Revisiting Arafat’s last days

The Kennedy assassination, the Hariri assassination – they were followed by long investigation.

If someone had told me just after having this photograph taken with Yasser Arafat in June 2000 that I would someday be participating in the investigation of his death, my stomach would have dropped. I might have logically assumed it was because something went terribly wrong and that I or one of my colleagues at the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service had failed in doing our jobs.

Here I am, a young and leaner man, working on a detail to protect Arafat as he visited the United States. Before my 2003 transition to journalism, I would see Arafat several times on other security details, including at a major American-led peace summit one month later, in July 2000, and in a crisis meeting held at the residence of the US ambassador to France in October 2000. As my mission then was to protect Arafat from physical harm and embarrassment, I watched in shock as the Clinton Administration proceeded to do the latter when the Camp David peace talks failed. I expressed that sentiment in my last meeting with Arafat, in May 2003, when I visited him inside his besieged compound as a backpacking graduate student.

The whole world turned against Arafat, and remained against him until his unexplained death in 2004. A concerted political campaign tore Arafat to shreds. This was not just in the so-called mainstream American media but the international press writ-large. Even closer to home, the Arab regimes, in particular Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, took to privately and publicly condemning Arafat for rejecting a “generous” Israeli deal. As former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told me, “There was this idea that when Arafat will be out of the game, then everything will be easier”. Indeed, many would argue that Israeli-Palestinian peace today is more remote than ever. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami reflected, “It was a fantasy to think you could make peace with his successor”.

Twelve years later, in December 2011, I found myself trembling at the prospect of looking into not only what had caused Arafat’s political death, but perhaps his physical life as well. After meeting in Malta, I retrieved from Suha Arafat, his widow, a copy of his entire medical files taken from Ramallah and France. I felt even more historic responsibility in January 2012 when, responding to my request, Suha Arafat met me in Paris to provide an ordinary looking gym bag with extraordinary contents: Arafat’s last personal effects that accompanied him when he went to receive treatment at the Percy Military Hospital in France. In cryptic irony, the inscription on the bag was “Bon Voyage”. Inside was everything, from his signature kefiyyah to his medicines to the garments he wore close to death. A nurse had even tucked in a hospital cap with a small blood stain, removed from Arafat’s lifeless body.

Having enlisted the unpaid support of Switzerland’s finest forensic laboratories, I promptly delivered the files and gym bag to the Lausanne University Center for Legal Medicine, where a quite extraordinary discovery would be made and which you can see for yourself in our film.

As an American reporter, it is not lost on me that nearly 50 years following his death, people still contest the fact pattern surrounding the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. As a resident of Qatar, I better appreciate today how people in this region closely follow the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The above cases both left behind a blaze of forensic and eyewitness evidence. Each had investigators empowered with the full force of law. In the case of President Kennedy, it was a Congressional mandated inquiry. In the case of Prime Minister Hariri, it was a UN Security Council-mandated Investigative commission.

Nothing similar was done in the case of Yasser Arafat. And that begs an important question.