ObituaA controversial leader who embodied the hopes of generations of Palestinians, he failed to live up to the expectations he inspired

Some are saying that Yasser Arafat, symbol of the Palestinian quest for justice, was a failure. The sight of his wife, Palestinian leaders and the world press checking for signs of life in his 75-year-old body was a final, demeaning spectacle even to those critical of Arafat’s 35 years at the helm of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Elected PLO chairman in 1969, Arafat brought youth, energy and glamour to the movement. He represented a new generation unwilling to wait for liberation by Arab governments and ready for

armed struggle.

Arafat, once a firebrand hardliner, was seen in his final years as moderate but rarely pragmatic. He took to his grave a passion for the idea of a free Palestine and the conviction that only he could deliver it.

Arafat was a founder of the Fatah organisation, a group financed by refugees and exiles that rocked Israel with well organised guerrilla attacks. Operating from bases in Jordan, he represented brave defiance in the eyes of the Arab world, the forces of liberation movements to millions across the globe and bloody terror to most Israelis. After Israel’s crushing defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, Fatah was the only credible force left fighting. Arafat’s reputation was enhanced in 1968 with his defence of the Jordanian town of Karameh.

But the PLO and its thousands of fighters were also a threat to the Arab governments which many Palestinians blamed for their miserable condition. Encompassing everyone from far-left revolutionaries to Islamic holy warriors, the movement was weakened by factionalism and cynical manipulation by those using Palestinians as surrogates in internecine wars.

The PLO suffered many setbacks. In September 1970, King Hussain expelled its fighters in a brief but nasty war. Twelve years later, Arafat and the PLO were forced out again, this time from Beirut, after an appalling Israeli siege. Arafat survived both times, his status largely intact.

Arafat’s high point was appearing before the UN in November 1974 wearing his trademark black-and-white keffiyah, army fatigues and a gun holster to declare that Palestinian freedom would be achieved either by negotiation or by the gun. I also remember the happy day in December 1998 when he greeted President Clinton like an equal at the new Gaza airport and anything seemed possible.

His low point? Undoubtedly embracing Saddam Hussein after the occupation of Kuwait in 1990. This disastrous decision associated the Palestinians with a regime contemptuous of the very international laws Arafat wanted imposed on Israel. It alienated Gulf governments, his principal financiers, and allied his people to a loser. The PLO, as a result, took a back seat when the multilateral peace conference opened in Madrid in October 1991.

Exiled to Tunis after his expulsion from Lebanon, Arafat, despite constant travel, seemed destined for the rubbish bin of history. So it was unsurprising that he grasped at the chance presented by the 1993 Oslo accords, though they represented a retreat from established PLO policy.

Arafat signed a preliminary agreement with Israel and returned to Gaza amid vaulting expectations in July 1994. The aim was to get a foothold in Palestine, restore his position and build a state. But the contradictions involved in accepting a process that was bound to fail to satisfy Palestinian aspirations were overwhelming. Talks with Israel became deadlocked. Disillusion and poverty fed the ranks of militant Islamic groups. Lacking support among his people and Arab governments for the final Israeli offer of 2000, rejection and a renewed intifada seemed the only options.

And so, four years later, Arafat found himself where he had been in B