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11 years after Arafat’s death: Scientific doubts, political certainties

'The Arafat Affair' encapsulates, in many ways, the dynamics at play in Palestine

On 12 October 2004, in the Ramallah headquarters where he had been entrenched for the past two years, then-Palestinian president Yasser Arafat complained to his entourage that he felt severe stomach pains. His health deteriorated quickly over the following days and, despite being transferred to the Percy military hospital in Clamart, France on 29 October, he did not get better. He was declared dead on 11 November, the cause of death being a “brain haemorrhage”.

Eleven years on, questions remain. Was Arafat poisoned? If yes, by whom and why? Several theories exist, various tests and alternative tests have been carried out, but no definitive answer has been reached. While most doctors agree that death of the iconic Palestinian leader was not “natural,” few have risked asserting for certain that Arafat was poisoned.

The purpose of this article is not to go back exhaustively over all the scientific and legal “episodes” of this affair but rather to try to explain what the investigative methods and the array of theories reveal about the current state of the Palestinian question. “The Arafat Affair” encapsulates, in many ways, the dynamics at play in Palestine: the crumbling of the “peace process,” the historic crisis of the national movement and the rivalries - often non-political – between various Palestinian groups.

Delayed investigations, lack of definitive scientific conclusions

It took six years for a Palestinian investigation commission to be set up. It was led by Tawfiq al-Tirawi, an ex-intelligence officer close to Yasser Arafat. At the time of writing, the commission has still not delivered any definitive conclusion even though Tirawi has said several times that he has no doubt that the poisoning theory is true. The fact is, however, that the investigations have dragged on the Palestinian side and they have not yet reached a conclusion (on Tuesday 10 November, Tirawi said that the Palestinian commission has succeeded in identifying Arafat's assassin and that “Israel was responsible,” but he did not give any details).

The “Arafat Affair” was really brought back to centre-stage by an investigation by the American journalist Clayton Swisher for Al Jazeera in late 2011. This investigation resulted in the documentary “What Killed Arafat?” which was broadcast on the Qatari channel in July 2012, and concluded, on the basis of analyses of some of Arafat's personal belongings by Swiss experts, that Arafat was indeed poisoned, with tests finding that polonium-210 levels were “way above normal”. This investigation seemed to convince Arafat's widow, Suha, who had provided the belongings to the Swiss scientific teams, and she filed a complaint of assassination in French courts (Suha Arafat has dual nationality). 

The pace of the investigations then quickened, and further expert examinations were conducted throughout 2012-2013, with Arafat's body being exhumed in November 2012. But the three scientific teams - Russian, French and Swiss - came to different, even contradictory conclusions: while the French one declared a “natural death” and the Russians said that traces of polonium-210 found on Arafat's remains and in his tomb were “insignificant,” the Swiss test results “gave reasonable grounds to the poisoning theory”.

The controversy in the medical field (the radiation levels detected by the three teams were all different, as were their interpretations) soon spilled over into the political sphere. There were advocates of the poisoning theory, including Tirawi and Al Jazeera (which in 2013 broadcast a documentary entitled "Killing Arafat," supporting the Swiss conclusions), while the Russian and French medical teams were subjected to a diplomatic agenda that went beyond the researchers' powers and sought to “bury the affair”. For several years now France has been working to deviate from a certain Gaullist inheritance and move closer to the government of Israel, a change that was reflected, for example, in Francois Hollande's reluctance to vote in favour of admitting Palestine into the UN in November 2012 and also in the fact that his first public comment during Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014 amounted to recitals of the arguments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As if to confirm the above, in September 2015 the French judges deliberating over the assassination complaint issued a dismissal order following requests from the Nanterre prosecutor's office and in spite of repeated requests from Suha Arafat's lawyers to arrange more tests. The judges considered that it ”has not been shown that Mr Yasser Arafat was assassinated through poisoning with polonium-210 and there is not enough evidence of the involvement of a third party that may have made an attempt on [his] life”. The widow of the late leader has lodged an appeal against this decision, with her lawyers saying the judges acted “precipitously”.

All of the above means that, as things stand, the situation is extremely nebulous. Most researchers and doctors are convinced by the Swiss conclusions, although these are treated with some caution, owing to the amount of time elapsed between Arafat's death and the tests. No independent commission of enquiry and no legal body has definitively ruled that an assassination took place. As a result, all sorts of rumours and fantasies flourish, showing that just as the expert examinations are surrounded by confusion, “the Arafat Affair” also has profoundly political implications.

The political credibility of the prevailing theories

Beyond the scientific controversies, the very fact that doubt persists and the poisoning theory lingers tells a lot. What is even more interesting is that the multitude of theories regarding the “Arafat Affair” and the way they are used on the Palestinian side speaks volumes for the depth of the crises that the Palestinian national movement is going through, starting with the PLO itself.

The evidence is said to suggest that if poisoning took place, it was the work of Israeli forces. Numerous arguments are offered to support this view, including:

- It would not be the first time that the Israeli government decided to get rid of a Palestinian leader. Influential PLO figures were eliminated in the 70s and 80s, including in Europe, there were “targeted assassinations” in the occupied territories during the ‘90s and 2000s, and there was a poisoning attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997. There is no shortage of examples.

- In 2004, Israel no longer considered Arafat to be a “partner,” but rather he was deemed an enemy. He was compared to Osama bin Laden by Ariel Sharon at a time when Sharon was at the height of his political power, and for more than two years he was confined to his HQ while the United States and Israel looked for Palestinian leaders more inclined to kowtow to their wishes, but Arafat’s dominance over the political landscape prevented such leaders from emerging.

