The match, which had been a dour affair, looked destined for a goalless conclusion as Newcastle's search for a goal and a win seemed likely to be prolonged.
But, with just five minutes left, Ben Arfa - the outstanding player on the pitch - broke inside from the right onto his left foot and fired a shot into the top corner, leaving David Stockdale helpless.
Until his last-gasp intervention, it looked like being another frustrating afternoon for Alan Pardew and his players as chances came and went without the deadlock being broken.
Papiss Cisse saw a 78th-minute header come back off the crossbar and Yoan Gouffran, who passed up a glorious opportunity against West Ham last weekend, glanced a header harmlessly wide with the goal at his mercy after Yohan Cabaye had been introduced to a mixed reception as a second-half substitute.
But Ben Arfa's inspiration proved enough to send Newcastle into the international break with the win they craved, although with Cabaye's future unresolved and a desperate search for reinforcements ongoing.
Newcastle dominated for long periods as Fulham arrived prepared to soak up what pressure their hosts could muster and then hit them on the break.
However, the killer instinct which has deserted them since the end of last season continued to be conspicuous by its absence as a series of openings, albeit few of them clear-cut, went begging.
There was warm applause when Loic Remy was sent out to warm up during the first half, although that was due in part to the ongoing league goal drought which had extended to six hours and 10 minutes by the time referee Chris Foy sent the teams back to the dressing rooms at the break.
Captain Fabricio Coloccini could have calmed the nerves within five minutes of kick-off when he headed a Sylvain Marveaux corner firmly towards goal, only to see the ball crash against the unwitting Cisse in front of him.
Full-back Davide Santon saw a 21st-minute strike blocked by former Magpies defender Aaron Hughes, but Stockdale was called upon for the first time seconds later when Mathieu Debuchy whistled in a 25-yard drive which he held confidently.
The keeper blocked with his chest 13 minutes before the break after Cisse had rounded defender Brede Hangeland, and the striker passed up a glorious opportunity when he saw Debuchy's 42nd-minute cross late and steered his header wide.
For their part, Fulham attacked largely on the counter, with Dimitar Berbatov pulling the strings, but created little of note as the Newcastle rearguard kept former transfer target Darren Bent on a tight rein.
Ben Arfa produced the second half's first telling cross with 53 minutes gone, but Cisse failed to control it on his chest at the near post and the chance had gone.
But the former Marseille winger was starting to get a taste for the contest and he saw a 57th-minute effort blocked by Steve Sidwell, although the locals heaved a huge sigh of relief seconds later when Bent sent a looping header across the face of goal.
Ben Arfa tested Stockdale with a deflected 62nd-minute shot which clipped Bryan Ruiz on its way to goal, but the Costa Rican might have proved the match winner when, after Alex Kacaniklic had been tripped by Cabaye, he forced Tim Krul into a fine save.
Cisse and Gouffran's near misses could have proved costly had Adel Taarabt been able to take advantage of Coloccini's slip, but instead he fired straight at Krul.
But, with time ebbing away, Ben Arfa chose his moment to light up St James' Park with his brilliant finish.
Remy and Debuchy both came close to extending their side's lead in injury-time as the bulk of a crowd of just 46,402 started to breathe more easily, but Stockdale denied both.