In Yasser Arafat’s long and eventful life, during which he managed the unlikely transition from infamous terrorist mastermind to Nobel Peace Prize recipient, it would be an understatement to observe that he made a fair few enemies along the way.
So we should hardly be surprised that, following the less than convincing conclusion reached by a team of Swiss scientists that he was “probably” poisoned with polonium-210 – the same material used to murder the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 – the conspiracy theorists will now have a field day advancing their fanciful theories about how the Palestinian leader really met his end.
Arafat’s widow, Suha, who has suspected foul play ever since her husband was taken ill at his Ramallah headquarters in the autumn of 2004, has lost no time denouncing the suspected poisoning as a “political crime” and the “assassination of a great leader”, while members of Arafat’s moderate Fatah Palestinian faction have promised to petition the International Criminal Court.
But even assuming it is possible to prove that Arafat was poisoned, trying to establish who was responsible for planting the poison will, given the many foes he acquired in a lifetime of skulduggery, be another matter. For a start, Arafat’s personal commitment to the destruction of the newly formed state of Israel, which dates back to the late Fifties when he laid the foundations of the movement that later became the Palestine Liberation Organisation, did not win him many friends among the Jewish people.
Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister and one of the country’s most iconic military leaders, made no secret of his desire “to remove him from our society”. Sharon is credited with at least 13 attempts to kill the Palestinian leader, not least during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was launched on the pretext of destroying the PLO’s terrorist infrastructure.
If the Israelis became Arafat’s sworn enemies from the moment he emerged as the Palestinians’ charismatic figurehead, his trademark keffiyah always carefully folded in the shape of Palestine, they were not alone in wanting to rid themselves of this self-styled freedom fighter. For a start, in the turbulent world of Middle Eastern politics, he made many enemies within his own organisation, with some of the more extreme sects, such as the hardline Hamas movement, questioning his commitment to creating an independent Palestinian homeland. Nor did Arafat enjoy cordial relations with other Arab leaders, for all their overt protestations of support. They suspected him of undermining their own interests through a single-minded pursuit of his Palestinian agenda. The late King Hussein of Jordan never fully trusted Arafat following his involvement in the attempt to remove the Hashemite monarchy during Jordan’s Black September civil war in 1970, while in Syria he was at one point sentenced to death for the murder of an army officer.
In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that, from the moment Arafat’s death was pronounced at a Paris hospital in the early hours of November 11 2004, a number of fanciful conspiracy theories should emerge to contest the official verdict of the French doctors that the cause of death was a “massive haemorrhagic cerebrovascular accident” – i.e. a stroke.
My personal favourite was the claim advanced by senior Palestinian officials shortly after Arafat’s demise that he had been the victim of a plot by Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, in which two agents, posing as a television crew, had fired a hi-tech laser containing deadly poison through a camera lens. Even James Bond’s Q would be hard-pressed to come up with a more devilish scheme.
Not all of the conspiracy theories point the finger of blame at the Israelis, though. Some Palestinians have claimed he was poisoned by political rivals, either because of his refusal to act over the Palestinian Authority’s well-documented corruption, or by Islamist militants who saw him as an obstacle to their ultimate goal of creating an Islamic Palestinian state.
Then there are the more spurious claims designed to tarnish Arafat’s public image, such as the testimony of an Israeli Aids expert who said that the Palestinian leader displayed all the classic symptoms of the disease. It has even been reported in the US that the CIA knew all about his condition, and convinced the Israelis not to assassinate him because he did not have long to live.
Whatever the truth about Arafat’s death, the majority of Palestinians continue to believe that Israel was somehow involved, even if the facts suggest otherwise. Mr Sharon took the view, when Israel’s military chiefs asked to attempt another assassination during the second Palestinian intifada, that there was no point in Israel killing Arafat, because he was an irrelevant leader who had long ago lost the trust of the international community. And logic dictates that Israel had nothing to gain by murdering Arafat, and much to lose, not least with the takeover of the moderate Palestinian leadership by the more uncompromising Islamist zealots of Hamas.
Still, such arguments are unlikely to satisfy those who are now determined to elevate Abu Ammar – Arafat’s nom de guerre – to the status of political martyr. There remains, after all, a perfectly reasonable explanation for his death, namely that a 75-year-old man who ate an unhealthy diet, worked long hours and did not take good care of himself simply reached the end of his natural life. But it is not, I fear, a version of events that is going to satisfy the conspiracy theory junkies.
Con Coughlin is an expert on international terrorism and the Middle East.