Yasser Arafat has been at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for decades. Born on 24th August 1929 in Cairo, Egypt, Arafat reached adolescence at a time of great turmoil in Palestine with its partition in 1948. He lived most of his life as a revolutionary, striving to achieve the dream of Palestinian sovereignty through armed struggle and diplomacy. This study looks to explore, what was the role of Yasser Arafat in trying to bring a resolution to the Palestinian problem. After looking at an overview of the Palestinian problem and Arafat’s life, this essay looks to analyse Arafat role in: taking control of Palestinian destiny, the armed struggle and diplomacy.
With Arafat’s death, the revolution he set up, though not dead, has evidently faded. This is substantiated with the weakening of the Palestinian National Authority and the devastation of the recent Gaza War.  This topic is important as it will help to understand the role of Arafat who united, organised and set up the Palestinians to take control of their destiny, and subsequently resolve their 62 year-old struggle.
The Palestinian Problem
On November 29th 1947, the UN announced that the British Mandate of Palestine would be partitioned into separate Arab and Jewish states. Palestine then was inhabited by 1,308,000 people (McCarthy, 2001), of which, 66% were Arab and 33% were Jewish (MidEastWeb and Ami Isseroff, 2007). On May 14th 1948, as a result of the UN announcement, the Israeli Declaration of Independence was announced, creating the State of Israel.
The creation of Israel angered Arabs throughout Arab world. A day after the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine, Israel faced an Arab coalition,  led by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Deemed from the onset as a quick Arab victory, the war eventuated in a humiliating Arab defeat resulting in the Nakbah, ‘The Catastrophe’. 750 000 Palestinians fled or were evicted by the Israeli army out of their homes. The Palestinians became a stateless people.
Consequently, 1948 marked the beginning of the Palestinian problem. It is the issue of Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination; a struggle for Palestinian homeland, a resolution for Palestinian refugees and a vision of Palestinian statehood. This task of resolving the issue was undertaken by the Palestinian revolutionary, Yasser Arafat.
The Rise of Arafat
Born on 24th August 1929, in Cairo, Egypt, Arafat was the son of Palestinian merchants.  During the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, he went to Palestine to join the fighting against Israel. He later left the conflict due to the lack of co-ordination and support.
In 1954, Yasser Arafat with a number of Palestinian colleagues formed the militant group Fatah in Kuwait. The group was dedicated to liberate Palestine by Palestinians, and if necessary, through force. Arafat and Fatah went to Jordan to initiate raids into Israel.
Arafat’s first challenge was to take control of the Palestinians’ destiny from the Arab regimes. In the 1950’s, responsibility for the Palestinians lay on the surrounding Arab countries, specifically, Jordan and Egypt. Palestinians expressed their growing discontent in relying on these Arab states that were seen to be negligent of their cause. Consequently, in 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed as an umbrella organisation for the different Palestinian factions. According to Abu Dawoud, a Senior Fatah Leader, the PLO was “set up as a means of releasing the frustration felt by the Palestinians” (al-Issawi, 2009). However, its initial years were regarded as weak.
In 1967, The Six Day War took place, in which Israel fought Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The war was another humiliating Arab defeat. It broke Arab morale, and Palestinians lost trust in an Arab resolution. Though Fatah played a small role in the fighting, it gradually gained support throughout the Arab world. Fatah’s growing popularity led to their induction into the PLO in 1967.
Fatah had its first main military encounter with Israel in the Battle of Karameh in 1968. In retaliation to the raids by Fatah into Israel, the Israeli army raided the Jordanian city of Karameh, a stronghold of Fatah. Though the battle was militarily won by Israel, the great resistance put up by Fatah boosted the morale of its troops. The popular response of Karameh brought well needed fund for the organisation, and thousands of Palestinian volunteers, known as the fedayeen joined Arafat.
The growing popularity of Arafat and his Fatah resulted with him becoming chairman of the PLO in 1969. Based in Jordan and under Arafat, the organisation became strong and independent, making Palestinian appeals projected to the world.
