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A Guerrilla and Statesman

Leader symbolized a people's struggle for statehood

November 11, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla chieftain who juggled armed resistance and political diplomacy, left a dual impression on the world: the iconic symbol of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, and the embodiment of a revolutionary who could not make the transition to governance.

Revered and reviled, Arafat forced the plight of the Palestinian people into international consciousness and made it the defining conflict of the 20th century Middle East. He convinced even his enemies that Palestinians had the right to a state of their own, then failed tragically to deliver it.

Locked to the end in a showdown with Israel, Arafat saw many of his erstwhile supporters desert him as he appeared increasingly an anachronism, apparently unable to truly forswear violence or embrace the rule of law.

The only leader most Palestinians have ever known, Arafat came tantalizingly close to establishing the state he dedicated his life to winning, surviving 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 the Palestinian Authority, ruling a territory made up of the strip and a patchwork area in the West Bank.

By the time Arafat died, however, he and the Palestinians had lost much of what they had gained, as Israel expanded Jewish settlements and re-occupied some lands amid a surge in Palestinian attacks.

Arafat was a decrepit shadow of the leader he once had been, shunned by a White House where he once had been an honored guest and 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 2-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 variety of ailments, including what many observers believed to be Parkinson's disease and 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.

Especially as a younger, more robust man, Arafat exuded an undeniable charisma. He could charm skeptical visitors, playfully tease children, rally enormous crowds with vows to march on Jerusalem. The hatred he conjured in his enemies was easily matched by the devotion of his supporters who lionized him.

A turning point, in a life replete with them, came with the collapse of the Camp David summit convened by President Clinton in the summer of 2000. Many blamed Arafat because he rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of limited Palestinian sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat dismissed the offer as inadequate.

By that October, a new intifada, or uprising, had erupted, sparked in part by what Palestinians saw as an inflammatory visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon, then an opposition leader.

Israel, which had once accepted Arafat as a partner in peace, bitterly repudiated him as the architect of the escalating militarization of the intifada.

A backlash against Barak led to his defeat at the polls and brought Sharon to power. Under the hard-liner and his right-wing Likud Party, polarizing rhetoric and violence from both sides intensified.

Israel now held Arafat personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.

And 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 to allow the return of Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, who lost their homes in the 1948 war that ended British rule and created Israel.

To Palestinians, Arafat's refusal to compromise on these issues 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.

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