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Arafat Leaves Mixed Legacy


The leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, died Thursday in France where he was ailing for several days. Mr. Arafat, born August 24, 1929, had devoted his life to establishing a Palestinian homeland. It was a dream he would never realize completely in his lifetime. The leader who was known as a terrorist and a revolutionary.

The Israelis condemned him as a terrorist and then negotiated peace with him. Arab leaders sometimes treated him as a statesman, sometimes as a traitor. Palestinians viewed him as a father figure and the leader of their quest for a homeland.

Yasser Arafat took a giant step toward that dream when he signed an agreement in 1993 for Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and then returned home to Gaza in triumph.

The next year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievement, an award he shared with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The Palestinian leader spoke through a translator as he accepted the honor in Oslo, Norway. "Peace will enable us to show our identity to the world, our real identity to the world," he said.

Two years later, Mr. Arafat became the first elected president of the Palestinian Authority, the closest he would come to fulfilling his dream of presiding over an independent Palestinian state. Still, he remained convinced there would be a Palestinian state with or without him.

"We want achievement of the peace of courageous people to end this long suffering in order to build an independent nation having a lot of democracy and caring for its children and where laughter is heard of happy, healthy kids," he said.

Mr. Arafat had come a long way since his days as a teenager. His first combat experience against Israel was running weapons for his father and older brother in the 1948 war.

Yasser Arafat made his first public demand for a Palestinian liberation movement when he was still a student in Cairo in the 1950s.

Later, while living in Kuwait, he created the 'Fatah' movement, which became the core of the Palestine Liberation Organization the PLO. He was named PLO leader in 1968 and remained so until his death.

In his early years, Yasser Arafat gained a reputation as a ruthless terrorist. By 1988, Mr. Arafat had begun to make the transition to diplomacy. That was when he told the United Nations the P-L-O would recognize Israel as a sovereign state.

Mr. Arafat's transition was most evident in his approval and support for secret peace talks that led to the Oslo peace accords. He signed the interim agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House in 1993, amid high hopes for an end to decades of conflict.

Sadly, seven years later, Palestinian and Israeli hopes for peace had deteriorated into an unrelenting cycle of violence. Efforts to revive the peace process faltered.

In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton brought Mr. Arafat together with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the U.S. presidential retreat Camp David for one last effort to forge a peace accord that would give the Palestinians statehood and control over the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. But the Palestinian leader balked at some of the details. He did not take that final step and Mr. Barak backed away from the offer.

As a Palestinian uprising surged, Israel blamed Mr. Arafat for not curbing the violence and barred him from leaving his West Bank headquarters. But that final humiliation only increased his popularity among Palestinians despite their complaints about Mr. Arafat's autocratic leadership style.

Palestinians have always viewed Yasser Arafat as the father of their struggle for statehood. "Be sure we will continue to be committed to the peace process, to the peace of the brave, and will continue to be, with all the peace lovers," he said.

With his trademark checkered black and white kafiyah and scruffy beard, Yasser Arafat jetted around the world promoting the cause of his people. He survived assassination attempts and a plane crash and managed to bounce back after serious political and military defeats.

He surprised many by his decision at the age of 62 to marry his young Christian secretary, Suha. They had a daughter who was born in 1995. Mr. Arafat had always rejected marriage, saying he was married to the Palestinian cause.