Arafat and the Fedayeen
Arafat was the ideal man to lead the Palestinian resurgence. He was charismatic and popular among Arabs and Palestinians, and most importantly, he was a Palestinian leading the Palestinian struggle. After the Six Day War, the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul-Nasser, in attempts to revive Arab moral, openly supported, trained, and funded PLO fedayeen. The PLO, based in Jordan, now became a well backed organisation, conducting raids into Israel.
The PLO grew powerful in Jordan, creating a ‘state-within-a-state’. Hostilities between the Jordanian government and the PLO militia subsequently emerged as leftist fanaticism appeared in PLO ranks, which Arafat was unable to control. This led to fighting between the PLO guerrilla forces and the Jordanian army. The PLO, later backed by the Syrian army, was able to put up a stiff resistance. However, in 1970, an Arab delegation came to Jordan and took the besieged Arafat to Cairo where in September that year, under the custody of Gamal Abdul-Nasser, peace was signed between Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan. The following day however, Gamal Abdul-Nasser died, and by the next year, the peace agreement was annulled by the Jordanians. The Palestinians lost their patron, and the Jordanian troops on July 1971 attacked the PLO. Eventually, Arafat and the fedayeen were defeated and expelled from Jordan in September. This was to be known as Black September.
Arafat and many of his senior members went to Lebanon and set up a base in Beirut. Nevertheless, the anger of this expulsion led to the creation of the extremist Fatah subgroup, Black September Organisation. Black September engaged in a series of terror attacks from 1971 to 1973, the most famous of which being the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The works of Black September grabbed world headlines, and were successful in globalising the Palestinian issue. In 1973, Black September had “outlived its usefulness” (al-Issawi, 2009) and was disbanded.
The Olive Branch and the Freedom Fighter’s Gun
Arafat’s first diplomatic initiative was in 1972. The DFLP  , a subgroup of the PLO, proposed the idea of a two-state solution. By 1974, the PLO executive committee drew up what was to be called ‘The Ten Point Program’ calling for Israel to return back liberated  Palestinian lands (American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise).
On 13th November 1974, Arafat addressed the UN general assembly. In a successful address, Arafat conveyed to the world the aspirations of Palestinians: “national independent sovereignty over its own land” (MidEastWeb and Ami Isseroff). He ended the speech by saying, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” (MidEastWeb and Ami Isseroff). Subsequently in the Arab Summit that followed in Rabat, Arafat was formally granted full control of the Palestinian issue.
In Lebanon, the PLO grew very strong, and once again created a ‘state-within-a-state’. In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon between the Muslim left and the Christian right. Arafat initially didn’t want to be involved, but later realized that it was impossible for the PLO to remain neutral and sided with the Muslims. The PLO suffered many casualties in the War, and wasn’t able to sustain its control over Palestinian refugee camps in the South.
In 1982, the Civil War entered a new phase, with Israel invading Lebanon. Arafat ordered the PLO to fight back the Israelis from the south, but the sheer might of the Israeli army swept the PLO fighters. Beirut was then besieged, and the PLO was trapped. Inner city Beirut was destroyed, and thousands of people died. After two months of bombardment, a deal was made for the PLO to move out of Lebanon safely.
The PLO quickly found a new base in Tunis in 1982. Though Tunis’ geographical distance from Palestine initially seemed to weaken the PLO’s authority, the years that followed marked the birth of a new Palestinian resurgence. Throughout the late 1970’s, various Palestinian factions were embroiled with infighting and killing. However in April 1987, a summit in Algiers led by Arafat united Palestinian factions. Arafat was now backed by a united PLO.
In December 1987, an Israeli driver killed 4 Palestinians in Gaza. Israeli authorities deemed it an accident; however, murder was the outcry by the Palestinians. The incident resulted in rioting throughout the occupied lands. Spreading like “wild fire” (al-Issawi, 2009), this marked the beginning of the First Intifada (Uprising). The Intifada was symbolic; it was the first time, since 1948, where Palestinians resisted in their occupied homeland. Arafat organised cells within the occupied territories, thus exerting his dominance over Palestine. The Intifada attracted global headlines, once again projecting onto the world screen the Palestinian struggle.
