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Insight: Old assumptions questioned in Arafat's mysterious death

A portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs on a wall in the Yasser Arafat foundation in the West Bank city of Ramallah 21 Nov
A portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs on a wall in the Yasser Arafat foundation in the West Bank city of Ramallah 21 Nov

By Crispian Balmer

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - President Yasser Arafat's spartan bedroom remains largely as he left it in 2004, when he flew off to France for treatment for a mystery illness only to return home two weeks later in a coffin.

More like a prison cell than the living quarters of an Arab leader, a single bed lies along one wall, a small fridge still contains some of his long-expired medicines and his old, khaki uniform, dotted with bright badges, hangs in a narrow wardrobe.

Giving an outsider a rare glimpse into a long-shuttered world, the door to the adjacent room is thrown open, revealing the wooden casket that brought his corpse back to Ramallah.

Arafat's body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, was buried nine years ago, but conspiracy theories he was poisoned were never laid to rest, with accusations flying on all sides.

Should evidence emerge that Israel killed the Palestinian leader, a legacy of rancor could wreck the chances of peace for years to come. Proof that someone from Arafat's own inner circle did it could sweep away a generation of politicians who still hold sway in the occupied West Bank.

Like many Palestinians, Imad Abu Zaki, one of Arafat's closest bodyguards, has no doubt who did it. Neither, he says, did his boss, whom he calls reverentially the Rais (president).

"I remember one day the Rais said: 'They have got me'. He was talking about the Israelis," Abu Zaki said, recalling an enfeebled Arafat sitting on his sick bed and putting his hand to his chest.

Most Palestinians have long assumed that Israel murdered their national hero, anxious to be rid of a man they blamed for the collapse of peace talks in 2000 and a subsequent uprising that saw waves of suicide bombers wreak havoc in Israeli cities.

Revelations this month by a Swiss forensic lab that Arafat's bones contained unnaturally high amounts of rare, radioactive polonium, only fuelled their conviction.

But not everyone is pointing the finger in the same direction. Some people, like Arafat's widow Suha, have suggested her husband was killed by an insider.

"I'm sure it's someone in his close circle," Suha said, calling Arafat's death a "political assassination".

A series of interviews with Palestinian and Israel officials, who were all caught up in the events of 2004, shed more detailed light on an era of violence, intrigue and animosity that pitted Palestinians against Israelis, and against one another.

SHARON THREAT

Before his death, Arafat was confined by the Israeli military to his bomb-damaged, rubble-strewn headquarters in Ramallah for 41 months. Largely shunned by the outside world, he was still an icon of national resistance to his people, who referred to him affectionately by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar.

The then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hinted darkly to Ma'ariv newspaper in September 2004 that he wanted to be rid of Arafat, noting that Israel had killed two leaders of the Islamist group Hamas earlier that same year.

"On the matter of Arafat we'll operate in the same way, when we find the convenient and suitable time," said Sharon, who has lain in a deep coma since suffering a stroke in 2006.

Barely a month after Sharon's comment, Arafat, already fragile with notably trembling lips, fell seriously ill.

Ibrahim Abu Al-Naja, the then Palestinian agriculture minister, recalls dining with Arafat on October 14 in his airless makeshift home, cement-filled oil drums standing at the windows to limit blast damage in the event of an Israeli attack.

"There was nothing wrong with Abu Ammar (Arafat) when I saw him then. He looked in good health," Abu Al-Naja said, talking about it for the first time to the foreign media.

"There was a bowl of soup in front of him. He took a sip in a spoon and he looked different. He put both hands to his mouth and he vomited. He never got better after that."

Some officials recall the illness starting on October 12. Others say the decline started at the beginning of the month.

Initially, his aides said he was suffering flu. Teams of doctors came first from Egypt, then from Tunisia to check him. Eventually he was rushed to Paris on October 29, but he died on November 11. No autopsy was carried out and French doctors said they did could not determine the cause of death.

Two weeks later, the Palestinians opened an investigation that got nowhere. The case resurfaced last year when the Al Jazeera news channel obtained some of Arafat's hospital clothes and got them analyzed in Switzerland.

