PARIS (Reuters) – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who rose from guerrilla icon to Nobel prize-winning peacemaker only to fall into isolation amid new violence with Israel, was declared dead in a Paris hospital on Thursday, officials said.
The 75-year-old Palestinian president’s death, announced at his West Bank headquarters of Ramallah, ended days of rumors over his condition.
The official announcement was made by his senior aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim.
“The Palestinian leadership mourns Yasser Arafat … who died at 4:30 this morning,” said Abdel Rahim, near tears.
The Palestinian president died with his 40-year quest for a state unachieved, a succession scramble pitting old loyalists against a younger generation on the cards, and Israel cementing its grip on occupied land in the absence of diplomacy.
Arafat’s death, removing the man Israel called an impassable obstacle to peace, offered potential for the first peace bid in years. But no potential successor wields his authority and fears are strong that infighting could hamper any peacemaking.
Arafat held all the reins of power — the Palestine Liberation Organization, the self-rule Palestinian Authority and the main Fatah political movement. He groomed no successor, but over the decades took on the aura of an irreplaceable patriarch.
“Mr Arafat led our people from a status of refugees who need to be settled somewhere or given some humanitarian support into a people with rights,” Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told CNN on Wednesday.
“To us, he is a man who produced dignity, resilience, who himself lived a very austere life in parallel with the way many Palestinians live. He gave the Palestinians hope, and that is really the difficulty of losing him.”
Arafat was a legendary survivor, escaping a 1970 Jordanian onslaught provoked by a partial PLO takeover of the country to launch attacks on Israel, a 1982 Israeli siege of his lair in Beirut and a 1992 plane crash in the Libyan desert.
But the demise of the charismatic Arafat, acclaimed by Palestinians as the father of their nationalist struggle while branded by most Israelis as an irredeemable “face of terror,” came swiftly and threw his people into shock.
Senior Palestinian sources said there would be a funeral in Cairo and burial in Arafat’s shell-shattered headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah — where he had effectively been pinned by Israel for over 2-1/2 years.
Israel said on Wednesday it would permit Arafat’s burial in Ramallah and Arab leaders, even from states with which it remains officially at war, to attend the memorial service.
Arafat was short and bald, with a permanent stubbly beard. he favored a black and white Arab headdress and cut an unlikely figure as a guerrilla chief despite the olive drab uniform and pistol he wore for so long on his hip.
In 1994, Arafat returned from exile in Tunis to head a self rule Palestinian Authority enshrined by interim peace deals. For those, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres.
But a peace summit in 2000 aimed at creating a Palestinian state in the two territories alongside a secure Israel collapsed in disputes over borders, sovereignty over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees from wars since 1948.
Fighting re-erupted and Israel reoccupied or encircled West Bank cities amid a tide of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants from both Arafat’s Fatah movement and Islamist rivals.
Arafat denied Israeli accusations of inciting violence. He deflected U.S.-led efforts to sideline him, cutting down two reform-minded prime ministers named under Washington’s pressure.