JERUSALEM – On an August day in 1982, Yasser Arafat faced one of his bleakest moments. His guerrilla fighters defeated, his commanders in despair, Arafat gathered his nationalist forces at a port in the war-torn city of Beirut.

Pursued by the Israeli army, dismissed by many in the West as a terrorist, expelled from the city that his Palestine Liberation Organization had made its home, Arafat was about to begin a 12-year exile in Tunisia.

Yet as chaos erupted around him, the Palestinian icon flashed his trademark defiance. Asked where he was going, Arafat replied: “To Palestine.”

Arafat, who died today in a hospital outside of Paris at the age of 75, never saw the state he envisioned, partly because of his flaws and errors as a leader. But time and again, it was his clever maneuvering and indestructible determination – whether realistic or not – that allowed him to remain the enduring symbol of his people’s struggle for freedom and recognition.

He was an uncanny survivor. He transformed himself from shunned militant into the unlikely winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, frequent visitor to the White House and president of a semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority that many hoped would be the prototype for a state.

But the latest Palestinian rebellion shredded Arafat’s image as a peacemaker, and the conflict raised doubts about his professed commitment to the 1993 Oslo peace accords and his claims to have renounced violence.

In the eyes of many, Arafat’s greatest mistake was failing to respond to what was billed as a generous peace offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit in 2000. While Arafat insisted that the offer was unjust and insufficient, his position raised questions about whether he ever had a strategy to attain Palestinian independence, or whether he preferred to end his days as the heroic fighter he always saw himself as.

As a leader, Arafat was unpredictable, indecisive and aloof, famously failing to exploit opportunities or read sea changes in world affairs. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, his refusal to rein in Hamas suicide bombers left him on the wrong side of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism and allowed Palestinian militants to steer the intifada into a far more violent stage.

In the end, he died far from his people. His death followed a prolonged isolation in a battered compound in the West Bank, his authority among his own people deeply undermined. He had long before been shunned by President Bush and declared “irrelevant” by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who at one point openly regretted not having killed Arafat earlier.

Throughout his life, Arafat, known to his followers by the nom de guerre Abu Ammar, was a man of many faces and contradictions playing to many audiences. While relishing his global hobnobbing with kings and presidents, he never shed the revolutionary image with his scruffy beard, military fatigues and trademark kaffiyeh.

At peace summits, he would embrace Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and other Israeli leaders as his “partners” in a “peace of the brave.” Then he would return home and, with fiery speeches, exhort his followers to take up arms to liberate Jerusalem.

In the mid-1990s, Arafat’s surprise decision to embrace the Oslo accords made him an indispensable player in the Mideast peace process, not only to Palestinians but also to Israelis and Americans. At the same time, Arab critics scolded him for having sold out the Palestinian cause, and many skeptical Israelis saw the accords as Arafat’s Trojan horse.

Even so, while more educated and worldly leaders came and went, Arafat proved to be the only one who could unite the Palestinians and steer them toward international acceptance. And, because he had risked his life in raids on Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the only one with enough prestige and cachet to dare sign a peace treaty with the enemy.

“There were many times when we were desperate, we had lost hope, and he was still talking about a Palestinian state, about Jerusalem,” said Salah Tamari, one of Arafat’s guerrilla commanders in the 1970s and later a member of the Oslo-created Palestinian Legislative Council. “It seemed illogical, like he was talking about fantasies. But he had a dream. He had a vision, and he was making it come true.”

For years, the details of Arafat’s life were cloaked in legend and mystery, much of it carefully nurtured by Arafat and his aides.

He claimed to have been born in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the holy site known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram ash-Sharif), the compound surrounding Al Aqsa Mosque. But a birth certificate uncovered in Egypt by a biographer suggests he was born in Cairo on Aug. 24, 1929. He was the sixth of seven children.

His father was a Palestinian textile merchant and one-time police officer who had moved his family from Gaza to Cairo in pursuit of a land inheritance. Arafat’s mother died when he was 4, and he was sent to Jerusalem to live with relatives.

Small and hyperactive, inattentive to his schoolwork, Arafat nevertheless showed his penchant for leadership early on. In Jerusalem, he organized the neighborhood children into a small gang. Teachers described him as a “naughty charmer.”

