RAMALLAH - For almost four decades, Yasser Arafat was Mr. Palestine to many
in this fractured homeland.
Yasser Arafat represented the Palestinian people, wherever they are, as the
head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was accepted by
the Arab League as "the sole legal representative of the Palestinian people."
He had an iron grip on the organization.
Arafat assumed leadership of the PLO in 1969, two years after the Fatah movement
that advocated armed struggle against Israel joined the organization. Both Fatah
and the PLO were founded in exile.
At the time, Israel existed within what was known as the "green line"
cease-fire border of 1949. This demarcation had come about as the result of
the war that started with the founding of the Jewish state after the UN resolution
to partition Palestine in 1947.
Israel then did not include the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza
Strip, and the Golan heights. The war of 1947-1948 between Israel and the Palestinians
and a number of Arab countries had displaced an estimated 700,000 Palestinians
from areas that were assigned under the UN plan to Israel and from the areas
into which it expanded during the war.
The rest of the area that was assigned to a future Palestinian state was taken
over by neighboring Arab countries. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem,
was annexed by Jordan. Egypt took over the Gaza strip.
In the six-day war of June 1967, Israel captured these areas as well as the
Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula. It withdrew from the latter after the
1977 peace agreement with Egypt.
The six-day war set off another wave of Palestinian refugees, some 300,000.
Since 1949 all refugees, whether in "camps" in Gaza and the West Bank
or in neighboring countries are taken care of by the UN Refugees and Works Agency
(UNRWA), the only UN body that deals with a specific body of refugees.
The PLO is nominally the representative of Palestinians in the West Bank and
Gaza, refugees or not, and of those in the Arab countries and around the world.
All major Palestinian political factions such as the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of
Palestine (DFLP) used to be part of the PLO, but now some of those allegiances
After the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, the Intifada,
two Islamic fundamentalist groups sprang up, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They are
not part of the PLO and are seen as openly in opposition to it most of the time,
although sometimes they are invited to sit in on important meetings.
The situation became still more complicated with the Oslo peace accords in
1993 and subsequent agreements when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established
in the West Bank and Gaza.
The PA held its own elections for a legislative council and for the post of
chairman of the PA in 1996. Hamas and Jihad did not participate, and Fatah overwhelmingly
won the election. Yasser Arafat became chairman of the PA. He also remained
head of the PLO.
The Palestinian population worldwide is estimated at between nine and ten million,
including some 1.2 million who live in Israel and are sometimes called Israeli
Arabs or Arab Israelis, according to figures provided by the Palestinian Central
Bureau of Statistics, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, and several
The population of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, is
just under 3.5 million. This is divided between some 2.3 million people in the
West Bank, of which some 200,000 are in Jerusalem, and some 1.2 million in Gaza.
That leaves more than 4.5 million people outside the area of "historic
Palestine." Most of them live in the Arab world. About 500,000 live outside
the Arab world, half of them in the Americas.
The people in the West Bank and Gaza, even though tightly controlled by Israel,
are nominally ruled by the PA. The legislative council, also called the Palestinian
parliament, has so far merely rubber-stamped Arafat's decisions.
Under U.S. and Israeli pressure, rules were changed last year to make room
for a prime minister, because neither country wanted to deal with Arafat. Under
Arafat, this function proved to be mostly powerless, not least because he remained
chairman of the PLO.
The first prime minister was Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's number two in the powerful
executive committee of the PLO and in the central committee of Fatah. This did
not help him, however, and Abbas was ousted after some four months.
The former speaker of the legislative council, Ahmed Qureia, then became prime
minister, a post he still held when Arafat died.
Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has taken over some of Arafat's responsibilities
in the PA. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has taken over the running of the
important Fatah and PLO committees.
Under its laws, the PA is required to hold elections for a new chairman within
60 days of him dying or becoming incapacitated. Fatah would have to choose a
new leader at its rarely held "annual" conference. And the PLO's Palestine
National Congress, which meets even less frequently, would have to elect a new