What, and who, really killed Arafat?

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.

In Israeli newspapers it has become accepted that Arafat died of AIDS and that Abbas covered it up because of the shame of that disease — an element I worked into the plot of my Palestinian crime novel “The Samaritan’s Secret.”

If there was no autopsy, the Israeli newspapers have written, it’s because the results would’ve been a shocking indictment of Arafat’s morals that would’ve dirtied the whole Palestinian struggle. But then Israelis always did like to demonize Arafat by suggesting he was a sexual pervert.

Now Kaddumi accuses Abbas of taking his supporter Muhammad Dahlan, a former head of Gaza’s secret police, to a meeting with Prime Minister Sharon where it was agreed that Arafat — as well as certain other Palestinian leaders who rejected peace with Israel — would be poisoned.

Kaddumi says he decided to publish the information only when Abbas ordered the party conference to be held in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Aug. 4. He maintains that since Arafat’s death he’s the true head of Fatah and, therefore, he ought to decide where the conference takes place. (Palestinian officials in Bethlehem told GlobalPost recently that they doubt the conference will take place at all, because Fatah is so divided.)

Kaddumi isn’t the first to suggest Arafat was poisoned. In 2004, Arafat’s cabinet secretary Ahmad Abdel Rahman told the Arabic-language London newspaper Al Hayat that Arafat was poisoned “with gas” during a meeting at his headquarters a year before his death.

After shaking hands with a group of international and Israeli peace campaigners who had cycled to his besieged office, Arafat vomited. Later he told Abdel Rahman: “Could it be that they got to me? Is it possible that 10 doctors can't find out what I'm suffering from?”

At that time, one of Arafat’s doctors told me that the leader had developed an infection in his blood that ultimately affected his internal organs.

When I visited Ramallah in those last days of Arafat’s regime, I found that people who spent a lot of time with the leader were deeply concerned. Not about Arafat’s blood, but about his state of mind. He went a year without washing the scarf he used to tie around his neck like an Ascot, one of them said. Another said he rambled about the old days in Beirut, whenever an aide would try to get him to address the disastrous situation of the Palestinian towns, which were subject to constant raids by the Israeli army.

It always struck me that one of them might have decided to put an end to the PLO chairman’s long decline.

When Arafat took a final turn for the worse, his long-time doctor, Ashraf al-Kurdi, prepared to come to him from his home in Jordan. Top PLO officials called Kurdi and told him not to make the journey to Ramallah.

Instead, Abbas and a few other PLO chiefs went with Arafat. They stayed by his side until he was dead (and then another week, perhaps, until they actually decided to announce his death).

Then they spent $1.75 million on his mausoleum. When he unveiled the completed structure in November 2007, Abbas said: “We will continue on the path of the martyred President Yasser Arafat.”

What kind of martyrdom it was, perhaps only Abbas knows. 

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