By 1947, the year before the United Nations voted to split British-controlled Palestine and create the nation of Israel, the young Arafat was engaged in secret and at times dangerous gun-running missions in preparation for the Arab-Israeli war that was to follow.

At 19, Arafat briefly fought in the war, suffering an ankle wound. But he and his comrades were disarmed by Jordanian soldiers, the first of many incidents leading him to conclude that the Palestinians would have to organize themselves and regain their homeland without the help of Arab regimes.

After studying engineering at Cairo University, Arafat moved in 1957 to Kuwait, where he worked for the public works department and boasted of becoming rich after starting contracting companies.

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There Arafat allowed himself creature comforts he later conspicuously avoided. He dressed in white sport coats and black sharkskin pants, vacationed in Europe and drove a fin-tailed Thunderbird convertible.

Even then, however, Arafat described himself as a “good Muslim” and refrained from alcohol, coffee and tobacco. He was renowned for his long, night-owl hours at work that continued into his days as Palestinian Authority president.

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In Kuwait, Arafat made the contacts that led to the founding of his Fatah movement in 1959. Along with longtime aide Khalil al-Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad, Arafat founded an underground newspaper and formed armed cells that began raids into Israel in the early 1960s.

In 1964, Arab leaders founded the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, as a nationalist umbrella organization dedicated to the armed struggle and establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Arafat became its chairman five years later.

Arafat did not fight in the 1967 Six-Day War, but the Arab defeat further convinced him of the Palestinians’ need to fight for themselves. It was a determination that fueled bitter, lifelong rivalries with other Arab leaders, especially Syrian strongman Hafez Assad, who died in 2000.

Arafat’s first symbolic victory came in 1968 in Karama, Jordan, where his guerrillas battled the Israeli army head-on. While they suffered casualties, they destroyed Israeli tanks and alerted the world to their cause.

“We were collecting bodies the next day, and I thought it was the end of the world,” said Tamari, the former guerrilla commander. “Arafat saw more than we did. He said “This is a big victory. It’s a turning point.’ And it was.”

By 1970, Arafat’s well-armed Palestinian force had become a “state within a state” in Jordan. It became such a threat to King Hussein that the monarch sent his army to expel the guerrillas in a bloody conflict remembered by the Palestinians as “Black September.”

Eventually, the PLO settled in Lebanon, where it staged raids on Israel from a border strip known as “Fatahland” and where its presence helped ignite the brutal Lebanese civil war. In turn, the fighters were expelled from Beirut when the Israelis invaded in 1982.

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that groups under the Arafat-led PLO began hijacking airplanes and staging terrorist attacks, such as the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany.

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Then, as recently, Arafat often publicly condemned attacks by PLO affiliates such as the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by George Habash. But whether Arafat had helped plan the attacks or not, his failure to stop them was seen as implicit approval of the tactics, which kept the Palestinian cause in the spotlight.

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Arafat reportedly survived dozens of assassination attempts in his life, but perhaps his closest brush with death was in 1992, when his plane crashed in the Libyan desert. Later in life, Arafat attributed his quivering lip and hands to neurological damage from injuries suffered in the crash.

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While better known for his group’s violent attacks, Arafat made overtures of peace toward the Israelis as early as 1969, but his gestures were often seen as half-hearted and ambiguous.

In 1974, he shocked the United Nations General Assembly by showing up wearing a gun in a holster, saying he came offering an olive branch for peace. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand,” he warned.

In November 1988, speaking in Algiers, Arafat symbolically declared the existence of a Palestinian state. A month later, seeking U.S. recognition and a dialogue on peace, Arafat appeared before the UN and “totally and absolutely” renounced all forms of terrorism.

In the speech, he also alluded to Israel’s right to exist. But U.S. officials deemed his words unsatisfactory, so he called a news conference in Geneva the next day to say the PLO accepts “the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security … including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors.”

“Enough is enough,” he told the journalists before departing. “Do you want me to do a striptease? It would be unseemly.”

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By the late 1980s, Arafat was living in Tunis at the margins of the Mideast conflict, his movement facing collapse and his leadership challenged by a younger generation of Palestinians directing the first grass-roots intifada in Gaza and the West Bank.