- The possibility of assassinating Arafat was openly discussed in the upper echelons of Israeli power and there were many threats and belligerent statements - such as Sharon's declaration in 2002 that he “regretted not liquidating Arafat” in Lebanon.

However, despite such evidence, another theory quickly gained currency among Palestinians and observers convinced of the poisoning: according to this theory, it was all about “internal” score-settling, meaning Arafat was removed by a rival Palestinian leader who wanted to get rid of a ubiquitous, even omnipotent figure. There were many competitors, and an appetite for change grew once spaces began to open up after Arafat was sidelined and Israel and the US began searching for new people to deal with.  

To bolster this view we only have to recall the Fatah meeting in August 2009, during which internal tensions and the existence of rival group were laid bare – the contested vote, the condemning of the election methods, the marginalisation of the most militant officials in favour of technocrats from the Palestinian Authority (PA), and so on. These developments followed on from the events of the 2000s, when there was an increase in score-settling between armed gangs related to Fatah and in support of various local barons, or indeed the disaster of the 2006 legislative elections when, in some constituencies, there were more than 10 competing candidates from Fatah. 

The death of Arafat accelerated the crisis

A third theory sprouted, one that blends the other two: it holds that the deed was done by a Palestinian group acting in concert with the government of Israel. The name of Mohammad Dahlan is regularly cited by advocates of this third version. Dahlan was a former security official in Gaza and was widely regarded as a careerist with networks of corruption and clientelism, and “special” links with Israel. The finger was pointed even more strongly at him when, in the summer of 2007, Hamas released a letter found in Dahlan's office after a failed coup attempt in which he was heavily implicated. In the letter, which was dated 2003 and addressed to the then-Israeli Minister for Defence, Shaul Mofaz, Dahlan wrote: “Be sure that Yasser Arafat's days are numbered but let us finish with him using our methods, not yours. You can also be sure that […] I will give my life to keep the promises I made in front of President Bush.” Dahlan has never contested the legitimacy of the letter.   

Yet there is a troubling aspect: when the letter was made public in July 2007, Fatah and PA leaders refrained, with a few exceptions, from making any comment on it. Only in March 2014 was Dahlan explicitly blamed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a PLO meeting. Anyone even slightly familiar with the recent history of the PLO knows that these accusations are also part of score-settling: Abbas and Dahlan used to be very close during the 2000s, with the former even appointing the latter as minister for internal security in 2003 despite objections from Arafat. It was only when Dahlan began to fly by himself that Abbas signalled disapproval and a variety of accusations emerged (corruption, embezzlement, responsibility for several assassinations, among other things). Suha Arafat, meanwhile, accused Mahmoud Abbas and people close to him of scapegoating Dahlan to stop the investigations from going too far and stop the role of Arafat's entourage from being exposed. Some PLO leaders responded to that claim by suggesting that Suha Arafat was mainly motivated by money.

The reigning confusion is partially down to the fact that until his death, Arafat was in a paradoxical position: being central to the instruments of Fatah, the PLO and the PA made him unavoidable and unmoveable, and at the same time, that guaranteed a certain internal cohesion. His death, whether caused deliberately or not by Palestinian plotters, released a number of centrifugal forces, thereby opening new spaces and also accelerating meltdown within Fatah, the PA and, more generally, the Palestinian national movement. The government of Israel benefitted directly or indirectly from these effects, being strengthened by inter-Palestinian rifts, and some Palestinian leaders also profited, as their influence within the PA grew and they have developed networks of clientelism.

The theory of a “jointly-organised” act in Arafat’s death has the merit of superseding partisanship. Whether acknowledged or not, it highlights, owing to the credibility of the arguments put forward and the confusion it sows in the Palestinian camp, the complexity of the internal situation and the state of advanced decomposition of the “historic” national movement. The Palestinian investigation commission is dragging and it seems reluctant to reach any conclusions. This demonstrates the crisis of the national movement, including Hamas, which has little to be triumphant about in the affair. No compromise is possible between those who advocate “unity” at all costs (and who refuse to accuse Palestinians), backers of the “peace process” (who want to spare Israeli involvement) and those in favour of a “clean-slate” approach. The situation is all the more complex because opposing positions are exacerbated by non-political rivalries between group.

The upshot is that eleven years after his death, Arafat still haunts the minds and weighs heavily on Palestinian political life. His “presence in absence” has been felt all the more keenly in recent weeks because of the new uprising in the occupied territories and the fact that the traditional leadership is unable to oversee it and give it structure. This inability to give rebellious young people a political framework or outlook contributes to a deep crises afflicting the whole Palestinian political landscape, and it will only be possible to start moving towards a solution when the “peace process” is put to death and an overdue autopsy is performed. Some people want to avoid such an autopsy at all costs because they cling to the material and symbolic benefits that they get from maintaining the structure and illusions of Oslo even when the Palestinian state project is, like the person who personified it for several decades, dead and buried.

This piece was originally published on Middle East Eye's French page.

- Julien Salingue holds a doctorate in political science and specialises in the Palestinian question. His books include À la recherche de la Palestine (2011) and La Palestine d'Oslo (2014), and he co-directed Israël: un État d'apartheid? (2013). His next work, La Palestine des ONG, will be published on 13 November 2015 (éditions La Fabrique). 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinians hold candles during a protest in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis on 11 November 2015, marking the 11th anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death (AFP)

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