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The Life of Yasser Arafat

Part 2: The End of an Era

Still, the problem persisted. Neither side wanted to give an inch. The Palestinians and Arafat were as entrenched as the Israelis and a series of Prime Ministers who shared the commitment to keeping Israeli territories, newly gained or not, in Israeli hands. Suspicious of other countries, Israel tended to hold on to grudges as well as it held on to territories. Through the 1980s and '90s, more and more Israeli people moved in to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, building houses and communities. The Palestinian people who used to live there could only watch—and wait.

The decades of the '80s and '90s also saw seesaw moments of diplomacy and outright aggression. Both sides got together for peace talks from time to time; but they always failed, and the violence returned. An increase in Israeli attacks on Palestinian leaders and territory led to the declaration of an intifada ("uprising") in 1987. It lasted six years, and it led Palestinian people to question Israeli people and methods with guns and bombs and widespread distrust. Israel, of course, responded with even more determination to keep the upper hand.

Arafat, meanwhile, was trying to cement his role as a statesman, even if he wasn't the leader of a state. He addressed the U.N. again, in 1988, and renounced terrorism as a means to reclaiming land for his people. Some observers found this declaration to be quite meaningful; others dismissed it as rhetoric not to be trusted.

A stubborn man of dogged determination, Arafat could also be a frustrating ally. When Saddam Hussein directed his Iraqi troops to invade Kuwait in 1990, he found a friend in Arafat, who declared his allegiance to the Iraqi leader. This action alienated many who might have had a bit of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

Still, Arafat fought on, both with words and with deeds. He seemed to have a way of escaping any and all difficulties. He even survived a plane crash, of his personal plane, that killed everyone else on board.

It was about this time that Arafat began negotiating in secret with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One of the first things Arafat did as a sign of good faith was quietly end the intifada. Rabin, as his own sign of good faith, agreed to meet with Arafat's representatives in Oslo, Norway.

The talks proved successful for both sides, and the result was the historic Oslo Accord, which gave the Palestinians living in Israel-occupied territory much more of the say in their daily affairs and also recognized Arafat as a partner in the peace process. (He had formerly been labeled a "terrorist" and someone who couldn't be trusted.) Arafat and Rabin stood on the same stage at the American White House and shook hands, with the American President, Bill Clinton, looking on, on Sept. 13, 1993. The very next year, Arafat and Rabin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Also in 1994, Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip after 26 years in exile.

Things looked up for the Palestinian people for a while in the late 1990s, despite the assassination of Rabin in 1995. Arafat and the Israeli government signed an agreement that provided for the removal of Israeli settlers and soldiers from most of the West Bank city of Hebron in 1997. And in 1998, another agreement was signed by both sides, furthering the peaceful settlement of the West Bank "problem."

But with the coming of the new millenium, the peace process unraveled again. Frustrated by the lack of real progress, Arafat and the PLO declared a second intifada. It is still in effect. In response, Israel moved tanks and soldiers into position around Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, effectively putting him under siege. He was allowed to leave only when he was too ill to survive in West Bank hospitals.

Yasser Arafat's death leaves a void in the Mideast peace process. Observers on both sides disagree on the effect his death will have. He was certainly more committed to peace in his later years than he ever was as a young man, when terrorism was the order of the day. Whether his people can finally find a homeland remains to be seen.

Arafat is survived by his wife, Suha, whom he secretly married in 1991, and a daughter, Zahawa, who was born in 1995.

First page > Hope and Violence > Page 1, 2

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