The Creation of the State of Palestine and Peace talks
In 1988, Jordan broke of all ties with the West Bank, and in November that year, Yasser Arafat proclaimed the establishment of the State of Palestine. Problem facing Arafat was that the PLO had no control over any land in Palestine, nor was it based in Palestine to run the state. The US indicated that Arafat must first renounce terrorism if ever he wanted to receive their support. Hence, on the 13th and 14th of December 1988, Arafat addressed the UN general assembly at Switzerland. He formally renounced terrorism in all its forms, accepted the State of Israel and revealed his intentions of seeking peaceful negotiations them. The US was satisfied and talks began with the US ambassador to Tunisia Robert Pelletreau and PLO officials. However, the talks were futile and consequently ended when Arafat didn’t condemn attacks against Israeli settlements by PLO subgroups.
In 1993, the first direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders took place in Oslo, Norway. The talks were very secretive, with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and their top ministers negotiating the terms of peaceful co-existing. Issues such as the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories, Palestinian elections, economic cooperation and regional development were all discussed. With the supervision of the Clinton government, on 13th of September 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed.
However, many of the terms of the Oslo Accords to which Arafat agreed to were vague. The boundaries of both states weren’t clearly defined, specifically that of Jerusalem. Further peace talks took place in the following years to clarify some of the these vague points; and in the year 2000, at Camp David, the final arrangements of the peace agreements were to be made with the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Barack. The talks were unsuccessful and Arafat was blamed as being the obstacle to peace.
Yasser Arafat played three roles in trying to bring a resolution to the Palestinian problem. He first took control of the Palestinian’s destiny from the negligent Arab regimes, then undertook the armed struggle, and then sought peaceful initiatives to resolve the Palestinian problem.
Taking Control of the Palestinian Issue
Arafat’s role in making the Palestinian’s masters of their destiny may perhaps be his greatest accomplishment in trying to resolve the Palestinian problem. How this task was undertaken may well find its roots in his involvement in the 1948 war. The lack of coordination between the parties of the Arab coalition fuelled resentment in Arafat, as that consequently cost them the war. Barry and Judith Rubin explain that, “The only thing Arafat seems to have learned from the debacle was to blame it on the Arab states rather than on the Palestinians themselves” (Barry Rubin, 2003 p. 16). Perhaps this might be correct; however, the Rubins’ remark is quite crude as the 1948 War was in fact led by the Arab nations. As the Palestinian issue was then an ‘Arab issue’, responsibility for the 1948 loss may well be put on those leading Arab countries, rather than the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the Arab defeat in the 1948 War may well have led Arafat to make the Palestinians masters of their own destiny.
Subsequently, the creation of Fatah marked the beginning of Arafat taking the lead in dealing with the Palestinian problem. The basic creed of Fatah, written in Fatah’s constitution, “The Palestinian Revolution plays a leading role in liberating Palestine” (Fateh) projects the idea of Arafat’s goal of Palestinians being masters of their destiny. Arafat’s role in the creation of Fatah and its quick rise projected his great potential in leading a Palestinian resistance.
Arafat was able to auspiciously lead a Palestinian resistance, and make the Palestinian problem a ‘Palestinian issue.’ However, growing dissatisfaction towards the Arab regimes in the 1950’s may well have helped Arafat in his rise. At the time, as Edward Said states, “Most Palestinians fear large-scale sellouts by the Arab states, themselves tired out by the uneven struggle” (Said, 1995 p. 10). With this ‘fear’ of betrayal lingering, Arafat’s was able to garner support among the Palestinians. However, the idea of a Palestinian resolution became a reality with the Arab defeat in the Six Day War. Palestinians lost confidence in an ‘Arab resolution’ and a ‘Palestinian resolution’ now seemed the only option. Though the circumstance of the time helped Arafat, his guerrilla activities in the 1960’s made him a rally point for many fervent Palestinians, eager to give rise to a new Palestinian resistance. As T.G. Fraser puts it, “it was in these disheartening circumstances that the Palestinian revival began. There was little doubt that Arafat’s was the decisive voice” (Fraser, 2008 p. 88).
