The Arafat murder mystery

It’s probable that Arafat’s death paved the way for the worst split in the history of the Palestinian movement, the rift between Fatah and Hamas

By DANNY RUBENSHTEIN
December 7, 2010 16:20
Youths light candles at the Arafat's tomb

arafat. (photo credit: majdi mohammed / ap)

LAST WEEK THE PALESTINIAN Authority (PA) and PLO delegations throughout the world commemorated the sixth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. The main ceremony was held in Ramallah in the square in front of the majestic mausoleum, with a mosque close by, built for Arafat in the courtyard of the Mukata’a, the headquarters of the Palestinian government.

Etched in stone near the grave are words of praise for the leader who revived Palestinian nationalism, which had nearly died out during the crushing defeat – the naqba in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

There are many splendid tombs throughout Israel, some from ancient times, some from our own era – but no burial place as impressive and grand as Arafat’s has been built in modern times in our region.

In dozens of eulogies and obituaries, Arafat is always referred to as a shahid, a martyr, the term with which Palestinians refer to anyone killed in the conflict with Israel. He is even dubbed “the emir of martyrdom.” The reason is the widespread belief among Palestinians that Arafat did not die of natural causes, but was poisoned by Israeli agents. The detailed medical file from the hospital in France, where the Palestinian leader spent his last days, is held by Nasser al-Qudwa, his nephew, who served for many years as PLO representative to the UN and, for a time, as the PA’s foreign minister.

Al-Qudwa lives in Ramallah, where some regard him as a suitable successor to PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the PA president. The medical file on Arafat apparently does not throw much light on the cause of his death, which remains a mystery, but spokesmen from Hamas frequently continue to talk about the need to conduct an investigation. By doing so, these spokesmen are implying that it was Arafat’s closest aides who were at his side during his last weeks when he was besieged by Israeli troops in the Mukata’a in Ramallah – members of the Fatah, of course – who had the opportunity to poison him. In other words, against the background of the political struggle between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas spokesmen are attempting to smear Fatah officials.

In any event, rumors run rife in Ramallah regarding the identity of who may have poisoned Arafat; hearsay has it that a Palestinian dentist was found dead shortly after examining Arafat. The theory is that after the dentist completed his mission and poisoned Arafat, Israeli agents took the dentist out in order to ensure that details of the secret assignment would never be discovered.

Apart from being called a martyr, in all these eulogies Arafat is also referred to by his popular name, Abu Ammar, which he also adopted as his nom de guerre because it brings Ammar ibn Yasir, one of the prophet Muhammad’s early companions, to mind. He’s also referred to as “al Ramez” (the symbol), because his leadership is viewed as the symbol of modern Palestinian nationalism.

Many eulogies also used terms like “your eternal leadership” and “another year without you.” They were written by journalists, former prisoners, and well-known figures such as Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah leader in Gaza, and Ahmed Qurei, the former prime minister. Newspapers and billboards in all the Palestinian cities were filled with photos of Arafat set against a backdrop of the national flag and the Temple Mount mosques; all of them, of course, praising the leader and mourning his loss.

LOOKING BACK AT THE SIX years that have passed since Arafat’s death, his absence has indeed been deeply felt among Palestinians. His personality and leadership were a focal point of unity for the different factions of the Palestinian public. Arafat had roots both in Gaza and the West Bank: his father, Abdul al-Qudwa, came from Khan Yunis, while his mother, Zahwa, was a member of the prestigious Abu Saud family in Jerusalem.

Arafat had both the background of a refugee, because he grew up in Cairo, as well as a direct connection to the West bank, since most members of his family had remained in their homes there. He was a devout Muslim who, in his youth in Egypt, had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and was also allied with international secular-socialist movements and a longtime friend of the Communist Bloc. He married his secretary, Suha Tawil, a young Christian woman, and gained the attention of the small Palestinian Christian community by announcing that he hoped to raise the Palestinian flag atop the churches and mosques in Jerusalem (and he always mentioned the churches before the mosques).

In short, everyone and anyone could identify with Arafat, he spoke to everyone’s heart. Even his dress was both traditional, with his trademark keffiya (Arab headdress), and modern revolutionary, with his de rigueur military fatigues. He saw himself as a fighter, a gun in a holder always in his belt, and also as a man of peace, who addressed the UN in 1974 bearing an olive branch.

