Arafat - the mystery that won't fade away

By Donald Macintyre

Yassar Arafat was well-guarded, raising the question of Palestinian involvement in any death plot.  Photo / AP
Yassar Arafat was well-guarded, raising the question of Palestinian involvement in any death plot. Photo / AP

Barber Mohammed Hamad was in no doubt about the reasons for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's death nearly eight years ago.

As he trimmed a customer's hair in his shop in the Amari refugee camp yesterday, he welcomed the news that French prosecutors have opened a murder investigation.

And he insisted that "Abu Ammar" - he uses Arafat's nom de guerre - "was murdered, poisoned".

While strongly suspecting that the deed was perpetrated by a Palestinian with access to Arafat, Hamad, 44, was equally certain that Israel and its then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were behind it.

"Arafat refused at Camp David [in 2000] to sign a peace agreement which left [Jerusalem's] al-Aqsa [mosque] under the control of Israel. Sharon wants to control Jerusalem, East and West. He wants to get rid of Abu Ammar. He accused him of starting the intifada and controlling the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades."

Just one barber's view. But what is disconcerting for all those who regard the accusation that Israel covertly assassinated Arafat as conspiracy theory is how widely it is shared among level-headed Palestinians.

Qaddoura Fares, the respected senior Fatah official now responsible for the welfare of the 4500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, is a long-time advocate of peace negotiations on a two-state solution. Yet, he too appears convinced, despite repeated denials by Israel, that Arafat was murdered on the orders of a prime minister who had a personal history of enmity with him going back more than 20 years, and who depicted him as an "obstacle to peace".

Now that the suspicion that he was poisoned has been revived by the identification of traces of deadly polonium on the clothes handed to investigators from the Al Jazeera TV channel by Arafat's widow, Suha, Fares says the Israeli authorities had every reason to ensure that he died as if from natural causes. "They didn't want him to die as a symbol. They didn't want to make him a martyr. They could easily have shot him if they wanted to."

In September 2003, after a double suicide bombing on a single day, Israel's Cabinet took a non-specific and apparently unfulfilled decision to "remove" Arafat from his Ramallah compound. Fares thinks Israel considered a number of options: continued isolation, deportation, arrest and arraignment before a military court - and assassination.

Dismissing the Palestinian Authority's ability to investigate the death itself, Fares says the French investigation certainly looks more "credible" and that it will at least ensure that "the issue will be alive, and that it will go on chasing the Israelis".

Still in the coma triggered by the stroke which felled him in early 2006, Sharon cannot answer the charges himself.

But while acknowledging Arafat's status as "one of Israel's worst enemies", Sharon's closest lieutenant and former bureau chief Dov Weisglass rebutted them in some detail on Army Radio yesterday.

"We did not physically hurt him when Arafat was in his prime ... so all the more so we had no interest in this kind of activity when he was politically sidelined," he said.

Weisglass described having dinner with Javier Solana when the-then EU foreign policy chief took a call from Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, asking if Israel would allow the ailing President to be transferred to a Ramallah hospital. Weisglass called Sharon who immediately granted the request. He did the same following day when Solana told Weisglass that Palestinian doctors now said Arafat was very ill and needed treatment in Europe.

And Raanan Gissin, Sharon's long-standing spokesman, told AP that, as the intifada continued, Israeli officials repeatedly raised the option of assassinating Arafat but Sharon always rejected it. Israel "never touched a hair on his head", he said. "The idea was not to kill Arafat, but to change the Palestinian leadership."

But this is anyway not just about Israel.

Even many Palestinians believe that if it is ever established that Arafat was assassinated, the truth could make uncomfortable reading in sections of the Palestinian leadership, as inside help would almost certainly have been needed to reach a heavily guarded president whose food was always shared with others.

Fares, for his part, is certainly not attributing blame to anyone while soberly accepting that any inquiry would have to consider - among much else - the possibility that a Palestinian or Palestinians might have been involved.

Saying that all Palestinians need to give the French prosecutors whatever help they request, he points out the incriminating consequences of not doing so. Fares's hope is that the French investigation will somehow begin to find real answers to the questions still swirling here about Arafat's fatal illness.

"Ninety per cent of Palestinians believe he was murdered, and 10 per cent that he died of natural causes. Even if the 10 per cent are right, we need to get to the truth."

DEADLY POISON ON LEADER'S CLOTHES

What is polonium?
Discovered by Marie Curie in the 19th century, it is a highly radioactive element, rarely found outside the military and scientific establishment. The isotope detected on Yasser Arafat's personal belongings - polonium 210 - occurs naturally in small concentrations in the environment. But high doses of the radioactive substance can damage tissues and organs. These cannot pass through the skin, and to pose a danger polonium must be taken into the body.

Has it been used to poison people before?
Polonium hit the headlines in 2006, when it was used to kill the former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko. He died in November that year after falling suddenly ill in London. Subsequent tests linked Litvinenko's death to polonium 210 in his body.

How was Yasser Arafat linked to polonium
Samples of clothes worn by the Palestinian leader shortly before he fell ill were sent to a Swiss laboratory this year by the Al Jazeera television network, in co-operation with his widow and daughter. Scientists at the lab in Lausanne discovered significant traces of the radioactive element on his belongings.

- Independent

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