Was Yasser Arafat murdered? The 'myth' that won't die

Israel says no, but most Palestinians disagree – and now France is investigating. By Donald Macintyre

Barber Mohammed Hamad was in no doubt about the reasons for Yasser Arafat's death just under eight years ago. As he trimmed a customer's hair in his shop in the Amari refugee camp yesterday, he welcomed the news that French prosecutors have opened a murder investigation. And he insisted that "99.9 per cent of people" in the city where the previous Palestinian president was confined in his sandbagged headquarters for the final two years of his life "believe Abu Ammar" – he uses Arafat's nom de guerre – "was murdered, poisoned".

While strongly suspecting that the actual deed was perpetrated by a Palestinian with regular access to Arafat, Mr Hamad, 44, was equally certain that Israel and its then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were behind it. "Arafat refused at Camp David [in 2000] to sign a peace agreement which left [Jerusalem's] Al-Aqsa [mosque] under the control of Israel. Sharon wants to control Jerusalem, East and West. He wants to get rid of Abu Ammar. He accused him of starting the intifada and controlling the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades."

Just one barber's view, of course. But what is disconcerting for all those who regard the accusation that Israel covertly assassinated Arafat as belonging on the wilder shores of conspiracy theory is how widely it is shared among level-headed Palestinians.

Qaddoura Fares, the respected senior Fatah official now responsible for the welfare of the 4,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is a long-time advocate of peace negotiations on a two-state solution.

Yet, he too appears convinced, in the face of repeated denials by Israel, that a President he knew well was murdered on the orders of a Prime Minister who had a personal history of enmity with him going back more than 20 years, and persistently depicted him as an "obstacle to peace". Sharon, he says, understood well that Arafat was a uniquely unifying leader for the Palestinians and as a "militant leader" himself "the Israeli PM knew that the [second] intifada would not have happened without a green light from [Arafat]".

Now that the suspicion that he was poisoned has been revived by the identification of traces of deadly radioactive agent polonium on the clothes handed to investigators from the Al Jazeera TV channel by Arafat's widow, Suha, Mr Fares says the Israeli authorities had every reason to ensure that he died as if from natural causes. "They didn't want him to die as a symbol. They didn't want to make him a martyr. They could easily have shot him if they wanted to."

Around the time in 2003 when, in the aftermath of a double suicide bombing on one day, Israel's cabinet took a non-specific, and apparently unfulfilled decision to "remove" Arafat from his Muqata compound, Mr Fares thinks Israel considered a number of options: continued isolation in Ramallah, deportation, arrest and arraignment before a military court – and assassination. Dismissive of the Palestinian Authority's ability to investigate the death itself, Mr Fares says that the French investigation certainly looks more "credible" and that it will at least ensure that "the issue will be alive, and that it will go on chasing the Israelis".

Still in the coma triggered by the massive stroke which felled him in early 2006, Mr Sharon cannot answer the charges himself. But while acknowledging Arafat's status as "one of Israel's worst enemies", Mr Sharon's closest lieutenant and former bureau chief Dov Weisglass rebutted them in some detail on Army Radio yesterday. "We did not physically hurt him when Arafat was in his prime ... so all the more so we had no interest in this kind of activity when he was politically sidelined," he said.

But this is anyway not just about Israel. Even many Palestinians believe that if it is ever established that Arafat was assassinated, the truth could make uncomfortable reading in sections of the Palestinian leadership, given that inside help would almost certainly have been needed to reach a heavily-guarded President whose food was prudently shared with others.

Saying that all Palestinians need to give the French prosecutors whatever help they request, Mr Fares points out the incriminating consequences of not doing so. "If I am asked to go to Paris and be questioned, and I refuse, then I might as well kill myself," he says. His hope is that the French investigation will somehow begin to find real answers to the questions still swirling here about Arafat's final, fatal illness. "90 per cent of Palestinians believe he was murdered, and 10 per cent that he died of natural causes," he says. "Even if the 10 per cent are right, we need to get to the truth."

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