. Or at least the pathetic travesty of one, covering even less than the 22 percent of the original homeland to which he had already agreed to confine it -- without real sovereignty, East Jerusalem as its capital or the return of refugees. Most of the detested illegal settlements would remain.
After 15 days the conference collapsed. Arafat had stood firm, evidently deciding that it had been bad enough, and tactically ruinous, to cede historic goals temporarily, but quite another to cede them for all time, in the context of a final settlement. He might be Mr. Palestine, but he had no Palestinian, Arab or Islamic mandate for ceding Jerusalem's sovereignty or abandoning the rights of 4 million refugees.
From this collapse grew the second intifada, essentially a popular revolt, first against the Israeli occupation and the realization that the Oslo peace process would never bring it to an end and, potentially, against Arafat and the Palestine Authority that had so long connived in the fiction that it could.
It took on its own life and momentum. Arafat was at best in nominal control; its true leaders were men of a younger generation such as Marwan Barghouti. As a member of the secular, mainstream Fatah organization, he owed him formal allegiance, but his growing popularity, partly stemming from the decline in his boss's, gave him a measure of autonomy. His objective was confined to ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and that being so, he confined his followers' attacks to the soldiers and settlers who were the symbols and instruments of it.
The intifada's other activists were the fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They did not oppose Arafat, but nor did they owe any allegiance to him. Their suicide exploits inside Israel proper betokened the much larger meaning that the intifada carried for them: the "complete liberation" to which, in his early years, Arafat had subscribed.
The death toll mounted beneath the overwhelmingly superior firepower the Israelis could bring to bear: from small-scale attrition of sniper and small arms fire, through systematic assassinations, to tanks, helicopter gunships and F-16s unleashed on targets in densely populated civilian neighborhoods.
Poverty, hatred and despair mounted too. Although their sufferings were paltry compared with those of the Palestinians, most Israelis saw the intifada as an existential threat. And they all blamed Arafat. For the peace-seeking left he had betrayed them and all their strivings, with a resort to violence just when a historic breakthrough seemed within grasp.
For the right, he had revealed himself once more as the unregenerate killer they always held him to be. This consensus led, in February 2001, to the rise of Ariel Sharon, the "hero" of Sabra and Shatila, at the head of Israel's most extreme, bellicose government in history.
Sharon had one ambition: to suppress the intifada by as much brute force as he could risk without antagonizing the Americans or his Labor coalition partners beyond endurance. And he did not mind if in the process he was to bring Arafat and the P.A. down; he would escape from any obligation to pursue the peace process by eliminating the only party with whom he could pursue it.
Like Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were another of those unforeseeable cataclysms that impinged on the Palestinian arena. This time Arafat was determined to put himself on the side of the angels. Endorsing America's "war on terror," he sought to end the intifada. His police arrested militants who broke the cease-fire and shot and killed demonstrators who protested against the Anglo-American assault on Afghanistan.
But it did not yield the tangible gain from the Americans in the shape of a serious, impartial peace initiative at last, on which he was banking. On the contrary, after a brief and humiliating attempt, under Arab pressure, to rein Sharon in, George W. Bush, the most pro-Israeli president ever, did little more than look on as he reconquered much of the West Bank, wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of the P.A. and subjected Arafat himself to a humiliating siege in his headquarters in Ramallah. Only Arafat's office was left standing amid mounds of rubble.
In the summer of 2002, Bush pronounced Arafat unfit to rule -- as "irrelevant," in other words, as Sharon said he was, and a prime target, along with Saddam Hussein, for those "regime changes" that Bush now envisaged across much of the Middle East.
In 2003, after overthrowing Saddam through full-scale war, he sought to oust Arafat by diplomatic, less dramatic means. He secured the appointment of a docile prime minister, Abu Mazin, who he hoped was ready to do what Arafat was not -- go to war against the Islamic militants without any assurance that in return the Israelis would make any worthwhile concessions in the peacemaking.
But Arafat, with his continued grip on the levers of power, joined Sharon, with his intransigence and continued "targeted killings," and drove the hapless and unpopular appointee to despair and resignation. With the total breakdown of the cease-fire that had come with the latest "road map," and a resumption of the suicide bombings, the Israeli government announced its intention to "remove" Arafat, this "absolute obstacle to any attempt at reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis."
"Removal" to a new exile or removal to "the other world" -- that was the question. But this time the great survivor survived only to be carried off by what for him was the most extraordinary, because ordinary, of deaths.