The Lausanne University Hospital's Institute of Radiation Physics found unusually high levels of polonium-210 and French magistrates opened a murder investigation.

Arafat's body was exhumed last year and samples were given to Swiss, French and Russian experts. Once more, the Swiss say they detected a high level of polonium. The Russian findings were less conclusive and the French have not yet reported back.

"I was always sure that Arafat was assassinated. I said it from the beginning. But we needed the proof. This Swiss report has finally given us the proof," said Ahmed Qurie, the Palestinian prime minister at the time of Arafat's death.

"Nobody believes that anyone other than Israel did it."

The Israelis adamantly reject this view.

THE ENEMY WITHIN

Israel orchestrated some 150 targeted killings between September 2000 and October 2004, according to Israeli human rights group B'tselem. The state freely admitted to many of the operations, but it denies any involvement in Arafat's death.

"For Sharon, Arafat was the symbol of evil," said Giora Eiland, the Israeli leader's national security adviser from 2004-2006, who was at the heart of decision-making.

"There were some discussions about the possibility of removing Arafat or expelling him, but it was just hypothetical ideas. Arafat ... was the absolute leader of the Palestinians, so we could not think to do to him what we did to the leaders of Hamas and other factions."

Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet internal security agency in 2004, said the Palestinians needed to look inwards. "Let them investigate and find out," he told Israel Radio.

Fahmi Shabaneh, a member of the original Palestinian investigation team, believes Dichter is right.

On October 12, 2004, at the time that Arafat fell ill, his powerful cousin Moussa Arafat survived an assassination attempt in his Gaza Strip fiefdom. "Israel is innocent of this act," Moussa said the next day, blaming rival forces for the failed car bombing of his convoy.

A year later he wasn't so lucky. He was dragged from his house in Gaza by gunmen and shot dead in the street. Despite living next to Palestinian security headquarters, no one came to his help and the murderers were never caught.

"Moussa's killing was tied to the killing of Abu Ammar (Arafat) and those who are suspected of the killing of Moussa are the same who are suspected of killing Abu Ammar," said Shabaneh.

He said he came to this conclusion after the work he carried out in the first, official investigation into Arafat's death that lasted barely five months and led to no charges.

"Abu Ammar came from a small family and Moussa was his strongest relative ... His killing was like a Mafia hit. They did it to prevent him seeking revenge," he said this month from his small office in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Shabaneh sees himself as a whistleblower, saying he was chased from the adjacent West Bank in 2010 after giving Israeli television a sex tape that compromised a senior official close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas's Palestinian Authority moved the shamed official into a new job and accused Shabaneh of being a traitor.

INNER TURMOIL

Before Arafat fell ill, there was growing internal dissent within the ranks of his Palestinian Authority (PA).

In July 2004, a former minister and fierce Arafat critic, Nabil Amr, was shot and wounded in Ramallah, enraging his clan, which denounced the PA for failing to find the attackers. The same month there were riots in Gaza after Arafat appointed his cousin Moussa to be police chief.

PA rival Mohammed Dahlan was accused of fomenting the trouble, leading to accusations that he was working with Israel to replace Arafat. He has denied this. He left the Palestinian Territories after falling out with Abbas in 2010 and lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Qurie, Palestinian prime minister at the time of Arafat's death, is adamant that Palestinians were not responsible. "Lots of Palestinians used to criticize Arafat, but this is not proof that there was a Palestinian plot to kill him. Everyone looked up to him as a father," he said.

Certainly, if Arafat was killed - and the Swiss lab report says the amount of polonium found only "moderately supported" the contention he was poisoned - then the rare substance would have had to come from a country with a nuclear industry.

By the same token, because he was surrounded almost exclusively by Palestinians, a local hand would probably have had to deliver the tiny, fatal dose.

Bodyguard Abu Zaki was at Arafat's side from 1988 until his death in France and is the only person who still has an office off the cramped corridor that contained Arafat's hectic court. Speaking out for the first time since the polonium accusations surfaced, he said his team did what they could to protect him.

"The problem is he was popular. He met hundreds of people every day," he said, suggesting the truth may never emerge.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Janet McBride)

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