The Arafat forensic file reopened
While the Palestinian Authority has dodged many bullets on its dubious relation with Israel, it may not be able to dodge the charge that Israel assassinated Yasser Arafat, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Palestinian Mahmoud Sarsak, a former player with the national football team, is carried by his supporters in Rafah after his release from Israeli prison where he was held for three years without charges or trial, Tuesday. Sarsak had staged a hunger strike for more than 90 days to press for his release
Palestinian Authority (PA) spokespersons were clearly at a loss for words in response to the results of an investigation into the death of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat carried out by Al-Jazeera and broadcast last week. The seemingly incontrovertible revelation that the commission formed by the PA leadership eight years ago to probe the circumstances surrounding Arafat's death was not serious in its intent to unearth the truth has been deeply embarrassing for PA officials. The Al-Jazeera report revealed quite a few details that the commission should have been able to learn and that were previously unknown to the Palestinian public.
Under the onslaught of public pressure, the Palestinian leadership announced that it was ready to cooperate with the research teams that took part in the Al-Jazeera investigation. PA spokesmen took the occasion to state that they had no shadow of a doubt that Israel was behind the poisoning of "Abu Ammar" (Arafat's nom de guerre) and that they were determined to get to the truth. At the same time, they tried to give the impression that the commission that was formed in the aftermath of Arafat's death continued to function and that Tawfiq Al-Tirawi, the Palestinian intelligence chief during Arafat's last days, was still its head.
Al-Tirawi stated that the commission would soon submit a report to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, adding that the commission had learned that there had been breaches in the security systems and services that were protecting Arafat when he was under blockade in his headquarters in Ramallah shortly before his death in 2004. The former intelligence chief said that Arafat had increasingly come to feel that his life was in jeopardy because of statements coming out of Israel signalling that he was targeted for assassination.
Statements by PA officials may do little to defuse the heat of criticism. It was not the fact that the commission headed by Al-Tirawi did very little that angered many Palestinians, but that no one had ever heard of this commission before. Nevertheless, the PA leadership has vowed to cooperate with various international agencies and to offer all possible assistance and facilities in the interest of uncovering the circumstances behind Arafat's death, which is now strongly suspected to have been the result of poisoning. Communications are currently in progress with the Institute of Radiophysics in Lausanne to discuss arrangements for a team from that institute to travel to Ramallah in order to determine whether it will be necessary to exhume Arafat's remains in order to perform the necessary tests to ascertain whether the cause of death was indeed polonium poisoning. Some questioned the necessity of this, since all experts interviewed by Al-Jazeera agree that exhumation will be necessary in order to determine the levels of this radioactive substance in the body.
In order to lend greater credibility to their pledges, PA officials have called for a UN Security Council resolution to form an international inquiry commission on the assassination of Arafat. Member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee Saeb Ereikat told reporters that President Abbas asked French President Fran³żois Hollande to pursue the necessary measures in the Security Council to create a trustworthy international inquiry commission to investigate the circumstances behind the death of Arafat, similar to the UN commission that was tasked with investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. Ereikat said that in the event that such a UN commission was not created, the Arab League would call for an international Arab investigation and that the Arab League secretary-general was currently studying the matter closely. He added: "We must learn the truth behind the assassination of Arafat and the means by which it was accomplished."
Talal Okal, a member of the board of trustees of the Yasser Arafat Foundation and a member of the committee that this foundation created in 2009 to discover the causes of the late Palestinian president's death, said that the PA's task was complicated by international pressures to prevent Palestine from obtaining a seat in the United Nations. "The situation is difficult and complex, but the PA now has no other choice but to press for an international investigation in light of the extreme sensitivity of this matter among the Palestinian people who attach great importance to the need to discover the circumstances surrounding the death of their leader, Arafat."