It’s quite probable that Arafat’s death paved the way for the worst split in the history of the Palestinian national movement, the rift between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During the decade that Arafat served as head of the PA, he knew just how to handle Hamas. With one hand, Arafat repressed its leaders, threw them into jail and humiliated them; with the other, he rewarded the many who abandoned Hamas to join him (such as, for example, sheikhs Imad Faluji from Gaza and Talal Sider from Hebron).

One can say almost with complete certainty that had Arafat been alive, he would not have allowed the 2006 Palestinian elections, which Hamas won, to have gone ahead. While the electoral system instituted in 2006 enabled Hamas to win, but, to be sure, Arafat would have engineered some way for Fatah, and not Hamas, to emerge as winner. Throughout the Arab world, leaders such as king Hussein and his son, Abdullah, of Jordan, and presidents Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt all knew well how to manipulate elections and restrain the popularity of the Muslim opposition movements.

The split between Fatah and Hamas, between the West Bank and Gaza, has considerably weakened the Palestinian national movement, i.e., the PLO, and simultaneously empowered the Hamas opposition.

Among Palestinians there are many who feel that Arafat’s cardinal mistake was to reject then-US president Bill Clinton’s proposals at the 2000 Camp David summit with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. Arafat rejected Clinton’s outline for the same reasons that his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, balked and refused to sign an agreement with prime minister Ehud Olmert two years ago: In both cases, the two Palestinian leaders feared that their public would not accept the concessions required of the Palestinian side.

The Palestinian public’s political views appear to be far more extreme than the positions taken by most of its leaders. On the question of the “right of return of the 1948 refugees,” for example, most of the Palestinian leadership is prepared to compromise. But when the issue is raised, loud public opposition – “Don’t give up that right!” – can be heard on the streets of Nablus and Jenin, and throughout the refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan. Anyone in favor of compromise is immediately branded a traitor.

The rejection of the Clinton parameters, proposed a decade ago at the Camp David summit, turned out to be a tragedy for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The violent conflicts that broke out claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis; suicide attacks, curfews and detentions against Palestinians, the IDF’s reoccupation of the West Bank, a war in Gaza. The Palestinian economy declined, poverty and unemployment rose by tens of percentage points, with Gaza at the edge of starvation. Tens of thousands of Palestinians left the West Bank to head east to Jordan.

At least part of the responsibility for this tragedy must be laid at the feet of Arafat. And yet, one cannot ignore the Palestinian leader’s political accomplishments. From a Palestinian standpoint, Arafat certainly revolutionized his people’s cause; he turned a pathetic group of refugees lacking identity and national selfrespect into a people with institutions that is demanding its rights to its lost homeland.

He accomplished this by a reprehensible strategy of ruthless terror. Terror gained Arafat the attention of the world – and in the end, it did yield him dividends. “From the margins of the news, the Palestinians moved to center stage, to prime time,” wrote the journalists and Arafat’s many biographers.

Along his rocky route of terror, Arafat rebelled against the Jordanian authorities in 1970 and was expelled to the “state within a state” in Lebanon (nicknamed Fatahland) until he was expelled by the Israeli army in 1982 – and from there to exile in Tunis and finally signing the Oslo Accords. Arafat advanced Palestinian prospects by convincing most of his people to support his recognition of Israel within pre-1967 borders. That’s no small achievement. Then, as now, there was harsh Palestinian opposition, embodied by Hamas and the left-wing radical groups that refused to support such recognition.

In the six years since Arafat’s death, not only has his image waned – much of what he represented has waned, too. His own Fatah party and PLO national movement that he led appear to be in dire straits. The PLO with its obsolete institutions, the national council and the executive committee, has little influence. They have representation from a non-existent Marxist movement – but no representation from the two large Islamic parties, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Within the Fatah, everyone is fighting with everyone else, and there is no viable leader in sight. This is also part of Arafat’s legacy: like so many other centralist leaders, Arafat did not countenance potential successors. He surrounded himself with sycophants and kept at bay those who displayed initiative or originality.

Arafat was not able to complete his primary mission. He promised his people a sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capital. He took important successful steps along that route, but, in the end, he did not live up to his promise.


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