As Yasser Arafat is exhumed, how a new, ragged spirit of Palestinian solidaity is haunting the Israelis

The ghost of Fatah's leader lives on, much though the Israelis wish to be rid of it

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Today the body of Yasser Arafat has been exhumed from his tomb, the concrete mausoleum in Ramallah’s muqata. It was never meant to be his final resting place. The inscription on his tomb promises Arafat will be laid to rest in Jerusalem – after a two-state solution, of course.

The muqata (or presidential compound) was where Arafat was besieged by Israeli guns, before being taken suddenly ill, during the Second Intifada. He died in a French military hospital not long after.

Many Palestinians still believe Arafat was murdered. And there is little doubt who was responsible. Like the new ragged spirit of Palestinian unity, the ghost of Arafat could come to haunt the Israelis once again.

Foul play

Yasser Arafat was always a divisive figure: freedom fighter and Nobel peace laureate, wealthy super-statesman and voice of a betrayed people, a charlatan and a hero. For many people, Arafat was – and still is – the imperfect symbol of the two-state solution. Israeli governments were always keen to undermine his popularity in the Middle East and the world. Ariel Sharon once called him the “greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East” – a “principal responsibility” sort of argument that has historically been launched at the occupied more than the occupier.

That could all change if it was discovered Arafat was victim of foul play.

The current climate seems ripe for Arafat’s controversial death – and re-birth, maybe – to focus the struggle of a growing and uniting Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation and blockade, economic or diplomatic.

Following last week’s Gaza conflict, the two main Palestinian factions – Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – have been showing an apparent new interest in reconciliation and unity.

On Sunday Hamas offered amnesty to Fatah supporters after their bitter 2006 showdown. “Due to the victory that the Palestinian Resistance has achieved,” spokesman Taher Al Nono said at a Gaza City press conference over the weekend, “to emphasise the resulting unity, the Palestinian Government has decided to give amnesty to all of those facing legal action as a result of the conflict of 2006.”

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh even showed a rare sign of support for PA leader, Mahmoud Abbas – though later denying it in public – by offering his support for Palestine’s limited recognition statehood bid at the UN on Thursday. Both sides look to benefit from an ad hoc alliance: an emboldened Hamas gains the PA’s international seal of approval, while a PA seen as inefficient and self-serving by many Palestinians rides Hamas’ new rocket-fuelled wave of support.

Both sides seem upbeat. Celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank have goaded Netanyahu, his government and the IDF. They underestimated the Palestinian resistance, people say. (But killed 163 “martyrs”, 43 of them children, in doing so.)

Today a nine-month Al Jazeera investigation, with the help of a French prosecutor and the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, reached its next stage after finding traces of polonium-210 in samples of Arafat’s blood, urine, hair and on items of the clothing he wore on his deathbed – the same element used to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. More than 60% of polonium traces on Arafat’s toothbrush were from “unsupported” polonium-210 (i.e. not from natural sources).

A cagey truce

Some have criticised the move as propaganda – a little helping hand for the statehood bid, maybe, or just a long, drawn-out two-fingers towards the separation wall? Yes, this has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theorist’s dream-come-true: a high-profile death in mysterious circumstances, sources close to the body refusing to talk and plenty of usual suspects to blame. No doubt the eye-swivelling, teeth-grinding bloggers of the world will be having a field day. Was it the long arm of Israel’s Mossad in the muqata siege room? Or the power-hungry PA politicians waiting in the wings?

A potential assassination with no conclusion needs to be resolved, particularly in a Middle East still battered by new conflicts with the same old arguments.

The results could take several months after today’s exhumation, but the outcome would very quickly determine Yasser Arafat’s memory as the same old divisive figure or a martyr. And, with memory of assassination and injustice fresh in Palestinian minds, stronger links between Hamas and Fatah could also determine the long-term direction of this cagey truce.

Arafat, poster-boy for the two-state solution, lives on.

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