This Week in History: Yasser Arafat dies in Paris

Late PLO chairman’s dual legacy as terrorist mastermind and father of Palestinian nation remains as cemented as the stone tomb he rests in.

Yasser Arafat 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yasser Arafat 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 11, 2004, Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat passed away in a hospital outside of Paris. Arafat, considered by many to be the father of the Palestinian national movement and perhaps the epitome of the age-old debate between terrorist and freedom fighter, depending on who is asked, had fallen ill in his Ramallah Mukata compound two-and-a-half weeks earlier. His legacy as the timeless leader of the Palestinian struggle for liberation as well as one of the modern era’s most notorious terrorist leaders has been left with a large question mark floating above it, however, as conspiracy theories about the cause of his death remain unanswered.
Yasser Arafat, born Mohammed Yasser Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini and commonly known later as Abu Ammar, fell ill in his West Bank compound less than three weeks before his death, although medical records later showed that he had already been unwell for two weeks.
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For over two years, the IDF had prevented Arafat from leaving the Mukata compound, a situation in stark contrast to the decades he spent in exile earlier in his life. Israel imposed the de facto house arrest following a spate of terrorist acts that killed nearly a dozen Israelis.
During an October 25 meeting inside the compound, surrounded at the time by IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers, the aging PLO chairman reportedly vomited – the first sign of the deterioration of his health. Four days later, after receiving assurances from the Israeli government that he would eventually be allowed to return to the West Bank, Arafat was transported to Jordan and flown on a French government jet to Percy military hospital outside Paris.
The Cairo-born Palestinian leader was originally diagnosed with the flu. Due to the original diagnosis, Arafat was not administered antibiotics until two days before being flown to France for medical treatment. Several days after arriving at the military hospital near Paris, he fell into a coma, from which he would never recover.
At the time, rumors alleged that Israel had poisoned the man who was considered an arch-enemy of the Jewish state. Tests performed in Paris, however, showed no signs of any toxins or poisoning.
As the result of two factors – strict medical confidentiality laws in France and Arafat’s widow’s refusal to permit an autopsy – the cause of Arafat’s death was never definitively determined. His medical records were, however, later released to journalists by the PLO strongman’s nephew, which allowed independent medical experts to investigate the mystery.
Those investigations and analyses of them would discredit yet another rumor surrounding Arafat’s death – that he was suffering from AIDS at the time of his death. Those allegations, which came from inside Israel, were likely spread in an attempt to tarnish the PLO leader and Fatah co-founder’s simultaneously mythologically esteemed and despised legacy.
The posthumous investigation, commissioned by The New York Times and another report by the French paper Le Monde, ultimately determined that Arafat suffered from rare blood and liver diseases, which caused a fatal blood infection. Based on that conclusion, it is assumed that the late delivery of antibiotics due to the initial mis-prognosis in Ramallah may have played a central role in doctors’ failure to save the PLO chairman’s life.
However, based on the lack of an autopsy and previous Israeli attempts to assassinate Arafat, the theory that he was poisoned by Israel remains prominent among Palestinians and others. It is unlikely that these theories will every be proven or disproven. Nonetheless, ahead of the seventh anniversary of his death, Arafat's nephew Nasser al-Qidwa announced that the medical report concerning his uncle's death will be released by the end of 2011. The report, he said, contains "many indications and signs" that would back up charges that Israel assassinated the Palestinian leader.
The day after his death, Arafat’s body was flown from Paris aboard a military jet to Cairo, where a military funeral was held prior to his final trip to Ramallah. In his final years, the “father of the Palestinian nation” expressed his wish to be buried in Jerusalem. The Israeli government at the time, led by prime minister Ariel Sharon, refused to allow a burial in Jerusalem. Israel feared that by burying the most symbolic Palestinian figure in the city, the Palestinian connection to Jerusalem would be emboldened and cemented. More immediately, there were legitimate security concerns about holding such a large and high profile event in the city.
On November 12, 2004, Arafat was laid to rest in stone at the foot of the seat of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, which Palestinian officials described as a temporary burial. Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat vowed at the time that when the Palestinians have a state and east Jerusalem is its capital, Arafat will be reinterred on or near the Temple Mount.
Today, Arafat’s Ramallah tomb is guarded by symbolic Palestinian soldiers. His dual legacy, as a terrorist mastermind and freedom-fighting father of the Palestinian nation, remains as cemented as the stone coffin that holds his body.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report