Then he made another of his great mistakes by siding with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It cost his PLO crucial Arab aid and left it isolated, nearly bankrupt and out of the Madrid peace talks.

It was that same year that Arafat, then 62 and a lifelong bachelor, married. He and his wife, Suha Tawil, had a baby girl, Zahwa, in 1995.

The 1993 Oslo accords – sealed with a handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn – were a lifeline for the Palestinian leader, allowing him to escape his political predicament and resurrect himself on the world stage, this time in the image of a peacemaker.

The surprise signing with Rabin shocked even the Palestinians’ representatives at the Madrid talks. While the Israelis remained skeptical, many of Arafat’s own people also protested the agreement, saying he had sold out their nationalist aspirations so he could become “the mayor of Gaza” and the Israelis’ policeman.

The self-rule government Arafat built after returning to Gaza in 1994 was deeply flawed. He ultimately would rule over only 40 percent of the West Bank, an area split among isolated urban cantons. Although he appeared to live a rather Spartan life, Arafat knew how to buy loyalty and the regime he installed was autocratic, tainted by corruption and built on patronage.

During the eight years before the Oslo process collapsed, many Palestinians complained they never received any benefit from Arafat’s peace, nor were they freed from Israeli army checkpoints and other humiliations. Frustrations ran so high that many feared the next intifada would be directed against Arafat himself.

His style of governing was typified by classic divide-and-rule among his closest advisers and supporters. He invented almost a dozen separate security forces so none would be strong enough to challenge him.

“Arafat is a throwback to another age – the age of the brave, uneducated, wily Arab chief,” Arab journalist Said Aburish wrote in a biography called “Arafat: From Defender to Dictator.”

“Arafat the strategist who created a Palestinian entity and gained it worldwide recognition, and who doggedly pursued peace against great odds, was a success. But the weaknesses of the corrupt, inefficient PLO he created to achieve his aims … eventually determined the kind of (flawed) peace he concluded” at Oslo, Aburish wrote.

Arafat rejected Israeli and American assertions that he was responsible for the failure of the Camp David summit in June 2000. He said he had warned President Bill Clinton that conditions were not right and that he had little trust in Barak.

Critics say that in his own combative speeches and by tolerating anti-Israeli rhetoric in the Palestinian media, Arafat failed to create the right atmosphere for peace in the years after the Oslo accords.

The outbreak of the latest Palestinian uprising after a visit by Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader, to the area outside Al Aqsa Mosque triggered a debate about Arafat’s role. The Israelis accused Arafat of planning the unrest, but many observers believe it was a grass-roots eruption that he tried to exploit but then failed to rein in when it spun out of control.

After that, Arafat publicly called for one cease-fire after another. But his authority continued to dwindle on the streets and he refused to order his security forces to put down the rebellion, a move many feared could lead to a civil war.

Sharon worked to undermine Arafat’s authority and physically isolate him. Palestinian police headquarters were bombed, Arafat’s helicopters were destroyed in air strikes, and the Palestinian leader’s compound in Ramallah in the West Bank was largely demolished in an Israeli offensive in 2002 launched after a series of suicide bombings.

Arafat was besieged in his headquarters by Israeli troops, but even after they withdrew he remained confined to the compound as Israel threatened that if he left he could not return. The Israeli government resolved to “remove” Arafat at the appropriate time.

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Under international pressure to carry out reforms in the Palestinian Authority, Arafat reluctantly appointed his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, prime minister in 2003. However, Arafat refused to delegate sufficient authority, leading to Abbas’ resignation after little more than four months in office.

Abbas was replaced by Ahmed Qureia, a close associate of Arafat’s. But he, too, found his powers curtailed by the Palestinian leader, who resisted attempts by Qureia and reform-minded lawmakers to loosen Arafat’s control of the security forces and revamp his administration.

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Earlier this year, Arafat weathered weeks of violent unrest in the Gaza Strip by militants from his own Fatah movement who kidnapped officials and attacked security buildings to protest corruption and cronyism in the Palestinian Authority.

Clinging to power even as it was eroding, Arafat fought to the end to preserve his position as an indispensable player in any political process to resolve the conflict with Israel. Boycotted by the U.S. and other nations, he remained the paramount leader to most Palestinians, a symbol of their yearning for statehood even as he failed to finally deliver on that dream.



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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