Ramallah reacts to Arafat poisoning claims

Many Palestinians seem to believe Arafat was poisoned by the Israeli intelligence or from within Fatah’s ranks.

Arafat and the Dome
Yasser Arafat died at Percy Military Hospital in Paris at the age of 75 in late 2004 [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]
Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – On November 12, 2004, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Yasser Arafat, died at Percy Military Hospital in Paris at the age of 75. The death of Arafat, or Abu Ammar as he was widely known, ended the turbulent period that plagued him during the final few years of his life in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Click here for the full investigation

Following a two-and-a-half-year siege on the PA compound housing his Muqata headquarters during the Second Intifada, Arafat suddenly fell gravely ill in late October 2004 during a meeting. As his condition worsened, he had to be airlifted to Paris.

The last image of the leader was one of a wasted old man in grey pyjamas, sitting in a wheelchair, waving and blowing kisses to the Palestinians just before boarding a French government jet. 

Even as he lay in the hospital bed (with Dr Ashraf al-Kurdi, Arafat’s personal physician for 18 years, reportedly denied access), the Palestinian streets were rife with speculation that Arafat had been poisoned – with allegations aimed at figures ranging from the Israeli intelligence establishment to power-hungry officials within his own political party, Fatah.

An investigation, carried out by Al Jazeera eight years later, found that Arafat’s death may have been due to unnatural causes.

Abnormal levels of radioactive polonium-210 were found on his clothes, and even his toothbrush, with tests suggesting that there was a high level of the toxic element inside his body when he died.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Saturday told Palestinian media outlet Ma’an News Agency that “the truth about the martyrdom of Arafat must be revealed, as well as the tools used to kill him”.

But all these years later, what do people in Ramallah think about the results of the investigation, and what sort of impact – if any – has it had on the Palestinian street? 

Jamal Jum’a, 49, coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign

Jamal Jum’a says it is Palestinians’ right to know how Arafat died [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

“Closing the case, or postponing it, was a political decision, even though there were witnesses who could testify that Arafat was poisoned and killed. It was the end of one era for the PA and marked the beginning of a new one. It is the Palestinian people’s right to know how a Palestinian leader was poisoned, how he died, and who is responsible for this. The one who poisoned Arafat could easily still be around us, in a position of power.

“I believe that whoever poisoned Arafat was from the close circles around him. Otherwise, how else could they have had such close access to him and his belongings? That’s why a thorough investigation must be done on the ‘inner house’ [of the Palestinian leadership] and those who were closest to him. An investigation should have been done from the very first day, as it is the right of the Palestinian people to know who killed Arafat.

“Why did it take eight years? It’s because there are political agendas to be followed, and there are internal struggles within Palestinian society that are trying to blow up certain topics in order to gain politically. The media should have never let this go from their sight, and they should have been the ones to instigate these questions and finding the answers around Arafat’s death. Regardless of the Al Jazeera investigation, or whatever agenda it carries, this case should be treated in a transparent and thorough way. I have no doubt that the assassination came from the highest commands from Israel.”

Ahmad Sabri, 18, fruit seller
Ahmad Sabri thinks Palestinians now care more about social problems than politics [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

“Yasser Arafat was a symbolic leader. We will never get a leader like him again. People have been aware ever since eight years ago and it is a known fact that Arafat was injected with poison.

“It’s the fault of the people behind the investigation to wait seven years after his death to conduct such an inquiry. People here don’t really care about the results of the investigation precisely because it took so long. If it happened a year after his death, two years even, then there would have been a stronger reaction from the Palestinians. Now it’s like we have forgotten him.

“People are more concerned with social problems – I don’t really think they care much about the political situation anymore. I personally see politics and the feel of occupation unfolding in specific locations, such as in the villages of Nabi Saleh and Nilin, and the protests that take place in front of Ofer prison.”

