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PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House, Washington, USA in 1993

Yasser Arafat: Biography

Image Credit: mark reinstein / | Above: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat delivers remarks during the Palestintin Peace Accords ceremony at the White House, Washington, USA in 1993

The man who lead the PLO for over 40 years and managed the uneasy balance between militancy and diplomacy in the Middle East.

Arafat was born in 1929 to a successful merchant father and a religiously devout mother. His birth name was Mohammed, but he was nicknamed Yasser, which means 'easy'. Arafat's mother died when he was four, and his father sent him to live with a married uncle in Jerusalem.

As a teenager in the 1940s, Arafat became involved in the Palestinian cause. Before the Arabs were defeated by Israel in 1948, Arafat was a leader in the Palestinian effort to smuggle arms into the territory.

After the war, Arafat studied civil engineering at the University of Cairo in Egypt. He headed the Palestinian Students League and, by the time he graduated, was committed to forming a group that would free Palestine from Israeli occupation.

In 1956 he founded Al Fatah, an underground terrorist organization. At first Al Fatah was ignored by larger Arab nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which had formed their own group, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It wasn't until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Arabs lost the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank, that Arab nations turned to Arafat. In 1968 he became the leader of the PLO.

For two decades the PLO launched bloody attacks on Israel, and Arafat gained a reputation as a ruthless terrorist.

But, by 1988, when he told the United Nations that the PLO would recognize Israel as a sovereign state, Arafat had warmed to diplomacy. Grassroots Palestinian organisations continued violence against Israeli targets, however.

In 1993, he met for secret peace talks in Norway, which led to the Oslo Peace Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

The agreement granted limited Palestinian self-rule and earned Arafat, Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

In January 1996 Arafat was elected the first president of the Palestinian Council governing the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Israeli encroachments on Palestinian territory continue, as does Palestinian resistance.

Arafat died at Percy military hospital in Paris on November 11, 2004. He had been in a coma since making a trip to France for medical help three weeks earlier.