The doubters—labelled conspiracy theorists due to their belief that the former Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, was murdered—may soon be vindicated. I was among their ranks. I thought it odd that doctors were seemingly unable to diagnose his complaint and what was even more odd was the initial silence of the French military hospital—where he breathed his last in 2004—regarding the cause of his demise, later attributed to a massive heart attack in a rambling medical report.
Stranger still, a sample of Arafat’s blood sent to a Tunisian lab for testing, while he was still alive, had gone missing. I was also struggling to fathom why neither Arafat’s wife, Suha Tawil, nor his closest lieutenants, including the current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, had not created more of a stink when the word “poisoned” was permeating the air.
Arafat’s closest relatives and advisers were all convinced he had been poisoned. Suha’s refusal to allow French doctors to carry out a biopsy on her husband’s liver while he lived or an autopsy after his death was similarly mystifying.
The Palestinian leadership should have forcefully petitioned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to launch an investigation into Arafat’s suspicious death. Instead, it was accepted in a fairly low-key manner by the people he trusted most.
Perhaps because they had come to the conclusion that without this stubborn patriot, who always refused to concede the Palestinians’ just rights, the roadblocks to a Palestinian state would fall apart. If that was indeed the case, they were tragically misguided. Those who followed jumped like Kangaroo Joeys straight into America’s pocket where they discovered nothing but hot air before falling through a gaping hole to nowhere.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding his passing away were compounded by the timing. Arafat, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had been shunned by the US and its allies after being labelled an obstacle to peace by former President George W. Bush.
The Israelis had turned his Ramallah compound into a virtual prison from which he was prevented from leaving even to attend religious festivities in occupied Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Moreover, Israel had bombed his headquarters where he lived—a simple, small room with little other than a single bed, a prayer mat, a table and a wardrobe for his signature uniforms. The man who was the most frequent visitor to the White House had been painted a terrorist and turned into a pariah by the Bush administration.
It is thanks to Al Jazeera that the truth has a chance of seeing the light of day. Due to the Qatari network’s team of incisive reporters, who uncovered classified documents and sent Arafat’s personal belongings and clothing to the Institute of Radiation Physics in Switzerland, we now know that there were traces of Polonium 210, a poison—the same radioactive isotope that killed former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko—in Arafat’s under garments.
Polonium is not a substance that is cooked-up by amateur assassins; it is only manufactured by governments. So it is reasonable to extrapolate that he was murdered by a country that wanted him out of the way. Israel has denied involvement, saying as long as he was confined to his headquarters in Ramallah he posed no threat.
Whichever government may have been instrumental in what looks like murder, there remains the question as to how one could have presumably ingested small amounts of Polonium, just enough to kill him over time as opposed to the larger dose that killed Litvinenko. Let’s face it, not too many Israelis or Americans would have had access to his food. Without wishing to jump to conclusions, if he was poisoned, it’s likely that someone within his inner circle had been turned.
‘We owe a debt’
Following Al Jazeera’s investigation, Arafat’s wife, now living in Malta, has demanded an autopsy on her late husband’s body, requiring its removal from the mausoleum—a demand supported by Hamas leader Esmail Haniyah. It’s unclear what prompted Suha’s change of heart or how she was persuaded to hand Arafat’s effects to Al Jazeera.
Notwithstanding potential embarrassment, the Palestinian National Authority has agreed, but the decision awaits the agreement of certain family members. The Grand Mufti of occupied Jerusalem says there’s no religious bar to the exhumation. Experts believe tests on Arafat’s bones would be conclusive, one way or the other, even eight years after his death.
Tunisia has called for an emergency Arab League summit and is asking for an international inquiry. “We owe a debt to that great man, who had such an influence on the Palestinian national cause,” said Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem.
I would second that call. Arafat had his faults, but he was a great man. Without his efforts the Palestinians would have become a forgotten, dispersed people, their suffering erased from newspaper headlines. If the UN can bless an inquiry into the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, it should do the same for Arafat.
Either a special tribunal should be instituted or the evidence should be sent to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. However, that would require a UNSC referral. If matters reach that stage, it will be interesting to see whether the US will wield its power of veto. If so, we will be left to draw our own conclusions.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.