Karameh subsequently marks the turning point for Palestinians in taking control of their destiny. Fatah’s resistance there made Palestinians realise their potential to fight Israel independently without Arab intervention. Reinforcing this issue, Edward Said states, “Thus, Karameh divides the Palestinian experience into a before that had refused an encounter… and an after that finds the Palestinian standing in, becoming, fighting to dramatize the disjunction of his or her history in Palestine…” (Said, 1995 p. 9). Arafat’s role was crucial in bringing about this change in paradigm for the Palestinians, making them rather self reliant from the Arab regimes, and subsequently masters of their destiny.
In transforming the Palestinian problem from being an ‘Arab issue’ to a ‘Palestinian issue’, Arafat paved the way for Palestinians to come to the negotiating table with Israel, rather than the other Arab countries whose determination in the conflict was waning. Hence, as a Palestinian leading the Palestinian struggle in his chairmanship of the PLO, he made Palestinians masters of their destiny.
The Armed Struggle
Yasser Arafat once said, “Palestine was lost in blood and iron, and it can only be recovered with blood and iron; and blood and iron have nothing to do with philosophies and theories” (Karsh, 2003 p. 32). This sums up the basic principles of his armed struggle, as Arafat look to regain was taken by force.
Arafat’s armed struggle coincides with his role in making the Palestinian’s masters of their destiny. The raids conducted by Fatah in the early 60’s had helped the organization garner support amongst many zealous Palestinian. However, after the 1967 War, an increase in the armed struggle projected the fact that the Palestinians were now independent of the Arab regimes. Mahdoud Nofal, a senior official of the DFLP states, “All of these [the increase in armed activity] factors dealt a knockout blow to the Arab custodianship of the Palestinians cause, and thus the Palestinians became the masters of their destiny” (al-Issawi, 2009).
However, as the PLO’s armed struggle in Jordan increased, it had both favorable and complementary effects on the revolution. The armed struggle revitalized Palestinian morale, thus bringing a sense of unity to the fervent Palestinians. However, this fervor made them adversaries to the Arab governments of their residence. In Jordan, this subsequently led to their expulsion, and later in Lebanon.
A key component of Arafat’s armed struggle was terrorism. Terrorism was employed by the PLO even before its expulsion from Jordan. This is significant because the Palestinians had never been the equal of Israel in terms of military power. Israel’s ability to contain the Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories and deal with any Palestinian threat made it difficult for Arafat to continue the resistance. With terrorism, Arafat was able to attract world headline, project the Palestinian resistance onto the world screen and thus carry on the Palestinian struggle. Arafat’s use of terrorism could be similarly linked to the FLN’s (National Liberation Front) use of terrorism in the Algerian War. Faced against the occupying French, the FLN were successful in bringing their struggle to the world’s attention, with their guerrilla activities in Algeria and terror antics in France. Arafat’s aim was to achieve similar results: “He had seen how it [terrorism] mobilized Palestinian and Arab support for the PLO; raised the Palestine issue’s international priority; prevented other Arab states from negotiating peace with Israel, and made many western leaders eager to appease him” (Barry Rubin, 2003 p. 61).
However, historians have polarized views on this issue of terrorism. Barry and Judith Rubin, see Arafat as a vile murderer, stating that, “Arafat’s tactics were aimed more at killing the enemy’s civilians than at defeating its army” (Barry Rubin, 2003 p. 38). Contrastingly, Bassam Abu Sherif, a former advisor to Arafat, says, “I’m one of those who have read history carefully, and never in my reading have I read that a colonialist power had ever called a people or a nation that is resisting colonialism but a terrorist” (Khan, 2009). Both views cannot be discredited as being bias or incorrect, for Rubin looks at the action and Abu Sherif looks at the principle of terrorism. Nevertheless, it is agreed upon that terrorism allowed the resistance to be projected onto the world screen.
