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Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat Dies

1929-2004

November 10, 2004|By Tracy Wilkinson and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

Yasser Arafat, guerrilla chieftain turned statesman who juggled armed resistance and political diplomacy, yet failed to achieve his lifelong dream of creating a Palestinian state, died today. He was 75.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top Arafat aide, confirmed to The Associated Press that Arafat died at 4:30 am Paris time. He spoke to reporters at Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Arafat, who had been a prisoner in his West Bank headquarters since 2002, died in a military hospital in a Paris suburb. He had been ill for three weeks and was flown to France a week ago when his condition deteriorated; doctors were not able to determine his illness.

In his later years, the Palestinian leader left a dual impression on the world: the iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood, and the embodiment of a revolutionary who could not make the transition to governance.

Locked to the end in a showdown with Israel, and shunned by a White House where he was once a frequent guest, Arafat struggled against internationally backed efforts to chip away at his powers. As president of the Palestinian Authority, he refused to share authority with a prime minister, nor would he name a successor, fearing that person would become a rival.

The only leader most Palestinians have ever known, Arafat came tantalizingly close to establishing the state he dedicated his life to winning, and survived myriad brushes with death along the way: wars, plane crashes and Israel's best efforts to put him in the grave.

For signing the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his Israeli partners, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, then made a triumphant entry into the Gaza Strip to become the elected head of an area made up of the strip and a patchwork of territory in the West Bank.

By the time he died, however, Arafat and the Palestinians had lost much of what they had gained, as Israel expanded Jewish settlements and reoccupied territory. Arafat was a decrepit shadow of the leader he once was, trapped in the ruins of his Israeli-battered headquarters in the West Bank, his graft-ridden Palestinian Authority all but collapsed.

Throughout his life, he never gave up the olive-drab garb of his guerrilla days, the trademark two-day-old whiskers and the black-and-white headdress, the kaffiyeh, folded in a triangle to represent a map of Palestine. All made the point that his battle for a full-fledged country was not finished.

"Give me a state," Arafat once said in an interview, "and I'll wear a tux and a bow tie."

The veteran Palestinian rais, or chief, suffered from a host of ailments, ranging from what many observers believed to be Parkinson's disease to what aides repeatedly described — after he appeared in public frail, tottering and ghastly pale — as bouts with gallstones. He trembled noticeably and, in conversation, often seemed disoriented.

But his resilience astonished those around him. His inner circle — well accustomed to his fiery temper and much-feared autocratic ways — joked constantly that he would outlive them.

Arafat's last, disastrous clash with Israel began in 2000, after he rejected an offer from Israel's then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, for limited Palestinian sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By October that year, a new intifada, or uprising, had erupted.

Israel, which had once accepted Arafat as a partner in peace, bitterly repudiated him as the architect behind the escalating militarization of the intifada. Ariel Sharon replaced Barak after a landslide electoral victory, and held Arafat personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in a wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Arafat's own people, worn down by decades of struggle with Israel, began to lose faith in him. The bloody confrontation — which has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians — was driven, Palestinians said, by Israel's refusal to relinquish the Jerusalem site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, or to promise that Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who lost their homes in the 1948 war that ended British rule and created Israel, could return.

To Palestinians, Arafat's refusal burnished his image as an uncompromising nationalist. To Israelis, it sealed his slide from interlocutor to an enemy many of them considered to be nothing more than an unreconstructed terrorist.

As suicide bombings increased, Israel's army under Sharon launched an all-out war on Palestinian militants, declared Arafat persona non grata, and reoccupied the West Bank. In 2002, troops flooded Arafat's Ramallah compound, known as the Muqata, destroying most of the structures, battling Arafat's bodyguards and cutting off all outside access.

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