A Martyr Unmartyred

Months before he fell ill, on my last visit with Yasser Arafat, I knew he was not long for this world. But nine years later, the conspiracies live on.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The last time I saw Yasser Arafat was in Muqata, his hilltop headquarters in Ramallah, in August 2004. It was three months before his death in a Paris hospital. I had come from my hotel in Palestinian East Jerusalem and successfully navigated my way through the volatile Qalandia checkpoint to see him.

Arafat’s tireless personal assistant, Nabil Abu Rudineh, greeted me outside Arafat’s office, and told me to wait for the Palestinian leader in the arched walkway that led from the president’s offices to the adjoining structure housing the Palestinian legislature. It was an unusual setting, because we customarily met in Arafat’s office and the archway was an exposed position. For most of the previous three years, Arafat had been trapped in the compound as an Israeli Merkava tank churned the road outside his headquarters to dust. Since late 2002, I’d had to dodge this tank, a terrifying behemoth, while eyeing the squad of partially obscured Israeli snipers posted nearby to enter the compound.

I’d first visited Arafat in Tunis in 1990, on his invitation, after he read an essay I’d written on the Palestinian uprising after visiting the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. He’d liked the article and wanted to meet me. We seemed to click in some way during that first meeting and, in the intervening years, we’d grown close. Which is why, despite the tank and snipers, I’d always found a way to make it to Ramallah.

But now, with the Second Intifada winding down, neither the tank nor the snipers were anywhere in sight, and the ruins of the Muqata — its walls breached and chipped by rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire — basked in the afternoon sun.

Back in September 2002, on then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s orders, Israeli tanks and bulldozers had flattened nearly all of the structures in the compound while snipers fired into Arafat’s offices. Arafat and his closest aides, trapped inside, barely survived the assault. An Israeli sniper, Arafat later told me, had fired a round that came within inches of his skull. "I’m still here," he would say. It seemed a matter of pride to him.

It was while I was reflecting on this that Arafat emerged from the end of the walkway, smiling excitedly. He dispensed with the usual routine of cheek kisses and waved a small camera he was holding in my direction. "Look at this, my friend," he said, holding the camera up for me to see, pointing to its "digital features," a phrase he flourished with pride. It had been given to him for his 75th birthday the week before.

"Look here," he said, and he guided me to one of the open portals that looked west onto the Muqata courtyard. Arafat snapped a photo. "You can see it here," he said, pointing to the camera’s viewer, "even before you take it." He marveled at the technology. "A digital feature," he repeated.

Jibril Rajoub, the former head of his security services, came onto the walkway. I’d only met Rajoub once before and he eyed me suspiciously, but Arafat put him at ease. He then did something I’d never seen him do before: He embraced Rajoub and grabbed the top of his head, tilting it forward while pretending to bite him. Rajoub was much taller and larger, but Arafat seemed to dominate him. Arafat opened his jaws, his teeth showing, while he laughed and growled. "Like a son," he announced to me. "Like a son." It was an unusual show of affection.

The energy, however, would not last. Arafat’s excitement over his birthday camera soon waned and he appeared stooped and tired. When we left the walkway he shuffled back to his office, stopping twice to catch his breath. He seemed to be somewhere else at times during our meeting, staring into the distance before catching himself. "Repeat what you just said," he would ask me.

Arafat ended our meeting, after only an hour, by pleading fatigue. "I will go to sleep now," he said. I had been a part of Arafat’s political talkathons, from Tunis to Gaza to Ramallah, as he exchanged views with his aides long into the early morning hours, and his stamina was legendary. He stood up in the midst of a sentence and, just as suddenly, left the room. It was a rare moment for a man known for his formalities, particularly with guests.

I watched him as he shuffled away, his shoulder sagging, his head down. "I think this is the last time I’ll see Abu Ammar," I said to Rajoub, using Arafat’s popular nom de guerre.

Rajoub nodded. "Don’t say that," he responded. "He’s not feeling well, that’s all it is.  Perhaps a bit of the flu."

There was a long silence then, before I disagreed. "Maybe. But I think it’s more than that." I hesitated for a moment, before going on. "He’s dying," I said.

Just a little over two months later, on Oct. 29, after falling ill, Arafat was medevaced to Paris where, on Nov. 11, he died. 

This week, Al Jazeera published the result of a Swiss investigation that found Arafat’s remains contained unusually high amounts of the radioactive isotope polonium 210. The scientists who authored the report were careful to emphasize that their findings were not conclusive, but stated that their study "moderately support the proposition that the death [of Arafat] was the consequence of poisoning with Polonium-210." 