Fatima Noubani, 27, family and marriage therapist
Fatima Noubani says that if an elected leader is killed, the people’s choice is undermined [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

I think it’s strange, but it is not that surprising. I thought they would figure who poisoned him, because there are a lot of people who wanted to finish him off. I don’t really know much about politics, so I don’t know which direction he was heading in or how big of a threat he was. I guess anyone being in a position of that kind of power and in that kind of situation would be assassinated.

“I think that it’s interesting that the findings of the investigation are made public, so that people can ask questions about what Arafat was doing to end up poisoned, what the people around him were doing, what exactly happened those years ago – that has to be investigated – those are the kinds of questions I would ask.

“The results of the investigation should make a difference to Palestinians because these things affect us. Too many people are concerned about themselves. We look at leaders in a negative way and think that they are just looking out for themselves and their own interests. If we elect a leader and that person is assassinated, then the people’s choice is effectively undermined.”

Abu Usaid, 39, shopkeeper
Abu Usaid says democracy, in the true sense of the word, does not exist [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

May God rest his soul. His murder came at the hands of the Israeli occupation, either through obvious or furtive means. Anyone who is poisoned – be they a close family member or a stranger, an enemy or a friend, a leader or an ordinary citizen, deserves an investigation around the mysterious circumstances of their death. I hope that the Israeli occupation only is to blame for Arafat’s murder, and not Palestinians from within his inner circle.

“The reason why it took so long for an investigation to happen is that we – and by that I mean all the world, not just Palestine – do not have a democracy in the true sense of the word. This topic cannot be silenced or brushed under the carpet. We’ve seen examples in the Soviet Union and South Africa and the US investigating the assassination of a high profile figure years after that person’s murder.

“The investigation must continue day after day in order to find out who killed Arafat, otherwise, in its current form, it will look like it’s playing into the hands of a specific political agenda.”

Abdel Hadi Yaish, 39, artist
Abdel Hadi blames Israelis, and laments a lack of protest since the investigation became public [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

The events that surrounded Arafat near the end of his life, from the Israeli army-imposed siege on the Muqata compound in Ramallah, to a lot of world leaders abandoning him and withdrawing their support were not enough to kill Arafat. The Israelis knew this and so they sought to poison him … in his clothes or food.

“In 2004, his death was a source of concern, and contributed to inner chaos, but now, seven years later, it is covered with facts and information.

“Why have the world authorities waited for so long to research the reasons for Arafat’s death? It is very worrisome for the Palestinian people to see how their leader is treated as an afterthought on an international level. Even more when this is reflected in the lack of protests or demonstrations that should have taken place after the investigation became public. It’s like the death of patriotism among Palestinians, since the street is the pulse of life. And now that the discovery of Arafat’s death has been made, so what? What are the Palestinians going to do now? We have no weapons for resistance, and that came with the death of people with consciences.”

Tariq Khamis, 24, journalist
Tariq Khamis maintains that Arafat’s successor was more compliant to Israeli demands [Ahmad Al-Nimer/Al Jazeera]

“The case of Abu Ammar’s death by poisoning is not a revelation or something new to the Palestinian street. Within context, his poisoning was to be expected as he was threatened by [former US vice-president] Dick Cheney and others that this was going to happen to him.

“Handing over the Palestinian Authority and transferring power to Mahmoud Abbas confirmed a new approach that Israel was set to impose on Palestinians. Israel was confident that Abbas would be better suited to carry out this approach than his predecessor.

“That doesn’t mean that Abu Ammar’s approach was not one characterised by yielding negotiations, but Israel wanted someone who could take that approach on in a much quicker way, which is why Abbas became president, since he could fulfill that role.

“The investigation findings will not cause a stir on Palestinian streets because there was a case that was much more important than Arafat’s death that Al Jazeera produced, which is the ‘leaking’ of the Palestine Papers in January 2011 – which exposed the mentality of the Palestinian negotiators, and what took place behind closed doors during these negotiations with Israeli officials.”


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Follow Linah AlSaafin on Twitter: @LinahAlsaafin

Source: Al Jazeera