from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Yasser Arafat: Dead Again

November 11, 2013

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With all the important news going on in the Middle East this past week, Al Jazeera took time out to remind its audience that Yasser Arafat is still dead. It has been nine years since the Palestinian leader passed away in a French hospital, yet Abu Ammar is still making news, of sorts.  This week a Swiss investigative team reported that there are indications that Arafat was poisoned with polonium, yet others who took part in the examination of the remains and soil samples around the man’s grave at the Muqata’a in Ramallah have not been so definitive nor willing to release their findings.  Sounds suspicious.

The suspicions surrounding his death were not so much because  he fell ill after eating dinner one evening as some media reports suggest—the Palestinian leader’s health had been failing for some time—or the fact that he had taken a turn for the worse and was suddenly flown to France for treatment, but rather because of what happened while Arafat lay dying in the Percy military hospital near Paris.  If memory serves me correctly, there was a struggle between Suha and the Palestinian leadership over the disposition of large amounts of money.  Mrs. Arafat believed she was entitled to it whereas Abu Ammar’s subordinates disagreed.  More mysterious was the fact that in deference to his wife, there was no autopsy conducted on Arafat.  The official cause of death was a stroke, but without an autopsy accusations soon surfaced about an assassination—usually fingering the Israelis—and counter-charges from mostly Israel’s supporters in the West that Arafat had died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, better known as AIDS, associated with intravenous drug users and gay men.

Both accounts seem dubious.  It is true that the Israelis had means and motive, but they apparently had a number of previous opportunities to bump off Arafat—during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon for example and again when the Israelis re-invaded the West Bank in the spring of 2002—and chose not to.  Why bother in the autumn of 2004?  By then it was clear that Arafat was not likely to live much longer.  It is true that the Israelis are the obvious suspects if Arafat was indeed murdered, but in the thirty-five years between the time he took control of the PLO and his death, the man made more than a few enemies.  It seems that besides the Israelis an obvious place to start looking for the perpetrators of the alleged crime would be within the Palestinian leadership itself.  Of course Al Jazeera would not be playing up the story if it did not think it would end with Israel.

As for the accusations that Arafat died of AIDS, no physician or investigator has ever offered any credible evidence for this claim.  The suggestion that Arafat was gay and thus succumbed to AIDS rather than being poisoned was part of a political strategy not only to deflect allegations of murder, but also to delegitimize the man who was a hero to many (and the personification of evil to many others).  As an aside, I have no idea whether Arafat was gay, but using his sexual orientation (real or alleged) in this way is despicable even for those who loathed the man.

I assume a lot of people—mostly outside the Middle East— will be interested in where the Arafat story now takes us.  After running through the highlights of the story last week, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC suggested that her loyal fans “watch this space.”  Setting the story straight on Yasser Arafat’s death is important for the historical record, though I suspect that the folks driving the story would never ever settle for the idea that an old, sick man just happened to die like old sick men tend to do. Let’s assume, however, that Arafat was murdered and the Mossad was responsible, then what?  Although it would add to the long list of Palestinian grievances, it would do nothing—absolutely nothing—to advance Palestinian national goals.  Almost a decade after the fact, Arafat’s death is a sideshow and while people will be watching the space to find out who killed him, the conflict will unfortunately grind on.