January 20

This Day in History

General Interest

Jan 20, 1996:

Arafat elected leader of Palestine

Yasser Arafat is elected president of the Palestinian National Council with 88.1 percent of the popular vote, becoming the first democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people in history.

Arafat, the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), originally employed guerilla warfare and terrorism against Israel in his struggle for an independent Palestinian state. However, in the late 1980s, he stunned Israel and the world when he began seeking diplomatic solutions in his quest for a Palestinian homeland. Arafat persuaded the PLO to formally acknowledge the right of Israel to coexist with the independent state of Palestine and in 1993 signed the historic Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One year later, Arafat and Rabin signed a major peace agreement granting Palestine limited self-government in territories occupied by Israel. In 1995, Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for his peace efforts. In the Palestinian people's first democratic election, in 1996, he won an overwhelming electoral majority, consolidating his rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas granted autonomy in the 1995 agreement.

In 2000, though, hopes were dashed that the Oslo Accords might finally bring peace to the troubled region when Arafat, dogged by self-doubt and criticism at home that he was compromising too much, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were unable to negotiate a final peace.

In the aftermath of the collapse of negotiations, with most Palestinians still living in poverty and growing increasingly desperate, a new wave of violence erupted. Israel continued to blame Arafat for the violence--even that which was perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that had probably never been under his control. The collapse of peace talks and the declaration of intifada by the Palestinians led to the election of a hawkish right-wing government in Israel, making peace seem an even more distant prospect.

Though Arafat pledged to join in America's war on terror after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he was not able to garner favor with U.S. President George W. Bush, who was strongly pro-Israel. In December 2001, after a series of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel, Bush did nothing to stop Israel as it re-conquered areas of the West Bank and even steamrolled the Palestinian Authority's headquarters with tanks, effectively imprisoning Arafat within his compound. After Israel dismissed a compromise offer put forth by the Arab League, Palestinian attacks increased, causing Israel to again turn to military intervention in the West Bank. Arafat finally was released from his compound in May 2002, after an agreement was reached which forced him to issue a statement in Arabic instructing his followers to halt attacks on Israel. It was ignored and the violence continued.

In a 2004 interview, George W. Bush rejected Arafat's status as a legitimate spokesperson for his people, ending hopes for a peace agreement while Arafat was still in power. In late October of that year, reports surfaced that Arafat was seriously ill. He was flown to Paris for treatment, and in early November fell into a coma. He was pronounced dead on November 11. The exact cause of his death is unknown.

Arafat's funeral was held in Cairo, the city of his birth, and he was buried in his former compound in the West Bank. He left behind a mixed and painful legacy. Mahmoud Abbas became the new chairman of the PLO and was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005.

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