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Who Killed Yasser Arafat?

By Ghada Karmi

12 November, 2004

No one knows what killed Yasser Arafat. Rumours are circulating that Israel poisoned him. The evidence is entirely circumstantial and probably no more than fantasy though, when dealing with Israel, nothing can ever be ruled out. In line with its notorious, longstanding policy to assassinate Palestinian leaders, Israel has repeatedly threatened to kill Arafat. The Financial Times of 6 November reported Palestinian officials had suggested the possibility of poisoning, a view later reiterated by the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. There were unconfirmed reports that the cooks in Arafat's compound had been questioned. The lack of a diagnosis by the French medical team treating President Arafat is a key factor in fuelling such speculation. In cases like this, as my medical colleagues and I know, a working hypothesis and some detail of symptoms and investigations are usual. But brief, uninformative medical bulletins about his condition since he arrived in Paris are all we have been offered. Why the mystery?

The Jerusalem Post reported on 4 November that Uri Dan, a close confidant of Ariel Sharon, has stated that the latter had "eliminated" Yasser Arafat "through his cooks". On 2 November, when Arafat was said to be ill, Israeli intelligence sources announced he had days or maybe weeks to live. Did they know something that no one else did? Internet sources now report that Arafat's French doctors sent samples of his blood for poison testing -- to US laboratories, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi of 8 November. At the same time the Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, announced his belief that Israel had poisoned President Arafat.

No wonder, then, that Palestinians fear their leader has become the latest Israeli assassination victim. If true it would be tragic to think he might have been saved with the right antidote. The Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, poisoned by Israel in Amman in 1997, was saved because Jordan forced Netanyahu to provide the antidote. Medically speaking, we know that a doctor would have to first suspect a case of poisoning before testing for it and then administering the antidote. It is not a diagnosis that is obvious and, if the French doctors never thought of it, or realised too late, they would not test for it in time and hence be unable to treat it. The case of Napoleon, when the British had him imprisoned on the island of St Helena, comes to mind. He too died allegedly of a "stomach ailment", though suspicions soon grew that he had been poisoned after becoming an encumbrance to his British captors. Arafat, who obstinately refuses to disappear physically or politically, had also become an obstacle to Sharon's plans for Palestine. Bush and Sharon allegedly warned him he must accept Sharon's Gaza plan by the end of October or else "he was finished".

If Sharon did kill Yasser Arafat, either by poisoning or by holding him in unhealthy conditions, then he would be no more than the instrument of murder. The real murderers are the rest of us: those who joined in his denigration; the chancers and opportunists, impatient to take his place; those who willfully forgot or never understood his unique contribution to the national struggle; the fickle, who deserted him as soon as they smelled defeat; those who unwittingly bought into the US/Israeli agenda and all those who stood by and watched his humiliation and did nothing. Ever since Israel instigated its ferocious campaign of demonisation, seeking to make Arafat simultaneously irrelevant and also responsible for Palestinian "terrorism" and the failure of the peace process, his constant denigration has had an effect, and not just in the West. His humiliating imprisonment, suffered by no other democratically elected leader should have generated relentless demands for his release. Instead it became acceptable, and his colleagues acquiesced without protest in setting Arafat aside in favour of an unelected Palestinian prime minister.

The fiction that he is the real obstacle to peace and reform was repeated in those Palestinian circles that now focus everyone's attention on the internal Palestinian situation, rather than the pernicious effects of military occupation -- exactly in line with Israeli/Western expectations. Never before has an occupied people been required to "reform" itself while the occupation continues. Now that Arafat's exit from the field of battle is imminent, there is talk of a new opportunity for peace, as if he had been the problem all along. In short, Arafat-bashing has become a fashion -- not just amongst Palestine's traditional enemies but also amongst its supposed friends. Arab rulers no longer feel obliged to extend the usual diplomatic courtesies to the Palestinian leader. Numerous Palestinian critics hold him responsible for a list of errors and failings, both his and everyone else's. He is the whipping boy for all those with a grievance, no matter what the real cause. The incompetent find relief in blaming him for their own failures. If he goes they will miss him more than those who loved him.

It is not that Yasser Arafat has no faults or that they should be overlooked. A people should be critical of its leadership and demand reform. But such considerations must not be allowed to overshadow Israel's subversive role or rob Arafat of his unique and rightful place in Palestinian history. He put the Palestinian cause on the world stage when it had been relegated to history. He brought together a dispersed, fragmented people, 60 per cent of them in exile, and imbued them with a sense of belonging in the absence of a homeland. In today's desperate Palestinian situation of military occupation, dwindling territory and fragmentation, he alone symbolises unity and the negation of the Palestinian dissolution Israel so vigorously pursues. Ironically enough, Sharon understands this better than many of the "modernising" Palestinians, hence his desire to demolish Arafat as a symbol of Palestinian peoplehood.

Until now Israel's sleight of hand -- statehood without sovereign territory -- has worked. The Palestinians under occupation really believe they have a state in the making, while still under occupation. This mistake has resulted in making the Palestinian Authority the scapegoat for Israel's attacks and created the pernicious idea of equivalence between the PA and Israel in power and responsibility. The spell broke when Arafat refused to surrender Jerusalem and the right of return and Israel dubbed him an "obstacle to peace", to be replaced with a more pliant leader.

Whatever Arafat's faults this is no time to rehearse them or fight over his succession. It is time to grieve the loss of a man who deserved a more fitting end, and to pay homage to one of the last of the great world leaders, a life-long patriot and fighter for the Palestinians, who gave them status in the world and a stake in their own future.

* The writer is a London-based Palestinian physician, academic and political commentator.











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