When Palestinian refugee leader Yasser Arafat made his historic speech to the United Nations in November, he said he had brought both an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. The gun—or at least its holster—was apparent, bulging out from under Arafat’s jacket, but the olive branch was nowhere in sight. It still hadn’t surfaced after Arafat followed his UN visit with a tour of Cuba, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, toting gifts (including hand-embroidered Palestinian dresses for the wives of the Soviet leaders) in his new status as a stateless head of state.
The scruffy, intense Arafat has spent more than half of his 45 years embroiled in the Palestinian Arabs’ perpetual battle with Israel. As a teenager in the 1940s, he fought against Jewish settlers even before there was an Israel, then fled to Egypt, where he began building the following that turned into al-Fatah, the dominant Arab commando group.
In 1969 Arafat became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and began his drive to unify the proliferating Palestinian groups. That drive led to this October’s recognition of the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by a meeting of the Arab heads of state.
Arafat has thrown himself into the Palestinian movement with such devotion that he seems to have no life outside it. Born in Jerusalem, he now has no home, keeping on the move almost constantly. Known in the PLO as the “Old Man,” he is not married and has said, “Palestine is my wife.” His only self-indulgence seems to be occasionally asking one of his temporary hosts for water to soak his aching feet.
While he is facing a growing challenge within the PLO from George Habash, a Marxist extremist, his position at this point still seems secure, thanks largely to the carefully staged UN appearance. Arafat himself appears less than optimistic about his own future. At the UN, the chair traditionally reserved for heads of state was pointedly provided for Arafat for his General Assembly speech. But he would only stand next to it. Later he fatalistically told a friend: “I’ll never sit in that chair.”