This month marked 15 years since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat passed away in what remain suspicious circumstances. Arafat came to symbolise not only the Palestinian struggle for independence but also went on to become an international icon as a freedom fighter against oppression.
In his rise to the Palestinian leadership in the 1960s, Arafat — known in the Arab world by his kunya Abu Ammar — succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue onto the international agenda. Before him the Palestinians were just a bunch of refugees and terrorists scattered around the world with no hope of having a country of their own. Dreaming of his own state, Arafat died without one.
Born in Cairo in 1929, Yasser Arafat championed his people’s cause from early age through his student activism and later through the Fatah movement, which he co-founded with friends from the Palestinian diaspora. His insistence that the Palestinians themselves must lead their struggle for independence put him at odds with several Arab leaders who believed that the cause of Palestine was their own. Yet his political skills and ability to manoeuvre carefully around Arab differences helped him to survive without losing the vital wider Arab support for his people.
Arafat survived many wars, multiple assassination attempts and a 1992 plane crash in Libya. It was thus hard to accept when news came through that he had finally died. His wife Suha — who he married when in his sixties — believes that he was murdered by polonium 210, a lethal radioactive element. Many Palestinians believe that Israel was behind his poisoning. In 2012, an independent investigation by Swiss experts confirmed this. However, a Russian investigation claimed that he died of natural causes.
Neither the Arab League nor the UN have ever investigated Arafat’s death, despite calls to do so. During a speech at the Arab summit in Damascus in March 2008, the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi asked, “Why don’t we ask the [UN] Security Council to investigate the death of Abu Ammar?” With a reference to the hanging of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi went on to say with some sarcasm, “We friends of America… could one day be hanged.” Pointing to his Arab colleagues he added, “It could [one day] be your turn.” His rather self-fulfilling prophecy came true when Gaddafi himself was killed in 2011.
So why hasn’t the UN tried to find out who killed the Palestinian leader? It is not unheard of for the international organisation to investigate high-profile unexpected deaths. It looked into the murder of Rafic Hariri, for example, Lebanon’s former prime minister who was blown up by a car bomb on 14 February 2005. The UN even charged some individuals with his killing.
The Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2015. Could its membership be used to push for an investigation into Arafat’s death? Many Palestinian experts I have spoken to doubt if this will work. For the ICC to investigate and see if a crime was committed, the court needs a decision by the UN Security Council. Speaking anonymously, a Palestinian legal expert at the University of Paris told me, “The American veto at the council will not allow such a resolution to pass.” Why? “[Because such an investigation] could implicate others, including some within the Palestinian Authority itself.”
The idea that the PA is not keen on encouraging a full investigation into Arafat’s death is not without foundation. Many Palestinians believe that a full and transparent investigation might lead to embarrassment for certain leaders, as well as countries such as France, where Arafat died. However, Israel has a long history of assassinating Palestinian leaders and Arafat was always a target, so how about an Arab League-led investigation? “That is even more difficult,” said my legal contact, “because nobody really wants it.”
The Israeli security cabinet meeting on 11 September 2003 decided to “remove” Arafat as he was seen as an “obstacle to reconciliation”. Israel’s Prime Minister at the time was Ariel Sharon. He wanted Arafat out of the occupied West Bank; having him dead was even better as far as the “Butcher of Beirut” was concerned.
Arafat’s last couple of months at his headquarters in Ramallah, known as Muqataa, were particularly difficult. Already under siege by Israeli occupation forces, he was denied access to medical checks and, apparently, was malnourished and clearly very weak when he finally emerged.
Known for his resolve, Arafat and his inner circle of two dozen men refused to budge until his health deteriorated dangerously. He was evacuated by helicopter to Amman, thanks to French mediation, and then taken to a military hospital outside Paris where he died on 11 November 2004.
We might never know the actual cause of Yasser Arafat’s death and who was behind it. Nevertheless, most observers believe that he was almost certainly assassinated. Caught in the complex game of nations, the death of a man who came to represent the people of Palestine for decades will always be questioned. The Palestinians lost a great leader, a patriot and above all a symbol of hope. His replacement has still not been found.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.