On the evening of October 12, 2004, the flamboyant and authoritarian face of the Palestinian cause and Chairman of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat sat down with his family and close colleagues for dinner at his besieged house-turned-office in Ramallah.
Under the ever-tightening grip of the Israeli forces that had bombed and raided his offices several times since 2002, Yasser Arafat suddenly fell ill at the dining table and thus started the biggest mystery of the modern-day Middle East. With more than seven countries involved in this mystery, the setting is no less than a thriller movie.
Who Was Yasser Arafat?
Yasser Arafat was born to a well-to-do merchant family in 1929. He was given the name of Muhammad which was overshadowed by his nickname, Yasser. He had always maintained that he was born in Jerusalem but historians have argued that he was either born in the Gaza Strip or in Cairo, Egypt.
Yasser was actively participating in the Palestinian armed resistance against the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. He has been documented smuggling arms and ammunition for the Palestinian fighters during the 1948 Israel-Palestine war. Like many aspiring Palestinians, Yasser moved to Egypt to complete his studies. In Egypt, he created a student body that supplied soldiers to resist British, French and Israeli forces during the Suez crisis.
He secured an engineering job in Kuwait but the young revolutionary had his heart and mind on the advancement of the Palestinian cause. While at his job in Kuwait, he went on to create a resistance movement called Fatah which would later become the biggest and most popular faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The next few decades turned out to be busy for Arafat and his organizations. He was at loggerheads with many Arab countries on how to deal with the ever-growing influence of Israel. Arafat moved his organization from Jordan to Beirut, Lebanon hoping to recruit Palestinian sympathizers to grow his movement.
While Lebanon was just getting embroiled in its own civil war (1975-1990), Arafat and his followers opened attacks on Israel. Taking the advantage of Lebanon’s fractured political and public infrastructure, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 which led to Arafat’s and his organization’s expulsion from the country.
Arafat moved to Tunis, the capital city of the North African country Tunisia and the fighters of PLO scattered throughout the Middle East, with a large number of them moving to Syria.
“Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”
In 1978, PLO’s Executive Committee under Arafat read out a declaration claiming the formation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, Arafat also condemned all forms of violence which earned him a place in the good books of the United States.
The move represented a significant departure for the man who in 1974 appeared at the United Nations saying he bore “an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun”, famously saying: “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
In 1988, he again addressed the UN General Assembly, declaring the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
In 1991, soon after his marriage, Arafat and his officials began peace talks with Israel in Madrid and Arafat was also secretly sponsoring the peace accords with Israel, the discussions of which were happening in Oslo, thus leading to the signing of the famous Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine.
The Oslo and Madrid agreements were put on paper and at the US White House, Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin exchanged a historic handshake and sealed an outline for limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Both Arafat and Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
This process hit a hurdle when the two negotiation parties reached the “final status” part of the negotiations over Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, illegal Jewish settlements, borders and water.
While Israeli Prime Minister and US President Bill Clinton met several times at Camp David to break the stalemate in the process, Arafat was pressured to concede the sovereignty of Jerusalem.
The stalemate in peace negotiations led to an armed uprising at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound which turned into the infamous second intifada which broke all kinds of peace negotiations between the three parties. US and Israel blamed Arafat for inciting the violence and Israel went on to declare Arafat “irrelevant” to the peace process and placed him in a virtual house arrest in Ramallah in March 2002 which is where his health would go south come November 2004 and the face of the Palestinian cause will start his next battle, but this time it would be for his life.
Deteriorating Health & A Cause Without A Face
Between March 2002 and November 2004, Israel continued to target Arafat’s office and home compound. They even used tanks to target Arafat and his close aides to tighten their grip on his activities.
Evading all that, Arafat sat down for dinner with his family and friends on October 12 and suddenly fell ill. A month later, Arafat was dead in a French hospital.
By natural causes? Or was it a murder most foul? Theories have swirled in the past nine years that Arafat was assassinated, perhaps poisoned — by rivals, by his inner circle, by Israeli agents.
Ararat suffered nausea, vomiting and abdominal on the night of October 12th. A team of Palestinian doctors led by his family doctor tried different medicines to cure each symptom but Arafat showed no signs of recovery. His close circle decided to call trained medical teams from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia to determine the cause of illness but even the expert teams from these three countries failed to help Arafat.
A couple of weeks later through negotiations and deliberations with Israel, Palestinian leaders moved Arafat to France’s Percy Military Hospital. The French doctors carried out a barrage of tests on Arafat but were unable to point out any abnormality. On November 3, 2004, Arafat fell into a medical coma from which he will never wake up and on 11th November 2004, the face of the Palestinian cause died leaving the streets of Gaza, Ramallah and other Palestinian cities full of supporters with teary eyes.
The official cause of death, as stated by medical officials at Percy hospital, was a massive haemorrhagic stroke, but no autopsy was carried out and senior Palestinian leaders withheld his medical records.
Arafat wanted to be buried in Jerusalem but Israel wouldn’t allow that. After an official ceremony in Cairo, Arafat was buried in a specially built mausoleum adjacent to the Muqata in Ramallah.
The big mystery about his health starts now. With no autopsy and Palestinians in the hold of medical documents, determining the cause of death turned out to be a challenging task for the French doctors while the Arab World was seeking the truth about the death of one of its favourite leaders.
A team of Swiss scientists were allowed to exhume some decaying remains of Arafat for testing. They carried out several tests to ascertain the cause of death including lethal poison testing and that’s where the first clue of this mystery is.
The Swiss scientists carried out testing of Polonium-210 and why not? Polonium is hard to be found during testing because a non-lethal amount of polonium circulates in the air throughout the world at any given point in time.
The tests were carried out on a shaft of Arafat’s hair, his underwear with a spot of urine, his medical cap, comb, toothbrush and the area where he was buried after death. Each item returned a reading of polonium that was 10 times more than the lethal amount to kill a human being.
A final 108-page report by a team of Swiss experts revealed that tests on Arafat’s exhumed remains and possessions “moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210,” a highly radioactive substance 250,000 times as toxic as cyanide.
Who Poisoned Arafat?
Arafat spent his life battling the Israelis, first as a guerilla fighter and later as a statesman. For decades, he served as leader of the Fatah movement and the face of the PLO, always in his olive green uniform, patchy grey beard and checkered scarf.
His critics called him a terrorist and a crook, and they accused him of amassing a personal fortune and ultimately failing the Palestinian cause. His supporters revere him as a kind of founding father, and his portrait hangs on the wall of every Palestinian Authority functionary in the West Bank.
Even the Palestine leaders were tired of Arafat and wanted to usher in a new period of negotiations with Israel hence even they could have poisoned him. But, nothing has been confirmed so far and it is better to not point fingers.
Polonium Will Not Be Used In Future To Kill People
Right? Since it is so poisonous, Polonium will never be used again. No! It was used again just two years after Arafat’s death in another mystery saga.
A public inquiry into the killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has concluded that President Putin probably approved his assassination. But who was he and why did his death cause such controversy?
Former spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed in November 2006, leading to a clouding of relations between London and Moscow.
The 43-year-old had been an officer with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, but he fled to Britain where he became a fierce critic of the Kremlin. In his final years, he also became a British citizen.
After he was killed by radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea, it emerged the father-of-one was being paid by the British secret service MI6.
This ends the saga of Arafat and his lifelong battle against adversaries but where does that leave Palestine? With the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as the Prime Minister of the country and many fractured relations after the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shirin Abu-Akleh, peace is a distant thing for the Palestinians. However, they can find in Arafat’s cause the next big movement which will usher them into co-existence with Israel even though a bright future of peace eludes them.