The consequences of the Lebanese Civil War marked the failure of the armed struggle. Arafat’s inability to protect the refugee camps, the destruction of the fedayeen and his relocation to Tunis accumulatively indicated that armed resistance was not going to resolve the Palestinian problem. Though the intifada allowed Arafat to gain support and exert his dominance in Palestine, new avenues were now required to resolve the Palestinian problem.
Arafat’s ability to grab headlines in the 70’s and 80’s ensured the survival of the Palestinian resistance. This is a key aspect of Yasser Arafat’s role in trying to resolve the Palestinian problem. It meant that hope for Palestinian liberation and sovereignty was kept alive for the future generations. As stated by Professor Stephen Howe,  “Without the Arafat of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, there might well not have been a Palestinian national movement at all” (Howe, 2004).
The Initiatives for Peace
Arafat’s first initiatives to peace, in the form of the Ten Point Program, represented his willingness to negotiate. This was further reinforced with his address to the UN general assembly in 1974. In saying “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand” (MidEastWeb and Ami Isseroff), he expressed his willingness to negotiate to fair terms to resolve the Palestinian problem. Implicitly, Arafat saw the limits of the armed struggle, and his offering of an ‘olive branch’ meant that he implicitly accepted the existence of Israel.
Subsequently, as the armed struggle failed to ‘liberate’ Palestine, Arafat saw that the means to attain the Palestinian dream didn’t matter, but rather what mattered was the subsequent outcome. For such reason, the great switch was seen in 1988, when he renounced the armed struggle. The failure of the armed struggled resulted with Oslo and Camp David.  The resolution to peace was a means of Arafat trying to obtain some tangible solution for the Palestinian problem. However, what Arafat agreed to at Oslo was vague in many of its terms. Both parties were ultimately suspicious of the other and the talks were doomed to fail  .
Historians however seem to have polarised views on the true intents of Arafat in his resolution to peace. One argument put up by the Rubins’ is that Arafat presented to the world a changed semblance of peace in order to drive his own plans of continuing the armed struggle, “Arafat could hope to convince the west that he was ready for peace and convince his own colleagues that he was determined to continue the struggle” (Barry Rubin, 2003 p. 113). Contrastingly, Bassam Abu Sherif argues that though the US did pressure Arafat, he was genuine on his part, and primarily wanted the announcement to first be supported by the Palestinians, “It was clear that Arafat wanted to be flexible enough to meet American demands, but he also wanted to make sure that he had the approval of the majority of the PLO executive committee to preserve the democracy of the decision making process of the PLO” (Abu Sherif, 2009 p. 183). Abu Sherif’s claim seems to carry more weight as it was clear that by the 90’s the armed struggle wasn’t going to solve the Palestinian issue. Arafat needed to find new avenues to resolve the issue, and diplomacy was the only plausible option.
Arafat seems to have been wrongly antagonised by many for the failure of Camp David. Such include psychohistorian Avner Falk who says, “Tragically-or courageously, as his admirers saw it- Arafat rejected Barack’s generous offer and presented his own non negotiable demands” (Falk, 2004). Falk seems to be subjective as she fails to consider the unfairness of the Camp David Summit, which many political commentators and historians today would agree as being imbalanced. Therefore, Arafat had no choice but to reject what was placed before him at Camp David. Dennis Ross, the US envoy to the Middle East under Clinton, states, “Should he [Arafat] have taken the deal at Camp David? Probably not” (al-Issawi, 2009). Israel was to receive a large portion of the conferred lands and Palestinian sovereignty was confined to areas heavily surrounded by Israeli settlements. Robert Mally, an advisor to President Clinton, states, “he [Arafat] couldn’t accept that. He couldn’t accept them because there was no way he could defend a 9:1 swap, there’s no way he could accept Israeli sovereignty over the haram, there’s no way he could accept this patchwork of sovereignty over Jerusalem” (al-Issawi, 2009). Hence, with that, it’s clear that Arafat wasn’t an obstacle to peace.
