RAMALLAH, West Bank— Yasser Arafat, who triumphantly forced his people’s plight into the world spotlight but failed to achieve his lifelong quest for Palestinian statehood, died Thursday at age 75.
The French military hospital where he had been treated since Oct. 29 said he died at 3:30 a.m. The Palestinian leader spent his final days there in a coma. Doctors would not disclose what ailment killed Arafat.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat and Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top Arafat aide, confirmed Arafat's death in a conversation with reporters at Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
President Bush issued a statement of condolence to the Palestinian people.
“The death of Yasser Arafat is a significant moment in Palestinian history. We express our condolences to the Palestinian people. For the Palestinian people, we hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of their aspirations for an independent, democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors,” the statement said.
“During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace.”
The Palestinian parliament speaker will be sworn in as Palestinian Authority president in the coming hours.
Palestinian officials have said they want to ensure a smooth transition. Under Palestinian law, Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh, a virtual unknown, is to become caretaker president until elections are held in 60 days.
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. 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 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.