The Poisoning of Yasser Arafat


“It sounds to me like Arabian Tales from One Thousand and One Nights.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Vice Premier, Aug 29, 2012

It is the language of brutal indifference – words that are chewed, gnawed, spat out with derision.  But when asked whether the Israeli authorities might have had a hand in the death of Yaser Arafat, the reaction is stubbornly predictable.  “Israel did not have any hand in this,” claimed Dov Weisglass, the relevant chief of staff of then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. “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” (Businessweek, Aug 29).

Indeed, at the point when Arafat was in his prime, it could be said that Israel was as well – at least its assassinated leader Yitzhak Rabin, whose reluctant peace feelers eventually found their mark.  If painful realities are to be ignored, violence is often the only dumbfounded answer.

Given that Arafat’s PLO was on the terrorist watch lists for years, and only brought out of the cool of diplomatic exclusion during Rabin’s period in office, harm was a permanent prospect. The suggestion that Israel had no intention of hurting him is caricatured nonsense.

What is easily avoided is the state of emergency that the Palestinians were placed under as Arafat lay dying.  For one thing, the Ramallah compound was being besieged with unrelenting ferocity by the Israeli Forces.  Death was a casual affair.

The second Intifada was in full swing, and assassinating Arafat was always on the books, an option to be put on the meeting agenda when the well of ideas ran dry.  Raanan Gissin, who was a close confidant to Sharon at the time, attests to this. As did then deputy Ehud Olmert, who was happy to consider “eliminating” the Palestinian leader.  Sharon shunned the suggestion of direct violence, but preferred instead to “change the Palestinian leadership.”  Gradual strangulation was the order of the day.

When the call came from then Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia that Arafat needed urgent medical attention, permission to leave his command was mulled over by Sharon and his officials.  It was granted once Sharon was swayed that it wasn’t merely a case of the flu.

After arriving in France for treatment, Arafat died two weeks later on November 11, 2004 at a military hospital.  The conclusion by the French doctors dealing with Arafat at the time was that he died of DIC or disseminated intravascular coagulation.  A massive stroke had been suffered.  But what brought the condition about?  Weisglass was quick to reject suggestions of poisoning – after all, nothing was found on his body immediately after death.

Arafat’s widow, Suha, has never been convinced about the official record of his death.  When it comes to matters Palestinian and Israeli, nothing is ever entirely convincing – at least in the official channel. She has taken legal action claiming murder, encouraged by an al-Jazeera report that her husband had, in fact, been poisoned by the radioactive isotope polonium-210.  That particular poison was made famous when the Russian dissident and former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko succumbed to its effects in London.   What new light this murder investigation by French prosecutors will shed will be intriguing but change little in the scheme of things.  Truth is always the vassal to partisanship.

An investigation of Arafat’s belongings by a lab at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne piqued Suha’s interest, largely because it seems to contradict the medical report of French doctors made after his death.  In the words of the director of the Lausanne Institute, François Bochud, “I can confirm to you that we measured an unexplained, elevated amount of unsupported polonium-210 in the belongings of Mr Arafat that contained stains of biological fluids.”

We might have never known the contents of that report had it not been leaked to the New York Times in 2005.  Where there is polonium, the dark hand of an agency casts its shadow, ever inconclusive on the public record – except in result.  There is much to be made from the fact that three of the six known deaths caused by polonium occurred in Israel, all in the 1960s.

The language surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian “issue” (when it is too awful to contemplate, matters of security become “issues”) is replete with whodunits, conspiracies and suggestions.  The situation here will further feed the doubt – the French doctors at the time were puzzled by the “mystery” infection afflicting Arafat at the time, and found no traces of metals or drugs at three different laboratories (Guardian, Jul 4).

Then there was the troubling fact that no full autopsy was done on Arafat’s body – apparently at Suha’s request.  She has subsequently claimed that she requested blood samples from the Percy hospital, only to be told that they had been destroyed.

Some of these curiosities, including murder, may well stack up – rumours of decent vintage tend to leave their fragments behind.  If Yaalon’s claim is that the possibility of assassination is too remote, indeed, as viable as an Arabian Tale from the One Thousand and One Nights, then it just might be true.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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