The ghost of Palestinian leader Yasser Araft has come to life, and it has brought with it a sensational secret from the grave.
The man who symbolised the Palestinian struggle for a homeland, and who died nearly eight years after a sudden and mysterious illness, may have been poisoned with a rare radioactive element during a two-year siege of his home in Ramallah in the West Bank, according to the findings of a nine-month investigation.
The Al Jazeera television channel reported that tests conducted on Arafat’s personal belongings – his clothes, his toothbrush and even the trademark chequered kaffiyeh that he wore as a symbol of his Palestinian identity – revealed abnormally high levels of polonium.
The findings of the tests, conducted at the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne (Switzerland), revive old conspiracy theories suggesting that Arafat, who was reviled by Israeli authorities despite the ineffectual peace agreement he signed with them, may have been poisoned to death.
Arafat’s widow Suha Arafat, who initiated the investigation by handing over Arafat’s clothes and belongings to Al Jazeera, has called for Arafat’s body to be exhumed from his grave in Ramallah.
Arafat came down with a mysterious illness, which his aides had initially dismissed as a flu, in October 2004, nearly two years after the start of an Israeli siege that confined him to his Ramallah compound. His condition rapidly deteriorated, despite medical treatment, and there were rumours that he had slipped into a coma.
With Israel’s permission, Arafat was flown to Paris for treatment, where he slipped further into a coma. At one point, Suha Arafat complained that Palestinian National Authority leaders were trying to bury her husband alive.
Finally, Arafat was declared dead on 11 November 2004; no autopsy was performed on his body, evidently because his widow did not want one, and the exact cause of his death was never properly established. Initial speculation centred around a rare blood disorder and cirrhosis of the liver as the likely cause.
But conspiracy theories too abounded. One of Arafat’s former advisors claimed that the Israeli secret service Mossad had poisoned Arafat’s medication. An Israeli physician claimed that Arafat’s symptoms reflected “a classic case of food poisoning”.
Other, more bizarre theories held that Arafat had died of AIDS, but these reports may have been part of a psychological warfare technique to discredit Arafat on the grounds that he had homosexual relations with his bodyguards.
There was one earlier claim that Arafat had died of polonium poisoning: Kol Israel, an Israeli radio service, reported in January 2011, citing a former Palestinian intelligence official that Arafat had been poisoned with polonium by his political rivals.
The latest investigation by Al Jazeera and the Swiss institute appear to validate that claim.
It still leaves open the question of who might have poisoned Arafat. The Palestinian leader had many enemies, both among the Israelis and among his own people. He had survived many previous attempts by Mossad to poison him, starting as far back as in the 1970s. In 1988, Arafat confided in a media interview that he never slept two nights in the same place for fear of assassination by the Israelis.
But over time, Arafat acquired many enemies within the Palestinian movement as well, particularly within the radical Islamists and the Hamas who rejected his pacifist approach to dealing with Israel and were constantly outflanking him.
Just before his death, there were also reports of an ongoing struggle for his inheritance, which allegedly ran into billions of dollars in secret bank accounts, and which – critics said – was accumulated by diverting foreign aid for the Palestinian cause. The Islamist Palestinian leaders did not also trust Suha Arafat, who was 34 years younger than her husband; they saw her as someone who was more orientated to the West, and “was more comfortable in Paris than in Jerusalem.”
Precisely why Suha Arafat initiated the investigation nine months ago, so many years after Arafat’s passing, isn’t also clear.
Nor are these questions likely to allow Arafat’s troubled ghost, which has surfaced after so many years, to crawl back into his grave anytime soon. And the mystery over his death to is unlikely to be solved with any certainty.