Who Killed Yasser Arafat?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Eight years since his death, Yasser Arafat still stirs up emotions from both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Those emotions are unlikely to go away, especially now that Al Jazeera has reported that “an examination of his belongings commissioned by Al-Jazeera TV and conducted by a highly respected Swiss scientific institute has confirmed that Arafat was poisoned with Polonium, a deadly radioactive substance that avoids detection unless one specifically looks for it.” For some, the findings confirm suspicions of Israeli foul play; whereas for others it is one last attempt by those close to Arafat to rehabilitate his image following unflattering reports of the true causes of his death.

MIFTAH’s staff focused its coverage on specific details of the findings, reporting, “On July 5, Arafat’s nephew and head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, Nasser al-Qudwa met with President Abbas in Paris to discuss the new allegations that Arafat was poisoned with the radioactive element polonium-210 in 2004. Al Qudwa said the late president’s body would be exhumed if necessary to determine the true cause of his death. The Palestinian Authority also said it would approve Arafat’s widow Suha Arafat’s request to exhume his body for an autopsy. While fingers continue to point at Israel as the main culprit in the poison theory, Israel has remained adamant that it had nothing to do with Abu Ammar’s death.”

However, few in the Occupied Territories are as open minded, and many feel vindicated by the report. As Al Qassam’s Khalid Amayreh writes, “Israeli officials struggled to distance the Jewish state from the murder, resorting to red-herring arguments and raising doubts about the credibility of the latest findings, reached by the one of the most advanced medical labs in the world. However, Israel lies as often as it breathes, and its denials should hold no weight whatsoever for all those seeking the truth surrounding Arafat’s death…..Once again, like most Palestinians and other honest people around the world, this writer has no doubts whatsoever as to Israel’s responsibility for the murder of Arafat.”

In Israel the story has been received with skepticism, to say the least. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman argues “[the] latest Arafat conspiracy theory [is] merely an effort to arrange a more dignified death…. There is no doubt that it’s much more dignified to arrange a heroic ‘martyr’s death’ for the father of the nation, preferably at the hands of Mossad or Shin Bet. Indeed, every year we see yet another theory about an Israeli conspiracy against Arafat….And now, al-Jazeera comes out with an investigative report about a radioactive substance that killed Arafat. The report does not explain where exactly all these articles of clothing, tainted with this radioactive substance, were being held for the past seven years, ever since they were taken from their owner”

The Jerusalem Post editorial labels the new discovery “insinuation” and then adds “Tall tales of a plot to murder Arafat are too good to pass up in a setting where fact and fiction are intrinsically indistinguishable. Since no one would anyhow believe Arafat died a natural death, better just blame all foul-play on Israel….Not only is invaluable energy expended on deception at the expense of tackling real problems, but fantastic convolutions of trumped-up cloak and dagger stories do not bolster the cause of true peace. Falsehoods negate peace”

Not all Israelis feel this way, however. Uri Avnery, in an op-ed on Arab News, is blunt in his acceptance: “For me, there was no surprise. From the very first day, I was convinced that Yasser Arafat had been poisoned by Ariel Sharon. I even wrote about it several times. It was a simple logical conclusion….Ariel Sharon’s determination to kill Arafat was well known. Already during the siege of Beirut in Lebanon War I, it was no secret that agents were combing West Beirut for his whereabouts. To Sharon’s great frustration, they did not find him….Arafat was the man who was able to make peace with Israel, willing to do so, and — more important — to get his people, including the Islamists, to accept it. This would have put an end to the settlement enterprise. That’s why he was poisoned.”

Regional editorials and op-eds also seem more inclined to believe the Al Jazeera account. The Khaleej Times editorial, for example, expresses relief that “Nearly eight years after the passing away of one of the most popular and admired Palestinian leaders, the mystery behind his death is finally unraveling….The international community should back the demand for a thorough probe into the death of Arafat. Governments have been known to eliminate fiercely independent and popular leaders such as Arafat by means fair and foul. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, survived several such attempts in the past by the CIA. Its rival, the KGB, was more successful, managing to kill Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent and foe of Russia, by lacing his tea with Polonium-210 in London in 2006.”

However, Gulf News’ Osama Al Sharif is not sure about the political repercussions of the findings: “But now with Al Jazeera’s new claims, the case is at the centre of public attention, especially in the West Bank. The timing of the revelations has raised many questions….Some pundits have speculated that the current controversy is aimed at casting more doubts on the current Palestinian leadership….But even if Arafat’s body was exhumed and his murder was confirmed, the political repercussions of such a development would be too huge to contain by the PNA and its beleaguered President Abbas.”

Finally, there is a sense that, as YNet’s Ronen Bergman points out, despite all the studies aimed at finding the real reasons for Arafat’s demise, we might never really know for certain the cause of his death: “On the face of it, there are quite a few reasons to believe that Arafat died of natural causes….On the other hand, there is no doubt that Arafat’s death came at a rather odd timing. Sharon was the one who decided upon assuming the post of prime minister to change Israel’s approach, asserting that the Palestinian Authority is part of the problem, rather than the solution, and that Arafat is an enemy….Only the passing years, the lifting of censorship limitations and perhaps the peace that will come to the Middle East may bring an answer to this curious question.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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