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What, and who, really killed Arafat?

Unlikely it was AIDS, as Israelis would have us believe. Old age is a distinct possibility. But poison?

A released Palestinian prisoner visits the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Aug. 25, 2008, in this picture released by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO). (Thaer Ganaim/PPO/Handout)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat’s body lies in the back of the presidential compound, beyond the parking lot, in a mausoleum of stone and glass. Two guards in ceremonial uniforms that seem out of place in the camouflaged guerrilla world of Palestinian militias watch over the angled stone marking the former leader’s grave.

The gravestone gives Arafat’s date of birth in Arabic characters as Aug. 4, 1929, though researchers long ago uncovered a Cairo birth certificate stating that he was born three weeks later. The tomb notes his death as occurring on Nov. 11, 2004, a full week after the date of news reports from his Paris hospital that he was either dead or brain-dead.

The dates aren’t all about Arafat’s grave that is in dispute. Palestinian politics has been torn apart in the last week after a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official announced that the symbol of his people’s struggle had been the victim of a poison plot. Farouk Kaddumi named the two main conspirators as then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kaddumi, who was head of the PLO’s political bureau under Arafat and nominally responsible for foreign affairs, is engaged in a struggle for control of the Palestinian national movement with Abbas. A conference of their Fatah faction is called for next month where young reformers close to Abbas hope to sweep away corrupt, older leaders. But the conference is to be held in the West Bank and Kaddumi, who rejected the Oslo Peace Accords, has never returned from exile.

That’s probably why he chose to reveal the “findings” of his investigation into Arafat’s death last week in the Jordanian capital Amman, according to senior Palestinian officials in the West Bank. But it doesn’t defuse the firestorm of rage unleashed in Ramallah where Abbas has shut down Al Jazeera, the international cable station that aired an interview with Kaddumi.

Why is Abbas so mad about what could surely be have been dismissed as the ravings of an angry party rival of advancing years? (Well, actually Abbas tried that. His aides called Kaddumi, who was born in 1931, “a sick mind” and “demented.”) That didn’t fly because most Palestinians encountered on the streets of Ramallah on a recent weekend said Kaddumi’s accusation confirmed precisely what they believed happened to their old leader.

If there’s doubt about Arafat’s death, it’s largely because his successor Abbas has never released a report by Arafat’s French doctors on what killed “The Old Man,” as Palestinians call him.

There was no autopsy, yet reports emerge from time to time about what the French doctors suspected ended Arafat’s 35-year reign as head of the PLO.