But Palestinians are not alone in demanding an inquiry since learning the information that came to light in the Al-Jazeera investigative report. The Tunisian foreign minister, Rafiq Abdel-Salam, has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss the subject. Nevertheless, Okal believes that the Palestinians will encounter stiff international resistance to their pursuit of an international inquiry into Arafat's death. "The US administration and Israel will exert enormous pressure on the PA to keep it from turning to the UN," he said. "It is not just a question of technology or material capacities. There is also the refusal on the part of countries concerned to supply answers that will help the course of the investigations. Foremost among these are France and the medical team in Percy Hospital (to which Arafat was moved in November 2004 after a grave deterioration in his health in Ramallah). In addition there will be mounting Israeli pressures to prevent a full investigation."
Okal held that the Al-Jazeera report confirmed Palestinian suspicions that Israel was responsible for Arafat's death, but "the investigation remains incomplete both in terms of conclusions and in terms of their ramifications." He went on to argue that US administration will do its utmost to prevent an international investigation because of the great embarrassment that would cause to Washington. "In fact, the international community, and the members of the International Quartet in particular, collaborated with the perpetrator and even remained a step ahead so as not to find itself in the position of having to take a public position against Israel which these partners know with certainty was the perpetrator. Once again, the great powers -- the manufactures of international policies --should be ashamed of themselves for their flagrant exercise of double standards in view of how they acted in similar cases."
Okal added: "The decision to assassinate an international figure of the stature of the martyr Yasser Arafat is not one that could have been taken by a few. Most likely some former Arab leaders had advanced knowledge of the plan to eliminate Arafat."
Many Palestinians remain unconvinced that the PA leadership is serious in its intent to unearth the truth about the death of Arafat. There reason for this is quite simple: many members of this leadership were instrumental in the drive to eliminate Arafat politically. Ghassan Abu Samha, a teacher in Gaza, asks: "Why did Mahmoud Abbas agree to cooperate with Israel and the West after plans were put into effect to annihilate Arafat politically at the height of Al-Aqsa Intifada?" He goes on to observe: "Unfortunately, Abu Mazen [Abbas] displayed no resistance whatsoever to the Israeli-US project, which subsequently furnished the conditions for Arafat's physical annihilation."
Some Palestinians are of the opinion that the PA leadership's cooperation in putting into effect the US-Israeli devised "roadmap" unveiled by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in March 2003 helped pave the way for the elimination of Arafat. As one source explained, Arafat "stood in the way of designs to eliminate the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel realised could not be accomplished unless there was close cooperation between the PA security agencies and Israeli intelligence, especially in the West Bank."
In fact, as we look back, perhaps the first step toward sidelining Arafat was the restructuring of the PA hierarchy so as to create the position of prime minister. Even then, it was no secret that the Bush administration and the Sharon government had eyed current PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, for the job. Abbas was firmly and publicly opposed to the use of armed force as an instrument of resistance against the occupation, which, from the perspective of Tel Aviv and Washington, made him the ideal successor to Arafat.
Curiously, Al-Jazeera's revelations pointing to Arafat's assassination by poisoning coincide with the success of Palestinian protest movements to prevent a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz in Ramallah. This coincidence is not without considerable symbolic significance to many Palestinians. Mofaz was the Israeli minister of defence at the time of Arafat's death and of all the members of Sharon's government at the time he was the most ardent advocate of eliminating Arafat, a view that he expressed on numerous occasions. According to some Palestinians the very willingness of PA officials to meet with Mofaz, in particular, is proof of their disregard for the Palestinian blood that was shed in the Intifada.
As the foregoing suggests, the Al-Jazeera documentary has reignited controversy in Palestine on a number of interrelated issues that have profound significance to the Palestinian people. Naturally, all eyes are on the PA leadership to see whether it will take the steps necessary to confirm the sincerity of its desire to investigate the circumstances surrounding Arafat's death. The PA leadership, for its part, is caught in a vice. On the one hand, it cannot circumvent the overwhelming popular demand to learn the truth. On the other, it fears that it will lose all justification for sustaining its relationship with Israel in the event that the investigation establishes what Palestinians already believe to be true, that Tel Aviv is guilty of the crime.