Could light be cast on Arafat’s mysterious death?

I am aware this article may spur some heated mixed reactions, but sometimes this is what a blog is for. I dedicate it to my good friend Maher, who (from the very beginning!) has shown me the true meaning of feeling Palestinian.

This week French prosecutors opened a murder enquiry into Yasser Arafat’s 2004 death, apparently after Arafat’s family (notably his widow Suha) launched legal action in the country over claims the veteran Palestinian leader died of polonium (a famous poison, especially after having been allegedly used to murder Russian opposition leader Alexander Litvinenko). The eventual rabbit’s pulling out of the hat comes after a popular Al-Jazeera’s investigation in which experts said they found high levels of polonium on his personal effects (particularly on his beloved keffiyeh), a theory apparently confirmed by a Swiss laboratory. Other hypotheses have been proposed (like this one in Le Monde) in the meantime. For its part, Israel has consistently denied the allegations for years, and affirms not to be concerned in the least by the re-opening of the case “despite the accusations” (it moreover wishes for a quick solution that could finally put an en to such a controversy). Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that not a single state, neither an individual nor a group have been formally accused.

Arafat died in 2004, and since then scores of voices have repeatedly demanded a credible explanation. According to Wikipedia, his health increasingly deteriorated from a mere “flu” he caught on October, and he had to be taken to France, where he died on 11 November after having lapsed into a gradually deepening coma. It looks that initially Arafat’s medical records were withheld by senior Palestinian officials, and Arafat’s wife refused an autopsy. French doctors also said that Arafat suffered from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, although it is inconclusive what brought about the condition. At the time of his death, Palestinian officials accused Israel of poisoning their leader, but an inconclusive Palestinian investigation conducted the year after ruled out poisoning, as well as cancer and AIDS.
On 4 November 2004, suspecting poisoning before the leader’s last breat, Dr Saeb Erekat claimed to call the US Consul General in Jerusalem to request the US government ask the Israeli government for an antidote. The French Defence Ministry carried out its own analysis on Arafat’s condition, French doctors carrying out toxicological analysis but finding nothing unusual. The latter drew a litre of Arafat’s urine for radiological testing, a test that measures Gamma activity only (Polonium 210 is an Alpha-emitting particle) but found nothing. On September 2010, during Fatah’s 6th conference, leaders decided to appoint Tawfik Tirawi as head of the Palestinian investigation into the death of Yasser Arafat, an investigation that alas made no breakthroughs. Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat, unsatisfied with this explanations, decided to resort to other investigators and provided Al Jazeera with Arafat’s entire medical file and x-rays, as well as a gym bag containing the leader’s last personal belongings that accompanied him when he died in France. The files and gym bag are taken to a center in Switzerland, which then begins a rigorous scientific and forensic review of all material, concluding in 2012 that significant levels of radioactive Polonium 210 have been found in Arafat’s belongingsFrench authorities at first denied Suha Arafat that her husband’s medical samples, destroyed in 2008. Suha set off a campaign to get her husband’s body exhumed for testing and filed a criminal complaint with a French judge. Public figures, such as Mahmoud Abbas, raised the issue of Arafat’s death at several international meetings. Palestinian leaders even presented a plan to the Arab League to investigate what many believed to be a murder. 

The investigation will surely spark numerous debates, as Arafat remains a controversial figure. In what concerns the reasons why some people loved him and the reason(s) he was so deeply hated by others, first of all, he was, without a doubt, an idol and symbol of the Palestinian cause, probably the only one all factions have revered. He was essential to the brokering of the Oslo Peace Accords, after having accepted to attend the key 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, an achievement that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. But, being Leader of the PLO, he was therefore considered by some a dangerous terrorist and one of the cruellest warlords during the Lebanese civil war. He was also attacked for having given up too much during the peace negotiations. In particular, some people never forgave him for having accepted the recognition of the state of Israel. He was also accused many times of corruption, within the PLO and within th Palestinian Authority itself. 

On December 2004, a survey carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed up to which point Palestinians were confused: “about 72% believe that Arafat died of poison and most of those believing in this (64%) believe that Israel is the party responsible for the poisoning while 22% believe that a Palestinian party is responsible”, Maybe the results will help the Palestinian people to put their ghosts to sleep and follow the path of reconciliation, under another unifying figure.

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