Dispatch

‘There Is No Question That the Man Was Poisoned’

‘There Is No Question That the Man Was Poisoned’

RAMALLAH, West Bank — "Yasser Arafat: A Story of a Nation" read the hundreds of new flyers plastered on the dilapidated walls of Ramallah’s old city. In the newer parts of the city, where the roads are paved and new buildings are mushrooming at a fevered pace, black and white photos of the revered Palestinian leader, clad in his iconic checkered keffiyeh, line the busy streets. The words "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand" are emblazoned above him. 

The placards were placed a few days shy of the 9th anniversary of Arafat’s death and two days after the release of a report by Swiss scientists, which found in Arafat’s remains unnaturally high levels of Polonium 210 — the same radioactive isotope that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, in 2006. The Swiss scientists said the finding "moderately supports" the belief that polonium was the cause of death.

The findings, however, were not the bombshell you might expect in the West Bank — many Palestinians say they already knew Arafat was poisoned, and don’t need confirmation from a year-long scientific study. "There is no question that the man was poisoned," said Mo’ayad Wahdan, who heads the village council of Rantis, near Ramallah. "Everyone knows this. The way his illness quickly gave way to death proves that."

For Wahdan, the question of whether Arafat died an unnatural death is an afterthought. The real question, he explains, is who killed him: Who was able to poison the leader when he was besieged by Israeli tanks at the height of the Second Intifada, and living in a few rooms amid the rubble of his headquarters? Wahdan’s answer is echoed by many here: "It’s the Israelis, with the help of some Palestinian collaborators."

Back then, Israeli leaders didn’t attempt to hide their contempt for Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon labeled the Palestinian leader "a murderer and a liar … a bitter enemy," and admitted that all Israeli governments "made an effort — and I want to use a subtle word for the American reader — to remove him from our society." In 2003, the country’s vice premier, Ehud Olmert said that Arafat had to be removed from the political scene, and that "killing is also one of the options" to do so.

Nor would Arafat be the first Palestinian leader that Israel targeted for death. Wahdan ticks off the Israeli assassinations of Fatah co-founder Khalil al-Wazir in the late 1980s and the botched attempt at killing Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in 1977 by Mossad operatives disguised as Canadian tourists.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) adviser, also agrees that Arafat was likely assassinated by the Israelis. But she blames Arafat’s successors for the nine-year delay before this information came to light. "The [Palestinian Authority (PA)] should be driving and pushing efforts to hold Israel accountable," she said. "This is the most important thing to come out of this report. Sweeping it under the rug will only ensure that Israel assassinates more people with impunity."

Israeli authorities are quick to dismiss allegations they were behind Arafat’s death. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor called the report’s findings a "soap opera" while Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, called it a "tempest in a teacup," and insinuated that someone in Arafat’s inner sanctum may have been behind the poisoning.

In 2011, high-ranking Fatah officials accused Mohammad Dahlan, who headed the PA’s security forces in Gaza, of "having a hand" in Arafat’s death. However, no evidence was provided to back up the claim, and the former Gaza strongman suggested he was being targeted because of an ongoing feud with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nine years after Arafat’s death, a formal investigation is still in the works. On Nov. 8, Tawfiq Tirawi, a former West Bank intelligence chief who currently heads the PA’s investigative committee on Arafat’s death, held a press conference to grapple with the latest reports of Arafat’s assassination. He was asked whether top Palestinian officials — or anyone else, including Suha, Arafat’s widow — was involved in such a plot, but ignored the questions. While the committee fell short of calling for an international investigation, it did name Israel as the "only culprit" in the Palestinian leader’s death.

The press conference proved to be nothing more than a session to regurgitate the findings of the Swiss report, and an opportunity to lay the blame squarely on Israel — despite the fact that another report inked by a Russian team found insufficient evidence to suggest Arafat died by polonium poisoning. The committee also did not address who actually administered the lethal dose while Arafat was holed up in his compound.

This added fuel to ongoing theories that someone in Arafat’s inside circle — perhaps a power-hungry official within his Fatah party — may have had a hand in the deed. "Between Abbas’ resignation as prime minister and his return to power [as PA president], it was essential that Arafat be made to disappear," said 36-year-old Sarhan Zyadeh, an expert in medical physics. "Abbas was a moderate and a favorite [of Israel and the United States] at the time, and Arafat had to be sidelined because he was the only one who could lead an armed resistance."

Zyadeh, who has read the 108-page report, said he had no doubts Arafat was killed by poison. "It takes between 4 to 6 weeks for the poison to lead to organ failure, which is what happened in Arafat’s case."

But whatever theory one supports, many seem to agree that Arafat was a marked man. "For the Israelis, he was the main hurdle to their version of peace," Zyadeh said. "They didn’t want to kill him directly by blowing up the Muqataa [presidential headquarters]. They didn’t want to make him a saint or a revolutionary icon."

When Arafat died almost a decade ago, people poured into the streets to mourn the passing of a revered nationalist leader. But while his legacy remains strong, these findings hold little consequence for many Palestinians. The real breakthrough, for those who have long taken it as gospel that Arafat was assassinated, would be to reveal the entire conspiracy to the world — including the identity of those who administered the poison.