Suha Arafat stands on the verge of discovering whether her late husband, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was assassinated. Since the day he died in a Parisian military hospital in 2004, rumours have swirled about what may have killed him – a heart attack; food poisoning; polonium; Aids.
Yasser Arafat's widow, Suha, breaks down mid interview with Richard Symons for "The Price of Kings"
Arafat, then 75, was struck down by a mysterious illness inside his besieged presidential compound in Ramallah. He was airlifted to France but could not be saved. After he died, much to the frustration of his personal doctor, no autopsy was requested (under French law only Suha could give permission). French doctors concluded he was killed by a stroke, although the official cause of death was unresolved.
The results of tests on his body, which was finally exhumed at Suha’s request last year, are due to be released soon. And what they reveal could have a profound effect on her – and on the fragile Middle East peace process.
Suha, who was a Christian, converted to Islam for her new husband. The wedding went ahead against the advice of her parents. Five years later the couple had a daughter, Zahwa.
I recently interviewed Suha in Malta, where she now lives, for a documentary series on the failings of global leaders, The Price of Kings. Now 49, Suha is candid about the politically charged subject of her husband’s demise.
Suha eventually agreed to have Arafat’s body tested after being approached by Al Jazeera. “I gave them a holdall of Yasser’s with some of his belongings from the hospital,” she says.
The items, including a toothbrush and some underwear, were sent to a laboratory in Lausanne. The tests found higher than normal levels of polonium, the radioactive substance used to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, but though they suggested foul play, they were not conclusive.
“To prove poisoning they needed to carry out more tests. I thought we must find out the truth,” she says. Last November, the body was exhumed.
Many have wondered why Suha didn’t establish a cause of death at the time. “We’d been living with extensive tests in the hospital trying to save my husband,” she says. “Finally, when [he] passed away, in the Muslim tradition, the burial takes place as soon as possible, ideally in the next 24 hours. I don’t remember any talk of an autopsy.”
Despite their certainty that he was assassinated, she insists the Palestinian leadership didn’t put pressure on her to have the tests done.
Yet, with or without evidence, many are still convinced. Nabil Shaath, Arafat’s Foreign Minister, said: “I have no doubt that he was assassinated. The French said that whatever toxic material was in his body did not test positive in their toxicology table, saying in plain words this was a poison we did not have in our laboratories.”
While Mr Shaath is unequivocal now, the day after Arafat’s death he reportedly spoke to Arafat’s doctors and was told they had “ruled out poison completely”. So why has his story changed? Arafat’s nephew and Palestinian envoy to the UN, Nasser al Qidwa, claims it is a question of politics. “From the very beginning there was a theory going around that this was poisoning,” he says. “[The French] didn’t lie, but of course they didn’t feel they were in a position to take the political responsibility by giving the necessary proof.”
The political calculation cut both ways. “Proof [of poisoning] would have meant the end of the peace process,” Mr Al Qidwa says. Mr Shaath agrees. “I think it was a matter of choice. We didn’t push for an autopsy.”
There are, of course, other reasons why someone wouldn’t want an autopsy if they believed a murder had been committed. At Arafat’s presidential compound, the Muqaata, it is clear that a plot to poison Arafat would have required collaborators on the inside. For the two years before Arafat fell ill, the Muqaata was surrounded by the IDF.
Israeli soldiers ran security checks on supplies and food going in, but even if poison was introduced outside the complex, targeting Arafat specifically would have required assistance. He regularly ate alongside scores of people.
The head of the Palestinian commission on the investigation, Tawfiq Tirawi, realises this theory raises an uncomfortable question. “If someone put polonium or any sort of poison in his food, it must have been a Palestinian. Maybe – maybe – there was inside collaboration.”
Fingers have been pointed at the Palestinian leadership, despite the fact they gave permission to exhume the body. “If it is proved that Arafat was poisoned, we will go to the International Criminal Court,” says Tirawi.
Only a handful of nations have access to Polonium 210. Israel is thought to be one of them and would be the first country many would point to.
Suha says she has no preconceptions about her husband’s death. “We don’t even know if a crime was committed so how can I make accusations? We have to wait for the results — and if they are positive, then it’s up to the criminal investigation and the courts. If a crime has been committed it’s important that it’s documented – either way, the truth should be told,” she says.
“Of course I’m nervous about the results, they’re very significant. And they’re coming at the same time as our daughter’s graduation, which my husband would have been so proud to see. I have mixed emotions. I’m anxious, but it’s important the truth comes out.”
Richard Symons is a director at Spirit Level Film. More information on The Price of Kings at spiritlevelfilm.com.