Arafat studied briefly at the University of Texas before completing his engineering degree at the University of Faud I in Egypt, from which he graduated in 1956. As a student, he served as president of the Union of Palestinian Students; in 1952 he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. After a brief stint in the Egyptian Army during the 1956 Suez Crisis he moved to Kuwait, where he formed his own contracting company.
In 1958 Arafat founded al-Fatah, an underground guerrilla group dedicated to liberating Palestine. In 1964 he left his job, moved to Jordan, and devoted all his energies to organizing raids against Israel. That same year, the PLO was formed. Arafat fought in the 1967 Six-Day War, allegedly escaping from Israel disguised as a woman. Gradually, al-Fatah came to dominate the PLO, and in February 1969 he became chairman of the PLO.
After skirmishes with Jordanian authorities, Arafat was forced to relocate the PLO to Lebanon in 1970. During much of the 1970s he spent considerable time reorienting the PLO's emphasis from Pan-Arabism to Palestinian nationalism. During the Lebanese Civil War that witnessed brutal fighting between Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians, the PLO sided with the Muslims. Arafat moved the PLO to Tunisia in 1982. In the 1980s he regrouped his organization, which had sustained heavy losses during the fighting in Lebanon. The PLO received important monetary aid from both Iraq and Saudi Arabia during the 1980s, and in 1988 Palestinians declared a formal State of Palestine. With that, Arafat announced that the PLO would renounce all forms of terrorism and would recognize the State of Israel, a radical departure in the organization's philosophy.
In 1993 the PLO participated in the Oslo Accords and hammered out a peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The PLO located to the West Bank in 1994, an important first step toward the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state. In 1996 Arafat was elected head of the new Palestinian Authority, which was to provide governance, security, and other services to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, Israeli-Palestinian relations deteriorated rapidly upon the 1996 election of the rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite efforts by President Bill Clinton to preserve peace between Israel and the PLO in the summer of 2000, negotiations broke down, and radical groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad commenced a second Intifada. This began four years of violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Arafat was increasingly marginalized, and in 2004 President George W. Bush declared that the PLO leader was ineffective and that it was impossible to negotiate with him.
Arafat developed a mysterious illness and went to Paris for medical treatment, where he died on 11 November 2004. As of this writing, the future of the Palestinian cause remains very much in question, although Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has taken tentative steps toward reaching some common ground with Israel.
Amy H. Blackwell
Hart, Alan. Arafat: A Political Biography. Rev. ed. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1994.; Rubin, Barry M., and Judith Colp Rubin. Arafat: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.