Arafat was born on Aug. 24, 1929 in Cairo. His father a textile merchant who was a Palestinian with some Egyptian ancestry, his mother from an old Palestinian family in Jerusalem.
He took the name Yasser, believed to honour an Arab victim of the British mandate in Palestine.
His mother died when he was five years old and then he was sent to live with his maternal uncle in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, then under British rule.
After four years in Jerusalem, his father brought him back to Cairo, where an older sister took care of him and his siblings.
In Cairo, before he was 17, Arafat was smuggling arms to Palestine to be used against the British and the Jews.
At 19, during the war between the Jews and the Arab states, Arafat left his studies at the University of Faud I (later Cairo University) to fight against the Jews in the Gaza area.
After the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, he applied for a visa to study at the University of Texas.
Recovering his spirits and retaining his dream of an independent Palestinian homeland, he returned to Faud University to major in engineering but spent most of his time as leader of the Palestinian students.
In 1953, Arafat sent a letter to an Egyptian leader. It was three words long and said to have been written in his own blood. It said simply, "Don't forget Palestine."
He got his degree in 1956, worked briefly in Egypt, then resettled in Kuwait, first being employed in the department of public works, next successfully running his own contracting firm.
Committed to the idea of armed struggle to reverse what Palestinians call the Nabka (Catastrophe), Arafat secretly founded Fatah in 1958.
At the end of 1964, Arafat left Kuwait to become a full-time revolutionary, organizing Fatah raids into Israel from Jordan.
It was also in 1964 that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established.
After the Arabs' defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, Fatah emerged from the underground as the most powerful and best organized of the groups making up the PLO.
In 1969, Arafat became PLO chairman.
With higher profile came higher personal risk. Initially based in Jordan, Arafat and his fighters were expelled in 1970 and redeployed first into Lebanon, and later Tunisia.
While his troops launched an uprising, or intifada, on the West Bank in 1987, Arafat remained in exile for 27 years.
The intifada strengthened Arafat by directing world attention to the difficult plight of the Palestinians.
In 1988 came a change of policy. In a speech at a special UN session in Geneva, Arafat declared the PLO renounced terrorism and supported "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to live in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors".
After a setback when the PLO supported Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991, the peace process began in earnest, leading to the Oslo Accords of 1993.
In 1994, Arafat, together with Israel's then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
Arafat returned to Gaza the following year, but such fundamental issues as the fate of Palestinian refugees had been left undecided, and the peace process was fraught with difficulty.
Rabin was assassinated in 1995.
In early 1996, Arafat was elected President of the Palestine National Authority. He struggled to define his role and keep Israelis and his own countrymen committed to what he termed "the peace of the brave".
When the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in Israel in 1996, the peace process slowed down considerably.
On Oct. 16, 2000, Arafat, Barak and Clinton met in Camp David. They left the meeting with a "statement of intent" to end the violence, but neither side signed it.
Since December 2001, Arafat has been besieged by the Israeli army in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, known as the Muqataa.
The veteran Palestinian leader was a survivor himself, escaping death in a plane crash, surviving any assassination attempts by Israeli intelligence agencies, and recovering from a serious stroke.
His life was one of constant travel, moving from country to country to promote the Palestinian cause, always keeping his movements secret, as he did about his private life, even his marriage to Suha Tawil, a Palestinian half his age.
Their daughter Zahwa was named after Arafat's mother.