Half a century of fighting exhausted the Arab world, and for the Palestinians, new paths were needed in order to achieve some tangible solution. Arafat understood this, and his desire for a peaceful resolution at Oslo represented some hope for the settlement of the Palestinian issue. Arafat wasn’t an obstacle to peace, as his willingness to compromise was and still is the scarcest quality among Palestinian leaders. Nevertheless, Arafat was a Palestinian and he did not relinquish the basic principles he and his people fought for in the last 50 or so years, for the sake of an unjust ‘peace’. Peace was to come after just negotiations, and Arafat played a key role in projecting this idea
The study looked to explore, what was the role of Yasser Arafat in trying to bring a resolution to the Palestinian problem. He subsequently played three roles in attempting to resolve the issue. He first took control of the Palestinians’ destiny from the Arab regimes, making them masters of their destiny. The armed struggle that followed united the Palestinians, and it was an attempt at retaining sovereignty over Palestine by force. The armed struggle also projected onto the world screen the Palestinian resistance, letting it not be forgotten. However, the failure of the armed struggle led to diplomacy and negotiation, as he tried to attain some sovereignty over Palestine for his people who were exhausted with nearly 50 years of struggle and resistance.
This study could be further investigated by exploring how successful Arafat was in his leadership of the PLO. A critical analysis could also be made of the Oslo Accord, why they failed, and his role in agreeing to the terms as they were. In addition, further studies could be undertaken in order to evaluate why Arafat was not successful in trying to find a resolution to the Palestinian problem. This could partly look at the complementary effects other Palestinian factions (such as Hamas) had on his leadership in its end days
Abu Sherif Bassam Arafat and the Dream for Palestine [Book]. – New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Barry Rubin Judith Colp Rubin Arafat: A Political Biography [Book]. – New York : Oxford Universty Press Inc, 2003.
Falk Avner Fratricide in the Holy Land: A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict [Book]. – Madison : The Unversity of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Fraser T.G. The Arab-Israeli Conflict [Book]. – New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. – 3rd Edition.
Karsh Efraim Arafat’s War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest [Book]. – New York : Grove Press, 2003.
Said Edward W. The Politics of Dispossesion [Book]. – New York : Vintage Books, 1995.
Tesseler Mark A History Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [Book]. – Bloomington : Indiana Press, 1994.
al-Issawi Omar PLO: History of a Revolution [TV Documentary]. – [s.l.] : Al Jazeera ; Al Jazeera English, July 13, 2009. – Vols. Episode 1-6. – http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/plohistoryofrevolution/2009/07/200974133438561995.html.
Khan Riz One On One [TV Documentary] = Bassam Abu Sherif. – [s.l.] : Al Jazeera English, December 19, 2009. – Vol. I. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cx0oKrw01qw.
American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise The PLO’s Ten Point Plan [Online] // Jewish Virtual Library. – American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. – August 10, 2010. – http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Terrorism/PNCProgram1974.html.
Fateh Fateh Constitution [Online] // Al-Zaytouna. – Al-Zaytouna Centre. – August 15, 2010. – http://www.alzaytouna.net/arabic/?c=1598&a=97061.
Howe Stephen The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation [Online] // openDemocracy. – openDemocracy Limited, November 18, 2004. – June 28, 2010. – http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-debate_97/article_2234.jsp.
McCarthy Justin Palestine’s Population During The Ottoman And The British Mandate Periods [Online] // PalestineRemembered.com. – PalestineRemembered.Com, September 8, 2001. – August 14, 2010. – http://www.palestineremembered.com/Acre/Palestine-Remembered/Story559.html#Table 1.