PARIS (AP) — Yasser Arafat, who triumphantly forced his
people’s plight into the world spotlight but failed to
achieve his lifelong quest for Palestinian statehood, died today,
Paris time, at age 75.

He was, to the end, a man of many mysteries and paradoxes
— terrorist, statesman, autocrat and peacemaker.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat confirmed to The
Associated Press that Arafat had died. The Palestinian leader spent
his final days in a coma at a French military hospital outside
Paris.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top Arafat aide, confirmed that Arafat died
at 4:30 a.m. today Paris time. He spoke to reporters at
Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Arafat’s last days were as murky and dramatic as his life.
Flown to France on Oct. 29 after nearly three years of being penned
in his West Bank headquarters by Israeli tanks, he initially
improved but then sharply deteriorated as rumors swirled about his
illness.

Top Palestinian officials flew in to check on their leader while
Arafat’s 41-year-old wife, Suha, publicly accused them of
trying to usurp his powers. Ordinary Palestinians prayed for his
well being, but expressed deep frustration over his failure to
improve their lives.

Arafat’s failure to groom a successor complicated his
passing, raising the danger of factional conflict among
Palestinians.

A visual constant in his checkered keffiyeh headdress, Arafat
kept the Palestinians’ cause at the center of the
Arab-Israeli conflict. But he fell short of creating a Palestinian
state, and, along with other secular Arab leaders of his
generation, he saw his influence weakened by the rise of radical
Islam in recent years.

Revered by his own people, Arafat was reviled by others. He was
accused of secretly fomenting attacks on Israelis while proclaiming
brotherhood and claiming to have put terrorism aside. Many Israelis
felt the paunchy 5-foot, 2-inch Palestinian’s real goal
remained the destruction of the Jewish state.

Arafat became one of the world’s most familiar faces after
addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, when he
entered the chamber wearing a holster and carrying a sprig.
“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom
fighter’s gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive
branch fall from my hand.”

Two decades later, he shook hand at the White House with Israeli
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a peace deal that formally
recognized Israel’s right to exist while granting the
Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The
pact led to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat, Rabin and
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

But the accord quickly unraveled amid mutual suspicions and
accusations of treaty violations, and a new round of violence that
erupted in the fall of 2000 has killed some 4,000 people,
three-quarters of them Palestinian.

The Israeli and U.S. governments said Arafat deserved much of
the blame for the derailing of the peace process. Even many of his
own people began whispering against Arafat, expressing
disgruntlement over corruption, lawlessness and a bad economy in
the Palestinian areas.

A resilient survivor of war with Israel, assassination attempts
and even a plane crash, Arafat was born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat
Al-Qudwa on Aug. 4, 1929, the fifth of seven children of a
Palestinian merchant killed in the 1948 war over Israel’s
creation. There is disagreement whether he was born in Gaza or in
Cairo, Egypt.

Educated as an engineer in Egypt, Arafat served in the Egyptian
army and then started a contracting firm in Kuwait. It was there
that he founded the Fatah movement, which became the core of the
Palestine Liberation Organization.

After the Arabs’ humbling defeat by Israel in the six-day
war of 1967, the PLO thrust itself on the world’s front pages
by sending its gunmen out to hijack airplanes, machine gun airports
and seize Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

“As long as the world saw Palestinians as no more than
refugees standing in line for U.N. rations, it was not likely to
respect them. Now that the Palestinians carry rifles the situation
has changed,” Arafat explained.

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