New E-book points an accusing finger

Who killed Arafat? Possibly his closest colleagues

‘The Murder of Yasser Arafat’ offers a new perspective on the last days of a ruthless leader and his broken society

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Yasser Arafat is cheered on by supporters as he visits the West Bank city of Hebron,  January 19, 1997 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Yasser Arafat is cheered on by supporters as he visits the West Bank city of Hebron, January 19, 1997 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Yasser Arafat waved goodbye to his supporters on a cold October morning in 2004. Clad in a thick overcoat and an old-fashioned fur hat, the Palestinian leader looked awful. Thin, feeble and pallid, Arafat released a quivering smile before entering the French jet that carried him to the Percy military hospital near Paris, where he would expire 12 days later.

Abu-Ammar’s body was barely cold when theories about the mysterious cause of his death began to proliferate. Many Israelis preferred the AIDS hypothesis, citing his reputed sexual habits. But on the Palestinian street, conventional wisdom rarely veered from the accusation that Israel had poisoned him.

A 2012 Al-Jazeera documentary seemed to add credence to the Palestinian theory. The Qatari news channel sent Arafat’s hospital clothes and personal belongings to a sophisticated laboratory in Switzerland, which found high levels of polonium, a toxic radioactive element, in his bodily fluids. The dramatic findings led the Palestinian Authority to exhume Arafat’s body in November 2012 and take biopsies for further examination, all the while blaming Israel for political murder.

The investigations continue as these lines are being written.

Much ink has been spilled on the Palestinian leader and the circumstances of his demise. But few accounts are more racy and provocative than “The Murder of Yasser Arafat,” a short new e-book by veteran journalist duo Matthew Kalman and Matt Rees.

“The Murder of Yasser Arafat” is quite the page-turner, or rather page-scroller, since it only exists digitally. In their collaboration, Kalman (who also blogs at the Times of Israel) and Rees call themselves DeltaFourth, a portmanteau reference to the American special forces unit and the profession of journalism — the fourth estate.

The Murder of Yasser Arafat by Kalman and Rees (photo credit: courtesy)
The Murder of Yasser Arafat by Kalman and Rees (photo credit: courtesy)

Despite its super-realistic theme, the book reads like a crime novel (unsurprising, since award-winning Rees authored six of those). It depicts life in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority as rather similar to Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

To understand the death of Arafat, argue Kalman and Reese, one must first understand the machinations of the Palestinian Authority, which he created and dominated for 10 years. And those machinations were ruthless.

Take the story of Adnan Shahine, for example. Summarily executed on a Bethlehem street by Arafat’s men in December 2000 — in order to intimidate potential collaborators with Israel, though he himself was innocent — Shahine’s untimely death epitomizes the zeitgeist of the Arafat years.

Infighting, conspiracies and the habit of pitting friends and colleagues against one another were Arafat’s game, and he was quite good at it. The two “operatives” of DeltaFourth (as they perhaps slightly exaggeratedly call themselves) were eyewitnesses to many of these incredible and chilling tales, and they rarely spare us the details.

Matthew Kalman (photo credit: courtesy)
Matthew Kalman (photo credit: Courtesy)

Arafat was indeed assassinated, likely by polonium, they assert. But it was Arafat’s close circle of companions who are the prime suspects in his death and its cover-up, not Israel.

“The Israelis said ‘That’s our enemy,’ but Palestinians had a greater imperative to remove him,” Rees told The Times of Israel.

Kalman and Rees fall short of naming the ultimate culprit — for legal reasons and because they cannot entirely prove it, Rees said — but they do name a few PA bigwigs as having a vested interest in his death.

The men closest to Arafat, such as his loyal bodyguard and his personal physician, were suspiciously removed from his side in the years and months leading to his death, they write.

And Fathi Shabaneh, chief of internal security in the PA and head of the first investigation into Arafat’s death, told DeltaFourth that he would love to speak to three current PA officials and ask them “tough questions.”

Mohammad Dahlan (photo credit: Issam Rimawi / Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

High on any such list is Mohammed Dahlan, the former rising star of Arafat’s Preventive Security Force in Gaza. Dahlan, once an Arafat confidante, was seen clearing out Arafat’s medicine cabinet upon his death, they report.

Seven months earlier, Dahlan had told the authors that “the Palestinian people are looking for a way out… a Palestinian leadership to take them to the exit.” DeltaFourth see Dahlan’s wish for “a basic change in the Authority and Fatah” as a clear indication that the Gaza pretty-boy wanted Arafat removed.

Dahlan felt that Arafat had brought about Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002, wreaking havoc on Palestinian society. The devastation was preventable if Arafat had only heeded his advice, Dahlan told the writers.

The authors also reference current PA President Mahmoud Abbas, appointed as Arafat’s prime minister under US pressure in 2003 to curb the leader’s unmitigated power, only to resign 100 days later claiming that Arafat sabotaged his every move.

The book emerges in an intellectual environment accustomed to painstakingly tedious accounts of the Oslo years, focusing primarily on the Israeli-Palestinian trajectory. But Rees and Kalman say that the internal dynamics of both societies provide a much better explanation for the failure of peace.

Despite its diminutive size, the “Murder of Yasser Arafat” is an important book because — rather than focusing solely on the Palestinian leader — it provides a new perspective for evaluating the Second Intifada.

Matt Rees (photo credit: courtesy)
Matt Rees, in crime writer pose (photo credit: Courtesy)

“The Intifada, at its heart, was a way of waging politics among Palestinian leaders. It wasn’t really about killing Israelis,” the writers go so far as to assert. “Certain Palestinian chiefs wanted to shake up the power balance, to grab more of the clout and cash for themselves. The ones that lacked power destroyed the peace process –– which had delivered jobs and aid money to their rivals –– so that Arafat would need them instead.”

Reading “The Murder of Yasser Arafat” means being left with more questions than answers, but these are questions certainly worth asking.

“In Palestine, a group of powerful men, assisted by trusted confidants with access to Arafat’s private chambers, perfected the art of polonium politics,” the book concludes. If so, one wonders whether the current investigations into Arafat’s alleged poisoning will bring us any close to his killers.


Follow Elhanan Miller on Twitter.

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