The Al-Jazeera documentary claiming this week that Yasser Arafat was poisoned by a radioactive substance was helpfully timed for the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Gradually losing legitimacy on the street and with limited political prospects, the PA is already moving to use the allegations to embarrass Israel and isolate it internationally. But Palestinian and Israeli experts doubt that the revived controversy will have any long-lasting impact.
A writer in the PA mouthpiece Al-Ayyam led the way in blaming Israel on Thursday: “Only time, and a serious investigation of the crime, will reveal the complete circumstances of this crime, which can be added to the list of heinous crimes perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people,” Talal Okal wrote in an editorial, also blaming Western and Arab leaders for colluding in the crime.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem called on the Arab League Wednesday to create an international investigation commission into Arafat’s death, modeled after the UN commission tasked with investigating the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Palestinian news outlets echoed that demand.
“The Palestinian Authority’s founding father was assassinated,” asserted PA spokesman Nabil Abu-Rudeineh, adding that President Mahmoud Abbas had allowed his body to be exhumed for further testing.
Quickly losing legitimacy on the street and with no political prospects in sight, the Palestinian Authority will use Al-Jazeera’s revelations to embarrass Israel and isolate it internationally
But for most Palestinians, no testing is needed to prove Israel’s involvement in Arafat’s demise.
“Israeli officials clearly stated that Arafat was an obstacle to peace that must be rid of,” Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf told The Times of Israel Thursday. “How does one get rid of a person except by killing him?”
Assaf said his movement would wait until the investigation is complete before issuing an official statement, but added that the fact that Israel besieged Araft’s compound in Ramallah for three years, “directing tank cannons at his window,” left little room for doubt about its intentions.
“Who would we blame besides Israel?” asked Sameeh Hamoudeh, a political scientist at Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University. “It is clear that Arafat was killed. Medical science has no explanation for his cause of death.”
Hamoudeh told The Times of Israel that although Al-Jazeera did not time its report to serve the PA, Israel’s image will certainly be tarnished as a result.
In the climate of the Arab Spring, the Palestinian Authority has been under increasing pressure to deliver a political breakthrough. Previous attempts to achieve state status at the UN have gone nowhere, and that seems unlikely to change despite talk of another attempt to push for international endorsement of statehood at the General Assembly this fall.
A rare series of anti-PA demonstrations took place in Ramallah this week, condemning Abbas’ leadership for its security coordination with Israel and its helplessness on releasing prisoners held by Israel. The prisoner issue was, and remains, the top concern of many ordinary Palestinians.
Hamas is also vocal, organizing regular demonstrations in the West Bank against the PA’s political detention and harassment of its members.
“Who would we blame other than Israel?” asked Sameeh Hamoudeh, a political scientist at Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University. “It is clear that Arafat was killed. Medical science has no explanation for his cause of death.”
The most obvious solution to this predicament would be venting the pent-up anger towards Israel.
“The PA has been trying to create a popular mobilization against Israel,” Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, told The Times of Israel. “But Palestinians aren’t mobilized, they’re divided.”
Frisch said that Fatah’s youth organization (Shabiba) is a shadow of what it was in the 1980s. Fatah’s battalion commanders, men in their thirties, have mostly been arrested and imprisoned by Israel. With Abbas still committed to non-violent opposition to Israel, the Palestinian leadership has very few cards up its sleeve. But experts say “the Arafat file” is too old to stir a new intifada.
“This will not have any significant effect because the story is already eight years old and the United States will prevent any serious investigation into the matter,” said Hamoudeh of Bir Zeit University.
“This is the only weapon at their disposal,” said Frisch. “But they’re not going to get anywhere with it. The dead don’t mobilize the living.”