Conspiracy Theories on Arafat Death Rise

A year after Yasser Arafat’s death, Palestinians are developing a new myth around their historic leader: Arafat did not die from natural causes but was murdered, most likely by Israel.

Now an Israeli Arab politician has joined the conspiracy bandwagon.

“I am confident that Arafat’s death was not natural,” Knesset Member Mohammed Barakeh said at an Arafat memorial rally held in the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm. “Many strings lead to the office of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.”

Barakeh, the leader of Hadash, Israel’s Communist Party, is the first Israeli Arab political figure to make such an accusation, in what seemed to be the opening shots in Israel’s upcoming election campaign.

Barakeh’s charges echoed similar developments in Israel and Lebanon. In Israel, the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once again brought to the surface a conspiracy theory that Israel’s Shin Bet security service was behind the assassination, and that Rabin’s real assassins are still at large.

In Lebanon, the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led to the establishment of an international commission of inquiry that has produced evidence of Syrian involvement. Now Barakeh is demanding the establishment of a similar commission to look into Arafat’s death.

The Palestinian Authority already has set up two inquiry commissions to investigate the case. Ahmad Abdul Rahman, one of Arafat’s closest advisers, earlier this month followed the steps of Tunis-based PLO hard-liner Farouk Kaddoumi, blaming Israel for killing Arafat by injecting a slow-acting poison into his ear — a method that recalled the Mossad’s botched 1997 assassination attempt on senior Hamas activist Khaled Meshaal in Jordan.

Israel repeatedly has rejected such charges as “nonsense” and “baseless,” and no one has produced any evidence, medical or otherwise, to support allegations of Israeli involvement. Among some Palestinians, however, conspiracy theories offer convenient explanations for all manner of phenomena, where rational discourse might shed an unflattering light on the Palestinians themselves.

The medical report published after Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital on Nov. 11, 2004, listed the immediate cause as a massive brain hemorrhage resulting from an infection. Doctors ruled out foul play, and some have contended that Arafat died of AIDS. However, in the absence of a definite diagnosis of the cause of death — Arafat’s widow refused to allow an autopsy — the inevitable conspiracy theories began circulating.

On the first anniversary of Arafat’s death, the present Palestinian Authority leadership, suffering from instability and internal struggles, tried to shift public attention to the conspiracy theories. Paradoxically, while the majority of Palestinians support the more moderate course of Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor as P.A. president, the latest poll of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion shows that nearly 74 percent of Palestinians still miss the intransigent Arafat.

Ghassan Khatib, P.A. minister of planning, suggested that a lack of progress in the peace process in the year since Arafat died — he elected not to mention Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the recent agreement on the Rafah border crossing — proves that Arafat was not the main obstacle to peace, as Israel argued.

“If indeed Arafat had been the main obstacle to peace, we should have seen some progress by now,” Khatib wrote in the latest edition of Bitterlemons, a joint Israeli-Palestinian Web site. “We haven’t, and the reason ought to be obvious: The main obstacle to peace is and always was Israel’s refusal to abide by international law, international legality and international moral standards.”

What remains of Arafat’s political legacy a year after his death is “fawda” — Arabic for chaos — Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, wrote in Bitterlemons.

“Security has been ‘privatized’ in favor of armed and violent gangs that rule city centers and refugee camps, the security services are more fragmented than ever, Hamas is gathering strength at the expense of the inactive Palestinian Authority, government offices barely function, law enforcement is in a state of collapse and the Fatah movement is destroying itself from within in superfluous power struggles,” he wrote.

“In other words, there is chaos at every corner, no collective responsibility and [Abbas] is unable to lead, rule or deliver on any of his promises to the public,” Pundak stressed. “One year later and the hoped-for changes are not happening.”

Besides Abbas, there is another notable and obvious contender for the role of present and future Palestinian leader. That is Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison, sentenced to five life terms for his role in terrorist attacks.

The West Bank Fatah leader still is widely considered the political heir apparent to both Arafat and Abbas. One of his most frequent visitors in jail is P.A. Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan, who reportedly doesn’t make any significant move without consulting Barghouti.