The ailing president of the Palestinian National Authority succumbs at age 75 after suffering from an unknown illness

By Todd Peterson
Updated November 11, 2004 12:30 AM
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Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian National Authority and a longtime leader of the fight for a Palestinian homeland, died early Thursday morning in Paris. He was 75.

Arafat had been suffering from an unknown illness for some time and had become increasingly frail, and there had been conflicting reports about his health after he was taken to France on Oct. 28 for treatment. Early on, it was suspected that he might have been suffering from some form of cancer, though doctors had ruled out leukemia.

Arafat, who had been on a respirator since slipping into a coma Nov. 3, died at 3:30 a.m. Paris time (9:30 p.m. ET). His body will be taken to Cairo, where the Egyptian government will host a state funeral for him, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN.

Since 2001, Arafat had been confined to a compound by Israel after Palestinian suicide bombings began to increase – though the leader contended he had no control over militant Palestinians. But because of the continued violence in the region, leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush declared that Arafat no longer had credibility when it came to negotiating peace.

Still, Arafat “will be remembered as the man who led the Palestinians from the middle of nowhere to prime-time news,” author Danny Rubinstein, who has written a book about Arafat, told The New York Times. “He has turned a scattered people into a nation and led them back to a homeland.”

Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Arafat As Qudwa al-Hussaeini was born on August 24, 1929. Though Arafat claimed he was born in Jerusalem, some news sources cite his birthplace as Cairo, Egypt. He was living in Cairo when, at age 17, he began smuggling weapons into Palestine to fight the British and Jews.

In 1947, the United Nations voted to end the British rule of Palestine and to create separate Jewish and Arab states, setting off the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. During this time Arafat left the University of Faud I (Cairo University) and sneaked into Palestine to fight the Israelis.

After the Arab armies were defeated, Arafat returned to school, where he completed his degree in 1956. He briefly served with the Egyptian army in the Suez Canal campaign, and then settled in Kuwait, where he established Al Fatah, an underground organization dedicated to recapturing the Palestinian homeland. In 1964, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded, Al Fatah became its militant wing.

Arafat left Kuwait for Jordan, where his group regularly conducted raids into Israel. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, Palestinians elected Arafat chairman of the PLO. In the years that followed, the PLO launched attacks throughout the Middle East and Europe, which led to the Palestinians’ ouster from Jordan in 1971.

Arafat relocated the PLO to Lebanon and continued the attacks against Israel, including a suspected role in the kidnapping that resulted in the deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

He was permitted to speak in front of the United Nations in 1974, after which the U.N. granted observer status to the PLO. The Palestinian raids continued on Israel from Lebanon until 1982, when the Israeli army launched a counterattack that destroyed the group’s headquarters. Arafat reestablished the PLO in Tunisia.

After proclaiming an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza in 1988, Arafat said the PLO would abandon its terrorist activities. But the PLO’s support of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1990 cut short support of the organization from other countries.

In 1993, the PLO officially recognized Israel, and Arafat signed the Oslo peace accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which outlined a peace plan for the region and created the Palestinian Authority. In a controversial decision in 1994, Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were named co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Just over a year later, Arafat was named president of the Palestinian Authority.

In the latter half of the 1990s, violence between Arabs and Jews plagued the region, and the situation intensified with Ariel Sharon’s ascension to Israeli prime minister in 2001. Suicide bombings rocked Israeli settlements, and Arafat claimed he was unable to control the attacks of militant PLO factions. The Israelis retaliated, and tried to root out Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, which continued largely until Arafat’s illness.

Much of Arafat’s life, including his marriage to Suha Tawil, a Palestinian roughly half his age, had been lived in the shadows. Their marriage, for example, remained secret for more than a year. The couple has a 9-year-old daughter, Zahwa.