Arafat exhumation comes at tense time for PA

Many Palestinians say probe of Arafat’s death, and upcoming bid for UN recognition, highlight weakness of PA leadership.

Ramallah, West Bank – This will be a momentous week in the West Bank, with a major diplomatic move at the United Nations and intrigue at the tomb of former leader Yasser Arafat – and yet many Palestinians feel the drama will simply reinforce the status quo.

On Tuesday, a team of international scientists will unearth Arafat’s body. A nine-month investigation by Al Jazeera broadcast earlier this year found elevated levels of radioactive polonium on his final personal effects, raising fresh questions about what killed the longtime Palestinian leader.

Teams from Switzerland, France and Russia have arrived in Ramallah, where each will collect samples for independent analysis.

Much of the senior West Bank leadership will miss the exhumation, because top members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) are traveling to New York to request “non-member observer state” status at the United Nations. That modest diplomatic upgrade would cap a nearly 18-month campaign for recognition of a Palestinian state.

On the streets of the West Bank, though, there is little expectation that either event will bring meaningful changes.

Palestinians have long been convinced that Arafat was killed by Israel, a charge the Israeli government denies. They support the investigation, and many say it will be emotional to see Arafat’s body exhumed – but they doubt the probe will mean justice for the perpetrators. The UN bid, meanwhile, is widely seen as a diplomatic sideshow.

Both events, Palestinians say, will simply highlight the reasons why they have lost faith in their political leaders here in the West Bank.

“What will it change? The martyr [Arafat] was murdered, we know that, we’ve known that for years,” said Lina Ezzat, a housewife shopping in downtown Ramallah. “But we cannot touch the people who killed him.”

‘Who were the collaborators?’

Complete coverage of Al Jazeera’s special investigation 

Al Jazeera’s investigation studied the items Arafat had with him when he died: his underwear, which contained a urine stain; the sweat-stained collar of his track suit; the blood-stained hospital cap removed from his corpse; even his toothbrush.

The items were provided by his widow, Suha, and were analysed by the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland, which discovered high levels of polonium-210. Further tests found that most of the polonium was “unsupported”, which means that it did not come from natural sources.

The three forensic teams will each retrieve samples from Arafat’s body, which was buried in 2004 inside a concrete tomb at the muqat’aa, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Final results will take months to report.

For many here in the West Bank, though, the investigation has reaffirmed what they already thought: Palestinians have long believed that Arafat was murdered. Nasser al-Kudwa, Arafat’s nephew, opposes exhuming the body because he believes the results are already known. “I don’t see why some people want to do that. We are sure that he was assassinated. The Israelis made their position quite public,” he said.

Even Tawfiq al-Tirawi, the head of the committee overseeing the investigation, said at a press conference on Saturday that he already “has evidence” Israel was behind Arafat’s death.

“The consensus was Israel, but the question is, who were the collaborators with Israel?” asked Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the founder of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “This is the issue, to discover who helped them achieve such a goal.”

The circumstances of his illness led to widespread speculation among Palestinians that a collaborator from his inner circle helped in the alleged plot. “But those who did it are definitely not in the country anymore,” Abdul Hadi said.

Arafat fell ill in October 2004 at his compound in Ramallah, where he had been confined for more than two years by an Israeli siege during the second intifada. He had little contact with the outside world, and was surrounded by a small group of close advisers.

All of the feasible methods for poisoning someone with polonium – in their food, by injection, or by inhalation – require intimate access to the victim. (One of the few documented cases of polonium poisoning was Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian spy-turned-dissident who died in 2006; an inquiry found that he was poisoned with polonium slipped into his tea at a restaurant.)

‘They talk and talk’

Several senior Palestinian officials declined to comment on the exhumation, saying their attention has been focused on the upcoming UN bid.

The PLO sought full recognition as a state last year, but the move stalled when it became clear that it lacked enough support from the Security Council. The United States promised to veto the measure, and the PLO did not secure enough support to even bring the matter to a vote.

They talk and talk, and they keep telling us negotiations are the path…But they [the PLO] have no power. They never did.”

– Samir Musa, student

This year’s lesser bid requires only the support of the General Assembly, where it is expected to easily pass. “We will win an overwhelming majority,” said Husam Zumlot, a senior PLO official. “You can quote me on that.”

The PLO leadership insists that even this more limited recognition is a key step towards securing a sovereign Palestinian state. “The United Nations is part of our resistance,” Zumlot said. “This is part of a new mode, of building up a real resistance… we no longer accept being just a people, negotiating with an occupying force that does not recognize us as a state.”

But it is unclear what, if anything, the PLO would do with its newfound recognition. Officials said it was part of a larger strategy to pressure the Israeli government, but offered few details.

Zumlot suggested it would help the Palestinians negotiate as equals – but the current Israeli government, headed by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has shown little interest in talks, and has continued to relentlessly expand illegal settlements here in the West Bank.

“They talk and talk, and they keep telling us negotiations are the path,” said Samir Musa, a student who said he hopes to emigrate overseas next year. “But they [the PLO] have no power. They never did.”

Recognition by the United Nations would allow the PLO to bring cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Top officials have refused to say whether or not they will use this power – perhaps fearing a harsh response from the Israeli government, which could cut off the flow of tax and customs dollars into Ramallah and otherwise make life difficult for the local government.

Several Palestinians joked that this would be the best possible outcome, because it could bankrupt and perhaps dissolve the Palestinian Authority. (Unsurprisingly, given the PA’s history of cracking down on journalists and free speech, all of them refused to be quoted by name.) Even that is an unlikely occurrence, though.

“It’s a symbolic thing that carries some weight,” said Bassem Zubeidi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University, referring to the UN bid. “But on the ground, nothing will change… the Israelis might change their policies, but neither Israel nor America will really push anything that will hurt the PA to the extent that it disappears.”

Source: Al Jazeera