RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla leader turned Nobel Peace Prize winner who forced his people’s plight into the world spotlight, died Thursday at age 75 – still reviled by many as a terrorist.
Arafat died at 3:30 a.m. in a French military hospital. His last days were as murky and dramatic as his life. Arafat was 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. Neither doctors nor Palestinian leaders would say what killed Arafat.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of the Gaza Strip in a spontaneous show of grief. Dozens of gunmen fired into the air, and marchers waved Palestinian flags.
Mosques blared Quranic verses and children burned tires on the main streets, covering the skies in black smoke. People pasted posters of Arafat on building walls.
Palestinian Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was to be sworn in as Palestinian Authority president until elections are held in 60 days, according to Palestinian law. Officials said they want to ensure a smooth transition, despite uncertainty and a behind-the-scenes power struggle to assume the Arafat mantle.
Palestinian flags at Arafat’s battered Ramallah compound were lowered to half staff. Television broadcast excerpts from the Quran with a picture of Arafat in the background.
“He closed his eyes and his big heart stopped. He left for God but he is still among this great people,” said senior Arafat aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who broke into tears as he announced Arafat’s death.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was saddened by Arafat’s passing.
“President Arafat was one of those few leaders who could be instantly recognized by people in any walk of life all around the world. For nearly four decades, he expressed and symbolized in his person the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
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.
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.
Prime Minister John Howard says Yasser Arafat will be remembered as a leader who failed to grasp an opportunity for peace in the Middle East.
Mr Howard says many people regard Yasser Arafat as a terrorist and it is hard to believe that he could not have done more to restrain militant Palestinian groups.
“I think history will judge him very harshly for not having seized the opportunity in the year 2000 to embrace the offer that was very courageously made by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barack, which involved the Israelis agreeing to 90 per cent of what the Palestinians had wanted,” he said.
PARIS (Reuters) – French President Jacques Chirac, confirming Yasser Arafat’s death, has hailed the Palestinian leader as a man of courage and conviction who embodied the Palestinian struggle for a state.
“It is with emotion that I have just learnt of the death of President Yasser Arafat, the first elected president of the Palestinian Authority,” Chirac said in a written statement on Thursday. “I offer my very sincere condolences to his family and to people close to him.”
This is a victory in the War On Terror. With Arafat gone, maybe a decent, moderate, non-corrupt Palestinian leadership can emerge and offer a real peace plan to Israel.
Regardless, this monster should have been killed long ago. He died a better death than the hundreds he was responsible for butchering. If there is a Heaven and a Hell, ol’ Yasser is busy roasting…