YASSER ARAFAT voice of the PLO
He is reviled in some quarters as a symbol of mindless terror. He is revered in others as the ultimate symbol of national pride. But how to get behind the rhetoric, to understand the man, assess his motives, unravel the circumstances in which he operates?Skip to next paragraph
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The names of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have become both highly controversial and intertwined. But despite their wide currency, they remain to many in the West an enigma.
In a Middle East of rolling unrest, of raucous ayatollahs and soviet troops in Afghanistan, the names are an enigma that warrants explanation.
It is just over 20 years since the first signs appeared of the Palestinian group that was to become the dominant force in the (independently founded) Palestine Liberation Organization. Little noticed outside a small circle of some 300 supporters, a new monthly magazine called Filastinuna (Our Palestine) appeared in Beirut in October 1959.
It pages roared with the rage of those Palestinians made refugees during the founding of the state of Israel ten years earlier. They felt betrayed and neglected by the Arab regimes. The opinion column in the magazine, which reflected these feelings, was signed with the acronym that was later to become famous -- Al-Fatha, now the PLO's militant arm.
On the same page, a collection of tales of the refugees' misery was signed with the initials of the man who already had been working for several years to formulate and build up the new group -- the Kuwait-based Palestinian engineer Yasser Arafat.
Born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini in 1929, the future PLO chairman was raised by his merchant father in Jerusalem and Gaza. After leading the Palestinian Students' Union in Cairo from 1952-56 and helping in the resistance to the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Suez, he left for Kuwait, where in the early 1960s he became immersed in full-time political work.
In his youth he was something of a right-winger, and was swayed by Islamic ideals. But Yasser Arafat traveled politically leftward under the influence of the Algerian and Chinese revolutionaries he came in contact with in the early 1960s.
His position today is best summed up in his own terse words, "I am realist."
First and foremost for the PLO chairman, that has meant executing a fine balancing act in the cutthroat world of inter-Arab politics -- an act Mr. Arafat has mastered with such consummate skill that he is increasingly called on to mediate inter-Arab disputes.
More important, the PLO meanwhile has elbowed it- self into a relatively priveleged position in the Arab game of nations.
Target of countless assassination attempts, the unmarried Mr. Arafat today leads a supercharged life of long hours of work in his several Beirut headquarters, varied with restless, work-packed travels throughout the Arab world and far beyond.
The efficient corps of personal aides he has built up in recent years has to work in relays to keep up with him, but even they often have no idea which continent their leader will be visiting only a few hours later.
The PLO chairman is an intensely private man who says his own life is not important, that he merely represents the life-experience of all uprooted Palestinians. He nevertheless gives rare glimpses of himself to a careful watcher:
During discussions with this reporter at the end of 1979, conducted long after midnight, Mr. Arafat was only just starting to evince physical fatigue after a 20-hour day of work. When the subject of Jerusalem was raised, he paused, smiled, and then recalled that:
"In 1967, after the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, I was inside the occupied territories, in Jerusalem.I passed by the house where I lived as a child. Standing at the door was a man, one of my brothers. I recognized him, but he didn't recognize me because of my disguise. I felt strongly that here I was, coming home. But I didn't go in.You can't be sentimental in the revolution."