At a packed conference in Ramallah today, the retired general Tawfik Tirawi, once head of the Palestinian Authority’s feared West Bank intelligence, squarely pointed the finger at Israel for the assassination of Yasser Arafat. There are lots of reasons to suspect Israeli responsibility. The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was vocal over the years in admitting he had tried but failed to kill Arafat. Israel had famously botched its 1997 attempt to poison the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. It appears logical for the PA – under Israeli military siege in the Muqata when Arafat suddenly became violently ill on 12 October 2004 – to claim Israel alone is to blame.
But there are many other possibilities that Tirawi prefers to ignore. He himself was with Arafat during the siege; he was wanted by Israel, the CIA was shunning him, and he was accused of orchestrating suicide attacks against Israelis. That he was in close proximity when Arafat fell ill makes him at best a witness. For him to lead the investigation now is almost as farcical as the PA’s entire approach to date.
For the outside world Arafat was a very cold case until al-Jazeera broadcast its documentary What Killed Arafat? in July 2012. The PA had formed a committee to examine his death immediately after his passing. But it had several changes in leadership, and did little more than rail against Israel, pursuing nothing by way of forensics. Correspondence obtained by al-Jazeera shows that the doctor in charge of the PA cold case review, Abdullah Bashir, wrote a single letter to French authorities – Arafat died in a French military hospital – in 2009 asking for further information. The French stated that all their files had already been released to Suha Arafat, the widow, and Nasser Kidwa, the nephew.
That was it. No one had bothered to ask Suha the elemental question: did she have any materials that might yield forensic clues? That was the first question scientists had for me when I approached them at the Lausanne University Centre for Legal Medicine. When I asked Suha, she told me about a green gym bag she kept all these years. Arafat had taken it with him to France in his dying days. She was sceptical the Swiss would find anything, but once polonium was detected, she became unrelenting in her demands to go to the very end.
The exhumation of Arafat was not supposed to happen. The PA did not like the fact that Suha sought French jurisdiction. It preferred the UN security council, a curious choice given that it has almost never passed a resolution that benefits Palestinians. The PA also demanded the Arab League investigate, which again amounted to little more than platitudes.
But when the French government formally demanded access to Arafat’s body, it faced a conundrum it had sought to avoid for years. It was the PA that refused to push for an autopsy that most likely would have resolved this mystery years earlier. In a taped interview Nasser Kidwa told me: “I would think this would have meant the end of the peace process, as it stood at that time … because the Palestinian people would have seen a great crime, the crime of the killing of their leader.”
Instead, the PA chose to use the case as a political weapon in its quest for negotiations with Israel. This also helped it avoid a painful, if not self-evident question: was one of its own involved? Sure, the Israelis controlled the perimeter. But as food, water and medicines were allowed in, a microscopic amount of lethal Polonium 210 would not have been hard to get inside. At a very minimum, his closest aides and bodyguards failed to prevent someone from introducing polonium into Arafat’s system, whether by ingestion, injection, or inhalation. Could one of his aides have delivered the dose, with Israeli technical support?
This is why the idea of Arafat’s closest associates conducting their own investigation is inappropriate. For the time being, the proper investigators are the French authorities. Three investigating magistrates will now have the opportunity to review the Swiss testimony and incorporate their own forensic conclusions into the body of evidence. While in Ramallah last November, the French were refused permission by the PA to question its officials without submitting questions in writing. If the PA is serious about finding the truth of who killed their iconic leader, it must afford the French unfettered access.
If not, the “who killed Arafat” question will remain unresolved, and little more than a convenient political tool.
Clayton Swisher is manager of investigative journalism with al-Jazeera Media Network, and author of two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.