It is not the first time the assassination claim has been raised: Almost since the moment of his death, rumors have circulated that he was the victim of a plot on his life. The plotters comprised a veritable Murder-On-The-Orient-Express list of suspects: the Israeli Mossad, the CIA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (whose father, Hafez, despised Arafat), and even his closest associates — who, it was said, viewed him as an obstacle to peace. Even King Hussein of Jordan didn’t like him, often referring to him, in his last years, as "that little shit in Ramallah."

Polonium poisoning? It’s certainly possible. I am not a forensic scientist and have no reason to question the findings of Swiss doctors. But I am less convinced by at least one of the study’s premises — that it is suspicious that a patient "in good overall health" and "without any particular risk factors" should suddenly become sick and die. This seems perverse, particularly coming from a team of doctors: Isn’t that what happens to all of us, if we live long enough? We are all healthy — until we’re not.

But, of course, this wasn’t the first time Arafat became sick. In 1994, he grew so deathly ill in Tunis that several of his closest aides feared that he had pneumonia. He survived that illness, though no one ever told the public what it was that he had. Journalists were informed that he simply had a cold, but that seemed unlikely. The week before, Arafat had been hospitalized for four days at a Tunisia military hospital after the flare-up of "a vertebrae condition" that he’d contracted in 1979.

True: Arafat was a vegetarian, never smoked and lived a nearly abstemious life. But I still can’t figure out how, given his apparent concern over his own health, he so carelessly ate the half cooked fish he shared with me and a table of many others in Gaza City. That alone was enough to kill him. I know it damn near killed me.

None of this, however, provides a counter argument to the finding of the forensics report released by the University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne. Despite that finding’s careful language, it may well be viewed as definitive by some — especially those who always believed Arafat’s death was unnatural. But if Arafat didn’t die from poisoning, what other possible explanation can ther
e be?

In the summer of 2007, Hani al-Hassan, who once served as Arafat’s interior minister and was closer to him than anyone in the Palestinian leadership in those final days, told me that he suspected the medicine that Arafat took to calm his hand tremors had been laced with a lethal dose of warfarin. The drug is an anticoagulant that is used as a pesticide against rats, and when taken in large doses can cause massive bleeding. That makes sense, in a way: one of the doctors treating Arafat during his last days in Paris said the Palestinian president had suffered from Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation, a clotting disease resulting from an unidentified infection.

I was told this by Hassan while seated in a rooftop bar in Amman. I apologized to him when he arrived, for I was sipping scotch and it was Ramadan. "I can’t drink it whether it’s Ramadan or not," he said, but then he eyed the drink and looked over at me. "Just one," I said, "what the hell." He nodded and, when the drink came, savored it. "Please," he said. "Don’t tell anyone."

What followed was a fascinating recounting of Arafat’s last days in Ramallah, beginning on the night of Oct. 17, 2004, nearly four weeks before his death, when he collapsed after giving a speech.

"He was addressing a group of religious leaders," Hassan told me, "but I could tell even before he started talking that he was ill. I was standing nearby and halfway through his speech he nodded for me to take over. He was violently sick. I thought immediately that he was poisoned."

By whom? I asked. Hassan shrugged: "By them," he said. "They got into his medicine, that’s how they did it. It’s not as if he didn’t have enemies."

I pressed him, but Hassan not only refused to speculate, he scoffed at rumors naming any number of suspects. A group of Arafat’s closest associates? "Sure," he said sarcastically, "they did it and then they did the impossible, they kept it a secret."

The Israeli Mossad? "The Israelis wanted him alive," he explained, "so they’d have an excuse for refusing to deal with us."

Operatives sent by the Syria’s Assad clan? "The son is not the father," he answered, "and even Hafez can’t operate from beyond the grave."

The CIA? "If that were true," he said, "it would already be on the front page of the Washington Post."

"So where does that leave us?" I asked.

Hassan hesitated for a long moment, weighing his own ambivalence. He was one of the very few remaining leaders of a national liberation movement that had fought, sacrificed, and suffered for a cause. Sadly, that cause remained unrealized, its most powerful leader in a covered tomb in Ramallah. What was the ambivalence? It was that Yasser Arafat should have died on the front lines, as so many of his followers did — a martyr. He must have been assassinated; he had to have been assassinated. How could it be otherwise?

Revolutionaries don’t die in their beds. 

And so it was that Hani al-Hassan — who so admired Arafat that he "appropriated" funds from the General Union of Palestinian Students in Germany to provide seed money for Arafat’s movement in its early days — was suddenly morose. He sipped his scotch, thought for a minute, then raised his glass.

"He was a dedicated man and he was my friend," he said. "He wanted more than anything to be a martyr to the cause. The tragedy here is not that he was assassinated, but that he wasn’t. He died as you and I will likely die — he got old and he got sick."

Mark Perry is an author and reporter whose most recent book is The Pentagon's Wars: The Military's Undeclared War Against America's Presidents. He tweets at @markperrydc.

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